Excerpt: Up-All-Night Success Stories from The 24-Hour Genius

The book's author, a successful corporate lawyer, suggests that all-nighters can boost productivity and creativity

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As a corporate attorney in Manhattan and an adjunct professor at Columbia Law School, Eric Epstein knows a thing or two about pulling all-nighters.  Now, we do, too. We interviewed Epstein, the author of The 24-Hour Genius: Unlocking Your Brain’s Potential with Strategic All-Nighters, at a midnight meeting earlier this week to learn the secrets of turning all-nighters into creativity and career success.

In his compelling e-book, Epstein writes about 25 success stories driven by 24-hour a day (and more!) stints. Here’s an excerpt:

The Historical Giants of All-Nighters

In every large river, the water ordinarily flows nicely through a channel bounded by the riverbed (the floor) and the banks (the walls). But once in a while—after a big storm, for example—you get an unusually powerful volume of water that the channel cannot contain. It overflows the banks and overtakes the surrounding areas. That’s why many rivers are surrounded by floodplains.

Now, consider the normal 9:00 to 5:00 workday as the channel. It’s sufficient for most day-to-day tasks, but on some occasions you’ll have a torrent of creative ideas that can’t be so easily controlled. This leaves you with two choices. You can either put up a dam, so to speak, by preventing yourself from working past a certain hour; or you can let your inspiration flood the plains of the twenty-four-hour day. The latter approach has a long and distinguished history. And, just as in nature floods are often followed by a burst of new growth, so have such floods of inspiration fertilized the innovations and ideas that have built our modern world.

Many victories, creative works, and discoveries were brought to light in the dark. Let the following ten history-making examples of this phenomenon, from the Revolutionary War to the dawn of the space age, inspire you. For such historical giants as Benjamin Franklin, Robert Frost, and William Faulkner, working when others were sleeping was a means of overcoming challenges and seizing opportunities. Their stories illustrate that exercising strength and stamina—mental and physical—leads to success. So when you use this technique, be aware that you’re participating in a grand tradition.


Thomas Edison and the “Insomnia Squad”

Thomas Edison is remembered as America’s greatest inventor, and with good reason. He patented over one thousand inventions. His breakthroughs included the motion picture camera, the phonograph, the first mass-produced electric light bulb, the first system for the wide-scale distribution of electric power, and innovations in telephone and X-ray technology that are still in use today. His laboratory, located in Menlo Park, New Jersey, became the model for the modern-day industrial R&D lab.

Today, Edison would be proud that, any given night at 3:00 a.m., his light bulbs are making it possible for thousands of aspiring, diligent students and young professionals to work and study. After all, he personified this method of brainstorming and problem solving. It was not unusual for him to work “for 95 hours at a stretch, neglecting food and sleep in his obsessive quest for ‘life & Phenomenon.’” At Edison’s lab, “[m]any times the various scientists and technicians would stay up all night inventing, working and munching on ham, crackers, beer, soda, and cheese. About midnight, Edison himself would sit down at the pipe organ and everyone would join in for a sing along. Many years later his employees would say that these were the happiest years of their lives.” As Edison said, “I owe my success to the fact that I never had a clock in my workroom.”

But even by Edison’s standards, September 1912 was a hard-driving month. He and seven of his employees, calling themselves the “Insomnia Squad,” worked “with only a minimal amount of sleep.” Their goal was to perfect the process for the manufacture of disc records compatible with the Edison phonograph. As Edison later recalled: “[W]e put in from one hundred forty five to one hundred fifty hours a week each at the job. One hundred and fifty hours a week means more than twenty-one hours a day. . . . We became known in the factory as the ‘insomnia squad,’ and we all were proud of the appellation.” On September 30, one of Edison’s colleagues noted in a journal entry that Edison “hasn’t been home since PM of 27th & hasn’t even washed his face since 25th.” The men slept “for short periods on benches or tables, resuming their labors as soon as they woke up. [Edison] had arranged for a caterer to supply ‘good substantial meals,’ and the wives of the experimenters came around at intervals with changes of clothing for their husbands.”

Today, many critics insist that this style of work is unhealthy or unbalanced. But the efforts of the Insomnia Squad resulted in three applications to the U.S. Patent Office relating to the manufacture of disc records. The Edison “Diamond Discs,” as they were branded, were sold in the United States for fifteen years. Today, it’s a given that you can go to a store or go online and purchase recorded music, but the Diamond Discs helped make that idea a reality.

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Reprinted from The 24-Hour Genius by Eric Epstein by arrangement with InterMix, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., Copyright (c) 2013 by Eric Epstein.