I set off from my house at 1:10 PM last Thursday, accompanied by my reMarkable tablet, but without my phone.
There was a park about 10 minutes north of my house. I memorized the directions to get there just before leaving.
Although I second-guessed myself a few times along the way — an inconvenient consequence of over-relying on our phone’s GPS — I finally reached the edge of the park.
There was a wooden bench overlooking a school’s playground, with trees and bushes blocking the view partially. Not a single soul in sight.
I smiled without smiling, walked up to the bench, and sat down.
To… do nothing.
The Rise of Hustle Culture
The word hustle, currently used to describe the act of working hard, has traversed many lives.
It comes from the Dutch word hutselen, meaning to shake or toss, derived from a game in the late 1700s called hustle-cap.
As it entered the Western lexicon, it evolved to mean a few different things: “moving quickly”, “pushing someone roughly”, and “engaging in illegal activities.”
It also had one more association whose origin is unknown: the association of “hustle” — or lack thereof — with blackness and laziness.
“The average colored man does not know how to hustle,” Timothy Thomas Fortune wrote for The Southwestern Christian Advocate, a Methodist African American newspaper, in 1888. Fortune, a black economist himself, argued that black men enjoy “exceptional opportunities,” like public libraries and free night schools, but were too “ignorant” to take advantage of them. In short, he concluded, “colored men have themselves oftenest to blame.” (For what? He doesn’t say.) — NPR
The idea that African Americans had themselves to blame (instead of massive systemic oppression) took shape, so the word “hustle” held appeal to them as it acted as an escape route out of a disadvantaged life.
If I hustled and worked twice as hard, I just might be able to break over the glass ceiling.
This notion spread throughout the 20th century, as poor African Americans picked up whatever “side-hustle” they could to make ends meet. Eventually, black rappers began using the term in their lyrics.
Not just using the term, but also glorifying it.
Jay Z writes in one of his songs,
“I’m a hustler homie / you a customer, cronie. Got some dirt on my shoulder. Could you brush it off for me?”
Such songs continued to make “hustling” appealing, by relating the idea with self-empowerment, resilience, and being one’s own boss.
Unsurprisingly, startups and corporations got wind of this and began incorporating it into their values.
“To entice potential workers, online and app-based services market the tireless labor of hustling as an empowering act in itself. Handy, a house cleaning service, promises “independent service professionals” that they’ll make “great pay.” DoorDash, a food delivery service, claims, “As a dasher, you can be your own boss.” By implying that the hustle functions within a meritocratic system, companies are able to fashion low wage, inconsistent work with minimal benefits as freedom and self-reliance.” — NPR
In the past decade, hustling has penetrated all layers of corporate America.
The search “hustle t-shirts” on Amazon bring up 200+ designs that glorify hustling, including quotes such as “Eat. Sleep. Hustle. Repeat”, “You can’t deposit excuses”, and “Hustle until your haters ask if you’re hiring.”
Young millennials and older Gen Z’s entering the work culture ceremoniously stay late at the office, lest their managers think that they’re not working hard enough.
Many entrepreneurs, especially in Silicon Valley, think it’s part of their job to give up one’s health and wellness for the sake of a greater good, and in the process also (unintentionally) coerce their employees into doing so.
Personally, I’ve been a victim of this mindset as well when I juggled both a full-time job and writing a book in 2020, along with moving houses thrice in 9 months. I was not motivated by promotions at work or making more money. Rather, I needed an outlet for my creative energy, and my job — which I felt no passion for — didn’t give me that. So I resorted to writing a book and building a name for myself by doing so. Still, in the end, it ended up affecting my sleep and mental health severely for a few months. It reached a peak where I was unable to shut my brain off. I would lie in bed for two hours sometimes, trying to sleep. I tried listening to Calm sleep stories, deep sleep playlists, and even counting back from 1000.
Nothing seemed to work.
Eventually, after I published my book, it got better as I stopped working 15-hour days.
In all of these examples, what we’ve managed to do is package something incredibly unhealthy inside a pretty box that makes us feel like we’re the rulers of our destiny.
And I think part of the allure of hustle culture is how addictive it gets after a point.
Why Hustling Is Addictive
The idea of hustling is addictive because the alternative is harder.
Oh, much harder.
Because the alternative is to do nothing.
As I sat down on the wooden bench to do nothing last Thursday, I looked ahead into the football field at first. I watched a young boy practicing a goal-kick with what looked like his coach. After a few kicks, he fell down to the ground (dramatically) and signaled to his coach that he was done for the day. Off they left. Poof.
I switched my attention to observe the paint on the playground next. Huh. It was both a football field and a baseball field.
I turned to my right to then observe the bench I was perched on. Then to my left. Then right again. I became curious… how was this bench made? [Pause] Oh! I see tons of wooden screws. [Pause] But I don’t understand how the screw connects the parts. I thought about that for a while. Hmm, I want to google this when I am home.
Eventually, I took out my reMarkable and began drawing the wooden bench. Then, I journaled for a few minutes. Kept aside the device and looked ahead again.
This time, I looked at the leaves of the Pacific Madrone tree (identified later) in front of me. The bark was a dark shade of red, with the sunlight creating playful gradients all over it. I looked at the tiny, tiny leaves for a while. Oh, some leaves are brown and dying, while others are green and fresh. Why so? [Pause] Perhaps they don’t get enough sunlight because they’re huddled below other leaves?
After staring at them for a while, I took out my reMarkable again and began noting down some ideas for the book I’m working on.
The charge was at 4%. Oops. I scribbled down the ideas quickly, with fervor. Soon enough, the device gave up and went to sleep. And I was left to once again float in the sea of observation. I closed my eyes to meditate for a while. Alas, a barking dog wouldn’t let me. Every time I tried to recite the mantra to go to the depths of my mind, the dog’s bark would pull my mind to the turbulent top. It was a frustrating dance. Sigh.
It felt like it was time to depart.
I stood, stretching my arms and legs, and began the journey back home.
As I reached home, the clock struck 3:10 PM.
What felt like an eternity had only been 2 hours.
In How To Do Nothing, the author — Jenny Odell — starts with the following,
Nothing is harder to do than nothing. In a world where our value is determined by our productivity, many of us find our every last minute captured, organized, or appropriated as a financial resource by the technologies we use daily. […] For some, there may be a kind of engineer’s satisfaction in the streamlining and networking of our entire lived experience. And yet a certain nervous feeling, of being overstimulated and unable to sustain a train of thought, lingers. Though it can be hard to grasp before it disappears behind the screen of distraction, this feeling is in fact urgent.”
Sitting on the park bench, doing nothing for almost 2 hours was not easy.
In fact, I didn’t do nothing.
I observed; I wrote; I drew.
Even so, it was hard. As time dilated and I struggled to swim in the sea of observation, my mental monologue became louder and louder. The more time I spend by myself, the clearer it becomes what a non-stop chatter my mind really is.
But, I enjoyed those 2 hours. The same way you enjoy a strenuous workout even though it’s hard.
Actually, let me rephrase: I enjoyed those 2 hours because it was hard. The dopamine I felt at the end of it was earned, unlike the dopamine “hit” we feel every time we look at social media and our phones, which sneak up on us effortlessly.
As capitalism, consumerism, advertisements, knowledge work and social media combine to create the perfect poison cocktail, it leaves us feeling drunk from hustling, never wanting to stop.
To stop would mean to not work;
To stop would mean to sit down;
To stop would mean to observe;
To stop would mean to do nothing.
And to do nothing… is painful.
Except, it’s the pain we need to endure if we want to escape our overstimulated lives.
It’s Time To Stop
A research study that I keep going back to often is the 80-year happiness study by Harvard University.
Scientists undertook a bold experiment in 1938 (during the Great Depression): to track the health of 268 Harvard sophomores for the next 80 years. Of those 268 men, only 19 were still alive in 2017. The researchers who were part of this study pored over vast medical records, conducted hundreds of in-person interviews, and analyzed copious questionnaire results to arrive at some powerful conclusions.
“Close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives, the study revealed. Those ties protect people from life’s discontents, help to delay mental and physical decline, and are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or even genes. That finding proved true across the board among both the Harvard men and the inner-city participants.”
Taking care of your body is important, but tending to your relationships is a form of self-care too. The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80.”
I know the statements Take care of your body and Nurture your relationships are overused. It feels trite to me as I write this.
Yet, how is it that a third of people in the United States suffer from loneliness? How is it that our mental health is on a decline? Why has stress become an epidemic?
Clearly, hearing something repeated over and over is not effective anymore.
I don’t yet know what is, but I hope this article plants a seed of thought for you to maybe work less, take care of yourself more, reach out to a friend, or just do nothing for a while.