Want to be super successful and famous? Wake up early, exercise, and eat oatmeal.
When I look at the seemingly preternaturally gifted people of the world — the Barack Obamas, the JK Rowlings, the Elon Musks — people who seem to have an unending reserve of energy tucked away somewhere, I can’t help but wonder how they do it. Because, hate on Elon Musk all you want, you can’t deny that the guy is energetic.
And that’s what I’m interested in here: energy. Why do some people have the equivalent of a slow-burning nuclear fuel cell while others don’t? As someone who is tired a lot, I demand (sleepily) to know.
Obviously some of it has to do with genetics, and some of it has to do with life circumstances, but neither of those are very useful for someone on the outside looking in. Instead, I’m curious about what choices one can make — with a focus on the day-to-day — to be energetic, focused, and, yes, “successful”.
With that in mind, I trawled the internet, looking for every post I could find about “so-and-so’s daily routine” — where so-and-so is at least someone I’d heard of. I then (very un-rigorously) analyzed the trends that I saw, and the result is a compendium of the habits and paradigms that success is apparently made of.
One of the advantages of doing it this way is that there are at least nods to empiricism. There are a lot of people out there who want to tell you how to be successful, some of them for money. In doing it this way, we get the data straight from the mouths of the horses, so to speak.
Those successful, glossy, energetic horses.
The second advantage to aggregating and trend-hunting is that we de-emphasize idiosyncrasies. Good for you, famous person, if your morning routine involves having a cottage cheese bath, but clearly it’s not a prerequisite for success or more successful people would do it. What we’re trying to get at here are those prerequisites, or the closest things to them: things that pop up over and over and over again.
So, without further ado, here are the keys to success, fame, wealth, etc.
Waking Up Early
The closest thing to a universal there was. Everyone I looked at (and granted there were only about forty) said they woke up at 8:00 a.m. or earlier. The average was around 6:30. As a former night owl, I was shook.
Also predictably huge. Interestingly, it seemed like a lot of people from olden times didn’t do a “workout” in the way that we think of it. But they all at least took long walks. No one, not even the notoriously lazy Winston Churchill, was completely sedentary.
A couple reasons I can think of for why people in the 1800s and earlier didn’t seem to work out:
1. It just wasn’t a thing
2. They didn’t have cars and had to be more active just to get around
3. The sample of people taken skewed older. There were a lot of Ben Franklins and Charles Dickenss. If they were commenting on their routine later in life, perhaps a vigorous walk was more in their comfort zone.
4. A “brisk walk” or “vigorous walk” meant something more akin to what we would call a jog. Who knows. I’m just spitballing.
Either way, fairly intense exercise, on the order of at least a short run, was more or less universal among modern responders.
Another predictable one, spanning age and profession. The degree to which this was a thing (almost as many people said they read as said they exercised!) surprised me.
Enjoying Leisure Time
This is sort of an aggregate of a lot of different habits, but we’ll call it “leisure time” — that is, setting aside time for doing nothing other than enjoying oneself. This one is perhaps less intuitive in a list that is promoting energy and productivity, but the rationale seems to be clear: the world can be stressful; do something mindless to relax and clear your head. It makes sense — there is nothing worse for energy and productivity than stress.
This “leisure time” manifested itself in a lot of different ways — Marissa Mayer watches TV; Beethoven would go to a tavern and smoke a pipe. What all of these activities had in common was a “mind-settling” quality. Most were solitary, or with close family and friends. And no one said, “I relax by going on the internet.”
The above habits are what we can call “The Big 4.” There was a fairly pronounced decline from there, but the rest of the activities that I’m about to list still had a significant number of devotees.
Going for Walks
By far the biggest of the non-big-4. Seemed to be concentrated among creatives, as walks can be both relaxing and simulating — inviting the kind of dreamy state from which ideas seem to bubble.
Some of the aforementioned activities — walking, exercising, etc. — can be meditative, but people also explicitly meditate. Had fewer devotees than I thought it would, but those who do meditate seem to be particularly passionate about it. On an un-asked-for personal note, I’ve never enjoyed meditation very much.
Whether it was Ben Franklin reflecting on the good he accomplished that day, or Oprah writing down things that she was grateful for each morning, some people find that explicit positivity — written or spoken — can put them in a better frame of mind.
This final category is about things that popped up multiple times as specific instances of a broader class of things.
A lot of people say that their preferred form of exercise is running, as it offers a nice mixture of stimulation and tranquility that is good for thinking. Seeking this “balance” seemed to come up over and over again, and probably explains…
Swimming — which a handful of people — Kurt Vonnegut, Fred Rogers, Richard Branson, Haruki Murakami — said was their exercise of choice.
A few folks even said tennis, which surprised me, since it isn’t (usually) solitary, and requires a bit more active concentration than running or swimming. But, as a tennis player, I can say that I’m always in a great mood after a nice round of tennis.
I didn’t even bother listing it as a habit of successful people because it seems so common-sense, but now’s the time to say it: If you don’t eat breakfast, by all means do. And maybe consider making it a breakfast of Oatmeal and Eggs, which popped up in about equal frequency on morning plates. Feel free to sprinkle fruit or nuts or cinnamon on that oatmeal, by the way. As for caffeine, take heart that you can probably do whatever you’d like: Coffee and tea popped up with about equal frequency, and a lot of people didn’t mention it one way or the other.
The Paper — as in a physical newspaper — bears mentioning because it popped up so much. Perhaps skewed because people like Beethoven didn’t have any other way of consuming news, but many modern folks, including both our recent presidents, liked to read a physical paper.
And finally, there was one thing that was notable for its absence: No one cited any sort of mindfulness or productivity app as part of their morning routine. Nobody even cited an app at all, except Oprah, who plays iPad scrabble. AND a bunch of people said that they explicitly avoid checking their phones in the morning and at night.
Food for thought.
With all that in mind, I wrote all of this after waking up at 7:30, going for a run outside, eating oatmeal for breakfast, and scrupulously avoiding my iPhone. Habits are forged through repetition, but I gotta say: I feel pretty damn good — and am entertaining the possibility that maybe, just maybe, all of these incredibly successful people who are all saying more or less the same thing are on to something after all.
Until next time,