In a world dominated by the grind, hustle culture can seem like a sure bet. But the results you’re after may not be the ones you get
When I was ten, nothing brought me more joy than playing the piano. As strange as it may seem, even at that young age I was aware that it was the reason I was getting out of bed most days, the reason my parents never had to rush me into my uniform, and the reason I couldn’t wait to get to school every day. Because that’s where the good piano was. No, not the old workhorse in the music room that every other student prodded away at with sticky fingers. I mean the baby grand. The jet-black Steinway hidden away in the darkened wings of the stage, kept for special occasions. It sounded spectacular. And every day, like clockwork, my best friend and I would sneak past the nuns on break duty to play it. We would compose, practise scales, and use every lick of free time we had to get better at making it sing. Looking back now, I think that’s when two key characteristics of my working life were established. One good, one bad.
THE MERITOCRACY IDEAL
If you will allow me to give you the good news first, I’d have to stay that this was the beginning of my love affair with the ideal of meritocracy. Any system in which the more work you put in (and the more intelligently you learn to do that work), the better you become and the grander your rewards are – no matter your background. In this kind of system, which we’re wrongly taught that nearly every workplace is, you reap what you sow.
I genuinely think there’s beauty in that kind of fairness. But it’s rare. The second characteristic, however, is that this was likely the beginning of my flirtation with what we’d now call ‘hustle culture’ or being ‘on the grind’. See, the only reason I was so good, so young, is that I was obsessive. And while that was lauded at the time, I often wonder what life might have been like if I’d let myself relax more. How different I may have been if I had actually spent break time outside with my friends, instead of forcing my fingers to span an octave earlier than anyone else I knew.
GETTING A GRIP
Well, nowadays, my piano has given way to my writing desk. And I’m happy to say I’m finally starting to get a grip on my work-life balance. But when I think of my friends, acquaintances, colleagues, and their relationships with work, I can’t help but hear that Steinway. I can’t help but see how the myth of the universal meritocracy has created a generation of people who have no idea how to stop working, how to go out and enjoy the sunshine. So, how did we get here? Joe Ryle, director of the 4 Day Week Campaign, defines hustle culture as ‘work dominating your time in such an unnatural way that [you] have no time to live [your life]’.
It’s the kind of life where most of what you do for pleasure is constantly compared to how much work you’ve done that day, that week, that month. And it’s within this precise dynamic, the constant comparison between work and rest, that the toxic driving force of hustle culture can be found. See, instead of trying to maintain a balance between the two, hustle culture asks you to adopt one of the core lies of capitalism. It says that one area of your life is inherently worth more than the other, that you should not see yourself as a person, but as a product. That your worth should be defined a lot more by how much you can produce than by who you are outside of production.
And it’s here where the toxic honour/guilt dynamic takes root: Within this culture, the more you work, the more you’re allowed to feel good about yourself. The less you work, the guiltier you should (deservedly) feel. So, we produce more, work out more, take on another gig to feel better. But we laugh less, feel less, some of us burn out in the process, all so that the gears of the economic system (one we’ve all internalised to such a great degree that it is mistaken for a system of ethics) continue to turn. Figuring out the way forward is hard. In fact, it’s never been harder than in the work-from-home age.
The ADP Research Institute, for example, reported that in 2021, 1 in 10 people were working more than 20 hours of unpaid overtime per week, with the average worker racking up 9.2 hours of unpaid labour per week in the same year. And stats like these abound, and all come to agree that we are working more than ever before, and that very few of us seem to be better off for it. So, how do we, as a society steeped in toxic comparison (and with an ingrained misunderstanding of our value as people), somehow undo this dire trend? Well, I contend that it starts with you.
It starts with understanding that no matter how early you head to the gym, how late you stay at work, how diverse you’re able to keep your portfolio, that none of that will change your moral/ethical self. What matters is your humanity. How good you are to others, how much love you can give, and how safe you’re able to keep those around you. And that may sound soppy, a little trite, and a good deal too new-age. But, in the end, that’s the only worth while reason to get out of bed in the morning, so you can lay your head down at the end of the day a little closer to understanding what life is all about.
Words by Arlin Bantam