On an overnight flight from Los Angeles, I was looking around at passengers and their pathetic attempts to sleep. Mouths were hanging open. Heads were bobbing up and down, left and right. Snores were everywhere. No one was truly comfortable.
People would vaguely wake up from a thin sleep about every 15 minutes and try to get comfortable again. They would stuff clothes under their necks.
Many people had these U-shaped foam pillows designed for airplanes, but those don’t really work. Kelly Conaboy, in a hilarious article for The Atlantic, nails it perfectly:
Is there a pillow as useless as the U-shaped travel neck pillow? There is not. This half-ovate, toilet-seat cover-esque object reigns as King of Travel Accessories, while failing miserably at its intended sole use.
Rage against the U-shape all you want, but it seems like nothing else works either.
Ah, but on this flight, I, on the other hand, was as happy as I could be. I was using my new Trtl pillow that I snagged from Amazon for $30. This thing is amazing. It solves the problem. It is so compelling that if I could put it on you right now, wherever you are, you would immediately feel sleepy.
Maybe it is purely physical, or maybe it is psychological. Whatever the reason, this crazy gizmo has solved a problem everyone has had since the beginning of recorded history; namely, there doesn’t seem to be a comfortable way to sleep while sitting up.
I’m trying to understand how this innovation came to be.
Not the Neck
Let me ask you: why is it that it is so difficult for you to sleep sitting up?
I looked up the question on Mental Floss, but the answer given here is pretty opaque:
The partial paralysis and loss of muscle tone make holding the upright posture of a straight back and neck difficult. It may be why your seatmate tilts sleepily into your personal space, snoring on your shoulder, and why sleeping on a plane is just hard to do comfortably.
What answer would you give?
Until now, the usual focus has been on the neck. Surely we need a pillow to fill in that gap between the head and shoulders. Doing so would bring the most comfort. Right? It never really works. You put that U-shaped thing there and something is still not right. What is missing here?
What is missing is that this doesn’t actually deal with the root problem of trying to sleep while sitting up: namely, the head is really heavy. It keeps wanting to flop over. Stuffing a pillow against the neck keeps the head from falling entirely to the side, but it doesn’t stop the need to lean over in an uncomfortable way and it doesn’t stop the tendency of the head to flop forward.
Now, think of this. When you are lying down, the heavy head is not an issue. The flat surface takes the weight off the head, so all you need is a pillow to put your face on and perhaps fill the gap between the head and shoulders so you have a snuggly sense of comfort.
As soon as you sit up, you have a problem. The human head weighs about 10 pounds. To support that, you have to have engaged muscles. But as soon as you start sleeping, the muscles needed to support this heavy thing disengage, causing the head to flop around and thereby wake you up.
The folks at Trtl began to think through this problem in 2010. What kind of device could take the weight off the head and support it while allowing the neck and back to relax? The answer seems perfectly obvious once you see it. We need something to support the whole head. What is that? A hard piece of plastic that flexes a bit in the middle. Wrap it in cloth and add a scarf to hold it in place.
Thus was born the Trtl pillow, the single greatest innovation in technology for sleeping while sitting upright. It’s a complete game changer. You know it the instant you put it on. It’s the most astonishing thing. Even while standing up, wearing it signals the brain to go to sleep.
There is the physical element here. Your head mostly stays upright with a slight tilt that recreates the feeling of lying down. And the cloth that wraps around your neck feels a bit like a blanket you pull up to yourself on a cold night. Thus it is part reality and part illusion, but the overall effect is the last thing you might expect. It really works.
I had to do a one-day round trip from East to West to East again, missing one and a half nights’ sleep in my bed. With this pillow, my problem was solved. I actually slept, as in deep sleep, on the plane.
Entrepreneurship to the Rescue
If this solution is so fantastic, even obvious in retrospect, why hadn’t anyone thought of it sooner and brought it to market? It’s not as if this thing involves high-end technology as compared with a smartphone, for example. It is relatively simple, and the parts to make it have been available since the invention of plastics. Going back in time, a similar device might have been invented in the ancient world.
Why now? It’s impossible to explain how it is that two students in Scotland finally hit upon an idea precisely at this time, and then acted on that idea (with great financial risk) to bring such a product to you and me. It has to do with the passion to invent, the drive to profit, the burning desire to improve the world that is unique to the human mind, and grants unto history its capacity to turn on a dime, disrupt the old, and usher in the new.
The unfolding process is called entrepreneurship, a term originally invoked by Richard Cantillon, pushed by John Stuart Mill, celebrated by Joseph Schumpeter, and refined into the purest theory in the works of Israel Kirzner. What it means is the capacity to imagine what does not yet exist and to bear the risk of making a judgment that the future can be improved with new ways of doing things. It is not subject to modeling. It is driven by intuition. It brings us goods and services we didn't even know we were without. Success is ratified by the market process.
The Brilliance of Simplicity
Some innovations are incomprehensibly complex. But what most presciently underscores the brilliance of entrepreneurship are those that are startlingly simple. The Trtl pillow is a case in point. At first it didn’t exist, not even as an idea. It was an unmet need, one that a few determined to meet. Thanks to some serious thought and some willingness to take risk, it came to exist. It succeeded while making the innovators extremely rich, with profits serving as the sign and seal of a job well done.
Then we wonder why no one else came up with it.
The simplest solutions are the hardest ones to see. Once we do see them, we tend to dismiss the genius behind them. After all, it’s just a silly pillow, right? No, it is the difference between a good life as a traveler and suffering with sleep deprivation when it is least welcome. This pillow is not only a tribute to good engineering and good sense; it is a credit to a commercial system that enables and rewards innovation in service of the better life.