Self-Help and Hustle Culture

Image Credit: Samaneh Sadeghi-Marasht

The idea of hustle culture is one that has only grown in recent years. Andrew Nolan takes a look at how effective it is in application, and the risks than run without care being taken.

With the undeniable reach that social media has granted its users, a long-existing culture has been given a new means to perpetuate its message. The term ‘hustle’ has become something of a buzzword used across such platforms, whether it be a term to reflect one’s pride in their work, or as a means of inspiration for those seeking change in themselves. Hustle culture encapsulates an ethic of aiming to be the hardest working person in the room. The principle of having to be productive with every second of the day is dominant, and the association of this mindset with people in successful positions is inherently linked. On the surface, there is little wrong with this concept. To truly thrive in any market, hard work is an absolute necessity. However, issues arise with hustle culture when you consider how these concepts are presented. The problem with hustle culture is that it has become about working hard for the sake of working hard. It has almost become a romanticised notion, where appearing as if you are pursuing success becomes more important than any accomplishments themselves. Where this becomes more than just another social media archetype is when hustle culture begins to blend with the world of self-help, and the harmful nature of the culture begins to show.

While the pursuit of ‘self-help’ is stemmed by an underlying discontent with your position in life, it comes from a fundamentally positive willingness to reflect on a situation and attempt to make the most of it. To someone in this position, pursuing self-help is very alluring. Seeking out positive change and making healthy progress provides an incentive to continue. It becomes addictive, in a way. What is often being presented in place of true progress, however, is an illusion of such progress in its place. Whether it be attending a life coach’s seminar, finishing a book on self-improvement, or a plethora of video essays on the subject, the rush that comes from this action is less about the progress itself, but the accomplishment one gets from feeling like progress has been made, even in cases where there has not been any. Summarised in M.J. Demarco’s book Action Faking, this action is described as doing things that make you think you are making progress when in reality there is none. This is a more damaging form of procrastination, where little work has been done, but the incentive to see it out has been made mute, as the satisfaction to be found from it has already been achieved. This illusion of progress constitutes much of what is seen as 'hustle culture'. It provides enough inspiration and incentive for work to be done, but also enough satisfaction that will suffice even where no real progress is made.

Essentially, hustle culture creates a trap for achieving that feeling of satisfaction without the need for effort. As a result, the user finds themselves in a position not too dissimilar from their beginnings, but with a newfound desire to continue utilising the same inspirational media. The user inadvertently becomes a customer, as the inspirational rush that comes from seeking out personal development continues a cycle where more product is consumed to maintain the illusion that they are bettering themselves in the process. These industries rely on the inherent vulnerability of their clientele to remain profitable. Should people truly find an adequate amount of progress by indulging in these products, then the need for more would diminish. According to a report by Research and Markets in 2016, the Self-Help industry is worth approximately $9.9 billion and is projected to reach $13 billion by 2022. To maintain these numbers, preserving an illusion of progress is vital. Without a closer application of the ethic, hustle culture and self-help do not always help someone actually achieve their ambition. Rather, they merely foster a false sense of achievement, prompted by the process, not the result.

While hustle culture is not intrinsically flawed by definition, it is very easy for those using it for inspiration to be led astray by its core ideas. Those actively putting in the effort needed to succeed on a day-to-day basis highlights the positives that can stem from hustle culture. Promoting the distillation of a good work ethic is an overall positive, but where the picture collapses is its presentation of hard work as the only necessary component for success. It is certainly an important part of the puzzle, but the puzzle will never be complete without a clear sense of direction. While it is vital to work hard, without working hard at the right subject, the benefits of the effort are null. Having foresight and the ability to reflect greatly help to redirect the work to maximise its potential. If one spends too much time on their ‘hustle’, keeping their head down and not taking a moment away from their work to reflect on the project’s direction, the growth is inevitably minimised. Taking that step back to analyse is essential to develop a fruitful venture. Hard work is an absolutely vital component, but the mindless identity it takes on when presented through the lens of 'hustle culture' verges on a façade. If the advice that a good work ethic encompasses all it takes to be successful is taken to heart, it can obscure the bigger picture.

This constant around-the-clock working can also lead to serious burnout, and in turn, a psychological effect dubbed ‘ego depletion’. This is the study of willpower and control as a finite pool, believing that a person can only express so much willpower before essentially running out. In short, if a person uses up their available willpower on one specific task, they are unable to exert the same level of control subsequently. While this topic is debated, credence can be lent to this by the importance found by many in self-care – regular breaks and an honest assessment of workload to maximise work quality and productivity. A case for reducing work time can be made when looking at Microsoft Japan’s implementation of a four-day workweek in the summer of 2019. During this experiment, workers clocked in for four days, were paid for a full five-day week, and were given a three-day weekend. The result of this was roughly a 40% increase in productivity and a reduction in company costs, such as electricity which dropped 23%.

Superficially, hustle culture is a positive development. Aiming to increase productivity and work ethic is admirable, but it is important to understand that there is more to success than blind, constant effort. It is easy to get lost in the culture of self-improvement, but without care being given to its extent, the results can prove detrimental to progress.