By Anne T. Donahue
Most of us like to be busy enough not to think about what we can’t control. Or, maybe more specifically, I like to be busy enough not to think about what I can’t control, because otherwise I’ll find myself stuck in a loop of “here’s everything wrong that I don’t know how to fix” which typically ends with watching Cheer without blinking for the seventh to tenth time in a week.
But over the last year especially, I’ve found that there’s an important difference between setting goals and occupying one’s time and screaming about your productivity while defining yourself by it. The former is reasonable, doable, and usually pretty positive. The latter disguises itself as proactivity before evolving into a monster that’s all-consuming and inescapable. To participate in hustle culture actively means that you won’t escape it without a reasonable explanation. (Example: you die.) And it’s built on the myth that if you can’t keep up, you don’t deserve the things you want. And worse, it’s decorated like a WeWork office with a goddamn ball pit in the middle, so you’ve got to come to these revelations while standing in the middle of a Chuck E. Cheese corporate aesthetic.
For a shameful amount of time, I loved bragging about my hustle. I loved talking about work more than I actually liked working, and I prided myself on working hard and better and louder than anybody else because my own workload was what I knew I could control. In fact, it was the only thing I could control at all. And in moments where I was faced with reminders that I could control next to nothing (because that’s how life works), I’d simply double-down and keep hustling, chalking my worth up to how much I could achieve by refusing to rest.
But the thing about that is that it isn’t sustainable. It isn’t realistic, it isn’t human, and it isn’t a fulfilling way to live. At certain moments, it will be impossible to churn out work as if you’re a machine – whether due to sickness, personal reasons, or simply burning out – and you’ll be left only with the false certainty that this is it; that now that you can’t work or hustle in the way you once did, you are irrelevant and no longer part of any conversation. You’ll be consumed with self-doubt and fear and the belief that you are replaceable simply because you “can’t keep up.” Even though it isn’t true. Even though hustle culture wrings out everyone and leaves them feeling disposable, exhausted, and like the shell of the person they used to be.
It’s bullshit, and I hate it. I hate it because it wastes us, and I hate it because it means we feel bad for eating lunch or calling in sick when, well, we are. I hate it because it makes everybody feel less than, and I hate it because it feeds into the notion that anyone can do anything simply by working hard. And, well, that isn’t true. We know full well that certain members of the population are born with a very pronounced leg up (shout-out to the privileged and affluent), and that it isn’t your fault if you’re ascending up whatever ladder you’re climbing slower than somebody with a trust fund. If you’re trying your best, that needs to be good enough. You can still participate in the capitalistic game without holding the banner championing it.
Which I know is something I’ll grapple with forever. I know that even after writing this, I will think “Okay, but hustle hard, girl, you have a lot of work to do!” before feeling terrible for getting up from my table and grabbing a coffee instead of craving one through umpteen paragraphs. I know that in moments of having no control, I will use work as a default; a reminder that there are some things I’m semi in charge of, despite the precariousness of life. I also know that this piece is more of an essay to myself than it is to anybody else, because I know I need to see something in print to believe it sometimes, and I’m terrified that if I don’t reclaim myself from the hustle, I’ll be branded as lazy and unmotivated and never get to write again. And I know that this stems from the ideology created by “hustling.” Because my insecurities only go away as long as I’m willing to shout (or remind myself) about my productivity.
So this is my goal for the rest of the year: quiet the voice that demands I run myself into the ground. Stop looking at the tweets and social media of talented pals and using them as proof that I don’t work hard enough and therefore don’t deserve anything. Learn to take breaks. Question where the guilt in reading a book during the evening instead of answering emails came from. Remind myself that while I like what I do and I think I do a good job as I do it, I – and everyone else – is more than a career title. Who we are isn’t judged by a timestamp or the number of essays we got done in a day. Do we need to work to earn money to pay bills? We do indeed. And is work something we can still love and take pride in, and even use it as a means to stay buoyant when we’re on the verge of sinking? Dude, yes. (Why do you think I write personal pieces so much?) But we are not the hustle. We are not obscene workloads. We are not posterchildren for exactly how much more we got done than everybody else. We’re too many other things. And we’ll never get to figure out what those are if we’re locked into believing that if we start to, everyone will forget us.
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