Escaping the "Hustle" Mentality

Like many people, I suddenly found myself with a lot of extra time when most of my regular activities were canceled due to COVID-19. But I have a confession to make: as the lives of people around the world ground to a halt, I found myself feeling incredibly relieved. For the past two years, I had been running myself ragged. Quarantining forced me to take a break from my hectic pace—and it made me begin to question why I felt so compelled to live this way, anyway. 

After a lot of introspection, I came to an unhappy conclusion. For my entire life, I had been a proud perfectionist and overachiever. I wholeheartedly believed that my unwavering work ethic and willingness to sacrifice everything from sleep to time with friends and family would make me “successful.” In actuality, it made me exhausted and miserable. 

A photo of scrabble words assembled to spell

The truth is, hustle culture, or the emphasis American culture places on conventional success—wealth and academic or professional excellence—while turning leisure activities or passion projects into profitable “side hustles” is incredibly harmful. The “hustle” mindset convinces us we should always be chasing the next big thing, making it impossible to ever feel that we are or have enough. America is obsessed with productivity and busyness as status symbols, leaving no room for a work-life balance. Even as states and counties across America settled into COVID quarantines, advice circulated online about staying productive and working toward goals from home. I’m not saying we shouldn’t put effort into our schoolwork or careers. But I think it’s worth questioning our definition of success and why we are so intensely focused on excelling—including whether that may stem from a place of insecurity. 

I understand now that my workaholic attitude stemmed from a scarcity mindset, a false belief that I never was or had enough. I used academic achievements and other external metrics for success to validate myself until they came to define me and underpin my entire identity. I was always in competition with my peers, quietly evaluating their accomplishments and getting upset when I didn’t measure up. When I came to UC Irvine and couldn’t receive recognition in the same way I could in the microcosm of my high school, I felt totally lost, and I know I can’t be the only student who felt this way.

I think there are a few main reasons for this phenomenon. The U.S. has a long history of celebrating self-sufficiency, and as Americans we celebrate those who forge their own way to rise from obscurity to success. In recent years, social media has increased access to the types of wealthy “self-made” individuals that epitomize American success like never before, allowing millions of people a peek into their lavish lifestyles—and the ability to make comparisons with their own lives. At the same time, the cost of healthcare, housing and education has skyrocketed, making it difficult to maintain a middle-class lifestyle, much less the “ideal” affluent one. When conventional wisdom teaches that with hard work, individuals can escape the struggles of their own lives to join the ranks of the wealthy, it is no wonder many Americans are overscheduled and exhausted, constantly striving for something more. 

Chandler Long Day

Certainly, it is possible to achieve great things through hard work, but prioritizing work over physical and mental health is never healthy and encourages burnout rather than personal fulfillment. After reflecting on this subject, I’ve decided to let go of my hustle mentality and make space to work on goals that genuinely reflect my values and that I’m intrinsically motivated to work towards. I’m giving up on my desire to make myself extraordinarily successful in order to embrace the unique qualities I already possess. My new objective is simply to enjoy my life as it is, even as I work toward goals for my future—a fulfilling career that still leaves room for a rich personal life. Though rebuilding my entire mindset from scratch is hard work, it is hard work that leads to growth. Real growth.