Sleep Well//

Brave New World: How Sleep Has Helped Me Find My Courage

Throughout Shelly Ibach’s life, sleep has helped her tackle big challenges.

JGI/Jamie Grill/ Getty Images
JGI/Jamie Grill/ Getty Images

You know those people who seem to push the limits by racing cars, flying hot air balloons or taking on seemingly insurmountable challenges? That’s me — I’m pretty fearless. I’ve always regarded courage as a prerequisite to a joyful and meaningful life — whether it’s the courage to take risks, overcome difficulties, or be my authentic self. And the simplest way to access our natural strength and fortitude is through consistent, quality sleep.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to evolve, you may sometimes wake up feeling overwhelmed and worried about the day ahead. However, if you establish a good nighttime routine with the recommended seven to nine hours of quality sleep a night, you are far more likely to start your day feeling resilient and strong. In fact, there’s a direct correlation between courage and quality sleep, because in order to be brave we need to be well-rested. And at this time in particular, it is so valuable for us all to be courageous in both our professional and personal lives. Courage gives us the ability to celebrate who we are as individuals, without imposing limitations on ourselves or letting others dictate how we should live.  

“Courage is at a premium right now,” says Dr. Chris Winter, M.D., Director of the Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine Center and author of The Sleep Solution. “Without proper sleep,” says Dr. Winter, “we are more impatient, and just want the challenge ‘dealt with and over.’” Being courageous often requires that we stay the course. “However, we are more likely to succumb to frustrations or feelings of helplessness or despair when we are sleep-deprived.”

When my childhood was fractured, I had to dig deep

Quality sleep will always support us when we have to dig deep to find our inner strength; this is as true for children as it is for adults. I didn’t know about the critical importance of sleep when I was growing up, but I did discover a lot about courage. In fact, courage has been the red thread running through my life. My own personal story of courage dates back to my early teens. It was a defining time for me. My secure midwestern childhood was fractured with a double diagnosis of scoliosis and another spinal disorder called kyphosis — my spine was curved 68 degrees, which meant I needed to wear a body brace that went from the middle of the back of my head all the way down to my thighs. The news came at the same time that my family moved to a new town, Albert Lea, Minnesota.

The “Milwaukee brace” was awkward and invasive and I had to wear it 23-and-a-half hours a day. Naturally, heading into ninth grade at a new school was difficult. To my surprise, I was shunned. Kids would line up in the hallway and make fun of me. It’s hard to describe how isolated I felt, but I discovered I had powerful inner resources. I think I survived those tough times by tapping into an innate sense of courage, understanding that what counted was who I was as a person, not what I looked like with the brace. I ended up bonding with a small group of good friends who didn’t seem to “see” my brace.

Outside the classroom, I refused to let my condition stop me from doing everything I loved. Even with the brace, I played in the marching band and rode my dirt bike with my brother. I remember wiping out and he simply helped me get back up and on we went. ​The lesson that emerged for me was the importance of rising above challenges and having the courage to be who you are. Courage is vital for all teenagers so they can authentically be themselves — and it’s wonderful when they realize how quality sleep can help them to do that. (Today, it’s become cool to be well-rested!)

I learned to rise above my circumstances

Soon after our move to Albert Lea, there was another blow: My parents divorced, ​which left me in the position of being more or less on my own as a 16-year-old.​ With little home stability, I created my own structure by joining a school program called DECA​ (Distributive Education Clubs of America), which helps to prepare future leaders. We competed with other districts on various business initiatives and I ended up winning first place at the state level — a great thrill — which resulted in a trip to California for the national competition. 

I vividly remember returning home on a bus with a four-foot-high trophy. All the other kids were met by their parents, but no one was there to pick me up. Disappointed, I walked back to the house with my trophy and placed it in the closet. Like all kids, I wanted my parents to be proud of me and of course it was painful not to be able to share this special moment. Again, courage sustained me. Through my trials and tribulations, I learned how to rise above my circumstances and find a path forward. (Serendipitously, I later gave my college’s commencement speech on the subject of courage.) 

After college, embarking on my career, I ​still had little knowledge about the crucial importance of sleep and how essential it is for our physical and mental well-being.​ I personally thought any sleep beyond what you could get by with was a waste of precious time. ​I was the archetypal executive going to bed far too late and getting up far too early, at 4:30 a.m. That changed when I went to Sleep Number.

As a new CEO, I needed to make some tough decisions

I joined Sleep Number in 2007, a mission-driven company with an innovative mattress. I learned about sleep science and how the rest you get at night has a direct impact on everything you do during the day. I ​became a passionate sleep advocate. In 2012, as the new CEO, I needed to make some tough — and certainly courageous — decisions, as it was clear we had to make significant investments to broaden our relevance and ensure sustainable profitable growth. 

I deployed a consumer innovation strategy and transformed every aspect of our company: our technology, retail stores, digital, supply chain, and brand, to support revolutionary sleep innovations. In 2018, we transitioned to all smart beds, delivering proven quality sleep. And those beds have been life-changing for millions of individuals. We disrupted America’s $30 billion dollar mattress industry by making radical changes and developing an entirely new sleep tech category with our 360 smart beds. And along the way, a wonderful thing occurred: Our team, culture, values, strategy, and mission became deeply intertwined. We organically became a company with purpose, committed to improving society’s health and well-being through higher quality sleep. Our collective courage as a company meant we were more broadly relevant to our customers and highly committed to our newfound purpose.

When I lost my husband, sleep restored my strength 

During the company transformation, however, my courage was once again tested with the loss of my husband, George. George was courageous and adventurous — and he loved sleep. He would always say: “Sleep’s the greatest gift there ever was.” Early in our marriage, before my time at Sleep Number, I did not understand that, as I felt like sleep was a waste of time. Little did I know, perhaps this was foreshadowing my future. When George passed away after a grueling battle with leukemia three-and-a-half years ago, it was sleep that restored me and helped me to heal. It was sleep (and faith) that allowed me to hold on to my courage. Sleep provided me with a great gift.

This past year, leading and guiding our company through these immensely challenging times has again meant accessing courage.​ In the early days of the pandemic, when people needed quality sleep, we were confronted with the necessity of navigating new obstacles. Our teams worked with agility and creativity to find new ways to connect with our customers and safely deliver smart beds to people’s homes. We all leaned into our company values, including courage, to get through those times, ensuring our smart beds remained accessible, and our company was sustained. We focused on keeping our customers and team members safe, caring about the welfare and well-being of every individual. At Sleep Number we are all focused on quality sleep and celebrate our SleepIQ® scores every day, which I believe fortifies us. My team inspires me and gives me courage — we are there for one another. 

Sleep and courage go hand in hand 

As we continue to navigate the numerous ongoing crises, there is a greater global emphasis on the critical importance of sleep — a wonderful development emerging from a time of great challenge and loss. Sleep helps you stay present in the moment. The calm and stability resulting from a good night of quality sleep go hand in hand with courage, helping us to lean into adversity. We all need sleep to remain steady and courageous, especially now.

I was asked recently: Can a bed actually help you to access your courage and strength? My response: a resounding yes! A​ smart b​ed can do exactly that. Our 360 smart beds are life-changing. You wake up feeling refreshed, with a healthy mind, body, and soul, and the ability to be your best. With quality sleep, you are more emotionally balanced and have the mental and physical strength to take on challenges or lean into adversity. I highly recommend prioritizing your sleep and making sure your bed gives you the comfort and support you need for a restful night of sleep and more courageous days.  

Quality sleep, in short, can help us shift our attitude so we have a more positive mindset. It plays a key role in our daily recovery so we can tackle anything. It can give us the tools we need to thrive and tap into our own natural courage — a resource we need now more than ever.   

Sleep well, dream big, Shelly

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