The Cult of The Hustle

When did performative workaholism become a lifestyle?

Why Are Young People Pretending to Love Work?, Erin Griffith, The New York Times, January 26, 2019

The always-on, always-on-call, always producing, always sharing, always hustling, maximizing ROI life.

The whole thing feels like an energy suck in one direction.

It’s not just young people. I’m seeing it in my cohort too.

Hustle, grind, climb the ladder, stay on top, keep informed, serve all.

The ones who can’t (or won’t) keep up are beginning to opt out.

Those of us who have hit the middle of our lives, I’m coming to believe, got lucky.

We remember a time when we had to find pay phones, couldn’t take our work home with us, couldn’t be on-call all the time, had to go to libraries, bookstores, encyclopedias, and newspapers to find information. The technologies weren’t there.

We also went to college when it was much less expensive. We are not burdened with hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loans.

Many of us are already at the point where we have proven ourselves. Most of us have already found our place in the world (even if some of us aren’t entirely happy about it).

I don’t think I’m a complete Luddite. The access and visibility to more options is awesome.

However, for those of us in middle age who find ourselves overwhelmed by the technologies and expectations of our current culture, we have a lived model of what happens when we don’t have the electronic leash hounding us 24/7.

Deeply consider why you are doing what you are doing.

How is what you are doing working for YOU?

It’s one thing if you are driven by an idea and voluntarily hustling to make that idea real. Working in the flow state when time passes without you knowing it.

It’s another to have an entire culture expecting you to move ever-faster and working to channel YOUR flow state into THEIR agenda.

I feel for those who come behind us. We, at least, know a different lived experience.


I’m heartened by a progressively louder conversation around human energy and how the way we are working isn’t sustainable.

Change is going to require personal responsibility around managing your energy.

Re-learning the cycle of growth and rest.

It’s not a technological problem and will not be a technological solution.

We need to figure this out for ourselves in an unsupportive container that keeps preaching the hustle and grind and “ever-increasing energy” and growth at all costs.

For myself, it’s time for me to opt out of “performative workaholism.”

Life is too short.


Resources

Thanks to Julie Dirksen and the Nerdy Shop Talk Facebook Group (Closed) for these resources.

Why Are Young People Pretending to Love Work, The New York Times (2019)

Palaces in Time: Designing Against Productivity, Sebastian Deterding, MIT Media Lab (2015, 1 hr 15 min video)

Push vs Pull

Most of us live our lives in Push systems.

Push systems – People push work towards you. You do it.

Pull systems – You pull work as you have the capacity to do it.

In IT and Project Management, there is a trend towards “Pull” systems – at least in theory.

Agile techniques are based on the assumption that the people doing the work can/will pull the appropriate amount of work as they have the capacity to complete it.

The challenge (and much of the failure) in implementing any Agile or pull-based system is in changing the agreements and relationships between the people in the system.

People used to doing the pushing rebel against suddenly being told “no.”

The people suddenly tasked with saying “no” get uncomfortable – especially when they don’t trust the support they have (if they have any at all).

The one time I saw an Agile process implemented successfully in a legacy environment – it took a strong VP who was brought in specifically to make this change, supportive leadership, a couple of willing clients, and about 3 years of constant reinforcement.

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Pull systems start by taking a realistic look at capacity and pulling tasks as the capacity frees up.

We estimate that capacity in the early sprints and adjust as we learn more about patterns. How much is getting done per time block? What is the complexity of what is getting done? What are the variables that determine the time it takes to get things done?

The requestor is asked to prioritize what to tackle first with the promise that it will get done in a timely manner once it is pulled.

The advantage of the pull system to the requestor is that once activity towards completing their request starts, there is more assurance that it will be completed in a timely manner. Their request gets the attention it deserves.

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Moving my life from a “push” system to a “pull” system is still a work in progress and something of an experiment.

It has required me saying a lot of “no” to a lot of things that I ordinarily would have said “yes” to. Sometimes, I feel like Queen Naysayer. Not a comfortable position.

As I play with this idea, I find myself having reservations as to how applicable this model can be most people.

  1. I don’t have kids, so I can’t speak to how one changes those relationships or whether it is even desirable to move from a push system to a pull system for what your kids need.
  2. Is this something that can be done in a corporate working environment? What would that look like?

Still, I think there is something in this idea – especially for those of us working through injury, illness, and circumstance (such as caregiving).

I’d love to start a discussion on this. Let me know your thoughts.

Accounting for Energy

I’ve been thinking about personal energy and our plans recently.

Often, we tend to make our plans based on our best case scenario.

We’re feeling healthy, energetic, our best selves. We then make our plans and set our timelines accordingly.

Then we beat ourselves up when the average to bad days kick in and we don’t get done what we intended to get done.

Energy management is particularly acute for those of us suffering from chronic conditions or extended illnesses.

We have good days and bad days. Sometimes, it’s tough to predict which days will be good and which ones aren’t. Sometimes, we don’t even know until we get started and realize that we either a) feel better than we thought or b) don’t. Sadly, b happens more frequently (at least in my life) than a.

I’ve been experimenting with leveraging the Scrum project management concept of “story points” as it applies to my personal projects.

First is figuring out the complexity of what I’m trying to do. Both the cognitive load required (high/average/mindlessly repetitive) and the amount of focused time I will likely need (lots/some/”this will just take a few minutes”)

Second is figuring out my energy patterns and what a realistic cadence looks like.

In Scrum – each sprint has a set of available points based on the cadence set by the team. In a personal context, you have a set of available energy points based on your productivity patterns.

You then look at your “backlog” (or the “to-do” list) and assign “story points” (or level of effort points) to each task.

Ideally, you match the tasks you intend to get done that sprint (or week) with the energy points you have available and the priority of the task.

Example: I have a high story point task I need to get done this week (such as “Finish Chapter 3 of the book” – high complexity/cognitive load AND requiring lots of focus time). If I’m going to get that task done, I shouldn’t plan to get much else done beyond previously scheduled client work (which also takes up energy points). I might find a mindless, low focus, need-to-get-done task from my backlog to fill in extra time and get it off my plate – but only if I underestimated either my energy or the amount of effort the main task takes.

I find keeping track of my to-do list (what I planned to do that day) and my done list (what I actually did) over a week or two helpful in determining what I can realistically get done. If I’ve never done this type of tracking before, I would consider doing it over 4 or more weeks – to account for any hormone fluctuations, illnesses, life patterns, etc. This tracking sets up the “energy points.”

Tracking my productivity patterns becomes especially important when I am going through a health flare-up, such as the back injury I was fighting last year or a visit from the Cookie-Monster Bathrobe.

Instead of beating myself up over what I haven’t managed to get done, I use that information to set realistic weekly sprints for myself and resetting expectations.

Any big change in your health or stress levels should trigger a re-evaluation of your energy points.

Right now, I find myself saying “no” a lot more frequently – only because I don’t have my usual number of energy points to work with on top of having high story point tasks on my plate.

I’d rather disappoint someone up front and find them a different resource that will help them with their issue than to promise something I can’t deliver. My ego hates this. I want to be able to do all the things at the pace my ego wants to set (which is instantaneous).

When it gets right down to it, maintaining positive relationships by doing what I say I’m going to do when I say I’m going to do it to the best of my ability is more important to me than serving someone poorly.

What are your current energy levels?

What tasks are on your plate, how complex are they, and when are the deadlines?

How do these match up in your life?

Let me know if you find this framework helpful.

The Power of Others

My brother, my partner, a friend and I sat around the table furrowing our brows at our respective cards. My partner and I were on the verge of winning a highly competitive game of Spades. Highly competitive because my brother and my partner are highly competitive people. The friend and I served as participants in their competition. I hadn’t played Spades in decades, the friend had never played at all.

In the version of Spades we played, you communicate to your partner and the table how many hands you think you can win at the beginning of each round. If you are focused on the others at the table, you can gain a significant amount of information:

  • How strong is their hand? Do they have a lot of high cards?
  • How strong is your partner’s hand?
  • Are they going to try to do something fancy – such as try to win NO hands – to get themselves more points?

My partner and I had a couple of advantages over my brother and our friend.

  • I had played before (admittedly a long time ago and I wasn’t very good).
  • My partner and I live together and know each other VERY well. I could use that information to interpret what was going on during game play and help his position if he is looking to win or lose a hand.
  • I also know my brother well enough to predict some of his moves.

This background knowledge allowed me to focus more on what others were doing and how they were playing the game. I could then make decisions based on that information. It wasn’t about me winning hands.

Successful change, whether personal or professional, starts from where you are at and continues based on what you are observing in the environment.

It’s not about “beating” someone else. Even in our highly competitive Spades game, everyone stayed more focused on quality time together and having fun in each other’s company over winning hands. No temper-tantrums ensued (thankfully). We all stayed focus on the reason for the game.

What we each did was observe, check our initial strategy against our individual and collective objective, decide what to do, then act based on that information.

Result – a fun evening and a stronger bond.


Resources:

Adam Brandenburger and Barry Nalebuff, The Right Game: Use Game Theory to Shape Strategy, Harvard Business Review, March-April 1995.