Discover more from The Seeds of Science
Author: Stephen Malina
This essay was originally posted on Stephen’s blog.
Reading biographies and observing friends, family, and colleagues has led me to become interested in what factors drive the variance in cognitive stamina and observed levels of energy between individuals. Identifying the biological, environmental, or motivational factors which produce this difference seems important and neglected. Understanding this is a research agenda’s worth of work, so my contribution will be to draw a conceptual boundary around the idea of an “energetic alien” and explore some (not selected i.i.d.) examples of eminent energetic aliens from different fields, discuss some hypotheses about the energetic alien phenomenon, and then put forth some ideas for how we non-energetic aliens can compensate.
Before diving into examples of energetic aliens, it’s important to define what type of person qualifies as one. Given that I came up with the “energetic alien” idea by finding a bunch of people, deciding that having a term to describe them would be useful, and then looking at shared characteristics amongst them to form a definition, this definition should not be taken as axiomatic. Instead, it’s drawing a useful but fuzzy boundary around an inherently nebulous concept in order to try understand what drives the tail behavior of a continuous trait. Taking this caveat into account, I define an energetic alien as someone who mostly satisfies the first three criteria and possibly the fourth:
Able to indefinitely sustain focus on cognitive tasks for more than the well-documented 4-6 hours a day without burning out or starting to make tons of mistakes.
Often described as full of energy or having an abundance of energy.
Obsessed with their work.
(Optional) Can function well while getting less than or equal to 6 hours of sleep.
While all four of these criteria rule out large swaths of the population, I believe 1 to be the most narrowing. Many people I know go through periods during which they work more than average but a smaller subset of them seem to be able to do so without their focus taking a hit and/or it taking a toll on them in the longer term. An even smaller number seem to be able to do this for cognitively stretching work and maintain their cognitive flexibility. As you might notice by way of absence from subsequent sections, I believe this rules out a significant subset of the people I know who work in finance, law, and medicine. Many of these people consistently work long hours, but a large fraction of them tell me that doing so either takes a toll on their creativity.
Unfortunately, I’m still quite uncertain about what set of factors and interactions turn someone into an energetic alien. My initial investigations have pushed me in the direction of thinking that certain predispositions increase the likelihood of certain people fitting the alien criteria but that doing so also depends on controllable things like desire, fit with one’s work, and being in an environment that enables one to follow their curiosity.
In the following sections, I share a bunch of stories and quotes I’ve gathered about individuals who satisfy the energetic alien criteria. In sharing this post with friends before publishing it widely, I’ve found that people vary widely in terms of which examples they think are interesting, with particularly differing preferences for/against the more esoteric STEM examples. As a compromise aimed at providing something for everyone (or at least everyone I care about having enjoy the post), I’ve done my best to interleave the different categories in a way that keeps both groups engaged.
Biology’s an interesting field in which to investigate energetic aliens because excelling at it requires interleaving physical and cognitive skills in order to succeed at bench work and ideation/strategizing.
George Church is a biologist (and disclaimer, a co-founder of my employer) famous for, among other things:
Publishing the first direct genomic sequencing method (with Wally Gilbert).
Pioneering multiplex genome sequencing & engineering techniques.
Playing a role in the initial optimization and “productionalization” of CRISPR.
Accelerating and improving DNA synthesis.
Helping to initiate the Human Genome Project.
Founding a lot of companies.
Trying to create a viral-immune genome.
Trying to revive wooly mammoths.
And much more!
Based on his own interviews, it’s clear that Church qualifies as an “energetic alien”. After finishing his undergrad in 2 years, George Church worked 100 hour weeks in the lab during grad school, famously getting kicked out due to not attending classes because he was just so absorbed in his research. This level of focus seems to be something that George has continued to be able to access throughout his life. Elsewhere, he discusses how he gets so engaged in his work that he forgets to eat for days if no one’s around to remind him:
Veganism is a little difficult to maintain when you travel, but the fact is with my metabolism, I don’t really need to eat more than once every couple of days anyway. Sometimes I’ll miss all the meals in a day. I just forget about it, especially if my family is not around. I get focused on one particular topic that I obsess about, and if there’s nothing that will interrupt me. I just keep going.
Like some of the other examples we’ll look at, George Church self-identifies as non-neurotypical. In addition to his preternaturally deep focus, he has narcolepsy and dyslexia. While the former is inconvenient when it causes him to fall asleep temporarily during panels or conversations, he’s cited it as an enabler of his creativity. This Stat News article Stat News article has a bunch of good quotes about this. Here are a few of my favorites:
Church said “almost all” of his visionary ideas and scientific solutions have come while he was either asleep or quasi-asleep, sometimes dreaming, at the beginning or end of a narcoleptic nap. Such as? The breakthrough during graduate school that ushered in “next gen” genome sequencing, a fast and cheap way to “read” DNA. “Writing genomes,” or constructing them from off-the-shelf molecules as a way to improve on what nature came up with. Innovations in editing genomes.
Or when his computer acts up, he takes it as a sign from the universe to shut down not only the machine but also himself, by sitting or lying down. “Then, when I wake up, I’ll have the solution to either the scientific problem or the computer problem,” he said.
Unexpectedly, narcolepsy also seems to enable Church’s extraordinary work habits. Asked about whether he got tired during his grad school 100 hour work weeks, Church said that he would just fall asleep while working in the lab and wake up and continue (I think this was on 60 minutes, but unfortunately I can’t access it because of a paywall). This suggests that the flipside of the narcoleptic’s inability to control sleep is the lack of issues around needing the right environment to sleep.
While Church’s dyslexia seems less connected to his alien status, it is also worth noting that his ability to focus seems to have helped him compensate for his slower reading. From another interview:
I would “read the pictures” growing up, and I gravitated towards STEM subjects that required less reading. [As an undergrad and grad student] I invented work-around skills. Because I would read very slowly, I would just read all the textbooks before the course started. I would just read them very slowly, but then I’d be done. The other thing I would do is just listen in class. Other students wouldn’t listen, so they had to read, but I could listen and remember just about everything. Reading is still very slow for me, but I figure it out like a puzzle. I also listen to books on tape, or e-books today.
Note the “I would just read all the textbooks” part. As someone who’s spent time reading math & science textbooks on their own (caveat being that I am also not nearly as smart as George Church), I can tell you that even for very smart people, this requires a lot of focus and time!
Leroy Hood is another biology methods pioneer who played a big role in the early development of DNA sequencing and synthesis and is often credited for inventing the term “systems biology”. Similar to Church, Hood has also played a role in founding numerous companies. The (highly recommended) biography of Hood provides ample evidence for, Hood being another member of the energetic alien club.
Discussing Hood’s study habits, the biography shares the following anecdote about how Hood would buckle down during finals:
Hood was gifted with unusual powers of concentration and stamina. During final exams, he would go through the cafeteria in the morning, load up on sandwiches that he could take to the library, and disappear. Having a daylong food supply at his desk kept his energy up without wasting time on formal meals. “He worked much harder than I did,” Adelberger said. “I started eventually adopting some of his practices. It did wonders for my GPA.”
This impressive work ethic persisted throughout his scientific career:
He kept eighteen-hour workdays. Viewing physical endurance as one more way to gain a competitive edge over other scientists, he ran a few miles and did one hundred push-ups every morning before class and lab work.
Hood’s work habits started to become the stuff of legend as the lab scaled up. He’d often do his scientific reading until 11:00 p.m. or midnight, then sleep four to six hours. If he flew to, say, Tokyo to give a talk and arrived home at 2:00 a.m., he’d sometimes go straight to the lab, showing hardly a trace of jet lag, eager to find out what happened while he was gone, former students say. At first glance, unlike Church, Hood seems to be able to perform well while getting much less sleep than the average person.
Hood’s example also shows that being an energetic alien is not necessarily tied to broader neurodivergence. While I don’t want to psychoanalyze Hood, my impression from reading the biography is that, besides his tremendous energy, his biography doesn’t describe any obvious neuroatypicality. This comes through a bit in this quote from Hood’s thesis advisor about Hood’s style:
He’s superb as a scientist, and he’s superb as an administrator and fundraiser, but he wasn’t a risk-taker or an imaginative innovator or whatever.
Unsurprisingly, politicians need to have a lot of energy in order to meet with underlings, rally supporters, debate, etc. Since this post is more focused on outliers in heavy cognitive domains and also because I’m not very interested in politics, I initially mostly ignored examples from it. However, since I know politicians are interesting ot others, I decided to include two examples of people who seemed to fit the energetic alien criteria.
My knowledge of Napoleon is almost entirely based on Matt Lakeman’s amazing summary of his life, so my quote highlighting Napoleon’s boundless energy comes from there as well. Writing about Napoleon’s achievements, Matt Lakeman says:
Even more than speed, Napoleon was remarkable for his energy. A man does not fight 43 battles in 19 years by sitting on his ass. It’s almost hard to wrap your head around how much this guy did. He wasn’t just a prolific general, or politician, or emperor, or diplomat, or lawgiver, or aesthetician, he was all of these things at the same time. Napoleon basically spent 20 years flinging himself around every inch of Europe micromanaging things, including military conquests, government formations, diplomatic negotiations, the economy, universities, the media, theater, and once he weighed in a Parisian murder investigation. He did this by supposedly sleeping four hours per night (in his prime) and verbally dictating dozens to hundreds of letters per day (rapidly burning through personal secretaries in the process).
What strikes me about this is not just that Napoleon had high energy, but that, unlike many modern politicians, his achievements extended beyond the purely political. As Matt Lakeman beautifully captures, Napoleon was simultaneously an accomplished general, politician, lawmaker, and art critic.
Like with many of these stories, it is important to maintain a little skepticism regarding some of the more extreme claims. In particular, while we know short sleepers do actually exist, it can often be hard to distinguish true short sleepers from people who are motivated to exaggerate their ability to go without sleep. Napoleon seems to be a case of the latter. Writing about Napoleon’s supposed 4 hours of sleep a night in a memoir, his private secretary offered the following quote:
“If his enemies, by way of reproach, have attribute to him a serious periodical disease, his flatterers, probably under the idea that sleep is incompatible with greatness, have evinced an equal disregard of truth in speaking of his night-watching. Bonaparte made others watch, but he himself slept, and slept well. His orders were that I should call him every morning at seven. I was therefore the first to enter his chamber; but very frequently when I awoke him he would turn himself, and say, “Ah, Bourrienne! let me lie a little longer.” When there was no very pressing business I did not disturb him again till eight o’clock. He in general slept seven hours out of the twenty-four, besides taking a short nap in the afternoon.”
Note: all the quotes in this section were contributed by a combination of TheTrotters on the SSC subreddit and Fergus McCullogh (via private communication). Thanks to Misha Yagudin as well for pointing out Moses as a candidate for alienhood to me.
Famously popularized by Robert Caro’s The Power Broker, Robert Moses was “the single most powerful man of his time in the City and in the State of New York” during the early to mid 20th century. Moses was also an energetic alien. To the degree it’s possible given I made up the term, Caro basically said so himself, “Moses’ energy seemed inexhaustible.” He repeatedly emphasizes this same point:
The passion that fired that man-who in 1948 celebrated his sixtieth birthday-was the passion that had fired that man at thirty: the passion for tangible, physical accomplishment, and for the power which that accomplishment produced. And if age had not slaked his appetite for power and achievement, neither had it slaked his appetite for the means to power and achievement: work.
As alluded to in the above quote, Moses’ endurance extended to both the physical and the mental:
Up in the morning at six or seven, he often made breakfast for his wife and brought it to her in bed. In the evenings, at the far side of twelve or fourteen hours of unbroken toil, he would head not for home but for the swimming pool. One weekend, he invited Ingraham to Babylon and told the reporter to come up to Randall’s Island Friday evening and drive out with him. Arriving at five o’clock, Ingraham found Moses in conference, and settled down in the Commissioner’s waiting room. An hour later, he was still waiting; the conference was still on. When it broke up around six-thirty, Ingraham was invited in, and Moses told him he still had a few things to attend to. He was still attending to them at seven o’clock and eight o’clock, and nine o’clock and ten. Rising finally, he said, “Let’s stop off at Earle Andrews’ place on the way out.” The “place” turned out to be Andrews’ glass-enclosed swimming pool in Huntington. Letting himself in with his own key, Moses changed, plunged into the water and began swimming. Watching the muscular arms windmilling endlessly up and down the pool, the drowsy reporter dozed off. Some time later, he awoke. The windmill was still turning; if anything, Ingraham realized with a start, Moses was swimming faster than before. It was, he says, “late” when the Commissioner clambered out of the water, looking as fresh as a youth, and very late indeed when the two men finally arrived at Thompson Avenue. As Ingraham climbed the stairs to the guest room, he saw the Commissioner’s broad back disappearing not into his bedroom but into his study, yellow legal notepad in hand. When Ingraham fell asleep, he knew his host was still working. And what awakened the reporter the next morning-“at some ungodly early hour”- was the smell of bacon and eggs. Hearing him stirring, Mary called up the stairs: “Come on down. Bob’s cooking breakfast.
I’m not going to include all the quotes here, but Caro quotes several others emphasizing Moses’ tremendous endurance and power in the water.
Like other aliens we’ve looked at, Moses was prolific, except with memos instead of books:
During the 1920’s, Moses had established a routine under which, when- ever he was living in Babylon, the chief engineer of the Long Island State Park Commission, Arthur Howland, called every morning at 7:30 at Thompson Avenue to pick up a big manila envelope bulging with the memos, letters, press releases and directives to his executives that Moses had written since leaving the office the night before. Now, after twenty-five years of picking up that envelope, Howland was gone. But the envelope was still there. Every morning, without fail, Howland’s successor, Sid Shapiro, would call at Thompson A v e n u e - a n d every morning, without fail, he would find it sitting there on the newel post at the bottom of the banister. “My God!” says one of his secretaries. “He was a dynamo! Every morning there would be a manila envelope this thick, and six girls .would be working all day to do the things he had done overnight.” Working, that is, after Hazel Tappan had deciphered his handwriting-unintelligible except to his Junoesque chief secretary.
The mail, a huge stack of it, would be waiting for him on the desk of whichever one of his four offices he was using that day. Summoning three secretaries to ring his desk, he would plow through the letters so rapidly- scribbling instructions on some, snapping off orders about others, dictating replies, tossing the letters to the three women in rotation-that within thirty minutes the huge stack of paper would have melted down to the bare desktop.
Moses also showed a characteristic impatience and need to make optimal use of his time regardless of the situation. He’d work in the car on the way to work:
During the 1920’s, Moses had turned the big black Packard in which he had to spend so much time into an office, holding conferences in it with aides whose own limousines trailed behind, waiting to take them off when the conferences were finished, carrying with him always a supply of legal notepads and sharpened pencils and using the time in the limousine for work. Now the limousine was a Cadillac instead of a Packard. But it was still an office.
He’d work on a sailboat while he was supposed to be fishing:
Beneath the big cruiser the flounder might be running. But on more days than not his only catch would be another full manila envelope. The captain would cruise back and forth over the bay hour after hour; hour after hour the figure sitting silently in the deck chair at the stern would be hunched over memos and maps and blueprints. Late in the afternoon, he might take the wheel himself, but the charts his mind would be seeing would not be charts of the bay; once Captain Pearsall forgot to keep watch for a few minutes and Moses ran the boat straight onto a clearly visible sand bar.
And, perhaps unsurprisingly, he used vacations and social events for political purposes:
He still invited “friends” for weekends at the rambling old house on Thompson Avenue in Babylon, went clamming with them and his family on Fire Island, was the most charming and gracious of hosts-but the more perceptive among them knew always that they were there not because of friendship but for a purpose, and that before the weekend was over, Moses would be putting his big arm around their shoulders and working for the vote, or the administrative decision, that he needed from them.
Finally, Moses seems to have maintained his productivity as he aged. Caro again:
Age withers the output of most men, but as decade succeeded decade in the career of Robert Moses, his output seemed only to increase. The flow of broadsides delivered daily to a thousand desks never slackened. “Every morning when you came in, there on your desk would be [the mimeographed] memos that Moses had sent to someone and circulated to everyone else,” Law~ence Orton says. They had been on Orton’s desk from the day of his appomtment to the City Planning Commission in 1938; they were on his desk in I 948 and I 958-and there seemed to be more of them than ever. Orton, who read the memos–out of a fearful fascination-says, “It took the first half to three quarters of an hour every day to catch up on your Moses correspondence.” Says Latham: “During the time I knew him-and I knew him for forty-five years-hours didn’t mean anything to him. Days of the week didn’t mean anything to him. When there was work to be done, you did it. That was the way he was then and that’s the way he is now.”
Or, put more poetically:
A quarter of a century before, he had sloughed off the last remaining amenities of living and set before himself a life that would be a feast of work. In 1958, at the age of seventy, he would be still sitting before that feast-with undiminished appetite.
Theory (Math & Computer Science)
Shifting back to STEM, while I hope the examples I gave of biologists already debunk the notion that energy only matters in business or physical disciplines, I also want to show that energetic aliens also exist in even more abstract domains.
Alexander Grothendieck, who I also discussed in my review of The Art of Learning, was one of the most productive, generative, and eccentric mathematicians of the 20th century. Grothendieck was also an energetic alien. According to multiple sources, he went through a ten-year period during which he invented (I suspect he would say discovered) algebraic geometry while spending 10-12 hours a day doing math at a blackboard. Quoting from this article remembering Grothendieck:
By letter and in conversations, Serre later confirmed this view. Considering that, as a colleague put it, Grothendieck had done mathematics twelve hours a day, seven days a week, and twelve months a year for twenty years, one can only agree.
To some, Grothendieck’s workload may seem light in comparison to Church’s and Hood’s 80-100 hour works. However, anyone who’s taken a pure math class knows that thinking about these ideas is difficult in a way that’s incomparable to most other cognitive activities.
Grothendieck seems to have been non-neurotypical even amongst mathematicians, although how / whether this connects to his stamina isn’t clear to me. Discussing his own mathematical style, Grothendieck wrote:
I can illustrate the second approach with the same image of a nut to be opened.
The first analogy that came to my mind is of immersing the nut in some softening liquid, and why not simply water? From time to time you rub so the liquid penetrates better,and otherwise you let time pass. The shell becomes more flexible through weeks and months – when the time is ripe, hand pressure is enough, the shell opens like a perfectly ripened avocado
A different image came to me a few weeks ago.
The unknown thing to be known appeared to me as some stretch of earth or hard marl, resisting penetration… the sea advances insensibly in silence, nothing seems to happen, nothing moves, the water is so far off you hardly hear it.. yet it finally surrounds the resistant substance.
This led him to conclude that his strengths differed greatly from his peers’, writing:
Since then I’ve had the chance in the world of mathematics that bid me welcome, to meet quite a number of people, both among my “elders” and among young people in my general age group who were more brilliant, much more ‘gifted’ than I was. I admired the facility with which they picked up, as if at play, new ideas, juggling them as if familiar with them from the cradle–while for myself I felt clumsy, even oafish, wandering painfully up an arduous track, like a dumb ox faced with an amorphous mountain of things I had to learn (so I was assured) things I felt incapable of understanding the essentials or following through to the end. Indeed, there was little about me that identified the kind of bright student who wins at prestigious competitions or assimilates almost by sleight of hand, the most forbidding subjects.
In fact, most of these comrades who I gauged to be more brilliant than I have gone on to become distinguished mathematicians. Still from the perspective or thirty or thirty five years, I can state that their imprint upon the mathematics of our time has not been very profound. They’ve done all things, often beautiful things in a context that was already set out before them, which they had no inclination to disturb. Without being aware of it, they’ve remained prisoners of those invisible and despotic circles which delimit the universe of a certain milieu in a given era. To have broken these bounds they would have to rediscover in themselves that capability which was their birthright, as it was mine: The capacity to be alone.
As I said above, it’s not clear the degree to which Grothendieck’s overall strangeness contributed to his ability to work more than others. On one hand, it’s tempting to see a relationship between his unique style and his stamina. On the other hand – as Gwern said to me when I raised this to him – then why don’t all the other Grothendieck-style mathematicians work this much? And as we’ll see with the next example of Erdos, there exist energetic alien mathematicians who have a polar opposite style to Grothendieck.
If anything, Grothendieck’s obsessiveness seems most likely to be connected to his stamina. Perhaps the experience of math was so engrossing for Grothendieck – like an especially fun video game – that doing it for that many hours a day felt like a gift rather than a burden.
Finally, it is important to note that Grothendieck eventually went kind of crazy, moving to the woods and writing 10s of thousands of pages containing a mix of religious and spiritual ramblings. Again, I want to avoid psycho-analyzing, but it’s important to be aware of when looking at the factors that enabled his productivity.
Paul Erdos was one of the most prolific mathematicians of the 20th century. Famous for his nomadic lifestyle which enabled him to collaborate with more than 500 other mathematicians over his career, Erdos devoted his life to math, allegedly working 19 hour days for decades. In Daily Rituals, Mason Currey quotes one colleague’s summary of Erdos:
… he only needed three hours of sleep. He’d get up early and write letters, mathematical letters. He’d sleep downstairs. The first time he stayed, the clock was set wrong. It said 7:00, but it was really 4:30 A.M. He thought we should be up working, so he turned on the TV full blast. Later, when he knew me better, he’d come up at some early hour and tap on the bedroom door. “Ralph, do you exist?” The pace was grueling. He’d want to work from 8:00 A.M. until 1:30 A.M. Sure we’d break for short meals but we’d write on napkins and talk math the whole time. He’d stay a week or two and you’d collapse at the end.
As this quote suggests, even amongst mathematicians, not exactly known for their worldliness, Erdos was an outlier in terms of his total focus on math to the exclusion of everything else. In addition to and perhaps enabling his crazy work habits, Erdos:
Never owned property or had a permanent address, receiving mail at a friend’s home.
Kept all of his material possessions in two suitcases.
Never married or showed any interested in romantic relationships.
Didn’t know how to cook or even boil water for tea.
Eschewed all administrative / non-mathematical positions.
Seemingly lacked any interest in conversations regarding non-mathematical topics.
Unlike the examples we’ve looked at so far, Erdos’s alienness was very much enabled by better living through chemistry. In addition to large amounts of coffee, Erdos famously used amphetamines – Benzedrine and Ritalin – (and anti-depressants) throughout his life. These amphetamines seemed to have played a key role in his productivity. Upon succeeding at a challenge to avoid amphetamines for a month, Erdos told the friend who’d issued the challenge (from Daily Rituals):
You’ve shown me I’m not an addict. But I didn’t get any work done. I’d get up in the morning and stare at a blank piece of paper. I’d have no ideas, just like an ordinary person. You’ve set mathematics back a month.
Causality is hard, but this is as close to an interventional experiment as we can get in a real world, N=1 setting. Massively productive person takes stimulants consistently, stops and gets nothing done, starts again and goes back to high productivity.
Finally, Erdos’s mathematical style strongly contrasted with Grothendieck’s, debunking any notion that Grothendieck’s style enabled his stamina. Although Erdos had an impressive ability to work across field, his discipline of focus was combinatorics, famous for attracting clever problem solvers who often don’t share Grothendieck’s and other abstractologists’ taste for the lofty abstractions of something like algebraic geometry.
Don Knuth is a famous computer scientist, probably best known as the author of The Art of Computer Programming (TAOCP), an ongoing series of books. What’s less known is how much other stuff Knuth did during his career. Before writing TAOCP, Knuth invented TeX, invented many important algorithms including the Knuth-Morris-Pratt string matching algorithms, wrote a discrete math textbook called Concrete Mathematics, wrote one of the only mathematical fiction books that involves proving theorems, and invented Literate Programming.
As Knuth puts it, he was able to do all this because he was “kind of a machine”. While Knuth doesn’t outright say how many hours he works, various anecdotes make it clear that he has seemingly always had an exceptional ability to do hard cognitive work continuously for long stretches.
As a demonstration of his persistence and presumably enabled by high cognitive stamina, in college, determined not to be one of the students who failed out at Case Western, Knuth would do all the problems in his calculus textbook:
But Thomas’s Calculus would have the text, then would have problems, and our teacher would assign, say, the even numbered problems, or something like that. I would also do the odd numbered problems. In the back of Thomas’s book he had supplementary problems, the teacher didn’t assign the supplementary problems; I worked the supplementary problems. I was, you know, I was scared I wouldn’t learn calculus, so I worked hard on it, and it turned out that of course it took me longer to solve all these problems than the kids who were only working on what was assigned, at first. But after a year, I could do all of those problems in the same time as my classmates were doing the assigned problems, and after that I could just coast in mathematics, because I’d learned how to solve problems. So it was good that I was scared, in a way that I, you know, that made me start strong, and then I could coast afterwards, rather than always climbing and being on a lower part of the learning curve.
Later in his career, Knuth, seemingly unable to say no to anything, found himself working around the clock (source):
And I’m editing journals. I was editor of 12 technical journals at the time. I was getting papers to referee, and, you know, I was taking that job conscientiously. The way I was operating, when I was at Caltech would be, you know, well, okay, the kids, if, I’d take care of the kids, you know, change the diapers, and so on, then they go to bed, if they wake up and cry, I put in my ear plugs, this is my time to do my “Art of Computer programming” writing. I watch TV, old movies on television, while I’m writing chapters for the “Art of Computer programming”. I get to school, do my editorial work, send out papers to be reviewed, write to the authors of papers. Every morning, I would figure out, what am I going to accomplish this day? And I’d stay up until I finished it. You know, I was used to all-nighters from high school, well I started to, you know, to work every day until I had finished what I had set myself to do that day.)
As with the other examples, Knuth seems to have been able to do very difficult cognitive work for many hours while chronically sleep deprived. In fact, he himself says he did some of his best work in this state (source):
I’ve always felt after that, hearing many other stories of people of when did they get these special insights that turned out to be important in their research thing, that was very rarely in a settled time of their life, where they had a comfortable living conditions and good – the word is escaping me now - but anyway, luxury; set up a nice office space and good lighting and so forth. No, people are working in a garret, they’re starving, they’ve got kids screaming, there’s a war going on or something. But that’s when they get a lot of their most… almost every breakthrough idea. I’ve always wondered, if you wanted to set up a think tank where you were going to get the most productivity out of your scientists, wouldn’t you have to, not exactly torture them, but deprive them of things? It’s not sustainable. Still, looking back, that was a time when I did as much science as I could, as well as try to fulfill all my other obligations.
We need not only rely on Knuth’s own reports. Writing about the history of an early Algol compiler, Richard Waychoff provides us with great additional evidence of Knuth’s remarkable productivity. Knuth first appears as a college student who Waychoff hears had promised he could write an Algol compiler in a single Summer on his own. Waychoff reports his own skepticism and belief that Knuth was scamming the people asking for the compiler as follows:
Don claimed that he could write the compiler and a language manual all by himself during his three and a half month summer vacation. He said that he would do it for $5000. Our Fortran compiler required a card reader, card punch. line printer and automatic floating point. Don said that he would not need the card reader or card punch, but he wanted a magnetic tape unit and paper tape. I asked Gerard Guyod how Brad could have been suckered into paying this college kid $5000 to write something that had to be a piece of junk if he was only going to spend three and a half months on it. Gerard whispered his response to me. He said “We think that he already has it written. He probably did it in his spare time while working in the computer center at Case Institute.” I still wasn’t entirely satisfied with that answer because I was a college graduate whose first job was for 5325 per month and I had just changed jobs and was making $525 per month. Besides that it was taking mortal human beings 25 man-years to write compilers: not three and a half man-months. I thought that Brad had taker leave of his senses.
And at points it did seem like Knuth might fail:
It seemed that don was always there, patiently waiting his turn. He knew when we went out to dinner and when we slept. Our compilers were both punched or cards and were the same size. We had written ours in STAR 0, the only assembler that Burroughs supported on the 205. It had been Dick Berman’s first programming project. Our compiler took one hour and 45 minutes to assemble. The first week of don’s project he spent in writing his own assembler. He could assemble his compiler in 45 minutes. We were green with envy. I am sure that don used only half the computer time that Lloyd and I used.
As the summer wore on don seemed to be losing the total confidence that he had at the beginning of the summer. The pressure was beginning to show. Then something happened that nearly destroyed him. Even though his compiler was going to be distributed on paper tape, he had been working all summer from cards. The time finally came for him to dump the compiler to tope. But it wouldn’t fit. I thought that don was going to have a heart attack. It was a classic case of an irresistible force (don’s intellect) meeting an immovable object (the size of a reel of paper, tape). As I recall the problem was resolved by Brad allowing him to use two reels of tape.
Yet against all odds, Knuth managed to complete the “25 man-years” of work in the course of the Summer:
Finally the Last day of summer arrived and don had his compiler but not the manual. We were all physically and mentally exhausted. It was Late in the evening when I saw don sitting down at Betty Potter’s typewriter to start ‘his manual. I had really grown to like and respect don, but I felt very sorry for him having to get over this last hurdle. So I sat down with him and proofread the pages as they came out of the typewriter. It seemed that he was composing and typing as fast as I could read. By morning the manual was done.
Waychoff also provides us with an additional anecdote about how Knuth’s productivity (and brilliance) enabled him to complete his PhD at Caltech while working at Burroughs 40 hours a week:
He got his Ph.D. n from Cal Tech in a remarkably short time while working up to forty hours a week at Burroughs (in violation of Cal Tech’s policy that limits the number of hours that a Ph.D. candidate can work). It was apparently so easy for him that he hardly seemed aware that he was in college. He was always well rested and never rushed for anything.
In fairness, by Knuth’s own account, his ability to graduate so quickly partly resulted from getting lucky by finding a solution to an open problembut I still think the fact that he did this while working full-time for Burroughs provides additional evidence of his profound cognitive stamina.
Writers & Artists
Of all professions, writers and artists seem to have the strongest reputation for not being able to work more than a certain amount. As a contrarian by temperament, I was delighted to find two counter-examples to this claim.
Some of my pre-readers pointed out that the two examples I give here are both scientists by background. I agree with this criticism but unfortunately, I don’t know of good non-scientist – e.g. literary fiction, biographers – examples that fit the definition, most likely because I am just exposed to these examples given my interest. If you know of other good writer examples, please share them with me!
Along with Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke, Asimov is considered one of the three sci-fi greats of the early to mid 20th century. Asimov’s productivity is evidenced by the length of even his selected bibliography, his most well-known works being Foundation, I, Robot, and the Robot series, the latter of which are known for coining the Three Laws of Robotics. Just to hammer home how prolific Asimov was, his eulogy provides a nice quantification of his incredible rate of book production:
Mr. Asimov’s first book, “Pebble in the Sky” (Ballantine), a science-fiction novel, was published in 1950. His first 100 books took him 237 months, or almost 20 years, until October 1969, to write. His second 100, a milestone he reached in March 1979, took 113 months, or about 9 1/2 years – a rate of more than 10 books a year. His third 100 took only 69 months, until December 1984, or less than 6 years.
In order to maintain this level of productivity, in contrast to most writers, Asimov started writing in the morning and continued into the night. Again according to his eulogy, “his usual routine was to awake at 6 A.M., sit down at the typewriter by 7:30 and work until 10 P.M.” Interestingly, Asimov attributed his consistent productivity to two factors, a lucky break in the genetic lottery and the desire to prove he wasn’t lazy to his father. On the genetic lottery point, the eulogy includes the following quote:
“I have been fortunate to be born with a restless and efficient brain, with a capacity for clear thought and an ability to put that thought into words,” he once remarked. “None of this is to my credit. I am the beneficiary of a lucky break in the genetic sweepstakes.”
One can only assume that Asimov concluded this based on a combination of introspection and comparison to other writers, suggesting that his experience of working so hard and producing so much was not one of pure agony. On the subject of daddy issues, the eulogy shares another story from Asimov, this time from his autobiography:
In “In Memory Yet Green,” the first volume of his autobiography, published in 1979, he explained how he became a compulsive writer. His Russian-born father owned a succession of candy stores in Brooklyn that were open from 6 A.M. to 1 A.M. seven days a week. Young Isaac got up at 6 o’clock every morning to deliver papers and rushed home from school to help out in the store every afternoon. If he was even a few minutes late, his father yelled at him for being a folyack, Yiddish for sluggard. Even more than 50 years later, he wrote: “It is a point of pride with me that though I have an alarm clock, I never set it, but get up at 6 A.M. anyway. I am still showing my father I’m not a folyack.” "
This story highlights another potential commonality amongst energetic aliens, some factor which from a young age imparted a strong desire to succeed and/or achieve big things in their chosen discipline. As with the upcoming example of Elon Musk, in Asimov’s case, his father’s never-good-enough approach to parenting seems to have given him something to prove, driving him to maintain such an insane level of productivity throughout his career.
Against all this, some might counter that, yes Asimov was productive, but he was only able to be so productive because his writing was formulaic. And it is true that Asimov was no Tolstoy. I haven’t read an Asimov book in a while, but I remember liking Foundation for its ideas rather than its deep character development or beautiful prose. In spite of this, I still think Asimov’s productivity is anomalous and impressive. First, Asimov’s ideas were often novel and creative, evidenced by the persistence of the Three Laws of Robotics and Foundation‘s idea of psychohistory in pop culture. Asimov also seems to be an anomaly even amongst genre fiction authors. Stephen King, also considered a productive genre fiction author, writes from around 8:30 until somewhere between 11:30 AM and 1:30 PM each day. In the 47 year period between 1974 and 2021, Stephen King has authored 61 novels, putting him at a rate of slightly more than 1 novel a year. So King, probably already at least one standard deviation more productive than average, works about a third as much as Asimov and publishes books at a rate a little over 1/10th of the rate at which Asimov published.
Honore de Balzac
Balzac provides a different angle at which we can counter the “Asimov wrote fast but not well” critique. Balzac was a French novelist and playwright most famous for La Comedie humaine, a “panorama of post-Napoleonic life”. While I haven’t read any Balzac myself, considering he influenced Charles Dickens, Flaubert, and Henry James with his writing, I can assume his writing qualifies as high brow literary art even by the standards of the snobbiest critics. As Wikipedia puts it, “He is renowned for his multi-faceted characters; even his lesser characters are complex, morally ambiguous and fully human.” In other words, a writer’s writer.
Balzac was also exceptionally productive, averaging 4 books per year, enabled by a grueling writing routine. As described by Daily Rituals, Balzac wrote for 15-16 hours a day, punctuated only by occasional breaks, sleep, and endless coffee:
When Balzac was working, his writing schedule was brutal: He ate a light dinner at 6:00 P.M., then went to bed. At 1:00 A.M. he rose and sat down at his writing table for a seven-hour stretch of work. At 8:00 A.M. he allowed himself a ninety-minute nap; then, from 9:30 to 4:00, he resumed work, drinking cup after cup of black coffee. (According to one estimate, he drank as many as fifty cups a day.) At 4:00 P.M. Balzac took a walk, had a bath, and received visitors until 6:00, when the cycle started all over again.
Going beyond even this, Balzac apparently “often worked for fifteen hours or more at a stretch; he claimed to have once worked for 48 hours with only three hours of rest in the middle.”
As evidenced by the above quote,like Erdos, Balzac was a card-carrying member of the better living through chemistry club. According to multiple sources, Balzac consumed around 50 cups of coffee a day, likely contributing to his untimely demise at age 51. Balzac’s relationship with coffee was so deep that he wrote a wonderful essay called The Pleasures and Pains of Coffee, in which he waxes poetically on the best ways of preparing coffee and its varied effects on the mind.
Unlike many of the other examples, Balzac’s motivation was at least partially extrinsic. An extravagant spender, Balzac spent his life constantly in debt, going to such lengths as using fake names in order to enable his exorbitant expenditures. Balzac seemingly partly maintained his insane schedule in order to make enough money to try and (unsuccessfully) dig himself out of these debts, stating “I’ll have to lead this life for some months, not to let myself be snowed under by my debts.”
Finally, in keeping with the daddy issues theme, Balzac seems to have had a rough childhood. Balzac’s parents apparently kept him and his siblings at a distance, affecting him emotionally with said emotions partially expressed in some of his works.
Steel is a romance author and also the bestselling author alive and fourth bestselling fiction author of all time. Steel’s first novel was published in 1972 and she’s published 179 books, including 146 novels. This means Steel averages over 3 books a year, comparable to Balzac, although still not matching Asimov’s absurd book production rate. However, this average rate undresells Steel’s peak production rate, which is apparently 7 books a year.
Steel is famous for her work ethic, apparently writing for 20+ hours a day while sleeping less than or equal to 4:
If I am working on a book and haven’t had a chance to write that day, I usually start writing around 8 pm and go until about 3 am. But if I start writing in the morning, whenever that is, I’ll start on the book and keep going through the day. I work, on average, 20 hours a day. Sometimes 22.
Now similar to Asimov, some may argue that Steel doesn’t deserve to be included in the alien ranks because she writes low brow, some might say “formulaic” genre fiction. However, I decided to include Steel because she’s been incredibly productive for decades while working an insane number of hours and, even if her writing isn’t the most complex, its sheer popularity counts for something.
While programmers already have a reputation for work binges in the zeitgeist, I have a few favorite examples that I couldn’t help but include here.
Before jumping in, I want to rebut a (valid) argument made by one of my pre-readers - that the programming examples seemed the weakest because programming seems the most video game-like of the activities described. While it is the case that programming’s fast compile-and-test feedback loop does make it easier to focus on than e.g. math, all of the programmers I discuss in the following sections were at least at one point working in areas where they had to solve hard conceptual problems as they went along. Taking John Carmack as a representative example, Carmack is famous not only for his incredible productivity but also for his ability to employ previously research-level ideas in achieving unprecedented rendering feats. This article describes one example and Masters of Doom includes a few others. Circling back, the point I’m trying to make with this is that yes, programming may be a little easier to focus on than pure math, but what’s impressive about the people I describe is that they combine programming productivity with creativity.
Founder of Id software and main programmer of of Doom, Quake, Wolfenstein 3D, John Carmack is a legend amongst programmers, both for his skill and his incredible work ethic. Documented in Masters of Doom and confirmed by Carmack himself, he 60 hours a week of work the sweet spot for his happiness and productivity. However, reports from Carmack’s colleagues highlight that 13 hours in Carmack’s world means 13 hours of serious work. Take, for example, this anecdote from Brian Hook, Carmack’s colleague at Id:
I remember Carmack talking about productivity measurement. While working he would play a CD, and if he was not being productive, he’d pause the CD player. This meant any time someone came into his office to ask him a question or he checked email he’d pause the CD player. He’d then measure his output for the day by how many times he played the CD (or something like that – maybe it was how far he got down into his CD stack). I distinctly remember him saying “So if I get up to go to the bathroom, I pause the player”.
You know what’s pretty hardcore? Thinking that going to the bathroom is essentially the same as fucking off.
Masters of Doom also includes some great quotes about Carmack’s uninterruptible, time-stands-still level of focus:
Carmack was of the moment. His ruling force was focus. Time existed for him not in some promising future or sentimental past but in the present condition, the intricate web of problems and solutions, imagination and code.
Interestingly, Carmack does deviate from other examples in terms of his sleep needs. Contra some hyperbolic reporting about him, he’s repeatedly mentioned how he requires 8 hours of sleep to function well.
Not to beat a dead horse, but John Carmack also didn’t have the most enjoyable childhood. Like many precocious teens, Carmack eventually grew to find school to be an antagonizing mix of boring and distracting from his true passion for hacking. Combined with his mother’s lack of amusement with his focus on programming games and other home life difficulties, this eventually led him to act out by using his growing chemical engineering knowledge to, along with a group of unsavory friends, try to break into a school to steal its computer. They were caught and Carmack ended up spending a year in a juvenile detention center afterwards. That said, unlike Asimov, as far as I know, Carmack has never mentioned his early life as feeding into his motivation, instead always highlighting his future orientation and simple desire to build great things when asked what motivates him.
I feel the importance of cognitive stamina in business is well-described but often misconstrued. Similar to politicians, business leaders have strong incentives for making themselves seem invincible and many executives seem to include things like dinners and golfing in cited work hours, making energetic alien analysis difficult. Despite that, certain clear examples of executive energetic aliens stood out to me as contributing to our understanding, so I’ve decided to include them.
Elon Musk’s transcendent brilliance is often exaggerated – people seem to think he literally invented rocket science himself – but he does have an extraordinary ability to focus deeply and work hard for long periods of time.
Musk’s ability to focus is described well in Ashlee Vance’s book.The examples I found most compelling come from Musk’s early life. As a young kid, Musk would allegedly get so focused on whatever he was thinking about that he’d become totally unreachable. As documented by Vance, this troubled his mother so much that she ended up having him inspected by doctors:
“Sometimes, he just didn’t hear you,” said Maye. Doctors ran a series of tests on Elon, and elected to remove his adenoid glands, which can improve hearing in children. “Well, it didn’t change,” said Maye. Elon’s condition had far more to do with the wiring of his mind than how his auditory system functioned. “He goes into his brain, and then you just see he is in another world,” Maye said. “He still does that. Now I just leave him be because I know he is designing a new rocket or something.”
According to Vance and Musk himself, this deep focus may be connected to Musk’s powerful visual imagination:
At five and six, he had found a way to block out the world and dedicate all of his concentration to a single task. Part of this ability stemmed from the very visual way in which Musk’s mind worked. He could see images in his mind’s eye with a clarity and detail that we might associate today with an engineering drawing produced by computer software. “It seems as though the part of the brain that’s usually reserved for visual processing—the part that is used to process images coming in from my eyes—gets taken over by internal thought processes,” Musk said. “I can’t do this as much now because there are so many things demanding my attention but, as a kid, it happened a lot. That large part of your brain that’s used to handle incoming images gets used for internal thinking.”
Musk’s ability to work hard as an individual contributor, rather than as an executive, comes through in the stories from his time working as a programmer. Writing about Musk’s time at his first company, Zip2, Vance describes Musk’s work habits as follows:
Musk never seemed to leave the office. He slept, not unlike a dog, on a beanbag next to his desk. “Almost every day, I’d come in at seven thirty or eight A.M., and he’d be asleep right there on that bag,” Heilman said. “Maybe he showered on the weekends. I don’t know.” Musk asked those first employees of Zip2 to give him a kick when they arrived, and he’d wake up and get back to work.
Vance includes other similar stories of Musk’s ability to work long hours from subsequent companies, but they don’t provide much additional insight.
Instead, the other thing the biography highlights well is Musk’s relentless, literal do-or-die attitude towards success. This attitude enables Musk to work hard while enduring tremendous stress and pressure. The best example of this comes from a period during which Tesla and SpaceX were struggling in 2008. Discussing Musk’s resilience during this especially tumultuous period one of Musk’s coworkers said:
“He has the ability to work harder and endure more stress than anyone I’ve ever met,” Gracias said. “What he went through in 2008 would have broken anyone else. He didn’t just survive. He kept working and stayed focused.” That ability to stay focused in the midst of a crisis stands as one of Musk’s main advantages over other executives and competitors. “Most people who are under that sort of pressure fray,” Gracias said. “Their decisions go bad. Elon gets hyperrational. He’s still able to make very clear, long-term decisions. The harder it gets, the better he gets. Anyone who saw what he went through firsthand came away with more respect for the guy. I’ve just never seen anything like his ability to take pain.”
Recent years have provided additional examples, such as the Model 3 launch, of Musk’s ability to rise to the challenge and inspire others to rise with him.
Musk’s relationship with his father mirrors that of some of the other examples we’ve seen already. The Musk family generally avoids discussing the topic of Errol Musk (Musk’s father), but Vance managed to gather enough to conclude that Musk and his brother’s time living with his father was not pleasant. Vance writes:
They both talk about having to endure some form of psychological torture. “He definitely has serious chemical stuff,” said Kimbal. “Which I am sure Elon and I have inherited. It was a very emotionally challenging upbringing, but it made us who we are today.” Maye bristled when the subject of Errol came up. “Nobody gets along with him,” she said. “He is not nice to anyone. I don’t want to tell stories because they are horrendous. You know, you just don’t talk about it. There are kids and grandkids involved.”
Musk’s tremendous drive also comes from a deeply felt positive desire to make the future better. In his first conversation with Vance, Musk repeated a sentiment he’s shared in many interviews since:
“I would like to die thinking that humanity has a bright future,” he said. “If we can solve sustainable energy and be well on our way to becoming a multiplanetary species with a self-sustaining civilization on another planet—to cope with a worst-case scenario happening and extinguishing human consciousness—then,” and here he paused for a moment, “I think that would be really good.”
However, many have big visions of the future of humanity. What seems to differentiate Musk is the degree to which this desire influences his actual behavior. The speculative hypothesis I find most interesting here is that a component of Musk and other’s persistence comes from experiencing desire more acutely than others.
Coming back to the final typical energetic alien talking point, Musk’s sleep needs seem lower than average but greater than a true short sleeper. On a recent appearance on Joe Rogan, Musk told Rogan that he requires >=6 hours of sleep or his productivity decreases.
I enjoyed compiling the above examples, but they arguably raise more questions than they answer. In spite of that, hopefully they’ve convinced you that there’s a there there with respect to the energetic aliens concept and made you curious about what’s going on with it. In the rest of this section, I did some somewhat unstructured dissection of these examples. I want to emphasize that I feel very uncertain about all hypotheses and claims made in these sections even if I don’t always use excessively uncertain language.
Can we trust these stories? Is there other evidence, e.g. scientific that would be more useful?
For our purposes, I believe we can mostly trust the anecdotes despite their pitfalls. It’s well-documented that backwards-looking self-reports are often biased or lossy, especially when a person is incentivized to make themself sound good. Therefore, some skepticism about self-reported hour and intensity estimates seems warranted. Further, reports by biographers may also have their own biases. On the other hand, some of the stories shared above have been verified independently by multiple sources or fit into a pattern of consistent behavior. And in the cases of self-reported behavior, even toned down versions of things like Levchin’s coding binge imply large differences between the average individual’s ability to sustain cognitive function and an energetic alien’s. So while the specifics of individual stories may not be entirely accurate, the overall picture of individuals who seem to have a much higher than average ability to sustain hard cognitive work seems correct.
Unfortunately, outside of suggesting a genetic basis for short sleepers, I am skeptical that existing study results tell us much about energetic aliens. Most studies I’ve found on cognitive effort 1) occur in artificial environments and 2) look at distributional summary statistics that will hide outliers rather than highlight them.
On the first point, while this may seem like a fully general argument against psychology lab studies, I think it’s especially important in the case of energetic aliens. Imagine if you asked George Church to participate in a visuospatial attention task. The most likely outcome is that he’d fall asleep and therefore score terribly in terms of “ability to focus”. Yet, as discussed above, George Church’s ability to focus when it matters and interests him is way far out on the right side of the bell curve. That a study like the linked one would not only fail to identify this but falsely put him on the left end of any “focus ability” bell curve suggests that it and studies like it might not only be useless but actively misleading for our purposes.
On the second point, even if you did come up with a study which usefully gets at the type of cognitive stamina we’re interested in, the sorts of summary statistics reported by these types of studies might obscure the existence of rare outliers. While specifically looking for outliers can help with this, my impression is that many psych studies don’t do this. Although unfortunate for our current purposes, it suggests an interesting set of re-analyses we could do on existing psych datasets focused on searching for outliers rather than looking at averages.
Similarities & Differences Between Energetic Aliens
So far as I can tell, lower sleep needs, passion for their work, ability to ignore distractions are the three major commonalities across the energetic alien examples. While John Carmack requires 8 hours of sleep to consistently perform and George Church’s narcolepsy means his sleep requirements are unpredictable and inflexible, most of the other aliens have at least example of going without sleep for days at a time or severely limiting sleep while continuing to function.
As mentioned above, this is the one case in which I feel that science can at least inform our investigation. The landmark study on short sleepers found that short sleep didn’t correlate with any other personality traits except hypomania (Attitude to life in the below image).
Before we get too excited, it’s important to note that the difference between normal and short sleepers on Attitude to life is not massive and comes with all the caveats of self-reported survey results. For example, maybe so-called short sleepers just tend to be more delusional on average and that acounts for their hypomania scores rather than actually having more cognitive endurance. Tempered excitement accounted for, when combined with the following anecdote from Ying-Hui Fu, a sleep researcher focused on short sleepers,
“In addition to sleeping fewer hours a day, they also are optimistic and energetic. A lot of them are excellent multi-taskers. They have a high pain threshold and usually don’t have jet-lag,” she said.
the above result makes me think it’s possible that whatever enables short sleepers to sleep less with seemingly minimal adverse effects also creates higher average energy and mental endurance.
In private communications, Matt Lakeman suggested that energetic alien-ness may be latent in all of us and that energetic aliens may be people who find productive activities enjoyable in the same way video game addicts find video games so enjoyable that they sometimes forget to go to the bathroom. As someone who has forgotten to go to the bathroom while playing video games, I am sympathetic to this argument. In particular, it seems undoubtedly true that nearly everyone’s ability to focus varies across activities and is often not maxed out by their job. And to Matt Lakeman’s point, it is true that all the people mentioned in the case studies section seem to have a lot of autonomy in their work and work on things they are extremely passionate about.
I don’t think passion explains all of the differences between energetic aliens and others though. Taking the example of Napoleon, is it really meaningful to say he was just simultaneously passionate about being a general, politics, law, and art? I’d argue that instead passion was upstream of latent energy which enabled him to sustain simultaneous interests in such a wide array of activities.
Coming at the passion hypothesis from a different critical angle, passion also doesn’t provide a satisfying explanation for the difference in magnitude between alien intensity and normal person intensity. There are lots of writers who are passionate about writing and use that passion to get their butt in the chair for four hours a day, every day. Then there’s Oliver Sacks who checks notes would write around the clock in a semi-religious fervor with words flowing through him. Or, in a different domain, there’s Guy Steele-level passion about programming (sufficient for great success in the field) and then there’s Stallman-level passion where you code for 10 hours straight while totally losing track of time.
Ability to ignore distractions can potentially account for some of what passion cannot. Perhaps energetic aliens are people whose passion for their work combines with natural single-mindedness and low distractibility, enabling them to productively put their entire being into whatever their passion is.
Shifting gears, it’s worth exploring the ways in which energetic aliens vary, especially across different domains. As alluded to in the discussion of Lee Hood, one major axis of variation is creativity. Grothendieck, Bourgain, George Church, Napoleon (specifically as a general), and Oliver Sacks all deservedly have the reputation as being profound thinkers able to see ideas and solutions that others could never have conceived of. On the other hand, Lee Hood, Max Levchin, and Stallman are incredible executors and way above average thinkers but lack the same world-class generativity that the members of the former list possess (hopefully none of them read this post). If anything, I think the fact that one can be an energetic alien and world class creative is more surprising than that not every energetic alien is. Before collecting these anecdotes, I’d always associated insane work ethic with a certain narrowness of thought but these examples have shown me that I was wrong to treat the two as intrinsically coupled.
Another way in which energetic aliens vary is in terms of their neurodiversity. Some of the energetic aliens profiled seem relatively normal outside of their high energy levels, whereas other self-identify as abnormal or non-neurotypical. Unfortunately, because the definition of non-neurotypical is broad, it’s hard to draw a meaningful conclusion from this beyond that one can be an energetic alien independent and be relatively “normal” or highly atypical in terms of other personality traits.
Wrapping things up, I find all this analysis still a bit dissatisfying. While I’ve tried to use the commonalities amongst and differences between energetic aliens to understand them better, I feel like all the factors I identified describe rather than explain what’s going on with energetic aliens. A more satisfying understanding would instead at least suggest candidate causal factors which are predictive of energetic alienness warranting further investigation. Of course, this is also why this essay is called the neglected mystery rather than the resolved mystery. In the spirit of trying to reduce the neglectedness of this mystery, before moving on, I want to suggest a few avenues for exploration which I think might prove helpful for developing a better understanding of energetic aliens:
Gather sleep & self-reported activity data from the CEOs of the entire Fortune 500 list and randomly sampled individuals. Compare and contrast the patterns between the two groups.
Do the same for eminent scientists.
Try and figure out how similar energetic aliens’ daily experience is to the experience of a normal person on stimulants. lly, this is intended to be the first (and longer) post in a two-part series. In the second part, I intend to focus on what those of us who aren’t energetic aliens can do to compensate.
Read the literature on short sleepers (example) and try to more comprehensively understand any patterns in their other personality traits.
Finally, I initially intended this to be the first of several posts in a series, but later realized that I lack and will continue to for the foreseeable future the bandwith required to give this the attention it deserved. So, consider this an excuse for any glaring gaps you’ve noticed in the post’s examples and discussions.
Inspiration / Relevant Links
The Energies of Man by William James: I had read this long ago, forgot about it, and then Andy Matuschak and Will both independently reminded me of it (via email) after they’d read this post. While I didn’t consciously think about it while writing this, I wonder if James’s discussion of energy variability subconsciously drove my interest in this topic and also influenced some of the tentative claims I made.
Stamina Succeeds by Robin Hanson: On a similar topic, served as loose inspiration for this post.
These are people for which I didn’t have enough evidence to establish a strong energetic alien pattern but found isolated quotes suggestive of their alien-ness.
Barbara McClintock was a scientist most famous for discovering transposons, for which she won a Nobel Prize. Although there’s less information on McClintock’s specific work habits, I’ve included her here because she clearly worked quite hard, had an uncanny “feeling for the organism”, and was notoriously persistent in the fact of people denying her findings.
McClintock’s focus and avoidance of responsibility are described in her eulogy:
She never gave lectures, as most scientists do to build their careers. Instead, until her last days, she worked in her laboratory at Cold Spring Harbor 12 hours a day, six days a week. Until 1986, she did not have a telephone, requesting that anyone who wanted to talk to her write a letter instead.
McClintock’s work on transposition (in corn) was also mostly ignored for decades after she’d (in her mind) justified the basic phenomenon. Yet, despite essentially working alone or occasionally with students, McClintock continued studying corn. What’s interesting about McClintock’s persistence is that, at least in her own accounting, it didn’t internally feel like a heroic struggle against the status quo so much as a joyful constant experience of discovery. In fact, discussing her receipt of a Nobel Prize, McClintock went so far as to say it was unfair that she received a prize for having so much fun:
Instead, McClintock was motivated by the intrinsic rewards that she experienced from the work itself. She was rewarded every day by the joy she felt in the endeavor. She loved posing questions, finding answers, solving problems. She loved working in her garden and in her laboratory. She recalled later, “I was doing what I wanted to do, and there was absolutely no thought of a career. I was just having a marvelous time.” Upon hearing that she had been named for the Nobel Prize, McClintock told reporters, “The prize is such an extraordinary honor. It might seem unfair, however, to reward a person for having so much pleasure, over the years, asking the maize to solve specific problems and then watching its response.” When asked if she was bitter about the lateness of the recognition, she said simply, “If you know you’re right, you don’t care. You know that sooner or later, it will come out in the wash.”
This highlights that McClintock, and others discussed in this post, often work hard because they’re having fun while doing so rather than out of some sense of duty.
Richard Stallman is probably best known for founding the GNU project, but also earned permanent programming fame for developing the initial version of the world’s most polarizing text editor, emacs. While I couldn’t find as much about Stallman’s work ethic as some of the other aliens, the one story I did find suggests that he deserves membership in the energetic aliens club.
The following story about Stallman was told by Guy Steele (another famous early programmer) and comes from their time working together in the MIT AI lab. The story describes a pair programming session involving Steele and Stallman and illustrates what I suspect is Stallman’s normal level of intensity and focus while programming:
“We sat down one morning,” recalls Steele. “I was at the keyboard, and he was at my elbow,” says Steele. “He was perfectly willing to let me type, but he was also telling me what to type.
The programming session lasted 10 hours. Throughout that entire time, Steele says, neither he nor Stallman took a break or made any small talk. By the end of the session, they had managed to hack the pretty print source code to just under 100 lines. “My fingers were on the keyboard the whole time,” Steele recalls, “but it felt like both of our ideas were flowing onto the screen. He told me what to type, and I typed it.”
The length of the session revealed itself when Steele finally left the AI Lab. Standing outside the building at 545 Tech Square, he was surprised to find himself surrounded by nighttime darkness. As a programmer, Steele was used to marathon coding sessions. Still, something about this session was different. Working with Stallman had forced Steele to block out all external stimuli and focus his entire mental energies on the task at hand. Looking back, Steele says he found the Stallman mind-meld both exhilarating and scary at the same time. “My first thought afterward was: it was a great experience, very intense, and that I never wanted to do it again in my life.
Levchin is now much more famous for his role in founding Paypal and Affirm more recently and also his membership in the Paypal Mafia. However, Max Levchin got his start as a seemingly very productive energetic alien programmer.
Discussing the early days of Paypal in Founders at Work, Levchin describes a 5-day coding binge during which he allegedly didn’t sleep at all in order to have something working in time for a big investor event:
The product wasn’t really finished, and about a week before the beaming at Buck’s I realized that we weren’t going to be able to do it, because the code wasn’t done. Obviously it was really simple to mock it up—to sort of go, “Beep! Money is received.” But I was so disgusted with the idea. We have this security company; how could I possibly use a mock-up for something worth $4.5 mil- lion? What if it crashes? What if it shows something? I’ll have to go and commit ritual suicide to avoid any sort of embarrassment. So instead of just getting the mock-up done and getting reasonable rest, my two coders and I coded nonstop for 5 days. I think some people slept; I know I didn’t sleep at all. It was just this insane marathon where we were like, “We have to get this thing working.” It actually wound up working perfectly. The beaming was at 10:00 a.m.; we were done at 9:00 a.m
While Levchin seems to have toned down his work intensity since this time, I think this anecdote suggests an ability to work incredibly hard beyond the point at which an even very high work ethic person would be unable to continue.
The late Oliver Sacks was a neurosurgeon, writer, and all-around interesting fellow. Best known for his books and columns which explored the relationship between mind and brain, Sacks seems to have possessed a wellspring of physical and mental energy.
Discussing the writing of his first book, Sacks describes how pinning himself to the metaphorical mast led to a 10-day writing binge, during which he experienced a persistent state of euphoria while sleeping very little and writing constantly (source):
I was dissatisfied with my 1967 manuscript and decided to rewrite the book. It was the first of September, and I said to myself, “If I do not have the finished manuscript in Faber’s hands by September 10, I shall have to kill myself.” And under this threat, I started writing. Within a day or so, the feeling of threat had disappeared, and the joy of writing took over. I was no longer using drugs, but it was a time of extraordinary elation and energy. It seemed to me almost as though the book were being dictated, everything organizing itself swiftly and automatically. I would sleep for just a couple of hours a night. And a day ahead of schedule, on September 9, I took the book to Faber & Faber. Their offices were in Great Russell Street, near the British Museum, and after dropping off the manuscript, I walked over to the museum. Looking at artifacts there — pottery, sculptures, tools, and especially books and manuscripts, which had long outlived their creators — I had the feeling that I, too, had produced something. Something modest, perhaps, but with a reality and existence of its own, something that might live on after I was gone.
I unfortunately don’t know whether Sacks experienced other periods of similar high productivity throughout his career, but even taken on its own, this example defies the typical dogma about writing only being doable for a few hours a day.
And while this post focuses on cognitive stamina, Sacks provides an interesting example of someone who also possessed high physical energy as well. After getting into weightlifting while living in LA, Sacks focused his efforts on the squat in particular. Similar to his approach to writing, Sacks quickly went from interested in to obsessed with weightlifting. Describing the time, he says:
I felt inspired by Karl and determined to lift greater pound-ages myself, to work on the one lift I was already fairly good at—the squat. Training intensively, even obsessively, at a small gym in San Rafael, I worked up to doing five sets of five reps with 555 pounds every fifth day. The symmetry of this pleased me but caused amusement at the gym—“Sacks and his fives.” I didn’t realize how exceptional this was until another lifter encouraged me to have a go at the California squat record. I did so, diffidently, and to my delight was able to set a new record, a squat with a 600-pound bar on my shoulders. This was to serve as my introduction to the power-lifting world; a weight-lifting record is equivalent, in these circles, to publishing a scientific paper or a book in academia.
Although in a very different domain in writing, this story suggests that Sacks’ obsessive approach and boundless energy extended beyond writing in particular.
Note: Credit to Basil Halperin for pointing out Sanderson to me as worthy of inclusion in this post.
Brandon Sanderson is (one of my favorite) fantasy authors. In sharp contrast to Patrick Rothfuss and George R. R. Martin, Sanderson is famous for delivering books on time despite setting aggressive deadlines. According to one appropriately titled article, Sanderson was, as of 2015, publishing nearly 370,000 words per year. Or, for point of comparison to the other authors in this post, using this helpful chart, we see that Sanderson published 28 books in 9 years, averaging 3 books per year. This is comparable to Danielle Steel but made more impressive by the fact that Sanderson’s books are long and involve complex webs of relationships and magic systems that span entire series.
Helpfully, Sanderson has a FAQ where he answers questions and the page about his writing habits further bolsters the case for Sanderson being an energetic alien. I’m just going to inline basically the entire post, since it’s all pretty relevant:
What Is Your Daily Wordcount/Time Goal? I write every day, and I give myself wordcount goals. (Usually, it’s 2k min, or a certain page goal if revising). It varies though. 10 pages is often my goal. I usually hit it, and sometimes do much more. I write faster at the end of a book than the beginning. Also, some days I write for four or five hours–some days I write fourteen or sixteen. Pretty consistently, I’ve done around 300k words a year for the last few years. Last year I pushed very hard and got around 400k.
I try to keep distractions to a minimum. I write at night, so there’s less noise. I also set aside one day a week for business matters: answering emails, signing things for my store, phone calls with my agent, etc. I’m lucky enough to have assistants I can trust. I don’t have to get distracted by day to day interruptions because I know my assistants will deal with most of it, and only ask me about things that really need my input, and most of them can wait until my business day.
Do you ever take a break? It seems like you’re always doing something.
I went out to dinner with my wife for our anniversary last night. Does that count? The truth is, I love what I do. So if I have time when I’m not doing something else, I work on books.
What is your writing schedule like, and do you ever give yourself a day off?
Do I ever give myself a day off? Usually, if I give myself a day off, it’s because I’ve just been killing myself. Going and doing book signings and things like that.
I write to relax. That’s what I do for fun. If I go on vacation I usually want to go on vacation to get away from everyone so I can write. It’s just what I love to do. My writing schedule is usually … most writers write twenty-four hours a day, I write twenty-four hours a day. I go to the gym, I’m thinking about what’s happening with my next book. If I’m going to bed, I’m planning for the next day. When I get up, I check my e-mail, start writing.
Most days, usually, formally, I write from about noon until four, and then I’ll hang out with my family and do other stuff until about ten, and I’ll start writing from about ten until midnight. No from about ten until 4AM.
Extra credit to Sanderson for seemingly finding a way to integrate his maniacal work ethic into spending quality time with his family!
Basically a less well-known Asimov, Silverberg still deserves an honorable mention for his insane rate of book production, and for genre hopping from sci-fi to softcore pornography and back when circumstances called for it:
From 1956 to 1959, Silverberg routinely averaged five published stories a month, and he had over 80 stories published in 1958 alone.
In 1959, the market for science fiction collapsed, and Silverberg turned his ability to write copiously to other fields, from historical non-fiction to softcore pornography. “Bob Silverberg, a giant of science fiction… was doing two [books] a month for one publisher, another for a second publisher, and the equivalent of another book for a magazine… He was writing a quarter of a million words a month” under many different pseudonyms including about 200 erotic novels published as Don Elliott. In a 2000 interview, Silverberg explained that the erotic fiction (published under the pseudonym “Don Elliott”)
Silverberg continued to write rapidly—Algis Budrys repored in 1965 that he wrote and sold at least 50,000 words (“call it the equivalent of a commercial novel”) weekly—but the novels he wrote in this period are considered superior to his earlier work;
Ironically, this quote is discussing Grothendieck’s work ethic in the context of his eventual burnout.
“And so I had gotten this list from him, it was in my mail at nine o’clock in the morning, and I remember riding up in the elevator with Professor Olga Todd, who was one of my professors, and I said, Mrs. Todd, I think I’m going to have a theorem in two hours. I’m going to find a way to match these 16 with these 16. And well, I just had a hunch that it was possible, and sure enough, you know, staring at it a little bit, a little bit, I found a connection, and by noon I had a theorem that had solved many, many cases of this open problem about projective planes.
I showed it to Marshall Hall, and he said, well Don, this is your thesis. Write this up and get out of here. You know, you don’t have to wait and do, you know, do this other hard problem, just do this for your thesis. So I felt a little guilty of solving my Ph.D. thesis in two hours and so I had, you know, I spent another few months refining the result and adding on some related theory.”
“When the Balzac children returned home, they were kept at a frosty distance from their parents, which affected the author-to-be significantly. His 1835 novel Le Lys dans la vallée features a cruel governess named Miss Caroline, modeled after his own caregiver.”
– Excerpt from Honore de Balzac
Caveat: Musk himself claims that Vance’s book was not always carefully fact-checked