How a destructive hustle-focused culture is hurting both our professional and personal lives, and what we can do about it.
A few years ago, a term emerged from the annals of the internet, and exploded into mainstream discussion: toxic masculinity. It’s a general shorthand for the harmful set of beliefs and behaviors about what kinds of things men are allowed to do, and what they are supposed to be like. The problem is that these beliefs and behaviors have been harmful to both men and women. Which is why there is now a call to identify and remedy these beliefs and behaviors.
Toxic beliefs and behaviors are not restricted to the realm of gender. Toxicity bleeds out into various other social arenas as well.
Much like there has been a portion of society allowing and/or encouraging a harmful brand of masculinity, there has also been a swath of working people allowing or encouraging a harmful brand of working. It goes by several hashtags (think #hustle, #riseandgrind, #success) and has several patron saints (think Vaynerchuck, Musk, Dorsey). Suffice it to say, it promotes an approach to work that ultimately ends in either exhilarating success, or severe disappointment. Either way, the side-effect is usually burnout.
While the above hashtags have various groups promoting them, there isn’t an official critical name for the mindset. So allow me take a crack at it. I call it toxic taskulinity.
Toxic Taskulinity describes a harmful set of attitudes and behaviors that have become increasingly accepted in our work lives, but that fly in the face of a balance and sustainability — in both business and in life. Unlike toxic masculinity, it knows no gender boundaries. Men and women alike are increasingly embracing this approach to working — much to our eventual detriment.
There are 4 basic features of Toxic Taskulinity:
- The 10x+ mentality
Fetishizing hyper-growth, and exponential returns on investments (whether those investments are time, money, or labor) — often in a very quick time period.
- “Being Always On”
Both an expectation that others will respond to communications immediately, as well as an emphasis on performance and being on display.
- Hustle Fetishism
Idolizing the “hustle” mentality — constant movement and simply doing a lot of stuff; being busy.
- Ostentatious Self-Hacking
A tendency not simply to work on improving oneself, but to do so to the extreme, and in a way that involves quite a bit of showing off and competition.
The 10x+ Mentality
In an essay in the seminal book The Mythical Man-Month, Frederick Brooks presents the idea of a kind of high-performing programmer whose output compared to the balance of the team is about 10:1. Brooks identified these highly efficient programmers as the ones to hire and aspire to promote as leaders of teams — in an effort to squeeze more output out of them.
The idea of 10x has since been co-opted from the world of programming to the world of business in general. At some point the concept of 10:1 efficiency in programming became mapped onto the concept of growth — both in magnitude and in speed. 10x growth seems to have gone from impressive but very uncommon to the expectation — leaving those who aren’t achieving such extreme growth to feel inadequate.
What’s worse, this expectation of 10x-ing has resulted in a flurry of people and companies doing all sorts of unnatural or unethical things in an attempt to claim 10x growth and beyond. A great recent example is the Theranos debacle. Elizabeth Holmes and a small team of Toxic 10x-ers swindled investors and a tech-fetishizing public out of billions of dollars as they tried to build a company that so perfectly exemplified this toxic mentality of rapid and huge growth.
Such is the name of the game when statistical outliers get branded as the new norm. People are inclined to slither their way to being part of that small statistical set, and the more motivated ones will do the kinds of things that leave many of us slack-jawed. But we often forget that we who don’t question this new set of beliefs play a part. We don’t ask questions, we don’t challenge the assumptions and expectations, and so we allow the big offenders to keep acting unchecked — and even supported and cheered on. This is true both within companies, and outside of them.
The “Always On” Allure
Cell phones, email, and text messages have been around for less than half a century, and yet they have become as much a fixture of our lives as have forks, knives, and spoons. Tools tend to shape the people that use them, and in turn, the cultures are shaped as well. Cell phones, email and text messages are no exceptions. We are becoming — in part — what those tools have helped mold us into.
Whatever that shape is, it involves being “always on”. There is an expectation that if we are serious about our work, we should almost always be accessible — whether we choose to be accessed or to access others. We are there, along with our tools, and we can be gotten to, and get down to work, if need be.
I am not above this. I answer emails on Sunday at 11pm. I text colleagues at odd hours. I take phone calls on holidays from customers. It is as much a part of my vocation as the roar of the smith’s blast furnace was to my ancestors a few centuries ago. The expectation is that we are around and can pick up; and if we can’t (or more accurately, won’t) then we’re just not putting forth the expected effort. It’s not that we’ll get fired for it (though some might), it’s that our work ethic — something personal and having to do with our character — is called into question when we’re not “always on”.
This “always on” is more than just being available, it’s also about always being “on” in terms of being performative. Social media — be it pictures, videos, or texts at its base — has encouraged us to be performative creatures. We act and we act out. We act in ways that will show people that we are who we would like to be, or who they would like us to be. This is not to say that it is fake or insincere — it is simply to say that it is a way of acting that is different than when we are alone or in close company. More of our lives are lived in performance than any other generation.
Such an existence has its accompanying anxieties. We sense others performing, and we wonder how our performance compares. Or we — turned off by their performance — attempt to perform in a way that shows others that we are not into such performances. It’s the anti-performance, but it is still a performance.
Hostages to the Hustle
The word “hustle” used to carry a negative connotation — associated with someone cheating others out of money through dishonest and cunning persistence. Somewhere in the past half-century, the tables have turned, and the word has become highly regarded. Hustling is now the word used for hard work, busting one’s ass, going faster, harder, and leaving it all on the field — so to speak. But recently it’s gone even further.
These days, it’s not enough to simply become skilled, knowledgeable, and wise — you must also work harder and longer than everyone else. The basic attitude is this: If the day were to spontaneously grow an additional hour, the hustle mentality would advise that we use it to work that much more.
I would never disparage the concept of hard work. With a worthy goal, and a well thought-out plan, hard work is the mark of someone of solid character — except when every other thing goes by the wayside for the sake of said work. Hard work doesn’t mean a damn thing if you do business like a snake. It also doesn’t mean anything if you cut yourself off from an examined and meaningful existence with other humans. It becomes toxic when you start your own company, get others on board, and coerce them into the same way of thinking.
If you work at a breakneck pace, but do cutthroat business and show a disregard for others, where is the virtue in the hustle? The world has had just about enough of the hustlers who burn bridges and speak out of both sides of their mouths. They may get what they’re after, and in short order — but they often get it at the cost of others, and the cost of the good name of companies and industries.
Toxic taskulinity continues to encourage us to sacrifice everything for the hustle — nights, weekends, family, friends, etc. It’s taught us to adopt a mission that excludes taking the time and mental space to think things through, and getting the buy-in of others (unless they have funding for you). It seems to be leading to a world of solitary entrepreneurial martyrs, who — though they may work themselves to death — hope to one day hope reach the hustler’s heaven, and get their equivalent of 72 virgins (an IPO? Getting bought by Google or Amazon?).
The origin of the word hack, as we used it today can be traced back to the early days of computing. MIT sponsored a club called the Tech Model Railroad Club, which is where many a young enthusiast cultivated their love for clever but seemingly inelegant solutions or workarounds to persistent problems. Those solutions — dubbed “hacks” — became the basis for the way many of us use the term today.
But the idea of “hacking” has made a jump from a linguistic perfect fit to an ill-fitting — and I’d argue — detrimental usage. Consider the primary definition of a hacker, courtesy of the (in)famous The Jargon File:
A person who enjoys exploring the details of programmable systems and how to stretch their capabilities, as opposed to most users, who prefer to learn only the minimum necessary. RFC1392, the Internet Users’ Glossary, usefully amplifies this as: A person who delights in having an intimate understanding of the internal workings of a system, computers and computer networks in particular.
The co-opting of this term outside of the world of engineering is perhaps the most telling. The practice of hacking is built upon the premise of something being both systematized and programmable — but life as we know it has thus far proven to be neither. And yet, part of this new attitude toward life and work includes the belief that we can and should hack our way to better living.
Furthermore, there is an element to it that rears its head any time people with a lot of disposable income get their hands on something: ostentation. That is to say, if something is of interest at all, once the wealthy or notable get wind of it, it becomes something to show off and a forum for competition.
Social media is now flooded with entrepreneurs, and those wishing to be like them, showcasing their increasingly extreme efforts to systematize and program their way to a supposedly better life. Hashtags and spruced-up selfies abound — along with clever product-placements.
The idea is that like the early builders of miniature railroads and computers, there is a body of knowledge that the privileged few can access, and such knowledge allows you to bypass the problems that everyone else faces — to guarantee a shortcut to the #bestlife. The rest of us — struggling as humans always have day to day — see the glamorous portrayals of those supposedly reprogramming amazing and envious lives, and our hearts dip with each new instance of it in our respective news feeds.
What Can We Do?
Far be it from me to offer up a panacea for any modern existential ailment. To do so would be to make the same mistake that we make when we take a hacker’s approach to living. But in some way, we can think a little systemically to begin remedying the situation we find ourselves in with toxic taskulinity. Trying to make everything a system is what got us here, so reverse engineering that is as good a place as any to start. Here are a few modest suggestions to overcome the tendencies toward toxicity, as we try to eke out a professional life.
Think of profitability and sustainability, rather than growth.
No matter what kinds of disruptions and innovations young and hungry entrepreneurs come up with, the basic principles of business still apply. A business needs to be profitable and sustainable. If a business isn’t both of those things, then it’s merely a matter of time before it collapses under its own weight or momentum.
The same principle holds true for an individual lifestyle. Going fast and hard in an attempt to grow exponentially can yield unbelievable short-term results. But those results are “unbelievable” for a reason: they can’t be sustained.
In a fantastic essay on the topic entitled “Why We Choose Profit”, Basecamp founder and CEO Jason Fried outlines the many reasons why profitability and sustainability beats growth and valuation every time. The whole essay is worth reading, but a particularly great line is this:
Typically when people talk about FU money, they think about millions. Once you have millions you have FU money. Well, actually, all you need is $1 in annual profit. Because once your company is self-sustaining and profitable, and you don’t owe anyone anything (in my book, if you owe money you aren’t truly profitable), then you can say FU to just about anything. You don’t need to do anything you don’t want to do when you don’t have to rely on anyone else to be sustainable. You don’t have to dance on anyone else’s stage, or play by anyone else’s rules. FU money isn’t about buying an island, it’s about being an island — your own sustainable entity.
Again, this applies whether you’re a person on your own or at the helm of a business. Be profitable and sustainable, and you own your own destiny. That’s something that constantly hustling for growth just can’t get you.
Slow down periodically
Just like I don’t blame my 4 year-old for running around, screaming, and throwing toys when the rest of her friends at a birthday party are doing it — I don’t blame the cavalcade of hustlers and growth-hackers out there for working at a burnout, breakneck pace. But I do urge them — like I urge my daughter — to slow down, take a few breaths, and think.
My most crippling deficiency is a tendency to get drawn so deep into thought that I fail to take action until the last minute. This can be as bad as going all-out toward a brick wall of burnout, so I will not put my behavior on a pedestal here. But what I can say is that the mindset of toxic taskulinity favors action — quick action. But the tendency to think long and hard before action seems to have taken a back seat.
Even if you’re a busy entrepreneur — especially if you are one — it cannot be bad for you to set aside time each week to reflect. Review what you’ve done, what you’re thinking about doing, and what the long-term impact might be. Think not just of the immediate consequences, but a few rounds into the future. One hour per week can be enough — hopefully a little more each quarter. It’s simply time to slow down, and reflect without pressure or the hustle and bustle to influence your thinking.
Even if you don’t think this will produce better results (which I highly doubt), it will at least be better for your mental health. Even the most high-performance engines cannot run at their maximum RPMs indefinitely; they need to slow down to stay at a healthy operating state. The same is true of people and businesses.
Embrace the mentality of “Less, But Better”
The thing about the hustle mentality is that though many hustlers are invoking the language of lean and productivity culture, they’re rarely being lean at all. Rather, they simply create bloat in their lives by taking on too much, and priding themselves on how many boxes they can check off each day before collapsing in a heap on their desks.
A better approach would be to steal a page from the book of famed designer Dieter Rams, who coined the design philosophy “less, but better”. It worked well for him designing iconic products at Braun, and it can work just as well for designing a daily or yearly routine for you. Aim to do really important things, but question whether every single email, phone call, and supposedly “urgent” communication really needs to be answered. Often times, being “always on” for those kinds of demands on your time and attention is basically like giving a binging addict more cash. Sure, they stop bothering you, and are grateful for what you did, but you’re simply feeding their destructive problem.
Work on yourself earnestly, but quietly
There are enough influencers posing for selfies at gyms and bragging about how long they fast for each day. Nobody will notice, or think less of you, for simply working on bettering yourself in solitude. Likewise, no one will lose respect for you if you do it in a non-glamorous, tried-and-true way — rather than some flashy hacker-iffic fashion.
If you happen across good techniques, ways of thinking, or best practices — sharing them is a great service to others. After all, that’s basically what my whole game is. But there’s a difference between offering up help (i.e., serving others) and flaunting how well you’re (supposedly) doing, and how much of an opportunity you have to spend time and money on life-hacks. In the end, such inevitably empty ostentation hurts more than it helps.
If Nothing Else, Be More Thoughtful
This message will likely fall on some percentage of deaf ears. Devoted hustlers — like devoted zealots of any ideology — will hold on to the four elements of toxic taskulinity with full faith. They will swear that in order to make it, you need to embrace 10x growth and beyond, be always on, always be hustling, and continue to push yourself like a machine. There will be little we can say to dissuade them — and why shouldn’t that be true? After all, they’re the ones driving the expensive cars and taking selfies on picturesque islands that they are leasing for the month.
But to some extent, there is a part of each human that must question any kind of doctrine of faith like toxic taskulinity. There has to be an element that resists the consistent (and sometimes belligerent) push in this direction — in any direction. I guess all I’m asking is that at a time when society seems more receptive to pushing back against toxic sets of beliefs and behaviors, we be willing to do it in all sorts of arenas. Almost all of us work, so why not start there?