When Necessities Become Luxuries


I have a good friend who went to West Point. I enjoy hearing his stories of his plebe (first) year. It was a little tougher than my freshman year of college.

Life is hard for a West Point plebe. They’re at the very bottom of the social structure, and the workload is incredibly demanding – both mentally and physically. There are even whispers of upperclassmen hassling plebes from time to time. It’s a year of discipline, stress, and struggle.

My friend summarized the overall theme of his first year at West Point:

They take away basic rights and necessities and give them back as privileges.

Things like radio, TV, phone, and free time all became rare privileges. I believe he was allowed to have 3 personal items on his desk, and I’m sure there was a harsh punishment for the 4th.

Sounds like a hoot. But he got a great, free education, and the further he gets from his plebe year, the more fun it seems.

The good news is that outside of purposefully controlled environments like West Point, many of us live in a world of such abundance that such hardships are unknown.

In fact, it’s to the contrary. What might have once seemed incredible luxuries have now become basic necessities. From food, to technology, to our living arrangements, we demand indulgences that would shock folks of previous generations or more modest means. Three cheers for consumerism!

However, there is one basic need, far more important than our gourmet pizzas, our iPhones (as if!), or our 1,000 thread count sheets, that we’ve decided to treat a little differently.

In the best spirit of West Point, we’ve taken one necessity and turned it into a total luxury. We all had plenty of it when young, but many of us haven’t tasted this indulgence for years and may die without truly experiencing it again.

My Super Easy Total Body Makeover

A few years ago, when I finally quit the Man, I met up with a former colleague after about a month off. He did a massive double-take when he saw me and said, “Whoa. You look like a new man. Have you been working out or something?”

I thought for a moment and couldn’t figure out what was different. I had relaxed a lot, and caught up on things and the house, but I wasn’t getting shredded at the gym or anything.

Then it hit me. I was finally getting enough sleep at night. That alone apparently made me look much younger, healthier, and happier. While I was glad for what was apparently an obvious improvement, it was scary I’d ignored something so basic for so long.

My old job kinda sucked, and by “kinda” I mean “absolutely”. I managed a demanding, thankless function with global responsibilities. I’d work late into the evening, and stress would keep me from falling asleep. I’d often wake up in a panic in the middle of the night and check my Blackberry (ah, the good ol’ days) to make sure I had new European or Asian crises to look forward to.

On weekends, I’d often be able to “sleep in” until 7am (yay parenthood), but that was it for catchup. Not getting enough sleep went on for years, and I’m lucky I didn’t have serious health problems as a result.

Sleep Is a Luxury. So Is Being Alive.

Sleep’s pretty high on the list of necessities. I rank it behind air and water, but neck-and-neck with food. Our attitude towards it is definitely different, though. If someone decided to hold their breath, or skip water, or go on a hunger strike, we’d think them crazy, but depriving yourself of sleep is not only accepted but often viewed as normal.

The RAND Corporation did a study that showed how sleep deprivation is costing money, health, and even lives. They estimated the U.S. alone is losing up to $411 billion a year due to lack of sleep, and found that someone who sleeps less than six hours a night has a 13% higher chance of dying than someone who sleeps between seven and nine hours (the silver lining is that once you die you can really catch up on your zzz’s).

I imagine most people are trading sleep for work. Work is great because it allows you to buy more stuff, but your health and your life are actually more important than your stuff.

It probably took me a couple of years to fully pay off my “sleep debt”. I still scratch my head that I was putting my health at such serious risk for work I didn’t even like. If you think you might be sleep deprived, definitely check this test for signs you are.

While I still get a giggle about the arbitrary sacrifices of West Point plebes, there was always an end in sight for them. Things got better the next year, and many of life’s necessities were returned to them. Turning necessities into privileges was a temporary gig to build character or something.

There is no end in sight for those who have decided to change getting enough sleep from a necessity to an optional luxury. No one would consciously trade health or life for work, but when you trade sleep for work, that may be exactly what you’re doing.

So let this be the wake-up call (or the opposite of wake-up call – maybe a go-to-sleep call?) to make sure you’re getting enough sleep. Your life depends on it!


Picture courtesy of Mabuya



5 thoughts on “When Necessities Become Luxuries”

  1. Great read, thanks for the reminder.

    What’s scary to me is how “normal” being exhausted all the time can feel, and how quickly we forget what it’s like to actually feel rested.

    I’ve noticed I can get by on 5-6 hours a night for a while, thinking I’m fine. But if I get a few days of good sleep then try that stunt again, I feel terrible all day. It makes you realize how easy you can slip into exhaustion without realizing it.

    And with that, I’m going to put down the phone and get some sleep!

    1. You’re exactly right – the body can adjust to almost anything we hand it, but that doesn’t mean it likes it. That terrible feeling is trying to tell us something, but if we force it our body just sucks it up and says, “Here we go again.” A luxury indeed!

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  3. Sleep is something that I’ve been really good about getting since I graduated college. I try to get 8 hours every night and more if possible. When I go on vacation I always try to stretch it out to 9 or 10 as it’s so wonderful being able to maximize my sleep and feel really good all day 🙂

    1. You’re wiser than most! It does take a focused effort to make sure you get enough, but as you note it pays big dividends.

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