“Rise and grind”: Reflections on hustle culture

By Sara Jhong

While the Covid-19 crisis has been difficult on everyone, from students to healthcare workers to parents to teachers, many quarantined individuals have been trying to make the most of their time indoors. Quarantine has brought out hobbies in most of us: From baking to painting, many people are taking time out of their days to enjoy themselves, relax, and indulge in something they find fun. Even I have set aside time in my days to paint and teach myself Korean, things I had been meaning to do for years and yet hadn’t. Prior to being in quarantine, I didn’t have any hobbies that didn’t constitute as work for me—any hobbies I could use to unwind or relax or just enjoy myself. The more I wondered why this was, the more I realized that the death of hobbies, for me and many other individuals, is related to the societal phenomenon of “hustle culture.” 

Hustle culture, defined by a need to constantly work and be on a “rise and grind” mentality, is the latest workaholic craze for younger generations especially. People love hustle culture and pride themselves on being the most busy, the most productive, the most workaholic. This ‘work yourself to death’ mindset is becoming a lifestyle for most. But is it a good one for students to develop? 

Even in high school, especially in academically competitive high schools like South, students develop their own “rise and grind” mentalities to perform well, get good grades, and hopefully, get accepted into good colleges. But when does having a work-oriented mentality and being ambitious about school become an unhealthy thing? When does working hard cross the line and become toxic productivity? Many students, especially as they go through high school and become increasingly worried about college, drop their hobbies in favor of things that look better on a college application. More and more students have been adopting the mentality where they want to monetize and take advantage of everything they do in a day and every aspect of their personality. Hobbies have become “side-hustles” to make a student look better for college, and hobbies that don’t do that are left untouched and abandoned because they don’t offer students a tangible benefit. 

This high school version of hustle culture grows every year when students opt out of enjoyable hobbies for “better” activities that colleges care more about. But this aspect of student life isn’t the only way students have given into what many are calling “corporate misery” and “performative workaholism.” Other traces of toxic productivity are seen in the lifestyles of many high school students. A typical conversation of students who take pride in how overworked they are often focuses on how much sleep they’re getting. South is no stranger to students boasting “I only got three hours of sleep last night” and their friends responding with “Three? I only got one!” Students often feel a sense of pride and superiority from maintaining an unhealthier lifestyle than others because it makes others think that they’re working harder and getting more done. This, while being objectively unhealthy and destructive, enforces the “rise and grind” aspect of hustle culture. 

Students are willing and almost proud to put their physical and mental health on the line to work long hours and get as much work done as possible. And what’s worse is that students perpetuate this ideology by wrongly associating getting less sleep, overloading with work, and not taking time to relax as an indication of higher performance and productivity. 

But as hustle culture grows in schools and workplaces across the country, more reports and articles have been published declaring that hustle culture is not only toxic and terrible for mental health but also grim and exploitative. As a senior now committed to college, what have I gained from abandoning my hobbies and boasting about my poor sleep schedule and mental health? Is my success defined by the fact that I got into a good college and only that? Does it not account for my lower moments where I gave into hustle culture and put my mental health and sanity on the line? 

The reality that hustle culture hides is that the most efficient and accomplished people don’t overwork themselves in the way that we imagine most of them do. Many of South’s valedictorians have said that they didn’t prioritize grades or schoolwork over their physical and mental health and took the time to relax and unwind when they needed to. The truth is that working unnecessarily harder instead of working smarter makes an individual look more accomplished and productive when in reality, they’re not. 

Aidan Harper, a European advocate for moving to a 4-day work week, spoke with Erin Griffith of the New York Times saying that hustle culture “creates the assumption that the only value we have as human beings is our productivity capability—our ability to work, rather than our humanity.” The idea appears everywhere, especially with most people’s conceptions of what being “successful” really means. In schools, success is often defined by the grades you earn and the colleges you get into. In the workforce, success is often defined by your socioeconomic status and your pay. But in both scenarios, both are one-dimensional definitions of what success really is. 

This is not to say that there is no merit in the ideas that hustle culture promotes: It is important to work hard and push yourself to some degree; effort is a positive thing. But with Americans reaching new levels of stress, anxiety, and anger according to Forbes, it raises the question: Are we really being more productive or are we just hooked on the feeling of being busy? 

It’s easy for me as a high school senior already committed to college to say “take a break from work,” “pick up some hobbies,” “relax once and awhile,” “you really should be sleeping a healthy amount every night” because I’m almost out of high school, almost done. I’ve almost made it. But looking back on my high school experience, I realize that in truth, I haven’t really made it: I haven’t gotten out of high school unscathed by the societal expectations that we all put on each other, I haven’t gotten out of high school feeling proud of myself but rather, relieved. Relieved that it’s over, relieved I can take a breath, relieved that I can sleep in, relieved that I can spend my day doing things I actually enjoy doing. But I wish I had been doing that the whole time. 

Covid-19 has bent the entire world out of shape, but the one thing it allows you to do when you’re bored at home is to make your day your own. In an era where we all want to seem as busy as possible all the time, the world is giving you a chance to slow down, to go at your own pace, to take a breath, and work smarter not harder—a lesson even the best of us still are trying to learn.