hustle culture burn out
There’s Nothing 2018 Loves More Than Hustle, But Is It Paying Off?
11.14.18

We all know someone who broadcasts their chaotic schedule with a subtle sense of pride. I do it, too. I’ll tweet about running across town from one meeting to another, or how much coffee I’m consuming as I wrestle with my to-do list. It’s easy to see the appeal of performative busyness, especially for people lucky enough to be pursuing passion work. To be busy is to be in high demand. To be in high demand for something you love, well… that’s success. Right?

A particularly extreme example of this phenomenon emerged on Twitter recently by way of Chris Lavish, the social media influencer who proudly claims that he has no time to read books, watch films or go to the theater. “I’m never home; I’m always at JFK,” he said, as an explanation for why he apparently hasn’t seen a single movie since 2009’s Avatar.

Through Lavish, I saw the culture of busy in a new light. And the more I thought about this self-proclaimed “hustler,” the less sense his worldview made to me. Wouldn’t it help his imagination and capacity for connection to consume other people’s stories and immerse himself in different voices and worlds? I say that, of course, as a writer. But isn’t that true for everyone?

Such a perspective doesn’t always jive with mainstream values. In his piece “No More ‘Struggle Porn,’” Nat Eliason extolls the flaws in the non-stop cult of work promoted by entrepreneurs and influencers who post their daily routines online (which often start at 5 a.m.) to brag about how hard they hustle. He points out that the implied messaging is simple and, frankly, scary: “You should be working long hours, failing for ten years, starting a side hustle to fund your side hustle… You shouldn’t be comfortable because comfort is death, or worse, mediocrity.”

hustle culture burn out

As the hustle era continues to thrive in economically prosperous metropolitan hubs, I think it’s worth asking ourselves why we, as individuals, insist on tying our self-worth to how productive we are, or our willingness to say yes to more work. Are we pushing ourselves because we’re trying to fulfill our potential, or are there external forces at play? When we overextend ourselves, what are we chasing? Praise? Recognition? Self-respect? As an active and sometimes begrudging participant in busy culture, I’ve been asking myself these questions a lot.

When I first went freelance, the fluctuating workload and inconsistent pay made me feel pressured to hustle as hard as possible and say yes to any gigs that came my way. But five years later, I can see the way that attitude at times held back the quality of my work. Now I make a point to consider my mental health as well as my income when building my schedule, even if it means sacrificing some financial peace of mind. You won’t find many inspirational Instagram accounts applauding the idea of saying no to more work, but I think it can be an act worth celebrating.

The working world (not to mention our wider society under late capitalism) has a funny way of tricking us all into seeing ourselves as productivity machines first, and people second. Just look at food supplement startups like Huel and Soylent, who have based their entire business models on the idea that lunch is a luxury which distracts us from getting more work done. But who hasn’t felt reinvigorated and simply more like themselves at the end of a good meal? The physiological act of eating is one thing; the importance of pausing and the pleasure of communing over the table is something else entirely.

A few weeks ago, I was at a conference where a director for a well-known beauty brand was describing the working environment that her company has fostered, including regular massages and yoga classes — but in the very next breath, she was speaking proudly of how nobody on her team ever goes home before 7 p.m. When perks are designed to encourage employees to live their lives more fully at work, instead of enable them to work well and then live their lives, what message is that sending?

hustle culture burn out

Millennials and Generation Z have entered the workforce amid a unique set of social and cultural norms, including economic uncertainty and a fiercely competitive job market in the wake of the global financial crisis. When you pair that with technology that connects us 24/7, making us immediately reachable and “always on”, and a social media ecosystem which actively encourages us to compare our lives and careers to those of our peers, it’s hardly surprising that 90 percent of Gen Z is stressed out by work and finances (as reported by TIME) or that 70 percent of millennials experience burnout syndrome at work (according to a recent study by Gallup).

When all of us, in addition to the economic forces at play, buy into performative busyness, stretching ourselves thinner almost becomes an indicator of status — especially in a service-driven workplace as opposed to an industrial one, where productivity can be harder to measure. All of this explains the vast volumes of “hustle porn” out there, which borrow from fitness culture by implying that mimicking a certain set of habits — like forgoing pleasure or boredom, for example — will yield the desired uber-productive results.

Today, I make resting a part of my one-man business. And I’m on a continued mission to be comfortable with doing less, even when that goes against everything else I’ve been encouraged to believe about the road to success. Hard work is admirable; for many, it’s required. But there’s more to life than the hustle. And it’s important to remember that it’s a means to an end, and not the end itself.

Illustrations by Alice Meteignier.

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