Qi Time

One of the most astonishing stories of grit and agency that come to mind is the story of Qi Lu. Qi grew up in a remote village in China to become an Executive Vice President at Microsoft. His secret is he managed to optimize his sleep from 8 hours a night to 4 hours. Here’s the story from Alex Banayan’s The Third Door:

Qi Lu grew up in a rural village outside of Shanghai, China, with no running water or electricity. The village was so poor that people suffered deformities from malnutrition. There were hundreds of kids, but only one schoolteacher. At age twenty-seven, Qi Lu was making the most money he’d ever earned—seven dollars a month. Fast-forward twenty years: he’s president of online services at Microsoft.

I almost shook my head in disbelief. Barely able to think of a coherent question, I just threw my hands up and asked, How did you do it?” Qi smiled humbly and said that when he was a kid he wanted to be a shipbuilder. He was too scrawny to pass the weight requirement, which forced him to focus on his studies. He got into Fudan University, a top college in Shanghai, where he majored in computer science—and it was there he had a realization that changed his life. He began thinking about time. Particularly, the amount of time he felt he wasted in bed. He was sleeping eight hours a night, but then he realized that one thing in life doesn’t change: whether you’re a rice farmer or the president of the United States, you only get twenty-four hours in a day. In some ways,” Qi said, you can say God is fair to everybody. The question is: Will you use God’s gift the best you possibly can?” He read about notable people in history who’d reengineered their sleep patterns and set out to create his own system. First he cut out one hour of sleep, then another, and another. At one point, he was down to a single hour a night. He forced himself awake with ice-cold showers, but he wasn’t able to sustain it. Eventually he found that the least sleep he could optimally function on was four hours a night. To this day, he hasn’t slept in since. The consistency is part of his secret. It’s like driving a car,” Qi told me. If you always drive at sixty-five miles per hour, it doesn’t wear and tear the car that much. But if you speed up and slam the brakes often, that wears the engine down.” Qi wakes up every morning at four o’clock, goes on a five-mile run, and is in the office by six. He eats small meals throughout the day of mostly fruits and vegetables, which he packs in containers. He works eighteen hours a day, six days a week. And Stefan Weitz had told me that the word around Microsoft was that Qi works twice as fast as everyone else. They call it Qi Time.” Qi Time seemed like a fanatical, even unhealthy lifestyle. But when I thought about it through the lens of Qi’s circumstances, I saw it less as a quirky experiment and more as a means of survival. Think about it. With so many brilliant college students in China, how else could Qi have found an edge to break through? If you cut 8 hours of sleep down to 4, then multiply the saved time by 365 days, that equals 1,460 extra hours—or 2 additional months of productivity per year. During his twenties, Qi spent the extra time he created writing research papers and reading more books, striving toward his biggest dream of studying in the United States. In China,” he said, if you wanted to go to the United States, you had to take two tests. The fees to take them were sixty dollars. My salary each month, I think, was equivalent to seven dollars.” That was eight months’ salary just to take the entrance exams. Qi didn’t lose hope, though, and all his hard work paid off on a Sunday night. He usually spent Sundays riding his bike to his village to visit his family, but it was pouring rain and the trip took hours, so Qi stayed in his dorm room. That evening, a friend came by to ask for help. A visiting professor from Carnegie Mellon University was about to give a lecture on model checking, but because of the rain, attendance was embarrassingly low. Qi agreed to help fill the seats, and during the lecture, he asked some questions. Afterward, the professor complimented Qi on the points he’d raised and wondered if he’d done any research on the topic. Qi hadn’t just done some research—he’d published five papers. That’s the power of Qi Time. It enabled him to be the most prepared person in the room. The professor asked to see the papers. Qi sprinted to his dorm room to fetch them. After the professor looked them over, he asked Qi if he’d be interested in studying in the United States. Qi explained his financial constraints and the professor said he would waive the sixty-dollar qualification tests. Qi applied, and months later, a letter arrived. Carnegie Mellon offered him a full scholarship. Every time I’d read about Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, or other examples of meteoric success, I wondered how much their achievements were a result of seemingly miraculous coincidences. If it hadn’t rained that Sunday night, Qi would have been home with his family, wouldn’t have met the professor, and none of this would have happened. At the same time, there was nothing coincidental about Qi having published those five research papers. I asked Qi about luck, and he said he believes it isn’t completely random. Luck is like a bus,” he told me. If you miss one, there’s always the next one. But if you’re not prepared, you won’t be able to jump on.”
February 5, 2024

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