Hustle culture is toxic and pernicious. As Tara McMullin says, “American culture is hustle culture.”
Hustle culture is so pernicious that you may be pushing yourself to work very hard while at the same time thinking you aren’t into the hustle.
I realized that my belief that I’m not into the hustle, so therefore I can’t possibly be hustling, was hiding the truth from me in the late spring of 2023.
I was tired. It had been a long haul–not only with the pandemic and its impact but also with unrelated personal and business stressors since 2018 that hit almost every item on the Holmes-Rahe stress inventory.
OK I exaggerate, but not by much.
I was tired to the very bone.
Continue reading below.
Listen to 5 Reasons Hustle Culture is Toxic here
I thought that because I didn’t work evenings and weekends, I wasn’t hustling.
I thought that because I don’t work on civic holidays and take leave from my business on an annual basis, I wasn’t hustling.
Because I thought my behavior wasn’t the same as the behavior I (and others) perceive as hustling, I thought I wasn’t hustling.
Because I had recovered from toxic productivity and connected self-worth with success, I thought that neither of these was driving me to hustle.
Because I don’t “rise and grind” any day of the week, I thought I wasn’t reproducing toxic grind culture in my life and work.
But I was so wrong.
Even within the so-called “healthy boundaries” and “healthy mindset” I had cultivated, North American hustle culture had wormed its way into my approach to work.
Even though I say I’m anti-capitalist and anti-hustle culture, I was still affected by them. (And what a conceit, anyway. We’re all affected! How would I be exempt??)
While I wasn’t driving myself hard 24/7, I was still driving myself hard–the fact that it was “only” within limits allowed me to think I wasn’t hustling.
But I was still experiencing more stress–self-imposed stress–than I needed to.
I was still wearing myself out.
I was still hustling.
What is hustle culture?
Hustle culture is a way of thinking, leading to behaviours, that focus intensely on productivity, ambition, and success regardless of the cost. “It’s fashionable to work yourself to death–or at least look like you are,” says NPR’s Isabella Rosario. This is why hustle culture is toxic.
Throughout the 1900s, the term hustle described how hard many Black US Americans had to work, just to get by, and as a result, in the 1990s, the term made its way into rap lyrics, making it cool. Of course, then white culture co-opted the term.
Many people associate the rise of (white) hustle culture with Gary Vaynerchuk.
Hustle culture is a focus on work, productivity, and worth that, as I see it, has one root: a particular version of Christian philosophy that now has been stripped of its Christian identity but that permeates North American culture nevertheless… and you don’t have to be Christian to be affected by it.
Hustle culture is toxic in part because of toxic productivity
One reason hustle culture is toxic is toxic productivity. It holds that we must be productive at all times. We are resources from which wealth, or at least value, productivity, must be extracted. It follows then that under the spell of toxic productivity, we must be productive at all times–at home and at work–extracting from and exploiting ourselves because we believe we have no other value.
Toxic productivity doesn’t even let up once the task is complete. Once you’re technically done with a project at work, you might feel guilty for not having done more.
This attitude toward productivity is connected to the extractive economy of capitalism which sees the value of anything as arising from the ways in which wealth–resources, money, labor, etc.–can be extracted from it. This idea gives us the term “human resources,” for just one example.
Under capitalism–an extractive economy–humans have no value whatsoever–aside from the exploitation of their labour. Nature too has no inherent value, which is why capitalism is reluctant to protect it. Its only value under capitalism lies in the resources it provides from which wealth can be extracted.
Toxic productivity also equates productivity with moral virtue and conversely, of course, non-productivity–rest, enjoyment, play, pleasure–with immorality.
You may have heard the saying, “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” The phrase was popularized by Geoffrey Chaucer, a 14th-century poet. But the idea has its origin in the Christian Bible, of which this is but one example: “Idleness is the handmaiden of temptation. Laziness often yields not only thorns but temptation—which leads to sin, yielding death.” (James 1:14–15).
Even though you may or may not be a Christian, or espouse Christian values, we live in a culture that is steeped in Christian beliefs, values, and attitudes.
American evangelicalism has long walked hand in hand with modern consumer capitalism. It’s a new form of old-time religion not simply compatible with modern consumer capitalism but uniquely dependent on it.
All the things we need to do to support our humanity and care for ourselves are demonized: food, pleasure, joy, and rest to name only a few.
It’s interesting to note though that greed, although considered sinful in the Christian tradition, is a value that is promoted now–not as greed but as the unbridled growth and consumption that characterize capitalism, and the budget culture belief that money–and the acquisition and retention of money–is an end in itself.
Hustle culture is toxic because it holds that your success is evidence of your worthiness. Therefore you have to hustle and always be striving because of course if success is evidence of worth then it logically follows that poverty or lack of success itself is the very evidence that you are unworthy.
This ties us up in a relentless hustle so that we can “feel” worthy. I put feelings in quotation marks because, in truth, worth isn’t a feeling. Our sense of worth is a story we tell ourselves, based on external “evidence,” that generates positive emotions.
A major origin of the connection between success and worth can be seen in Protestant Calvinism. Protestant Calvinists looked for outward signs of God’s favor (i.e., through material success) as well as for ways to express inward virtue (i.e., through hard work).
More recently, we see it in the prosperity gospel, which holds that material, especially financial, success is a sign of divine favour. Believers maintained that God selected certain individuals for salvation. The prosperity gospel expanded that concept to include financial and other successes as signs of God’s blessing. God makes believers successful (although ostensibly always for a greater purpose). Financial and other well-being is believed to be the will of God for those whom God has chosen, so success is evidence of God’s favour. “If the devout can be successful in business affairs, this is seen as a sign of God’s blessing.”
If it sounds circular, it’s because it is!
Self-sacrifice can be seen in many cultures (like the ascetics of Greek history) but it makes its way into (North) American culture via Christianity.
Glorifying self-sacrifice in order to succeed is based on the asceticism of early Christianity, where denying the body and the comforts of this world was important in order to focus believers on the coming redemption. They believed they weren’t going to be on the earthly plane for long, and therefore it was sinful to focus on the needs of the physical body and the here and now.
With self-sacrifice and denial, Christianity holds that a person “defies the devil and joins heaven’s side.” https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/denying-yourself-is-loving-yourself
Christian self-denial is not for its own sake (as with the ascetics) but for a higher purpose–in this case, wealth, which is a proxy for God’s blessing and thus an outward symbol of your inherent moral virtue and value.
Unthinking hustle culture
When you look at it this way, you can see how hustle culture is just this certain version of Christianity, but purged of theistic language. It’s often shocking to North Americans who don’t profess to be Christians and who don’t see that we’re living in a Christian culture to become aware of the degree to which their attitudes have been influenced by Christianity.
I’m a deep and committed believer in a higher power. As a mental health professional with a Masters degree in counseling and spirituality, I have seen in both my education and therapy practice the significant role spirituality plays in people’s mental well-being.
I’m not trashing spirituality or religion or even Christianity here.
I’m pointing out the roots of a specific, Christian way of thinking the origins of which have been obscured so that it could be endorsed wholesale as good, in the so-called secular culture.
Seeing it for what it is helps us make informed choices about our values and what we want for ourselves.
Hustle culture and success
“For every freelance creative worrying they should be listening to a more educational podcast while they’re in the bath, there are vastly more people who work too much because they have no choice. This could be because they’re underpaid, precariously employed, their boss is a dick, or they work in industries in where long working hours and unpaid overtime are standard.”
Success depends on so much more than God’s blessing, or on personal factors like how much we hustle.
Success–or lack thereof–is determined to a significant degree by privilege.
This includes things like the “luck” of who you know and being in the right place at the right time.
These are the advantages–invisible to the individual–that give them a leg up over members of underestimated groups.
Hustle is toxic, except when it isn’t
Hustle isn’t always toxic: sometimes it’s a normal survival impulse.
Anxiety about business survival or success can propel you into action despite yourself. You can find yourself overworking even when you don’t value that behaviour and acknowledge that it is harming you.
If this is the case, there’s nothing wrong with you.
And if you want to change it because it’s harming you, one of the ways you can work with this urge to do something (or with discomfort about resting) is by checking in with yourself. You can say to yourself, “I wonder. Is this something I really need to do or is it a part of me that’s anxious pushing me forward?”
Anxiety about business survival is what we could call a natural phenomenon. It’s normal when in survival mode, to feel anxious and pressured to hustle to do what you need to do to survive.
There’s nothing wrong with you. Of course, you want your business to survive!
Early on in business, there may actually be a need to work harder and longer than you would in an established business.
This anxiety can hang on into the later stages of your business when it’s no longer true that survival is at stake.
Parts of you can have a hard time catching up with the newer reality that your business is viable and surviving–maybe even thriving, especially when you’re busy and aren’t able to connect with yourself and be present at the moment.
These parts need to be able to take in that things are OK now.
Another way you can work with this anxious drive to hustle (or discomfort about resting) is to acknowledge that your anxious parts are trying to help you stay safe.
You can offer your anxious parts appreciation for their efforts to help you stay safe. You might also reassure them that you are with them, taking care of them and paying attention to them.
It’s very important to note that when you are appreciating and reassuring these anxious parts you are not covertly implying that they shouldn’t worry. Worrying is their job, and it serves an important purpose: ensuring your safety.
However, they may benefit from being brought up-to-date, so to speak.
After–and only after– you have let them know that you’re there with them and care for them, you can invite them to look through your eyes. You can invite them to take in the idea that “That was then and this is now.” You can invite them to notice that you and they are here, now, on such-and-such a date time in such-and-such a place, and the business is going OK.
How toxic hustle culture harms you
- Hustle culture separates you from yourself so you can’t make decisions and act in connection with your own values.
- Hustle culture keeps you overwhelmed so you can’t look at the bigger picture and address systemic issues.
- Hustle culture glorifies and perpetuates overwork, leading to stress-induced physical and mental illness.
- Hustle culture’s self-denial leads to negative health and mental health consequences.
- Hustle culture feeds harmful beliefs and self-talk about worthiness/unworthiness.
How to heal from hustle culture and build a thriving business
Hustle culture separates you from yourself so you can’t make decisions and act in connection with your own values.
Business and life aren’t separate. The first step is to look at internalized narratives and heal from them.
Become familiar with your own values.
Notice how hustle culture is a certain Christian philosophy and morality stripped of Christian language so that it’s accepted whole cloth by so-called secular culture. Notice how pernicious it is. Notice how it shows up.
When hustle culture shows up, question it. Ask yourself, “Are these my values or someone else’s?” “Are these ideas/beliefs I have accepted without reflecting on them first?”
Replace hustle culture thoughts with thoughts that support your own values.
This is often easier said than done, so it can be helpful to journal on this regularly and get support from a professional if you’re not making the progress you would like.
Hustle culture keeps you overwhelmed so you can’t look at the bigger picture and address systemic issues.
Slowing down is the antidote to hustle culture.
Checking in with yourself and connecting with your values is what will pull you out of the trance of overwhelm.
It requires time and space.
The good news is that, once you’re familiar with your own values, sometimes the space needed is only minimal.
I invite you into this 6-minute breath awareness practice.
After you’ve done this, you might like to see what it’s like to take a quick peek at your values statement and see how you relate to the urge to hustle now.
Hustle culture glorifies and perpetuates overwork, leading to stress-induced physical and mental illness.
Once you’ve understood how hustle culture overwhelms you and disconnects you from your own values, you can begin to make different choices about your behavior.
You can also begin to notice and understand how stress affects you.
You can learn what to do about it and take time for that.
An excellent resource for this is the book Burnout by Emily and Amelia Nagoski.
You can also learn about the 3 principles of stress resilience and apply them to support your mental and emotional wellbeing.
It can be helpful to re-examine your ideas about work and productivity. Brittany Berger writes about what it means to be productive when you’re a chronically ill business owner. Her newsletter, Work Brighter, helps you go beyond “working smarter” to a version of productivity that makes room for “unproductive” things like rest, self-care, and fun.
Bekka Rich is a holistic time coach who helps you make time for what’s most important from both a soul and a practical level. You can sign up for her newsletter right at the top of the page I’ve linked here.
Hustle culture’s self-denial leads to negative health and mental health consequences.
Making your needs and care a priority can be easier when you’ve cultivated a new way to think about work and productivity.
One tool for prioritizing your mental and emotional well-being is to include a mental health plan as an integral part of your business planning process.
You can access information about my self-guided mental health plan workshop here.
Hustle culture feeds harmful beliefs and self-talk about worthiness/unworthiness.
One of the best tools to use when your self-talk becomes harsh and unsupportive, or your internalized critic feels overwhelming is cultivating a gentler inner relationship. The self-compassion work of Kristin Neff is an excellent place to start this journey.
When you are kind to yourself you flourish (see Kristin Neff’s research). When you flourish you are resourced, capable and creative. When you bring those capacities to your business it also will flourish.
My current relationship with hustle: a happy ending in progress?
Ultimately, whether or not you let go of the hustle depends on how much a critique of hustle culture resonates with your values, and on a decision to do the inner work to live more in alignment with those values.
Because at heart I am anti-hustle and pro-human, with reflection and support I was able to see through my own bullshit. I saw that I was distressed because I was still hustling.
I asked for help to plan how to reach my goals and set my priorities in my business. Then I also engaged support for my planning process.
That is what ultimately determines what I do on a day-to-day basis, so that I expect less of myself in the moment, and can let go of what doesn’t get done.
This way I don’t keep robotically moving forward, caught in a trance of doing the next thing and the next thing and the next thing.
Before this, it took all my limited energy to get through the work day and my quality of life outside work sucked, honestly.
I’m generally happier and more relaxed now. I’m enjoying working for myself again. I enjoy my evenings and weekends and have the capacity to address the demanding situations in the lives of those I love.
I need and want to care for myself by regularly checking in through self-reflection and with the support of others. This helps me be aware of what I’m doing. It helps me ensure I’m continuing to make choices that serve me, and not the parts of me that think that if I work intensely I can do more in 8 hours than is humanly possible, enabling me to get everything done. Because I don’t actually want to get everything done anymore.