How to Thrive at 5 AM

Why the early bird really does get the worm.

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Anyone who is a fan of personal development and successful people knows that many of the world’s super-achievers are early risers. This highly productive group includes notable individuals such as Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, Ellevest CEO Sallie Krawcheck, and Apple CEO Tim Cook just to name a few. Aphorisms like “the early bird gets the worm,” and “early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise” are ubiquitous in most societies and cultures in one form or another.

As a cardiovascular surgeon who was on call for many years for surgical emergencies, I was formally trained to understand that normal working hours is a belief system generally accepted by people in most lines of work but for no good reason. Also, as the son of an obstetrician, I learned at a very early age that babies come into this world at all hours of the day and night, oftentimes with minimal warning. If one is to succeed in such a profession, one must make peace with the fact that he or she will spend innumerable over-night periods in their life working, while most others will be sound asleep in their beds.

When I was in high school, my older sister Lily went off to New York University to study. She and I were very close in those formative years, and we would talk on the phone frequently. Five years my senior, and on the pre-law track, she would advise me on how to prepare for college as she gained the first-hand experience in the academic big leagues. One evening, during one of our big-sister/little-brother chats, Lily shared the following adage with me: “He who shall thrive must rise at five, while he who has thriven may rise at seven.” 

She was pointing out the importance of getting up early, working hard, and getting a jump on the competition. This highly valuable little rhyme has always stuck with me from that day on. It has continued to inspire me to get the most out of every day that I am given. Time is our most precious commodity; why not use it to your advantage? To this day, people ask me, “John, you are a successful surgeon, an entrepreneur, and an author, how do you do it all?” The simple answer is, I get up early and don’t waste my valuable time. Anyone can do what I do. But, don’t ask me about what’s happening on Game of Thrones because I don’t know and I don’t care.

Some years ago, I was thinking of the powerful dictum my sister had shared with me and decided to see if I could find its source. I found the proverb in The Nursery Rhyme Book, edited by Andrew Lang in 1897. The original poem is as follows:

He that would thrive 

Must rise at five;

He that hath thriven

May lie till seven;

And he that by the plow would thrive,

Himself must either hold or drive.

The last two lines were like a found treasure for me. They reinforced the idea that not only should one get up early in the morning, but of equal importance, one should take responsibility for one’s work, efforts, and results. This has been the cornerstone of my success – long days and hard work. 

I know that there are a lot of individuals in the success and personal development space now selling seductive short-cuts and hacks like “four-hour work weeks” and making millions from a tropical island with your toes in the sand and a drink in your hand. Curiously, I haven’t figured that out yet, nor would I want to. My chosen ambition is to provide excellent services and products to as many people as I can. I enjoy the process of accomplishment just as much, if not more than, the results. 

If you’re looking to “sleep in” and work little, my advice and examples will be of very little use to you. That said, I have had many mentors and colleagues who used the early to rise and continuous work model to their great advantage. I wish you the best of luck whichever route you elect to pursue on your journey to happiness and achievement.

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