Startup Doping

Startups have a lot in common with professional sports: competition is fierce, intense focus is a requirement, and sometimes one can get ahead with performance enhancing drugs. Just ask Lance Armstrong.

A lot of space is spent on this blog observing the habits of cokeheads. This time I’m not talking about what fuels the Eyes Wide Shut toga parties of Silicon Valley dealmakers. The utility of the white horse amongst the investor class is well documented.

This is about the drugs developers are on. After all, cocaine isn’t really useful for those trying to get work done. Marty Scorsese learned that in the ’80s. Instead, a lot of startup entrepreneurs are using drugs such as Adderall or Provigil to stay focused and productive for long stretches.

Although Provigil was developed for sleep disorders including narcolepsy and sleep apnea, I’ve heard of people who have used it for “clarity of thought” instead. Some are doing Provigil to get more “in the zone” for long stretches of programming. In fact, the most popular off-label use for Provigil is to eliminate the need for sleep.

It certainly sounds intriguing to have 12 unbroken hours of clear concentration. However, does this really give you any kind of advantage when you need to work on your product for months before launch? So you had a good day of zen-like focus. Congratulations, the next sprint has a full product backlog. In fact, many issues blocking you or your startup from success have little to do with how many hours you work.

I know people who have been prescribed Provigil for ADHD and report it’s a life-changer. For some, Provigil is far more effective than other drugs and has very few side effects. It definitely has a legitimate use.

Another favorite drug of startup culture is Adderall. Naturally, a drug whose off-label use is for focus and concentration when studying would find its way into start-ups to fuel coding marathon sessions. Observing as a third-party, Adderall seems to increase focus–but that doesn’t mean you will focus on the right thing. You might spend 10 hours counting every fiber in your carpet instead of re-writing your PHP back-end to node.js. If you have problems seeing the forest from the trees, being hopped up on amphetamines will make it hard to see the leaves from the branches.

Adderall messes with the brain’s reward centers to achieve its effects. What makes Provigil work is a mystery. What are the long-term effects of using these drugs? Provigil in particular hasn’t been around long enough to know. Sure, you might fix a few showstopper bugs and shave a week off of your release schedule. You’ll feel pretty stupid when we discover years from now that you dissolved your liver in the process.

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5 thoughts on “Startup Doping

  1. Hey nice article.

    I don’t use any of the drugs, but linking to an article called “Brain Reward System in Substance Abuse” and saying that Provigil messes with that is, to my knowledge, completely erroneous and wrong.

    If so then shame on you for letting personal feelings come in the way of the truth. The most current paper I can find says that the precise mechanism by which Modafinil works is unclear: http://www.dovepress.com/mechanisms-of-modafinil-a-review-of-current-research-peer-reviewed-article-NDT

    Please prove my wrong and provide proof to the contrary, or explain your medical/neurological expertise.

    Regards,

    Jon

    • I have no medical expertise. That’s a pretty good link you sent. I should probably clarify that the link I used refers to amphetamines, not Provigil. Provigil seems to be the ‘safest’ option–and as I said, I know people that have had very positive experiences with it (when using it for its prescribed purpose)

  2. Jon, the mechanism for Modafinil is very well known. Modafinil causes an increase in histamine release in the anterior hypothalamus and pedunculopontine tegmental nucleus. The effect of modafinil are known to be synergistic with H3 histamine receptor agonists and are blocked by histamine receptor antagonists .

    Modafinil does not act directly upon dopamine receptors but increases activation of the prefrontal cortex indirectly and therefore does not have potential for abuse by recreational drug users. In research studies, ex-meth users have complained that they were unable to obtain a “high” by insufflating modafinil. Modafinil is therefore thought to have an extremely low recreational abuse potential.

    Modafinil has no known liver toxicity. However, other drugs such as alcohol are known to be metabolized into chemicals such as acetaldehyde which are known to cause liver damage.

    Modafinil is extremely safe and is one of the most widely used performance enhancing drugs used by medical students.

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