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Elizabeth Holmes' morning routine and daily affirmations are bizarro and absurd — yet strangely human

Elizabeth Holmes.

  • Holmes, the founder of defunct blood-testing tech company Theranos, is on trial for fraud charges.
  • Among the submitted evidence was Holmes’ self-styled “morning routine” from 2005 to 2009.
  • It included a 4:00 a.m. wake-up and an hourlong window to “change, shower, shave, perfect.” 

The “morning routine” of rich, famous, and powerful people is a common and popular media trope. 

There’s a voyeuristic thrill in knowing what Oprah Winfrey eats for breakfast and which newspapers Warren Buffett favors. In the most extreme cases, the routines of eccentric billionaires, hard-driving tech CEOs, and celebrities are whimsical and over the top.

Mark Wahlberg, for example, rises before the sun, works out, golfs, and gets into a cryogenic chamber to recover — all before 9:30 a.m.

The latest morning routine arrived in my Twitter feed this week courtesy of US v. Elizabeth Holmes, et al. Holmes, the 37-year-old disgraced founder of the defunct blood-testing-technology company Theranos, is on trial for charges of wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud.

Among the submitted evidence was her self-styled “morning routine” from 2005 to 2009, when Theranos was a nascent startup. It included a 4:00 a.m. wake-up and an hourlong window starting at 5:20 to “change, shower, shave, perfect.”

The routine, combined with a list of affirmations Holmes scrawled, both on hotel stationery from the luxurious Singapore resort Raffles, read as a bizarro mix of militaristic precision, executive thrusting, and hippie-dippy California crunch. Her imposter syndrome is clear to see, which, on the one hand, makes her oddly relatable. On the other, her act is so excessive that it feels alien, even by Silicon Valley standards.

United States v. Elizabeth A. Holmes note

Much has been written on how Holmes modeled her leadership (and wardrobe) in the image of Apple founder Steve Jobs — ruthless, black-clad, and steely eyed. Her trial is being held up as what The New York Times calls, “a parable of the Valley’s hubris and ‘fake it till you make it’ culture taken to a dangerous extreme.”

Of course, as The Times notes, few startup founders who stretch the truth to raise money or secure multimillion-dollar deals are ever charged with fraud. 

During those years, according to the schedule, Holmes rose at 4 a.m. to “Thank God,” with a side note of, “Most things are not logical.” All told, she’d spend 40 minutes meditating, clearing her mind, and praying and 35 minutes working out before eating banana and whey for breakfast.

At 6:45, she drove to work. For lunch, she’d have a salad with tofu, tabbouleh, and a green drink — standard stuff as far as wacky tech-titan routines go.

On a separate piece of paper, we get more inside her head. Holmes scribbled a collection of personal aspirations that, according to The Verge, were the work of Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani, her ex-boyfriend and the company’s former president and chief operating officer.

Holmes testified in court that Balwani’s precepts dictated her behavior, which is a key element of her defense

United States v. Elizabeth A. Holmes note

At first glance, the list is a combination of management mantras and new-agey self-help affirmations that read like some perverse version of a satirical Stuart Smalley mash-up. Yet there’s also something relatable about Holmes’ notes to herself. 

Some highlights are: “I am not impulsive.” “I do not react.” “I constantly make decisions and change them as needed.” “I give immediate feedback, non-emotionally.” “I call bullshit immediately.” “I am fully present.” 

It’s as though she hoped that in writing down how she wanted to be perceived, she could allay her insecurities and magically become someone more self-assured, calm, and poised than she really was.

I’m no Holmes apologist or sympathizer, but I can kind of understand where she’s coming from. Sometimes, I wish I could, through sheer force of will, transform my personality into a tougher version of myself at work.

Frankly, as the mother of a teenager and tweenager — whom I adore, but, oh, do they push my buttons — I could do worse than following Holmes’ reminders. “I am not impulsive.” “I do not react.” “I am fully present.” Repeat as needed. As parenting advice goes, it’s not half bad. 

The irony, of course, is that Holmes suffered from imposter syndrome because she was an imposter. Green juice and meditation notwithstanding, she felt like a sham because she was one.

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