The Hustle Trap and How to Escape It

We’ve become consumed by hustle culture but there is another way

Melissa Miles McCarter
Jun 7 · 7 min read
Photo by Tom Chen on Unsplash

Hustle culture is all around us. Many of us are defined by hustle. Being a hustler is considered laudable. In fact, some argue you should have more than one side hustle.

We might even believe that success is impossible without “hustle.”

However, hustle culture can be detrimental to our mental health and become a roadblock to our goals. Despite the danger of hustle, it can be hard to let go of.

Just the word hustle is a problem.

Hustle in itself as a word implies hurrying up and making something happen. There’s an urgency to it that’s unsettling. Rather than slowly or incrementally building up achievement, you are supposed to succeed RIGHT NOW.

By hustle, people don’t just mean urgent success. They mean an urgent self-determination and ingenuity involved in work. It’s similar to the “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” narrative. Hustling implies that as long as you work hard, you are responsible for your success.

This approach side-steps cooperation and building on other people’s accomplishments.

Thus, hustle can be very lonely. But, success doesn’t actually work in a social vacuum. Maybe it isn’t readily apparent, but substantial long-term success can’t happen in isolation.

Hustle also focuses on the end result.

The single-minded urgent need to accomplish focuses on the end result, rather than the means. With hustle, the focus is on making something happen, rather than finding intrinsic value in the process.

Often, with hustling, the focus has to be a specific end: making money. There’s nothing wrong with that end. We all need to in order to survive. But, often people default to hustle, feeling like it’s the only way to make money.

In fact, hustle can go hand-in-hand with get-rich-quick schemes. When there’s this urgency to making money, feeling like you must hustle in order to survive, taking a short cut is hard to resist. However, this can be short-sighted and possibly detrimental to long-term success.

Hustle is very American.

Americans in particular have the drive to succeed embedded in our culture. Because of globalization and global competition, this emphasis on success is more and more visible in other countries as well. No matter where hustle occurs, hustle has particular American qualities to it.

These qualities include:

  • The idea that you can make something work without relying on anyone else.
  • The idea that success is something you need to strive for.
  • The idea that achievement is inherently valuable.

These ideas propagate the American narrative that, if you work hard enough and with enough urgency, you will succeed. However, this narrative often ignores the importance of work/life balance and the need for recreation in avoiding burn-out.

This is in contrast to other parts of the world where there are longer vacations, shorter work hours, and less time at work over all.

Hustle can be addictive.

If you believe that the only way to survive is to hustle, it’s understandable that you would want to do it. But even when people can afford not to hustle, they may feel driven to do so.

One example of this type of hustle is with Elon Musk. He has described his habit of sleeping at work to stay as productive as possible. This isn’t just when he’s working to build his business, but when he’s at the height of his success.

A defense of this display of hustle might be: “But that’s how he stays a success.” However, this drive to succeed even when you are one of the richest people in the world points out that hustle isn’t just linked to pure survival.

The drive to succeed provides a refuge from the pressure of one’s personal life in the same way that addictive substances do. Losing yourself in work can be as much as an escape as any drug. The belief that you must hustle can be a cover for this escape. It’s a justification of your dissociation from the demands of daily life.

Hustle is in our work culture.

This belief that you have to hustle is detrimental to one’s mental health. Unfortunately, it’s a common belief for many people. It’s hard to escape it because the belief permeates our work culture.

In fact, there are whole professions that propagate hustle culture. For example, I see this all the time as a writer. A prominent refrain in the writing community is that, in order to succeed, you need to hustle.

The emphasis on hustle can be seen in these maxims:

  • You need to take promoting your own work into your own hands because no one else will do it for you.
  • You need to be writing as much as you can at all times in order to get ahead.
  • You need to put out as much out, and as often, as you can, no matter the stress it causes you.

Part of the sense of urgency in this profession is due to: 1) there’s so much competition, 2) many writers are self-employed and 3) the pay can be low. These conditions are ripe for hustle.

There’s anxiety-provoking aspects of the writer hustle.

For example, you can’t help but feel like you need to hustle if you feel like you are only as good as your last piece and it can all go away without diligent ongoing urgency and commitment.

Hustle isn’t limited to being a writer. Many other professions emphasize hustle to more or less degree. But hustle is hard to escape in any work or endeavor where you want to achieve, especially when it is important to your day-to-day survival.

Hustle is dangerous.

In terms of flourishing as a writer, or in other professions too, this emphasis on hustle isn’t very helpful. In fact, it can be dangerous to our mental health.

When you give in to the pressure to hustle, you are setting yourself up for always being dissatisfied. You are at risk for burning out. That’s because:

Hustle culture, an often-glamorized concept of constantly working and being busy, causes many people to take on more work than they can reasonably manage (Boynton).

When you feel overwhelmed and stressed out by hustle, it’s hard to be mentally healthy.

It’s a hustle trap.

You are trapped by the idea that if you work long enough and hard enough, you will succeed.

In this approach, you get trapped in focusing on the end result, rather than the process. Thus, creative acts become more a means to an end (success) rather than an end in itself.

So, how do we escape the pressure to hustle?

The main way is to accept that there is never a true end to working hard. There can never be enough. You will always be less successful than someone else. There’s always going to be someone who out-hustles you.

Obviously, we feel urgency when we hustle in order to survive. But even under these circumstances, the hustle trap can end up burning us out, which then makes even harder to meet our basic needs. Hustle can end up being detrimental to our mental health and our bottom line.

It is important to note that the pressure to hustle isn’t limited to over-achievers. Even when we feel like we are being lazy or not making the progress we would like to, we are being affected negatively by this hustle trap.

You can escape the hustle trap.

Shifting your perspective away from hustle, to trying to live a balanced life where you enjoy the process as much as any end result, is essential for success and mental health.

This might sound easier said than done.

It’s difficult when hustle is promoted as the only way to succeed. There needs to be more role-models for achievement beyond common hustle narratives in our culture.

Until the romanticizing of hustle is curbed culturally, it’s up to us to the break out of the hustle trap.

There are a few concrete steps we can take to not succumb to that trap:

Taking breaks.

It might mean carving out a only few minutes a day during particularly difficult or busy times. It’s one of the reasons smoke breaks exist. Just think of it instead as a hustle break.

Taking stock.

How much is what you are doing in your hustle because you have to, you want to, or you are driven to? There’s going to be a certain amount of the first in any endeavor. And, hopefully, there’s a certain amount of the second as well. But, feeling driven can be a sign that your hustle is taking a toll on your mental health.

Reflecting on your path.

Ask yourself: am I on the path that is most authentic to who I am and will fulfill me in the long run? Of course, there’s going to be detours from the desired path because of necessity or circumstances. But, being aware of how your current hustle might actually be taking you off your desired path can help you reorient yourself.

Asking for help.

Success doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Neither does self-care. It’s not good for your mental health to feel like you are alone in your day-to-day hustle. This help might take the form of having a sense of community, or actual advice or assistance from others. The key here is believing that you don’t have to do things only on your own to achieve your goals.

Hustle doesn’t have to define your life: life is more than having to hustle.

(Thanks to Larry G. Maguire for his reflection on the rhetoric of hustle culture.)

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Melissa Miles McCarter

Written by

Mommy who writes on the side about mental health, family, pop culture, feminism, and more. Editor of Popoff.us — Subscribe for even more: brieflymelissa.com

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +800K followers.

Melissa Miles McCarter

Written by

Mommy who writes on the side about mental health, family, pop culture, feminism, and more. Editor of Popoff.us — Subscribe for even more: brieflymelissa.com

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +800K followers.

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