Hustle Culture Is Toxic. Prove Me Wrong.

Aizah Malik
8 min readFeb 13, 2021

I know you’ve seen them. Black and white images of men in business suits with a generic statement about success written in bolded letters. Or maybe it’s a YouTube video that pops up on your recommended.

A voiceover telling you all about how you have “get up, get moving” as copyright-free motivational music plays and clips of a silhouette running up a mountain flash on the screen.

Example of hustle culture motivational quote

Am I saying that motivational posts are toxic? Or that the principle of hard work is flawed? No, actually. I’m not. What I’m saying is toxic is the way the media portrays success. There’s this notion that being motivated means working non-stop to the point where you find yourself manically typing away at your assignment at 4:37 AM, wondering if your eyes are secretly made of concrete.

And for a long time, I believed that was what motivation meant...

But I was wrong and before I knew it, this twisted mindset took root in my mind and named itself ~work ethic~

What Is Hustle Culture?

What I define as ‘hustle culture’ is the portrayal of putting work over your mental wellbeing as something that we should all be striving for.

Or that if you don’t align yourself with this lifestyle, you’re a lazy slob who’ll never get anywhere in life.

How many times have you heard “I only got 3 hours of sleep yesterday” as though it was an accomplishment… How many times have you said it as though it was one?

Why Is Hustle Culture An Issue?

A generation of teenagers who have breakdowns when they see a 97 on their mark update and miss meals to finish that one important project is not healthy.

Say it with me: “No amount of external validation is going to fulfil you”.

That applies to more things than you might expect. That grade that you got? That won’t fulfil you. Well, what about that pretty ribbon that reminds me of the time I came first place in Taekwondo? Nope, that won’t either.

What about my stacked university application with a whole section dedicated to all my extracurricular accomplishments? As much as it hurts for someone like me, who used to idolize Ivy Leagues, to say: No, that won’t make you happy either.

A scenic view of the Princeton campus, an Ivy League famous for its the low acceptance rate

Is sacrificing sleep, friends, family, health, and everything that gives life meaning for an A going to make you happy? Or will it just make you feel every more obliged to break your back getting a ‘good’ mark next week?

Is scrambling up the corporate ladder going to make all the struggles in your life vaporize? Or will it just change the goalpost of what you think will make you happy, the one that seems to move further away from you no matter how much you run towards it?

Classic scene of an all-nighter showcasing coffee and sleep deprivation

Before you assume that I’m making harsh judgements to the type of people I’ve just described, rest easy.

I was, and still am, someone who partakes in hustle culture embarrassingly often. I’ve had to physically stop myself from bragging about how little sleep I got on countless occasions.

It’s terrifying how obsessed my monkey brain still is with the hustle culture dream or how my mind immediately thinks of a workaholic when I think of a successful person.

Why is it terrifying, you may ask? Well, that ‘wake-up-at-4-am-to-go-to-work’ mantra that hustle culture perpetuates has devastating impacts on a person’s wellbeing.

Negative Impacts of Hustle Culture

Let’s break down why this lifestyle isn’t something to be idolized.

  1. Poorer mental health

Studies have shown that an unhealthy obsession with working increases your chances of dealing with anxiety, depression, and a host of other mental illnesses.

2. It isn’t sustainable

Think about it, how long can you keep pulling all-nighters? Non-stop work isn’t something that can pan out in the long run so you’re just setting yourself up for failure.

Visualization of the metaphorical ‘drowning in work’

3. Materialistic Focus

When you think about a materialistic person, your mind probably goes to someone who wants big cars and designer clothes.

“Those are so superficial, they won’t give you happiness”, you probably think. I’m sorry to tell you but a fancy title in a company or a stellar report card is just as materialistic of an obsession.

4. It’s unproductive

Humans aren’t meant to be work machines. We need food, sleep, social interaction, and leisure. If you try to suppress other areas of your life, you’ll end up uninspired and burnt out. Does that sound like someone who does killer work?

Hustle Culture vs. Hard Work

I’m not saying that ambitious people are toxic. I’m not even saying that someone who spends an extraordinary amount of time working to better themselves or master a skill is.

It all depends on the headspace you’re working from.

Do you work from a place of excitement, hoping to learn more about yourself and make a positive change? Or are you working because you feel unproductive, even when you’re on a well-deserved break?

If Not Hustling, Then What?

At this point, you’re probably a bit confused. Is there an alternative to hustle culture, and if so what is it?

Now, stay with me. The alternative to hustle culture is ~ balance ~

That’s pretty vague, so let’s break it up.

To start, balance looks different for everyone. Some people’s life passion is an athletic pursuit. So it would make sense for this person to dedicate more time in the gym than your average joe. That isn’t hustle culture, that’s dedication.

The hustle culture version of this scenario would be counting the calories in every bite of food that passes your lips and never taking rest days so you can post a picture of your rock-solid abs on Instagram with the caption #hustleharder.

See the difference? One is rooted in genuine love for the sport while the other is seeking validation.

You might not be seeking validation from others. Maybe you’re trying to quiet the nagging voices in your head telling you that you’re not enough unless you show a tangible result every second of every day.

It’s important to be a well-rounded person and not ignore one aspect of your life. It’s ok to prioritize certain parts of your life over others, it’s only natural that an artist would want to spend more time perfecting their craft than someone who prefers going on long walks as leisure. It becomes a problem when you’re so consumed with ‘perfection’ in one metric, you ignore everything else.

Identifying A Hustle Culture Mindset

To tell whether you’re looking for success in the right place, take a look at the metrics you’re measuring your life by. Are the metrics lessons you’ve learned, experiences you’ve gained, and relationships you have fostered? Or is it shiny ribbons, corporate dinners, and a huge office in a multi-million dollar company?

What you’re measuring is what you value the most.

Example of what hustle culture portrays as success: corporate status

That’s enough philosophical drivel, I know you actual hustle culture fiends want me to give you a list of actionable items. Well, here it is:

The Guide to Quit Your Hustle Addiction

  1. Schedule time.. to do absolutely nothing 📅

That’s right. Nothing. No self-help podcast on your walk, no martial arts class you’ve been meaning to take.

If you can schedule time for work, you can schedule time for relaxation.

2. No String Attached List🧵

Make a list of things you like about yourself that doesn’t have to do with your spin class or work history.

This list is all about who you are as a person, without your worldly achievements. It’s about the principles you centre your life around.

Having some difficulty? That’s to be expected, but keep trying.

3. Observe The Intention 🔎

Being productive is not the same as being busy. At a certain point, clocking in more hours isn’t going to make a difference.

Ask yourself: “Do I have a specific end goal in mind, or is my ego just so entwined with constantly working, I’m doing it for the sole reason of feeling accomplished?”

4. Invest In Yourself 📈

Life is about more than just work. Not everything you do in your day will give you tangible benefits and that is ok. Hobbies don’t have to beef up your resume, they’re about giving your brain something different to do.

Try something fun that you don’t have to think too much about. We’re often so wrapped up in the idea of ‘self-growth’, we end up suffocating it.

Colouring books are a great way to tap back into your inner child and relieve stress

5. Break It Up 💃

Studies have shown that taking breaks while you're working help you retain and process information, so it’s counterproductive to work non-stop.

If you don’t believe me, take it from a professor who’s done a study in this field, Alejandro Lleras...

“When faced with long tasks (such as studying before a final exam or doing your taxes), it is best to impose brief breaks on yourself. Brief mental breaks will actually help you stay focused on your task,”

TL;DR

Life these days is busy.

We’re constantly told that breaks are cowardice and that rushing from meeting to meeting, frantically checking off things on your to-do list is the only way for you to be productive.

Remember, sometimes you don’t need to have a result in mind. Just the act of being is enough.

As a society, we must be careful about the lifestyle we associate with success.

We have to stop acting like working yourself to the bone is the hallmark of a hard-working person.

Workaholicism isn’t something to be romanticized.

Thank you for taking the time to read this article!

If you liked it, be sure to give it a clap and follow my Medium for more. My content is on everything STEM and social change. Oh, and I have a LinkedIn :)

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