The first time I had an ocular migraine, I thought I was having a stroke.
For the uninitiated, ocular migraines can cause temporary vision loss, kaleidoscopic visions, as well as being extraordinarily painful.
And it turns out, sitting in front of a computer under fluorescent lighting all day is what triggers them. Unfortunately, a major part of “hustle culture” is how much time you put in at the office. Are you toiling late into the night? Do you rise and grind at 5 a.m.? Are you going to that WeWork every day? Do you show up to the Equinox, which is conveniently located next door to the WeWork, at 7 a.m.?
If not, your team may think you’re not putting in enough work. Erin Griffith calls this “performative workaholism,” and like her, I believe it needs to stop.
People have an inherent need to compete, but as everyone tries to outperform each other, it’s essentially a race to the bottom—the bottom being burnout, poor performance and the occasional blinding headache.
Not only does hustle culture, or what Alexis Ohanian has coined, “Hustle Porn,” affect your quality of life, but it also affects the quality of the work you do. As a peer, I wouldn’t be impressed if you were up until 3 a.m. working on a pitch deck the night before we needed it. Sleep deprivation is terrible for your health and your performance—and it makes you less present and coherent during the workday.
Sadly, the idea that constantly working (or appearing to work) is a desirable trait for entrepreneurs and employees has gained a lot of traction in recent years.
And, to take it a step further, the idea of performing your unrealistic work-life balance via social channels like Instagram and Twitter has also taken hold. Phone calls on the beach? Business meetings at a ski resort?
Those are the new expectations for productive work.
Personally, I’ve founded three companies and have both participated in (and eventually been repelled by) the glorification of hustle. I’ve also come to realize it doesn’t have to be like this. Companies can—and should—actually work toward sustainable, healthy practices in the workplace.
Here’s how to understand this toxic culture and turn it around:
Understand that hustle culture comes from a place of fear.
Very few people actually want to be in this cycle of performative exhaustion. Most people are simply coming from a place of fear.
They work hard because they think what they’re doing is never going to be enough. They’re afraid their competitor will outpace them. Afraid they won’t be able to create a return on a big investment. Afraid they’ll lose their job to someone who promises to fit an extra two hours into the workday.
I understand that fear all too well. I was mulling over an offer to co-found a company, which I recently declined, that had several red flags. After an exploratory call about the project, I immediately received about a dozen emails from the person. It all felt very erratic and poorly thought out. And yet, I could feel the fear pushing me towards taking the job anyway. A few million in the bank from a Fortune 50 customer, additional customers and VCs lined up. I would have been settling, but I would have felt secure for a while.
Not everyone feels like they can turn that type of offer down, which is why hustle culture continues to thrive even as it burns out talented individuals at a rapid clip.
People are afraid of what will happen if they opt out.
To avoid it from the start, companies have to rethink how to define success.
Hustle culture starts at the top.
Venture capitalists investing in a startup are looking for massive growth in order to reap a return on their investment. That puts pressure on the founders to reach “unicorn” status. They feel like they have to do everything, to be everywhere at once. The weight of the world is on their shoulders, and they respond to it by working harder. In turn, that filters down to the team.
So people start showing up earlier. They cut out their morning walk or their evening workout to fit more time in at the office. They check their email obsessively and reply at all hours. They eliminate the healthy boundaries between their life and their job.
They step on stage and join the hustle performance.
Eventually, the entire company culture becomes much more competitive and political, and value is placed on productivity metrics rather than quality or sustainability of output. One day, the founders look around and wonder what happened to the company they wanted to build.
Fortunately, there are other ways of running a company. The methods don’t have the glamorous facade of a “unicorn,” but they are healthier for everyone involved.
It’s very much possible to build a successful company by eschewing VC investment or strictly hierarchical structures. It involves collaborating with people you like, experimenting with organizational models that make sense for your team and taking care of yourself. It also requires you to trust your team and focus on projects rather than productivity.
You can say, “We value culture.” You can say, “We value team autonomy.” But none of that matters if you don’t structure your company in a way that defines success as more than just performative workaholism.
Once you find the right balance, success is easier and more sustainable.
Work shouldn’t be a constant struggle.
I’m not saying that work won’t be difficult at times, or that you shouldn’t persevere when the going gets tough. I’m saying that it shouldn’t always feel like you have to abandon your life outside of the company in order to be successful.
Success won’t be simple, but it must become easier over time. When you’re truly in your flow state and aligning with the people around you, you feel energized rather than drained.
While it’s difficult to manifest something new into the world, that doesn’t mean you have to always be miserable and working ridiculous hours. When that’s the case, it may be time to take a step back and ask whether you’re the right person for your job, or whether you’re on the right path at all.
There’s no reason to sacrifice your health for a twisted, never-satisfied definition of success. You don’t need to hustle yourself into a breakdown. You just need to find something that energizes you and pursue it in a way that enhances (rather than destroys) your wellbeing.