During George Burke’s tenure as co-founder of the bitcoin startup FreshPay, a steady accumulation of sedentary work days and long hours rendered him, as he relays it, “fat.”
Thanks to angel tech investor and fitness personality Tim Ferriss, Burke realized he should closely monitor fundamental daily habits — eating, drinking water, working out — in the name of self-improvement.
Burke now claims to enjoy heightened mental clarity and a diet that promotes fat-burning throughout the day, which enables him to better tackle the thing that matters most: work. “I’m able to be a little more clear-headed, focused, and connected to the work that I do,” Burke said.
He now runs a group in San Francisco called SF Peak Performance, which consists of “Type-A people” including “Silicon Valley execs who are looking to gain an advantage,” he said. Among its array of topics: “work optimization,” “fitness technology,” and “biohacking.”
The group is growing, and it’s hardly a wonder. It symbolizes a recent phenomenon: the overlap between the tech industry and bodybuilding culture, united by an obsessive desire to be excellent.
Techies are neurotically competitive. Performance obsession permeates every fiber of Silicon Valley, which its denizens worship as the nation’s highest meritocracy. The key to being as rich as Mark Zuckerberg or as admired as Elon Musk? Discipline. “It’s literally a culture of peak performance,” said Kayla Matheus, a startup founder and one of Burke’s co-organizers. “If you’re someone who’s working at a startup, and there’s competitors, how do you get that extra edge, that extra advantage?”
When Tim Ferriss’s book The 4-Hour Work Week emerged in 2007, Silicon Valley was the bastion of his fandom. Ferriss, whose career originated in technology sales, quickly established a cult of personality around himself through masterful internet marketing. “My blog is on the blogroll of some of the top tech CEOs in the world,” he bragged to Fast Company at the time.
“It’s literally a culture of peak performance.”
It was no surprise that the tech audience was just as enthralled by his second book, The 4-Hour Body, released in 2010. In it, Ferriss posited that the human body was just as manipulable as a computer. “The 4-Hour Body is the result of an obsessive quest, spanning more than a decade, to hack the human body,” according to his blog.
Ferriss’s schtick evokes the nebbishy high schooler doing push-ups in their bedroom, but the appeal of bodybuilding transcends the desire to bulk up. Bodybuilders thrive on self-denial, just as members of the tech industry prize long work hours and feats of sleeplessness. “Everything about bodybuilding is hardcore,” as one bodybuilding blogger put it. The startup mantra “Stay hungry, stay foolish” harks back to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s quote: “For me, life is continuously being hungry. The meaning of life is not simply to exist, to survive, but to move ahead, to go up, to achieve, to conquer.”
Enterprising tech types have been late adopters of decades-long bodybuilding tropes. Take supplements, for example. Creatine, which is believed to enhance brain function and augment muscle strength and size, rose to popularity in the early ’90s thanks to lifters. In the past few years, the consumption and sale of supplements, now packaged as nootropics that allegedly enhance mental acuity as well as physical well-being, enraptured the Valley. Companies like Nootrobox, funded by the tech venture-capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, and Nootroo, purveyor of capsules containing compounds with names like PURENERGY, now peddle L-theanine, Bacopa monnieri, and other substances to overworked engineers.
Limited Labs, a company that sells nootropics and “neurotransmitter boosters,” appeals to both “business professionals and athletes,” said founder Joey Savage. “There’s considerable overlap because people have sometimes high-performance recreational activities while they have a high-performance work style as well,” he said. “Those people that are really go-getters — that’s what we’re in it for.”
Both the tech and builder subcultures are also attracted to strict dietary habits. Bodybuilding blogs and forums are full of suggestions for stabilizing insulin levels, maximizing protein synthesis, and maintaining strict percentages of carbohydrates, protein, and fat. “I simply don’t have to worry about eating,” said Ryan Munsey, who serves under the title of chief optimizer for “open-source” supplement startup Natural Stacks. “I don’t have to stop. I don’t have to pause what I’m doing. Only eating once a day allows me more time to do the other things that are on my to-do list.” Meanwhile, Silicon Valley-ites who aren’t on an intermittent fasting kick with variations like the “Warrior Diet” and “Monk Fast” are chugging Soylent, the supposedly nutrient-complete beige slop of the future. While Soylent is arguably simply a new face on an old concept — the protein shake — it has now started to pique the curiosity of a number of bodybuilders, who discuss its nutritional merits and share Soylent-centric diet programs they’ve crafted.
“Did I skip breakfast? Yes, I did. I have an app that goes through, like, 30 of those things that I try to stick to every day.”
Of course, all this activity must be quantified. Just as tech types are transfixed by APIs, MAUs, and MVPs, bodybuilders live by acronyms, jargon, and metrics. Browse a bodybuilding forum such as Bodybuilding.com, MuscleTalk, or The Iron Den, and you’ll notice that many posts start with the same recitation of stats for the author — weight, height, percentage body fat. Lifters fixate on numerics: calories, minutes spent working out, number of reps. A typical post: “My plan is 2000 calories daily, lifting weights 5-6 times per week (that’s the easy part), 30 min stationary bike 5-6 times per week (mornings). I like to create a 500 calorie deficit daily with food, and another 300-500 daily with working out. That’s about 1.5 - 2 lbs per week.”
In particularly zealous circles, both bodybuilders and tech figures rely on medical technology to monitor their physiological changes. Exercise physiologist and bodybuilder Scott Stevenson lauds DXA (dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry), technology traditionally used to determine bone density, as a means of body-fat measurement. He also mentions a fellow bodybuilding coach who evaluates training recovery status with a Heart Rate Variability (HRV) monitor. Dave Asprey, CEO of coffee and supplement company Bulletproof, encourages his executives to use HRV before meetings to extricate themselves from fight-or-flight mode; he told Quartz this enhances cooperation and creativity. “When you’re in control of your biology, you’re in control of your mind and you can make better decisions,” he said.
Natural Stacks uses similar technology to gauge the effectiveness of its patented nootropic CILTEP (chemically induced long-term potentiation). “I’ve actually had my brain hooked up to a qEEG [quantitative electroencephalograph, a type of “brain-mapping” machine] and measured the change in my brain waves when taking CILTEP,” said Munsey. “We’ve actually measured the difference on qEEG with and without CILTEP, and with CILTEP, I feel more focused, I feel more motivated to do things, and the qEEG readings actually support that.”
“I feel more focused, I feel more motivated to do things, and the qEEG readings actually support that.”
To ensure adherence to his low-carb paradigms, Burke relies on apps. Using the argot of his community, he termed it “quantified feedback,” citing a quote familiar to Ferriss enthusiasts: “What gets measured gets monitored.”
“I have a number of apps that I use to track a lot of things I do throughout the day. Water, food, my activities,” he said. “Did I skip breakfast? Yes, I did. I have an app that goes through, like, 30 of those things that I try to stick to every day.”
Considering the mentalities that underlie both subcultures, the notion that the intensity of bodybuilding has met the tech workplace isn’t surprising.
Bodybuilders deem themselves the “warriors” of the gym. “We have a warriors archetype. One of my archetypes that seems to fuel me is that I really like going to the gym and saying, ‘It’s time to go to battle. It’s time to go to war. This is going to be awesome,’” said Stevenson.
This language and ethos pervade the tech-professional class, a group that lionizes sacrifice for the sake of crushing goals. In addition to “driven athletes” and “gym rats,” Limited Labs markets its drink to “office warriors,” evoking not only the “Warrior Diet” above, but also the language of startup job postings that seek “marketing ninjas” and “sales rock stars.” Work, the center of a tech professional’s life, is branded as a cool challenge, a worthy, strength-affirming cause.
“I really like going to the gym and saying, ‘It’s time to go to battle. It’s time to go to war. This is going to be awesome.’”
With the rise of Tim Ferriss and startups like Nootrobox, Natural Stacks, and Soylent, it’s no longer clear where the line is between techies and bodyhackers. The aforementioned Quartz article about “tech bros” experimenting with biohacking cites Nootrobox and Bulletproof Coffee, which market to startup staffs but aren’t tech companies themselves. Meanwhile, tech blogs are reviewing fitness trackers, the founder of Airbnb was, aptly, a former bodybuilder, and Arnold Schwarzenegger is an investor in Google. Gone is the nerd-jock dichotomy of yore; it seems the two aren’t so different, after all.
Julianne Tveten writes about the tech industry and social issues.