“If you don’t hustle, you don’t win” or a similar sentiment has likely appeared on your timeline today. But while the idea of pouring yourself into your passion is beautiful and commendable, hustle culture can be extremely toxic.
In general, all creatives are incredibly inspiring individuals, but none of us are superheroes—no matter the inventive ways we see the world. Need proof? One Google search will lead you down a rabbit hole of papers, personal essays, and contrarian tweets detailing hospital trips and mental breakdowns following a lack of sleep and self-care.
Even still, sleep deprivation is worn as a badge of honor because if you’re exhausted to your core, you must be on the verge of greatness, right? Sort of—the question requires more nuance. A lack of sleep might have negative physical and emotional consequences, and yet something is still keeping artists hooked on sleep depravity.
In an effort to better understand this behavior, DJBooth spoke with Dr. Dmitry Ostrovsky, a psychiatry resident at Mount Sinai St. Luke's in New York, and Dr. Rubin Naiman, the director of NewMoon Sleep, LLC, a Tucson, Arizona-based organization that specializes in sleeping, about the impact sleep deprivation can have on creativity, the appeal of hustle culture, and the search for balance.
Starting with the basics, sleep deprivation is exactly what it sounds like: not getting enough sleep. As Dr. Ostrovsky explains, there are over 70 causes of sleep deprivation, from sleep apnea to a depressive disorder, but the condition can often be self-induced. If an artist is in the studio working for 22-30 hours straight without getting tired, per Ostrovsky, that artist is operating on a hypomanic level.
“Hypomania is a distinct period where people have elevated, expansive mood, lasting a few days,” he details. “You get more creative when you’re hypomanic. That’s an important distinction. Somebody who is hypomanic would be more creative than just people who are not sleeping.
"[Hypomania] is associated with inflated self-esteem. So when someone is hypomanic, they think more highly of themselves than usual. There’s a decreased need for sleep, distractibility, and great physical and mental activity, and an over-involvement in pleasurable activities.”
Moreover, Dr. Naiman, who has worked one-on-one with a grip of musicians, explains, “There’s a concept called the Puer, the colloquial term is Peter Pan Syndrome. It’s this notion of getting high and getting higher and higher and higher, and never coming down. The difficulty with that is a lot of people never want to come down.”
According to Naiman, Puer energy is quite common among music industry professionals and, while it can be beautiful, a lot of his work with entertainers has been centered around preparing these individuals to exit that high. “You need to be willing to descend,” he stresses. “This is a challenge in our world today.”
While Ostrovsky contends artists who hit creative dry spells are more likely to trigger these hypomanic episodes in order to hit a productive high, both doctors attest drugs can produce a similar effect. This might be, in part, why we've seen countless rap artists battle and overcome addiction in tandem with a project release.
Or consider all of the interviews in which artists discuss the eureka moment that occurred at three or four in the morning—that stroke of inspiration was no accident.
“People who burn the midnight oil have readier access to their unconscious,” Ostrovsky points out. “You dream more after sleep deprivation, so if they’re dreaming about music, they will have readier access to things like musical melodies and choruses in their dreams.”
This state of sleepy consciousness, as Dr. Naiman describes, will find artists immersed in “waking dreams.” The antithesis of the escapism of a daydream, Naiman says, is that waking dreams bring you deeper into your unconscious, which can strengthen your creative process and your writing.
Other potential creative benefits of sleep deprivation include self-induced trips, a loss of the boundaries of your body, hallucinations, and delusions, and the creation of a high not dissimilar from one caused by a drug like acid. These effects manifest after two days without sleep, according to Ostrovsky.
As it pertains to writing raps, there are also other benefits:
“You’re more likely to dream and remember your dreams. So if [an artist is] rapping about their emotions and their basic instincts… Because dreams come from your primitive mind, then they percolate through your emotional mind, then to your rational mind… If they need access to their unconscious, through sleep deprivation, they’re much more likely to be able to access [those emotions].”
Before you cut sleep from your creative flow in hopes of penning your version of Kendrick Lamar’s “u,” Ostrovsky notes that sleep deprivation can be just as detrimental to rapping. “There are other problems with sleep deprivation,” he explains. “Let’s say an artist is freestyling. After one day of sleep deprivation, it was found that people have decreased verbal fluency. They have a decrease in originality and flexibility. That’s after 32 hours without sleeping, straight.” In layman's terms, you’ll need a good night’s sleep to crush your 5 Fingers of Death freestyle on Sway In The Morning.
In fact, if you’re a lyrical rapper, Ostrovsky notes that good sleep is paramount: “If you’re the kind of rapper who puts a lot of thought into your rhymes, and has these complicated internal and external rhyme schemes, I would say good sleep would be helpful for you because then you can remember what you were thinking and dream about it.”
Ostrovsky also outlines a handful of damning physical consequences: “You gain weight. Your insulin resistance can get worse. Your immune system doesn’t work as well if you’re chronically sleep deprived… Heart failure can happen… I’d say, the rule of thumb is after three days [deprived of continuous sleep] you start really hallucinating. After two days it starts being unhealthy. After seven or eight days, you can die from sleep deprivation.”
That being said, Ostrovsky subscribes to the “everything in moderation" mindset, noting that creatives must approach advice from a place of humility. “I can’t argue with the fact that you can get in a trippy headspace if you’re sleep deprived,” he admits. “If that’s what an artist needs, then that’s what they need. I don’t see any long-term physical consequences for not sleeping more than three hours for two days and then crashing on the third day, as long as they don’t do it all the time.”
Key words: “don’t do it all the time.”
“It’s way better for you than, say, taking ecstasy or LSD, or smoking marijuana to be more creative,” Ostrovsky adds. “I’d say that smoking pot every day probably has more negative consequences than [limited periods of sleep deprivation].” Naiman agrees, in part, that sleep deprivation can produce a creative lens, but also made crystal clear that there is no avoiding the incredible toll sleep deprivation takes on the mind and body.
As for that hustle mentality, Dr. Naiman believes the issue is societal. “I think there’s a subtle hypomania that’s crept into common culture,” he muses. “People aren’t just awake, they’re excessively awake. It’s not just that we ascend into the atmosphere and fly through the day—we’re in the upper atmosphere. What that means is it’s harder to come down.”
If a concerted effort to come down isn't made by choice, the human body will simply shut down. “It’s been established with creative people that you burn the candle at both ends and eventually you crash,” Ostrovsky confirms. “You either go psychotic, or you break down, or you have a depressive or manic episode.”
To that point, Dr. Naiman stresses we can’t circumvent sleep: "We have to be willing to come down. I personally think that not only does that promote our health, but it promotes a different kind of creativity, a creativity that’s relevant to life."
More importantly, both doctors debunk the notion that being productive requires a 24/7 workflow. “It’s a myth that you need to not sleep to actually grind,” Ostrovsky contends. “If you sleep and you exercise, then when you’re awake you’re much more productive than when you’re sleep deprived. You can get more done in a shorter period time if you’re sleeping well and you’re in good health.”
For anyone concerned that coming down and taking a break will somehow undo their work or undercut their passion, Naiman assuredly tells me: “People confuse the hustle mentality with true passion. If they take a moment and check in, they’ll realize that a lot of motivation is not inspiration, it’s fear.
“We move for two basic reasons: because there’s something behind us chasing us, or there’s something in front of us that inspires us. We would love to live a life informed more by inspiration. I think people need to slow down and actually feel and trust their gut. It’s about placing creativity over profit, and I know that’s not such a simple thing, but that helps people stay in touch with who they are and what they need.”
The moral of the story: whether or not you use sleep deprivation as a creative tool or a measure of your worth, if you don’t come down eventually, your work and your life will suffer.