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In late 2018, billionaire Elon Musk said “nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week”. Successful people, those who have “made it in life”, frequently invoke the value of hard work, grit, determination, sacrifice and putting in long work hours as the secrets behind their success. In Jeff Bezos’ words, you are supposed to work hard, long, and smart while at Amazon.
Such words often inspire people and make them push themselves as they “hustle” to success. Hustle culture can be defined as a “state of overworking to a point where it becomes a lifestyle”. It is an obsessive drive, which looks like a motivational movement with guaranteed success.
But a pertinent question here is: is it indeed all that it claims to be?
While the likes of Jeff Bezos give paeans about hustling, what they do not reveal is that they are coming from a position of privilege. Bezos, for instance, received more than $250,000 as an investment from his parents, way back in 1995. Indra Nooyi was among the world’s highest paid CEOs during her time at PepsiCo, being paid more than 650 times the average employee of the company.
Most of us do regular 9am to 5pm jobs and live paycheck-to-paycheck, struggling to pay our bills. And the 9am job doesn’t end at 5pm if you are “hustling” to achieve your dream, to get a promotion at your work, or expecting a raise.
Marianne Cooper, a sociologist at Stanford University, explained the notion of hyper-competitiveness as “norms for both men and women [that] revolve around the need to constantly prove one’s prowess, a drive to win, and pressure to put work above all else in life”. The manager tells you to give your 200 per cent to the company but with the same pay, drained mental health, and no personal life. This is the point where you are entering hustle culture.
The dream that is sold is you can achieve anything if you work hard enough. The reality might be vastly different from what is promised here. This culture encourages people to push themselves beyond limits, be relentless, obsessive, and motivate oneself to push through pain — emotional and physical.
An article in The New York Times titled “Why are young people pretending to love work?” talks about “performative workaholism”, and how it drives you to a point of pain. Performative workaholism essentially refers to the glorification of making your work your life and shaming people who do not do the same. You not only work hard, but also brag about it. Today’s hustle mania venerates the personal gain of the boss or team lead rather than the ordinary worker.
The pandemic has prompted millennials and GenZ to take a pause and reflect on this lifestyle. Interweaved in this reflection is the realisation that hustle culture is harmful for mental and physicalwellbeing without bringing any significant material benefits and makes you question your value as a human being. Of late, more and more people across the world are breaking the pattern of overworking that has been followed for years. The idea of pressuring oneself beyond limits is now increasingly being questioned, with employees maintaining that it is okay to not participate in the rat race.
In a Buzzfeed article titled, ‘How millennials became the burnout generation’, Anne Helen Peterson talks about how the more work we do, and the more efficient we’ve proven ourselves to be, the worse our job becomes. Peterson describes this generation’s burnout and the feeling of anxiety even before doing smallest of tasks as “errand paralysis”. In several interviews with millennials, it substantiates how they have taken a stand against this culture for the sanity of their mind and health. Rejection of this demonstration of self-worth has already set in with millennials and GenZ.
Hustle culture conditions a person to work in a toxic environment because it does not allow you to prioritise your mental health. Anne-Lise Hadzopoulos, 26, a student of development studies at the Graduate Institute, Geneva, Switzerland, experienced this first-hand while working as an account receivable manager. For women, a work environment like this is already difficult and the work pressure just adds up to it. “I was once in a company where my colleagues would work extra unpaid hours during evenings and weekends,” Anne-Lise tells Khaleej Times, adding that a majority of her colleagues remained frustrated, looking for approval and acknowledgement from managers who barely noticed their work. Such work culture is damaging, particularly for those with kids, since women still (mostly) are primary caregivers for children.
She faced harassment at her former workplace but continued to work even when the management didn’t take any action towards the harasser. The incident eventually took a toll on her mental health, “I got intense headaches,” she says. “I would become anxious each time I prepared to leave for office because, subconsciously, I was getting ready to be attacked at work.”
Initially, Anne-Lise did not want to quit because that would mean the abuser won. Then, one of her friends convinced her that her mental health comes first. “I realised one wins nothing by staying in a toxic environment,” she says.
An employee’s mental health is connected to the work environment and the structure one chooses. It takes time to muster the courage to take a stance against toxic workplace rules. “It is important to remember that your self-worth is independent of your professional life. Extremely smart people have been stuck doing terrible jobs. Standing up for yourself, as well as keeping track of what you have accomplished is important,” she points out.
In an article for Forbes, writer and speaker Celinne Da Costa says people everywhere are suffering from a ‘hustle culture pandemic’: running around from one meeting to another and not even making it to (yet) another meeting in the rush. The current generation is facing a collective burnout. In this race, self-care takes a backseat.
Hustle culture is deeply entrenched in academia too. University students are often expected to finish a gruelling number of assignments. For international students, who work part-time to fund their education, the experience can be exhausting. Roberta I, a 22-year-old Masters student in legal translation from Italy, talks about the performance pressure educational institutes put on students. “My university’s focus is on the quantitative aspect of education such as scores in exams when they actually ought to focus on the quality of education,” she says.
Putting herself first is something Roberta has been clear about for a while. However, this realisation arose from difficult experiences. “Initially, I used to be worried about assignments and exams. Over time, I realised that this anxiety was detrimental to my productivity. Now, I’m more relaxed about it and I will try to continue this when I start working,” she says.
As someone who will be joining the corporate sector, Roberta has already set rules for herself. These include trying to not let her anxiety take over her day-to-day tasks, and learning when to say no to work. “I’ve tried to change a lot during these years,” she says. “I try to rationalise things and plan [now].”
Malcolm Harris in his book Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials writes about the dilemma the current generation is facing as they are often typecast as being lazy. Harris says that the 21st-century generation is hardworking and educated, but still being taught to take underpaid or unpaid internships in the name of experience. Many millennials are also taking a stand against unpaid extra work. Vinzent Macalindong, a productologist based in Chicago, US, says that he refused to work after office hours: “I made it clear that I might read documents, take mails but I won’t take any meetings after 5pm.”
Vinzent believes that corporates try to use hustle culture to give you a false idea about quickly moving up the professional hierarchy. “But the reality is that you are competing against hundreds of other people and there are just two or three spots at the top. I see people changing jobs frequently because they don’t get the raise they expect,” he says.
According to him, most people beating drums about guaranteed success are not those who are working three jobs at a time. “When Jeff Bezos was flipping burgers at the age of 23-24, I don’t think he was spending extra hours to be a perfectionist at it. He was flipping burgers so that he could one day fulfil his ambitions,” he laughs.
Vinzent once lived in a different country for a job. He met a sales lead bragging about how he pays people less and still gets the job done. “This shouldn’t be something you boast about,” he points out.
Ashish M, 24, a journalist from Kathmandu, Nepal, juggles office and studies, and sometimes takes freelance gigs as well. “Most people I went to school with are doctors right now. And they post on social media about how they worked an 18-hour shift or how they haven’t slept for 48 hours. I see this and it makes me feel that I am not doing enough. So, I take on extra work,” he says.
Ashish believes that people are glamorising exhaustion by projecting this unusual work culture as something positive. His parents and relatives expect him to work as much as his friends, impacting his mental health. “It makes me feel ashamed and inferior, like there is something wrong with having free time.”
Peer pressure also takes a toll. Setting boundaries in offices comes with comments from colleagues. Ashish talks about a friend who had to face inappropriate comments about her personal life — with her bosses inquiring if she was dating someone, since she refused to sit in office after her shift ended. “She worked for five years. After that, she couldn’t handle the constant harassment anymore and went into depression.”
The pandemic helped people across the world realise the importance of genuine social connections. Locked in, they rediscovered their families and friends. They were able to take their mind off from their work and contemplate what the world truly was. They understood the value of free time. For Ashish today, maintaining work-life balance is of utmost importance, and is something he learnt after a particularly negative experience at his former workplace. “I worked for a brief period at an animal welfare organisation where they discouraged me from taking leaves, from going home at the end of the workday, from having a social life. I couldn’t handle it, so I quit,” he says.
However, he continues to struggle with the expectations of putting in extra hours after work. “Sometimes, I spend entire nights at the office… and I have not had a proper conversation with my parents in months.”
Ashish understands that an extreme stage of overworking leads to less time with friends and family. “It hollows out your relationships with your loved ones. As a result, you grow distant. I have classes in the morning, office in the day, and freelancing gigs in the evening. Your superiors will want you to work more but you must learn to say no,” he signs off.
K Badar is a multimedia journalist and writer based in New Delhi, India
It was 1975. In Rhinestone Cowboy, Glen Campbell sang:
“I know every crack in these dirty sidewalks of Broadway/
Where hustle’s the name of the game/
And nice guys get washed away like the snow in the rain/
There’s been a load of compromising/
On the road to my horizon/
But I’m gonna be where the lights are shinin’ on me…”
He probably wasn’t looking ahead at posterity and the ‘hustle culture’ of the new millennium, but his words ring true. Here are some present-day observations:
In ‘Hustle Culture is Toxic’ on nandii.medium.com, Shania Cooper says: ‘Hustle culture is making young adults stressed, depressed, and overwhelmed with life before it even begins. Just because you saw a friend succeed doesn’t mean you will. Sometimes the best thing you can do is just support the people you know who are succeeding instead of competing as it will just make you sad and miserable. People need to realize running a business isn’t like a pack of cake mix, the ingredients are there but you have to put in the time and effort to mix them together or it’ll all spill out and that will just be wasted effort.
I am not saying you should not try to run your own business but you need to stop idolizing people that say they work 3 jobs back-to-back and love it because that isn’t true. Why would anyone want to glamourize employment when we just get jobs to survive and cater to certain lifestyles we wish to have.’
In ‘The Pros and Cons of a Hustle Culture Lifestyle’ on cybercoders.com, John Ternieden writes: ‘Burnout is caused when you overwork and build up stress without having any downtime to relax and manage that stress. This leads to both physical and mental exhaustion. Hustle culture can really hurt your mental health. April Wilson, MD, chair of the preventative medicine department at Loma Linda University Health in California, has said “Hustle culture is about being a human doing rather than a human being.”
Hustle culture seeks to narrowly define success as career success and adjudicate your self-worth according to your net worth. But not everyone views success the same way. For some, success is perfecting a hobby or building a family – both of which are often sacrificed when living a hustle lifestyle. A quick Google search of major industry leaders will reveal stories concerning their divorces or even substance abuse struggles. Hustle culture is a major stumbling block for those attempting to maintain a healthy work-life balance. It tips the scales in favor of work, and as a result, the other aspects of your life suffer.’
In writersrumpus.com, Rebecca Moody, in a piece titled ‘Hustle culture, overextension and writer burnout’, says: ‘…most of my “writing” time was being taken up by things that were not actual writing, but that still felt like an important part of “being a writer.” Things like participating in professional development organizations and critique or beta groups. Reading for reviews, writing reviews, blogging, and social media. Even things like promoting other books in my genre or trying to read all the big-name titles in that genre (once that may have been possible, but now it’s no longer feasible). Basically, I spent my time on the things that made me a good “literary citizen” . . . but also things that, because I did not keep them in check, took all of my time and energy and provided me with very little return.
We live in a culture of hustle. And I was HUSTLING.
Further, the act of hustling — even though I didn’t realize it at the time — was slowly KILLING my ability to write as well as any joy I used to find in my stories. And when I started to realise what was happening to me, and talking about it with other writers, I learned I was not alone.’
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