Our Burnt-Out Bodies Need a Slack-Acceptance Movement
How to overthrow the unrealistic work standards of the hustle culture.
“7. I recommend bringing a pillow to the office. It makes sleeping under your desk a lot more comfortable, in the very likely scenario that you have to do that.”
I’d thought whoever sent that recommendation, along with nine more, would be working on a project of no lesser importance than supervising a spacewalk from NASA’s mission control center. Or working in a nuclear submarine, where your desk happens to be multi-purposed into your sleeping quarters.
I wouldn’t expect it from an analyst at an investment bank company in Lower Manhattan, greeting the incoming summer interns. The email also announced that for 9 weeks those interns will have “to live and die” by those 10 Commandments (that’s what they called them) so that could “help some of them secure Full-Time offers.”
If sleeping under your desk is not considered “full-time” already, I guess those interns will be doing extra hours in their lucid dreams when they get hired.
It rose to power by popular vote, this hustle culture. Initially as a beacon of hope for those with little to outperform those with a lot. But in a cliché plot twist of revolutionary efforts, it got corrupted by those with a lot to take advantage of those with little.
Making another piece about the “benefits of taking it easier” will be futile. A lot of us — me included — will politely nod at the arguments, offer some casual remarks like “Woah, so that’s what sleeping is for,” then proceed to get all caught up in fiery competition.
That’s why we need an active wave of change, a movement — a slack-acceptance movement of sorts that puts to use the obviously good ideas that already roam our collective consciousness.
Ditch the growth-at-all-costs mentality, stop seeing willful burnout and exhaustion as a sign of commitment but as a mark of stupidity. No more faking busyness and ego-driven goals. Not more hours, less bullshit.
A slack-acceptance movement starts with one thing
But there’s a tricky part. How do you start a movement that is precisely about “not moving” once in a while? I don’t imagine Che Guevara coming out of the bushes on Friday at 5 PM announcing he’s postponing the guerrilla until Monday morning.
So during my inquiry into what makes movements succeed, I stumbled upon Greg Satell, seasoned innovation advisor, and his comparative analysis of two very similar movements. They both sought to overthrow the oppression of the powerful, but they were radically different in their approach. And in their results.
One was called Otpor, a Serbian movement that in just two years overthrew the regime of Slobodan Milošević, further contributing to the Color Revolutions in Eastern Europe and the Arab Spring in the Middle East.
The other was called Occupy, which took over the financial district in Lower Manhattan for a few months (where legend goes those summer interns are still sleeping under their desks, pillowless, doing extra hours), then got dismantled and forgotten.
Among the strategies that we are to emulate, which according to Satell marked the difference between Otpor’s success and Occupy’s failure, the first one was simple.
Movements start with one thing: a clear purpose. Occupy didn’t have any.
Sure, if you’ve asked one of Occupy’s members they would’ve told you their demands ranged from “more and better jobs” to “better redistribution of wealth” and “forgiveness of student loan debt.” But that’s about the same level of commitment that any elevator conversation reaches after covering the weather.
Their slogan “We are the 99%” was catchy, but commitment takes focus. There are also compelling reasons why not to work up to burnout, but smashed all together into a generalistic agenda will fail to give our slack-acceptance movement sufficient inertia to battle the hustle culture.
Otpor had a clear purpose: “the non-violent overthrow of Milošević’s regime.”
Not four, not twenty-four reasons; only one. A unified purpose that gives direction and focus to every decision. I’m also compelled to seize the streets and demand better sleep and guilt-free weekends to disconnect, charge batteries, and possibly get rid of that technological metaphors that depict my needs as if they were the same as those of my smartphone.
But Satell suggests that the smart way to do this is to start with a clear raison d’être, which may mark the difference between the beginnings of a historical movement and a hysterical meltdown.
It could be this one: “the profitable overthrow of the hustle culture.”
A clear purpose rests on better values
I wish I could offer a beacon of evil for this campaign, like a delusional tyrant laughing maliciously from his volcano lair, the array of labor traditions that exploit us clearly marked with a swastika. It would make things easier.
But I can’t. The hustle culture rests on your shoulders and mine. It’s become part of our values as a society, accommodated itself into the day-to-day, like the bizarre, self-mutilating rituals of some African tribes.
The tone of that banking company’s email was set to be cheerful and encouraging. “Cheer up boy, you’re about to endure 9 weeks of exhausting schedules and toxic work environments for the enrichment of people sitting much higher in the ladder than you. You’re living the dream!”
The tone was not manipulative. They didn’t try to masquerade the upcoming working calamity. They expected the aspiring interns to embrace the culture with blind devotion — or at least pretend to love it.
That’s why Satell points out that a movement must offer its own set of values, the pillars it would be built upon. Values like those at Basecamp.
In their manifesto “It doesn’t have to be crazy at work,” Jason Fried and David Heinemeier explain how they’ve worked to make their company Basecamp a calm, healthy working environment, in one of the most competitive industries that there is. And they’ve been profitable every year they’ve been in business.
“[Basecamp] isn’t fueled by stress, or ASAP, or rushing, or late nights, or all-nighter crunches, or impossible promises, or high turnover, or consistently missed deadlines, or projects that never seem to end.”
Basecamp isn’t necessarily better organized than other companies, but it has another set of values that allow them to spot the kind of nonsense that the hustle culture fuels.
A shared set of moral principles keep us from making bad decisions out of guilt or pressure. Like squeezing 10-hour workdays, forcing employees to be glued to their phones reporting what they’re doing, expecting people to respond immediately to everything, piling more work, burning more money, jumping between incomplete things, and never finish anything.
They further note: “You’d think that with all the hours people are putting in, and all the promises of new technologies, the load would be lessening. It’s not. It’s getting heavier.”
Hustle culture is a tiny canoe paddling across a river of bullshit. We are the 99% left hanging off the edges, sunk up to our necks. The values endorsed by the slack-acceptance movement should encourage us to opt-out of this madness.
A movement needs a plan
Let me make this clear: this is not a piece against hard work. But hard work does not always look like you’re working hard.
Occupy’s sensational turmoil looked like hard, important work. They made the news, got the support of some celebs. In comparison, Otpor’s beginnings looked like they were a bunch of angry teenagers confused by an overflow of hormones and pubic hair.
They started small with initiatives like the one they called “dinar for a change.” They would present bystanders a rusty barrel with the face of Milošević on it, and a stick. For one dinar (the Serbian currency) they would get to hit the barrel with the stick once — twice if the bystander was financially ruined by the regime.
When the police came and took away the barrels, Otpor said in a press conference that the campaign was a success, having collected enough money for Milošević’s retirement.
Now, is it the best plan to focus your revolutionary endeavors to pulling off satirical pranks?
Well, it depends on what is it that you want to achieve. And let me remind you, Otpor was clear about what they wanted to achieve: “the nonviolent overthrow of Milošević’s regime.” A regime is supported by fear. So how do you cancel fear, non-violently? By making fun of it.
Otpor had, yet again, something Occupy didn’t. A plan.
A plan must work toward the purpose of the movement, spreading the values it endorses and helping people see this new culture as the better option. So, as more people join the ranks, both the reach and power of the movement increases exponentially.
As our slack-acceptance movement’s purpose is the “profitable overthrow of the hustle culture,” we could mistakenly infer that, as far as math goes, working brings profit while slacking does not. We would be in the wrong.
We could have planned, uninterrupted time-off, and still meet the highest standards of our respective industries.
That was the conclusion of a four-year-long research conducted by the Harvard Business Review at the Boston Consulting Group. Along with those consultants, people in professional services like lawyers, accountants, and investment bankers had accepted the “always-on” work ethic. Of 1.000 of those surveyed professionals, 94% put in 50 or more hours a week; half of them, more than 65.
That’s a lot of pillows.
The plan was simple: consultants were allocated a time for “predictable time off,” where they were required to completely disconnect from work. No email or extra hours on the phone either.
The issue reported that the concept seemed so alien to them that they had to “practically force some professionals to take their time off, especially when it coincided with periods of peak work intensity.” I imagine that, to a workaholic, forced time-off does feel like they’re been abducted out of their office and up to the mothership for some routine rectal probing.
But they did it, and it worked. “Our experiments with time off resulted in more open dialogue among team members, which is valuable in itself. But the improved communication also sparked new processes that enhanced the teams’ ability to work more efficiently and effectively.”
The purpose was clear: to profitably overthrow the “always-on” mentality. The plan was also clear: taking required, non-negotiable time-off. And everyone at the firm wanted to open up about working smarter, working together more often, and make sure they delivered without sacrificing work/life balance. They wanted to advocate for a set of better values and better work culture.
With a purpose, a set of values, and a plan, the little movement started to spread, and 5 months after the initial experiments, ten more groups at the firm started experimenting with taking a night off.
It’s not news that there’s an unnecessary idolization of the hustle culture, and that it’s more harmful than helpful. What we need is a movement that makes the shift to a healthier work culture happen.
So for our slack-acceptance movement to work, time off needs to have its spot on our calendars. It’s got to be an unnegotiable part of the routine.
Making it into the mainstream
Ultimately, a movement must go viral. That was, according to Satell, the crucial difference between Otpor and Occupy. Occupy sought to disrupt society, Otpor embedded change within it instead.
Otpor’s actions weren’t designed to alienate the pillars of the regime, but to draw them in. They were respectful toward the police when they got arrested, which helped them win them over. Their satirical pranks drew the attention of business leaders and government bureaucrats. Everyone was a potential ally.
And that’s the true purpose of a movement: not to bring change but to serve as the mere catalyst for it. Once the ideas of Otpor gathered momentum, the people took over.
“To make change happen, gathering a band of passionate enthusiasts is not enough,” says Satell. And being realistic, the only situation where you can expect a band of passionate enthusiasts to succeed is that if they’re planning to destroy a Death Star.
That’s why we can’t alienate top managers and business owners. We need to let them know what’s in it for them. The study at Harvard Business Review and the working philosophy at Basecamp show that it’s not only possible to maintain a work/life balance, but that this balance benefit the productive output of workers, their communication, and their work satisfaction.
Perhaps we’re failing to do this because we don’t understand what “mainstream” really means.
See, everybody should do exercise. But we all culturally understand that we don’t have to train like Usain Bolt. And neither we should try the diet of Dwayne Johnson — because most of us would explode.
We understand that the “mainstream” of exercising does not coincide with the routines of those at the top. The top athletes and performers have much more hardcore routines because they need to reach and stay at their peak.
In the hustle culture, we think the “mainstream” should adopt the same routines as Elon Musk, Gary Vaynerchuck, and the other heralds of the “always-on” mentality. It doesn’t matter if your hustle is selling t-shirts, writing a book, or making vlogs for your Youtube channel: you’re a slacker if you don’t work as much as Elon.
The profitable overthrow of the hustle culture is possible, but we need to culturally establish a new “working mainstream.” Let me offer a rule of thumb: you’re allow to put 80–100 hours a week only if you’re planning to shoot a rocket into space with your sports car stuck inside. Otherwise, take the night off.
Even Stephen Hawking had what he called “productive laziness.” He would leave his office between five and six, then dedicate himself to leisure. Then, if he found a solution for a problem, he stopped listening to music and hanging out with friends and he threw himself into the problem 24 hours a day until it was done.
I said this was not a piece against hard work, for hard work is necessary. But it can also be unnecessary, and that’s the idea that it must be implanted into our collective consciousness: to accept that slacking is not wasting time, but it’s often the mindful vigilance preceding the moment of inspiration. You would want to be well-rested for when the time comes.
All this movement talk and cultural change may sound overwhelming and unrealistic, but as we’ve seen, movements need not to start big. This piece is not meant to be a dramatic call to arms. Just a little catalyst, in part, to counter that toxic Wolf-of-Wall-Street vibe that made a banking intern undergo a 72-hour shift after which was found dead in his shower.
“I gave my life for the hustle and now I’m here” may be cool as a tweet, but not so much as an epitaph.
Let’s start small: you do you, and I do me. Make your purpose clear, establish values, and create a plan for success. Then let the mainstream take all the credit.
Otherwise, don’t forget your pillow on your way to the office.