neon light that says "hustle"

Hustle Culture

How the constant pressure to be "productive" can lead to unbalanced lives.

Mental health and wellbeing
By VoiceBox ·

Katerina (not her real name)

A young writer from Canada

Hustle Culture

This piece was written in the summer of 2021

As someone who has yet to enter the workforce, I shouldn’t know what hustle culture means. So why can’t I abandon the idea that I know how it feels to be caught up in it?

The summer of 2021 marks my last couple of months before starting university, but I’ve struggled to enjoy it. Every summer since fourth grade, I have attended some sort of summer school. Not out of necessity, but as my parents might put it, to keep my brain sharp. The subject did not matter as long as I was absorbing knowledge. Summer break didn’t have the same connotation for me as it did for my peers, but I learned to get comfortable with it. After eighth grade, I took summer courses mostly of my own volition. It was the only thing I knew, and my parents insisted that something was better than nothing, even if the content was irrelevant to me and my future plans. A credit was a credit. So I graduated with three credits more than I needed, a detail that meant nothing on my university applications or in any other situation where my high school transcript matters.

This year, being between schools means that I can’t continue the tradition. I have had no concrete plans, even though I have been asked about my summer plans more often than any other year. I have been trying to fill the gap with volunteer work and learning to drive, but the former is made slightly difficult by the pandemic, and the latter doesn’t exactly suck up all of my waking hours. As a result, I still have more free time than I have had in almost a decade. 

And I don’t know what to do with myself. Every day, I am plagued by the thought that I am not accomplishing anything, that I am wasting my time by turning to leisure. My parents dislike it as much as I do and ensured that I applied for a dozen different summer jobs, that I’m helping around the house as much as possible, and even getting me started on preparing for an exam I will need for grad school. They don’t realize that I don’t need their gentle prodding: there’s enough coming from the voice in my head. 

It’s not just the boredom getting to me because it set in only days after classes wrapped up. I have been conditioned, by my parents and classmates alike, to think that productivity equals success. Hard work and endless persistence are all you need to achieve anything; therefore, the hours you put towards your goals must be a reflection of how ambitious you are. My friends are all ambitious; I know because they don’t relax, they accomplish as much as they possibly can in their free time. If this is what my generation looks like already, we’re going to be hard-pressed to lead balanced lives later on.

I do not regret surrounding myself with people who are already successful or are bound to be in a matter of time. But one side effect is the constant sense of inadequacy. Why am I not using my summer “wisely?” Do I not want my future success enough to make it happen? It has become harder to casually strike up a conversation with a friend because surely they’ll judge my worth by my productivity. I know I do. 

This particular anxiety will drop to its normal level once I get back to school, when I can trade the internal stress for an external one. It’s only a temporary fix. Because I know what hustle culture is, and I do not want to let it consume me. As much as work ethic can say about a person, I do not want mine to define me. A decade from now, I want to have a life outside of my career. That means I need to work on letting go of the guilt I feel when I try to relax, when I do what I enjoy instead of what might be best for future me. Maybe that will be my project for what remains of summer.

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