Why are we so obsessed with morning routines, productivity rituals, and the daily to-dos of famous and successful people? There seems to be this pervading myth that if we set up our days like Steve Jobs, we can be as successful as Steve Jobs.
This is clearly cuckoo.
If I were to adopt a Jobsian routine of waking up at 6:00am and donning jeans and a black turtleneck, I’d be about as close to founding the next Apple as I am now. That is to say, really, really far away.
There is no “right way” to start your day, just like there’s no “right way” to run a business. And to prove it, let’s learn about the diverse ways that some of history’s most well-known and legendary figures got started with their first meal of the day.
Unlike certain members of the French aristocracy, Napoleon was actually not much of a gourmand. He liked to keep things simple. Breakfasts at Fontainebleu consisted of boiled or poached eggs, chicken dressed with oil and onions, and lentils or beans. He finished his repast with a strong cup of coffee.
Arranging the family breakfast was Jane Austen’s primary piece of housework in her home with her mother and sister, Cassandra. This meal usually consisted of sweet pound cake, toast, and tea.
A far cry from the later Full English breakfast, which includes bacon, fried egg, sausage, mushrooms, baked beans, fried bread, grilled tomatoes, and accompanied with tea or coffee.
Walt Whitman started his day with protein power. A breakfast of oysters and rare red meat is what got him through long days of novel and poetry writing.
Oysters for breakfast. Not for me, thanks.
After expressing some less-than-flattering views about Napoleon III in the early 1850s, Victor Hugo was exiled from France and found refuge on the island of Guernsey, between France and England.
Life away from Paris helped him to get into a routine of his own. He would wake with the sun, swallow two raw eggs and a cold cup of coffee, and then set to work in his glass-wrapped lookout on the roof of his home. I’ll take the lookout but pass on the raw eggs.
We’re not sure if Beethoven ate much for breakfast. But he was particularly fastidious about his coffee, counting out exactly 60 beans to make the perfect cup.
The great queen was quite the foodie. She and Marc Antony enjoyed feasts of wild game, stuffed pigeon, and cakes drizzled in honey. For breakfast, she would have enjoyed wheat soaked in wine or bread made from barley, along with figs and olives. Very Mediterranean.
Proust wrote at night and rested during the day, so his “breakfast” didn’t come until late afternoon. His maid brought him a pot of strong black coffee, boiled milk, and a croissant. He mixed his own café au lait, and dipped the croissant into it before eating. If he were feeling saucy, he’d sometimes indulge in a second croissant.
Often, this was all the sustenance he would consume in a day. Unsurprisingly, he was not terribly healthy and died at just 51.
Honoré de Balzac
Whatever the state of your coffee addiction, you have nothing—absolutely nothing—on Balzac. This caffeine fiend drank up to 50 cups of black coffee each day. My tummy hurts just thinking about it.
A life of hedonism and overconsumption is certainly not required to be an artist. Neither is one of strict restraint and near starvation.
Georgia O’Keeffe proved that a healthy diet is not incompatible with the life of an artist or creator. She ate abundantly from the vegetable garden and fruit trees surrounding her New Mexico home. For breakfast, she would enjoy fresh soft-boiled eggs, bread with a savory jam, fresh fruit, and coffee or tea.
Churchill is famous for his indulgences—food, liquor, and cigars. Breakfast would be consumed in bed, consisting of sausages and bacon, eggs and toast, orange juice and coffee. He’d also often have a whiskey soda or a glass of hock, a dry white wine. After this rich, filling, and tippling meal, he’d have his first cigar of the day.
Throughout the morning, he’d continue to drink Johnnie Walker and water. So yes, he was probably sauced while leading England through World War II.
This British Prime Minister was about as different from Churchill in her habits as one could be. She kept her morning meal light, with one or two boiled eggs, half a grapefruit, and a cup of coffee.
For a bit of fun reading, check out the most sexist article I’ve ever had the misfortune to come across—an interview with Mrs. Thatcher just before her election in 1979. Naturally, it’s all about her weight and skincare routine. It includes the sentence, “Yet who would want a dowdy female fatty for Prime Minister?” Charming.
Mark Twain was partial to hot biscuits, hot coffee with cream, buckwheat cakes, maple syrup, and Virginia bacon. We know this because while traveling in Europe, he wrote a long list of all the foods he planned to devour when he got back to America, finding European fare insipid.
One thing he did find to enjoy, though, was the European cocktail, which he added to his daily breakfast. In a letter to his wife in 1874, he wrote:
Livy my darling, I want you to be sure and remember to have, in the bathroom when I arrive, a bottle of Scotch Whiskey, a lemon, some crushed sugar, and a bottle of Angostura bitters. Ever since I have been in London I have taken in a wine glass what is called a cock-tail (made with those ingredients) before breakfast, before dinner, and just before going to bed.
Hunter S. Thompson
The legendary gonzo journalist had a predictably hedonistic first meal of the day. But since it was rarely before noon, it’s hard to say if it can be called breakfast.
In his own words:
The food factor should always be massive: four Bloody Marys, two grapefruits, a pot of coffee, Rangoon crêpes, a half-pound of either sausage, bacon, or corned-beef hash with diced chilies, a Spanish omelette or eggs Benedict, a quart of milk, a chopped lemon for random seasoning, and something like a slice of key lime pie, two margaritas and six lines of the best cocaine for dessert…
Right, and there should also be two or three newspapers, all mail and messages, a telephone, a notebook for planning the next twenty-four hours, and at least one source of good music… all of which should be dealt with outside, in the warmth of a hot sun, and preferably stone naked.
I’ll take my half-pound of meat and breakfast pie without the cocaine, thanks.
Harry S. Truman
U.S. President Harry S. Truman had a breakfast of toast, eggs, bacon, and milk. But before all that, he had a 5:00am shot of Old Grand-Dad bourbon, which he claimed “got the engine running.”
It’s amazing how many world-altering decisions have probably been made by less-than-sober people.