I used to love the hustle rally cry, dearly, but I can’t take any more odes to “the hustle” anymore. Because it’s hollow and without any depth or purpose.
For most of my career, I chose to interpret “the hustle” as a way for those with very little to outsmart those with a lot through clever steps and genuinely outwork the competition. Finding leverage where you had none. Beating out the more experienced person that may be more talented but lacks hunger. Doing things that weren’t supposed to scale or even work, and making it happen. Grit to succeed above all else.
Yet while my original interpretation was once connected to the term, I can no longer pretend that it is. The hustle has become synonymous with the grind. Pushing through pain and exhaustion in the chase of a bigger carrot but never appreciating the last carrot. Sacrificing the choice bits of the human experience to climb the ladder of success. I can’t connect with any of that.
The grind doesn’t just feel apt because it’s hard on an individual level, but because it chews people up and spits ’em out in bulk. Against the tiny minority that somehow finds what they’re looking for in that grind, there are legions who end up broken, wasted, and burned out with nothing to show. And for what?
Even more insidious about the concept of the hustle and its grind is how it places the failure of achievement squarely at the feet of the individual. Since it’s possible to “make it” by working yourself to the bone, it’s essentially your own damn fault if you don’t, and you deserve what pittance you may be left with.
Its origin from a dog-eat-dog world has been turned from a cautionary tale into an inspirational one. It’s not that you need to hustle to survive, it’s that you seek the hustle to thrive, and still at the expense of yourself and others.
Now this opposition mainly comes from a lens focused on the world of creative people. The writers, the programmers, the designers, the makers, the product people. There are manual labor domains where greater input does equal greater output, at least for a time.
But I rarely hear about people working three low-end jobs out of necessity wear that grind on their popped collar out of pride. It’s only the pretenders, those who aren’t exactly struggling for subsistence, who feel the need to brag with bravado about their beat.
It’s the modern curse of having enough time to try to find a meaning to it all. And when an easy answer isn’t forthcoming through shallow inquiry, you just start running from the void. But you can’t outwork existential angst. At best, you can postpone it. Or temporarily bury it. But it doesn’t go away.
The truth is you’re going to die, and it’ll be sooner rather than later, the more feverishly you devote your existence to the hustle and its grind. Life is tragically short that way.
What really gets my goat, though, is that it doesn’t even work. You’re not very likely to find that key insight or breakthrough idea north of the 14th hour. Creativity, progress, and impact does not yield easily or commonly to brute force. It comes with patience, inspiration and situations you don’t put yourself in because you’re working yourself to friggin’ bone and have no time to experience anything.
You want to be more productive? That’s great. First, of course, figure out what you’re actually trying to be productive at and make it happen. Then learn how to manage your time to focus on that without sacrificing everything else. Everyone loses if you’re just staying in the office for the sake of staying in the office.
Here’s my cheat sheet and counter to the hustle:
1) Get a great night’s sleep. The studies on sleep deprivation and its cognitive effects are unanimous and devastating. You take a bigger hit on your productive and creative powers through lack of proper sleep than almost any other neglect.
2) Get plenty of fresh air. The latest studies on effects of CO2 accumulation, volatile organic compounds, and other indoor air quality killers are shocking. And unlike sleep, it’s far less known just how much cognitive impairment you can suffer from poor air quality. Running outside in the morning has been my saving grace later in life, so much do I wish that I discovered this earlier in my life, it would have saved so much built up stress.
3) Get regular exercise. This isn’t about “staying fit” or “looking good”, although those are noble reasons in their own right. It’s about what moving your body does to your brain. And it’s good. These are moments to connect with your body and you should cherish every moment you have to connect closer within yourself.
4) Read some classics. You probably read the equivalent of a few books a month in tweets, hot takes, and other low-calorie material. What if you shifted some of that consumption to not just what’s most recent, but the best humankind had to offer over the last few millennia? I’m all for great business books but I’ve found the more you are able to disconnect from the constant stream of business thought, the better you are when you return to that space. The influences compound and tickle your creativity in more profound ways than I can list.
5) Say no. Engage with fewer things but at a higher intensity. Stick with it. Stop chasing so much.
6) Meditate on the regular. Your mind is a muscle, and perhaps the most important muscle you have, it needs work as well. I find myself quick to react when I pause meditation for a spell versus when I’m in the zone, I tend to listen more, reflect on my decisions and generally be more thoughtful in both business and personal life.
7) Find a coach. Someone who is disconnected from your business and can offer you radical candor and accountability on yourself without needing to tie it to a business outcome exclusively.
Finally: for God’s sake, relax. Pumping your mind full of anxiety about whether you’re getting enough, doing enough, chasing enough, good enough is no way to live. Background stress like that is literally lethal.
Put in a good day’s work, then close the damn laptop. Stash the iPhone. Waste some time on the rest of the human experience. At this time of the year, eat some duck. Watch a shitty Xmas movie. Help decorate that stupid tree. Cuddle up with your kids or someone that’s young enough to appreciate the intense intimacy needed in the early years. There’s a desire for time from kids, asking to play, asking to be a part of things, perhaps they’re aware of how fleeting these years of intimacy will be with their family. Dare to be so bold as to embrace the beautifully ordinary every now and then.
Then help me whack the hustle with a shovel and bury it in the backyard. We can plant a tree in its honor, and maybe sing the best song we could every write, because after all, we’ll be more creative in the process.