A week ago I was sitting poolside in Palm Spring working my way through the New York Times and next-leveling my tan. I’m the sort of Times reader who’s in it for the fun stuff: the Magazine, the Travel section, Arts & Leisure. Maybe the Book Review if I’m feeling intellectual. So I had no intention of perusing the Business section.
But then, from behind my movie-star sunglasses I spied a fascinating title: “The Drudge Report: How did millennial workaholism become an aspirational lifestyle?” I’m obsessed with all psychological phenomena having to do with millennials (You’re so mysterious! Such exotic birds.) and I’m on an absolute crusade against the busy-ness epidemic that’s engulfed our era. There was no way I wasn’t going to read a paragraph or two.
Fifteen minutes later, I had devoured the whole 3-page spread with my mouth hanging wide open, huffing and harrumphing and muttering Can you believe this shit?!? under my breath like someone’s grouchy uncle Al.
This piece on the rise of Hustle Culture exposed my non-millennial brain to such pithy phrases as Rise and Grind, Hustle Harder, and (a personal favorite) Don’t stop when you’re tired. Stop when you’re done.
Or perhaps: when you’re bleeding out of your eyeballs?
What in the actual fuck is happening here people?
If a whole (very large, very influenceable) segment of the population is buying into the #ThankGodIt’sMonday war cry of workaholism, we’ve got a problem.
Now I’m not advocating we while away our days eating Taco Bell and watching reality TV on the couch. Or join some giant hippie commune that devotes itself to brewing organic kombucha and smoking copious quantities of pot. (Unless of course that’s your jam, in which case, turn on, tune in and carry on.)
I get it. I’ve been there. I graduated from college with a bachelor’s in Anxiety, Insecurity and Overwork. I’m no stranger to 80+ hour workweeks and an insouciant, I’ll-sleep-when-I’m-dead outlook on life.
But here’s the thing. If I was miraculously transported back in time (a common daydream of mine, by the way—I spend a lot of time fantasizing about how much of a badass I’d be if I went through college with the knowledge and confidence of a 40-year-old), I’d do it SO DIFFERENTLY.
First of all, I wouldn’t be obsessed with graduating summa cum laude from an Ivy League institution. Back in the day, I thought this meant something. I’m embarrassed to admit, I thought it meant everything. And I sacrificed my health and happiness to make it happen. If I was an undergrad again, I’d learn for the love of learning. I’d coast in areas that didn’t matter. I’d realize that there’s no degree in the world that unlocks the secret of a good life.
Next up, I’d worship at the temple of sleep. I’d get a solid 8-9 hours every night. I often wonder how much saner and less anxious a person I’d have been 20 years ago if I’d given even half a fuck about getting enough sleep. Needing sleep is not a marker of weakness or work ethic. Despite what Elon Musk might have to say on the matter, sleep and rest are the building blocks of wellbeing and mental performance. (Also, have you seen Elon Musk lately? No offense to the guy since he does seem to be a legit genius and all, but he’s looking a bit worse for wear.)
This time-traveling message in a bottle to myself would also include the advice to pursue balance and to work smarter instead of longer, or even harder. There’s a time and a place for hard work and even long hours, but killing yourself 24/7 and venerating it as “crushing life” will catch up with you eventually. Sending work emails at 3 AM to impress your manager is not the answer. Scarfing a soggy ham sandwich hunched over your keyboard like Quasimodo does not make you a Bawse.
I’m not alone on this BTW. As the author of our Times article mentions, there’s a lot of “data showing long hours improve neither productivity nor creativity.”
And still we cling to the myth that the answer is to “hustle harder”.
What if the answer was actually to “hustle smarter”? Or nuttier still, to stop “hustling” all together? What if the key to a happy, fulfilling life was to both look for work you find fulfilling in some way (let’s be real: not every individual on the planet is going to “do what they love”) and to seek the value in the work that you do? Almost all jobs can be done with dignity and pride, especially if you focus on how they help others, or make the world a little brighter.
What if the Big Secret was not to make work the driver of your every action and the justification for living a stressed-out, social-media-scrolling existence?
I’m going to balance precariously on a fairly unpopular limb and say the answer is to create space for things like reading the New York Times poolside in Palm Springs. For charting the hidden corners of Paris with your camera at dawn. With no laptop and no phone and all your social media accounts uninstalled.
The answer is to make time for escaping to places that fill you with wonder and delight. Whether that means wandering the world for a year or taking a sunny afternoon off for a backyard picnic with your kids. It doesn’t have to be fancy. And it doesn’t have to be far. The road to greater productivity and creativity is paved with Out of Office notifications. Because the key to doing great things, in life and at work, is to create the space to actually have great ideas.