Of all the forms of toxic self-help out there, hustle culture is probably among the worst.
Hustle culture — and all of its questionable offspring, including the “rise and grind” mindset, “motivation porn” and so-called “toil glamor” — is the ethos of constantly working your ass off in the pursuit of some vague goal, no matter the cost.
It’s a psychology, a philosophy, and an identity that glorifies nonstop labor, brute-force drive, and blind resilience — as well as the publicity of that effort, by constantly talking and posting about how damn hard you’re working.
Like any movement, hustle culture creates products and markets itself. And that’s how videos like this one came to flood YouTube over the last decade.
Pretty cringe, right? But there’s also something undeniably seductive about this stuff.
Because baked into hustle culture is the idea that it’s possible to rise up, break through, improve your situation, tap into a deeper purpose, and finally excel in all the ways you wish to excel.
This is a universal longing, and it’s a legitimate one — if, of course, getting ahead matters to you. To some people, it just doesn’t, and that’s perfectly okay.
But the apostles of hustle culture don’t buy into that idea. In fact, in their eyes, anyone who doesn’t devote their life to rising and grinding is scared, lazy, defective, entitled and/or unworthy of success.
According to the gospel of hustle, only those disciples who are willing to outwork everyone around them — usually because they’re dissatisfied and angry and terrified of not being special — will find true success.
More than that, those are the only people who deserve success.
And that’s the toxic belief at the heart of this movement. This idea that work = good, work = success, work = the only way to live a fulfilling life.
Which, of course, is patently bullshit. We all know that meaning comes from tons of things — work being just one of them — and that what people find fulfilling is highly personal.
But hustle culture “works” because it preys on a cluster of impulses — the hunger to succeed, the fear of failing, the desire to conform, the wish to be admired, the need to feel fulfilled — and promises to resolve them with one simple strategy: working your motherf*cking ass off.
If you can just do that, these people say, then you’ll “really” be living life. If you can’t, well… good luck, you don’t really want success, and you don’t deserve it anyway. (But if you want to make a change, here’s a link to my e-course, it’s only three easy payments of $39.99 and it’ll change your life!)
Over the years, I’ve talked to hundreds of people who have been swept up in various hustle communities. All of them eventually ended up experiencing similar feelings. Burnout. Resentment. Self-loathing. Alienation. Disillusionment. Depression. Directionlessness.
Most tragically, they all talked about feeling further away from their goals, less connected to their purpose, and more resistant to growth — exactly the opposite of what hustle culture promises.
Why is that?
What is it about hustle culture that corrupts the one thing it’s supposed to deliver?
And is there a way to work hard toward our goals that doesn’t involve a toxic relationship with our careers, other people, and ourselves?
The answer is yes.
But first, we have to talk about…
Why Hustle Culture Makes You F*cking Miserable
It sells the destination, not the journey.
You’ll notice a few common themes in hustle videos. People getting out of luxury cars or boarding private jets. People wearing fancy clothes and hanging in exotic locales. People looking cool and attractive or surrounded by cool and attractive friends, always the center of attention, always the star of their own movie.
I like to call this the “Here In My Garage Complex,” after one of the most comical hustle grifters in recent years.
There’s a reason that these hustle “gurus” feature this lavish lifestyle, and the reason is that they’re selling you The Dream. The Dream of becoming fabulously wealthy, powerful, important, popular, and independent. And the best way to sell The Dream is to sell you the destination.
Not the process. Not the journey. Not the mission. But the glorified end result, which is usually some version of “get cash money rich, brah.”
By doing so, hustle scammers tap into the low-effort, high-reward mechanism of our lizard brains. They focus on the rewards and completely gloss over the sacrifice required to actually succeed at a high level. They know they have nothing to offer in that department. In fact, they know that acknowledging how hard the journey is would actually work against them. So instead, they dangle the fancy car, the sleek jet, or the huge house, to shift your focus to the end result.
In the process, they reinforce a toxic mindset that values the spoils over the journey — despite the fact that tons of science (and virtually every successful person’s experience) confirms that most of the joy in life comes from the process of doing something.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Material things can be fun. Cool cars, exotic vacations, nice clothes — they’re a fun benefit of doing well in life. And there’s nothing wrong with enjoying them on that basic level. I certainly do, in my own very limited way (he wrote, wearing super comfy athleisure from one of his show sponsors while he sips bougie organic coffee from his home espresso machine).
But when those material assets become the point of the journey, then we’ve missed something crucial.
High performers don’t do what they do so they can fly to Aspen on a Gulfstream or drive around Berlin in a Bugatti. Most of them — the best ones, anyway — do what they do because they’re lit up by a mission they care about deeply.
Walt Disney famously said, “We don’t make movies to make money, we make money to make more movies.” That’s a very meaningful way to look at one’s work. But hustle bros can’t wrap their heads around that outlook. To them, anything worth doing is only worth doing for money, end of story. Passion, purpose, conviction — those are secondary, if they factor in at all.
It’s no surprise, then, that most people who get caught up in hustle culture eventually abandon their dreams. As soon as the destination feels impossible to reach — because they’re not in a strong relationship to the process itself — they eventually grow disillusioned and give up.
It traffics in negative emotions.
Every marketer knows that the best way to sell a product is to make people feel like they’re incomplete without it.
Hustle culture scammers understand this principle better than anyone. They don’t inspire people to change through hope and confidence. They don’t push people to perform better by appealing to their passion or potential. Instead, they tap into their fear, resentment, anxiety, and envy — especially their envy.
Because negative emotions are highly manipulable.
If a self-help teacher can create a sense of lack in you, they can then offer you the solution to that lack. Through their words and their images, hustle scammers are basically saying, “Don’t you feel bad about not doing better in life? Don’t you wish you had what I have? Don’t you wish you were more?” Then they turn around and say, “Well, here’s your answer. All you need to do is want it badly enough and work your ass off. And, you know, buy my book/sign up for my course/join my mastermind.” It’s advertising 101.
Hustle culture also appeals to negative emotions because they make you more susceptible to their values.
It’s a lot easier to sell you a $5,000 self-help package by showing you a guy boarding a G6 with a bunch of supermodels than by explaining that working for years on a meaningful mission will make you more fulfilled. The idea that you should pursue something you truly care about speaks to higher-level experiences, like mastery and fulfillment, and connectedness. And if you value those higher-level things, you’re probably not going to enter your Visa number to buy a 10-week e-course on how you should wake up at 5 a.m. and run eight miles before chaining yourself to your desk for the next 16 hours.
If you feel worse after consuming a form of self-help, it’s probably toxic.
Especially if it makes you feel angry, envious, or ashamed, or if it encourages you to compare yourself to other people.
Does this mean that all legitimate self-help should make you feel good? Not at all. Toxic positivity and superficial self-improvement can be just as damaging as hustle culture.
But when good self-help makes you feel good, it’s because it speaks to something meaningful. It’s empowering you to seek out new experiences, to grow, to tap into your strengths.
And when good self-help makes you feel “bad,” it’s not because it’s tearing you down. It’s because it’s speaking to something complex, and you know that it’ll take some work to implement it in your life.
So it’s important to identify exactly what feels good or bad about self-help. There’s a difference between feeling like a failure and feeling like you still have work to do. Just like there’s a difference between feeling attacked and feeling critiqued, between feeling exposed and feeling understood.
Hustle scammers focus on the former. Legitimate self-help focuses on the latter.
It teaches shortcuts, not skills.
Hustle gurus also tend to focus on hacks and techniques rather than knowledge and skills. Just as they sell the destination over the journey, they also focus on workarounds over work.
They do this, of course, because shortcuts are attractive to the primitive part of your brain. That part of you isn’t interested in becoming an expert or growing as a person. It gravitates to clever hacks and easy solutions, which hustle bros know they can sell with much greater ease.
The irony, of course, is that hustle scammers simultaneously preach the value of hard work. Just not the kind of hard work that involves real substance. Hard work, in their view, is pure man hours and raw effort. It’s not about where you spend those hours, or how you direct that effort.
The other reason scammers sell this garbage is that it’s the only thing they can sell. They’re not researchers who study the neuroscience of productivity, leaders who understand the value of a mission, or builders who can speak to past successes. All they can do is traffic in the lowest common denominator of advice.
The effect of this “teaching” is that it trains you to think that success is a matter of handy shortcuts and mindless exertion. You then start to believe that you can get ahead by being clever or efficient or paying someone else to do the job for you, when most of business is actually just putting in high-quality time to become amazing at something.
Productivity hackers like to think that doing something smarter or faster — in addition, paradoxically, to more and longer — will make you successful. They don’t acknowledge that you also have to be great at the thing you’re doing, that you have to have a knowledge base to work with, that you have to have strong habits.
Sadly, this approach only delays your success, by avoiding the crucial time you need to spend sharpening your skills and deepening your craft.
It assumes all work is created equal.
Behind the concept of nonstop grinding is the premise that all work is good work, and that more hours equal more results. As long as you keep toiling, hustle gurus promise, you’re bound to find success. In other words, your output is proportional to your input.
But that’s an extremely narrow view of work. It doesn’t apply to many types of labor — ironically, the same types of labor where hustle culture has taken root — and it doesn’t reflect the way our minds operate.
Mark Manson, bestselling author of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck and guest on the show, actually put this best in one of his most important articles.
The flawed assumption in the hustle model, he explains, is that “working for two hours will produce twice the results as one hour. And eight hours will produce four times that of two hours.”
But life doesn’t always work that way, he points out.
“The truth is that most thoughtful, brain-intensive work does not unfold like this … The only work that is linear is really basic, repetitive stuff. Like hauling bales of hay. Or packing boxes. Or really obnoxious data entry on gigantic spreadsheets. Or operating the fryer at McDonald’s.”
Only in that type of rote labor do you find a linear function, where working twice as long will net you results twice as good.
“Sadly,” Mark points out, “the ‘work as a linear function’ is where all the religion of ‘Bro, you’ve just gotta hustle’ comes from in the startup world. Since, in their minds, 16 hours of work is twice as productive as eight, the logical conclusion is that you’re all just a bunch of lazy sacks of shit, and you should be putting butter in your coffee at 4 a.m. and coding until your eyeballs bleed.”
But we know that 16 hours of work isn’t as productive as eight. There are very real diminishing returns to higher-level work.
And in any kind of labor that depends on creativity, output can be even less linear. Two hours of strong work could yield better results than 10 hours of mediocre work — and, as Mark discovered while writing his book, avoid the additional labor of having to fix that bad output.
That’s what led him to conclude that “as well-intentioned and glamorous as the Religion of Hustle is, it often backfires on people. Because the truth is that most types of work (especially work that will make you some money in modern society) does not produce linear returns, it produces diminishing returns.”
This is yet another fatal flaw of hustle culture. And in addition to being straight-up wrong, it’s also damaging, because it drives talented people to kill themselves for worse results. In the process, they burn out, create even more headaches for themselves, and perform more poorly.
All of which they could avoid if they simply did the opposite of what hustle culture tells them to do and just worked less — but in a more disciplined way.
It conflates toil with success.
Baked into hustle culture is the fundamental idea that being successful is simply a matter of working hard. And, even worse, that working hard is success. The point of life, according to the hustle guru, is to grind, so you can just keep on grinding.
Now, some successful people might buy into that idea, and that’s fine. I’m not going to argue with someone who wants to build their entire life around their output. That’s a fair choice. Not an entirely healthy one, in my opinion, but it is a fair one.
But this definition of success is incredibly narrow. It basically amounts to how many hours you spend in the pursuit of money, power, and status. It’s about being the richest, most popular, most influential person possible. It completely overlooks all the other versions of success in life, like being healthy, being stable, being loved, having strong relationships, and having a meaningful role or purpose.
Hustle culture doesn’t care about what makes you happy, excited or fulfilled.
It doesn’t consider the people you work with, the place in which you work, or the impact you have on the world around you. To the extent that hustle bros even consider meaning, they think it resides in assets — assets that will enable you to keep hustling even more.
These are their values. And they’re a recipe for burnout, depression, and emptiness. I’ve seen it a thousand times, working on the front lines of Wall Street, building my show, and interacting with internet hustle culture.
Of course, we all know that great success depends to some degree on hard work. I’m not denying that. But success also depends on a lot of other factors, like passion, curiosity, talent, relationships, and resilience.
And there other metrics of success that have nothing to do with money, like fulfillment and happiness and impact. But none of these ideas factor into the hustle scammer’s calculus, because all they can see is dollars, cents and hours worked.
In their minds, you don’t just work hard to be successful; you become successful so you can keep working hard, because that’s the only source of value worth pursuing in life.
It’s not interested in you as an individual.
Hustle culture is a one-size-fits-all model. It isn’t designed to understand you as an individual.
Just as it traffics in broad ideas, it also speaks to you in generic language. A hustle bro is more likely to tell you to “want success more than you want sleep” than he is to ask you “what makes you feel like you had a good day?” These productivity pornographers aren’t interested in idiosyncrasy or nuance. They’re only interested in the lowest common denominator that speaks to as many people as possible.
This is yet another reason that hustle culture hinges on the gospel of hard work. It’s much easier to tell millions of people to sit at their desks longer than it is to help all those people figure out what they truly care about, why they do what they do, what makes them different. It’s not practical for them to do that, and they don’t care, anyway.
Hustle culture flattens you into a one-dimensional avatar, so that it can sell you a one-dimensional product.
It doesn’t encourage you to explore your unique passions. It doesn’t teach you to double down on your rare abilities. It doesn’t show you how to connect the dots among your skills to create a competitive talent stack or a one-of-a-kind brand.
It just tells you to do more of what everyone else is doing — working — even as it shames you for not living a more authentic life. (Ironic, right?)
There’s no thoughtfulness to this philosophy. There’s no depth or nuance to it. Hustle culture offers no solutions to the questions of identity, happiness, or mental health. All it does is preach the value of surface-level behavior, whether it’s “grind harder!” or “don’t take no for an answer!” or “no excuses!”
Then, when you wonder why those behaviors aren’t making you more successful, it turns around and blames you for not taking them seriously enough. Which, if you think about it, is incredibly corrupt. It’s a form of gaslighting, really. And it’s one of the most common techniques employed by cults and other coercive organizations.
Of course, hustle scammers resort to these methods because they can’t acknowledge the limitations of their system. But they also do it because, sadly, it’s a pretty good business.
It turns you into a lifelong customer.
Hustle gurus are businesspeople. They aren’t preaching out of the goodness of their hearts. At the end of the day, they’re out to make money. And they’ll go to great lengths to keep that money coming in, even if it means undermining you in the process.
This is another reason that most motivational content is so poor. If it were higher-quality, it might actually work. But then the people consuming it would find the success they’re looking for and move on.
Perversely, hustler scammers actually need their consumers to fail in order to keep them on the hook.
As long as their followers struggle to see results — and believe that if they just stick around then they’ll finally break through — they can remain perpetual customers. It’s shady as hell, but it’s true. The less these gurus teach, the more their disciples stick around.
High-quality self-help, on the other hand, is interested in empowering you to make changes for yourself. It doesn’t encourage unnecessary dependence or devotion. It doesn’t require you to keep coming back every six months, to buy the next tier of the course, or to join the community in order to succeed.
Legitimate teachers want you to run with what you learn and apply it out in the world. They’re happy to foster a long-term relationship with you, sure, but only if it continues to deliver benefits. They won’t design a system that keeps you on the hook so they can make more money. They won’t disempower you to make you dependent on their content.
In the world of hustle culture, however, that philosophy would break the whole business model.
This is another reason that hustle scammers have a vested interest in perpetuating your negative emotions, including the idea that your struggles are your fault. As long as you feel like crap, you’ll keep believing you’re flawed or broken, and you’ll keep buying their programs. The toxicity isn’t just a byproduct. It’s also demand creation.
(And even if you’re not handing over cash to a hustle scammer, you’re still paying with your time and attention. You’re still adding to their YouTube revenue by watching their videos, funding them by using their affiliate links, or giving them the attention they crave. Sadly, that’s often the greatest reward for these people, who tend to be highly narcissistic.)
But these systems don’t just turn you into a lifelong customer. They also turn you into a tool in the scheme.
It encourages you to perpetuate the con.
Hustle culture is parasitic. It doesn’t just try to convert you to the church of productivity; it also encourages you to convert other people, overtly or covertly.
In some cases, that means bringing new people into the fold. A hustle scammer might push you to bring your friends to a workshop, encourage you to share links to their videos, or recruit your colleagues into a mastermind.
In more extreme cases, that means becoming an affiliate of their organization, representing the brand, or even getting certified in the “program” and teaching it to other people yourself.
You see this a lot in the personal coaching industry, where a kind of self-help Ponzi scheme has developed in recent years. The majority of coaches I’ve met recently are just teaching other coaches how to coach other people. Only a handful of their clients are regular people with no coaching ambitions of their own. They’re essentially teaching people how to prey on other people.
But even if you’re not actually teaching a hustle curriculum, you’re still probably getting sucked into the bullshit-industrial complex .
You’re consuming the ideas, you’re trying to apply them to your life, and you’re judging the results through the prism of the program. In all likelihood, you’re talking about hustle culture with your friends, foisting it on your colleagues, and using it to guide your strategy. Eventually, you sacrifice your values, your identity, and your instincts in the pursuit of success, as defined by these myopic hucksters. And then you pass that version of success onto other people.
This is how a hustle system becomes hustle culture. It’s cancerous. It requires devotees to spread the word, like a religion. And in that way, it often makes you more than just a customer — it makes you a tool, a vector, just another node in the system so it can perpetuate itself.
At that point, becoming a better person isn’t even part of the equation anymore. That was just the bait. Now it’s all about clicks, views, likes, downloads, shares, and sales: the flywheel of toxic self-help. The hustle mission isn’t to help people succeed; it’s to package that success as a product that convinces more and more people to hand over their money. It’s just pure commerce, preying on people’s real desire to get better.
It’s incredibly sad, and honestly super boring. But you can’t deny that in some very limited way, it works. The problem is, it only works for the people selling it — and at your expense.
How to Break Out Of Hustle Culture
By this point, I think we can agree that hustle culture is misguided at best and poisonous at worst. And yet this stuff still has a curious hold over people. There’s something about motivational content that is undeniably magnetic — even when it’s ridiculous, and even when we know it’s making us miserable.
So how can we break our attraction to this kind of “self-help?” Is there a way out of hustle culture? And what’s the alternative?
As with most things, it all starts by becoming aware of the problem in the first place.
Notice when you’re in the grip of this stuff.
Track your thoughts.
When you consume the gospel according to grind culture, what ideas do you notice at work?
- Are your thoughts focused on new approaches, opportunities, and insights? Or are they focused on what you haven’t done, what you could be doing more, what you should be doing less?
- Are your beliefs optimistic, generative, and forward-looking? Or are you fixated on what you lack, what other people are doing, or what you’ve failed to accomplish in the past?
- Are your ideas concrete, realistic, and practical? Or do you find yourself daydreaming about vague, aspirational, and abstract success?
If your thoughts tend to fall into the latter category after you engage with this kind of content, then it’s probably taking a toll. Hustle content has a way of provoking negative thoughts, encouraging grandiose thinking, and making you fixate on your fears and desires. As we’ve seen, that’s how it gets its claws into you and perpetuates your dependence.
Take stock of your feelings.
Your feelings while consuming productivity porn are also a rich source of information.
- Is your overall mood positive, clear, and productive? Or is your outlook often pessimistic, anxious, or doubtful?
- Do you feel hopeful, curious, and playful? Or do you find yourself feeling frustrated, angry, or shut down?
- Are you feeling empowered, supported, and connected to other people? Or do you feel fearful, envious, and competitive with your peers?
- Are you excited, motivated, and in touch with your purpose? Or do you feel apathetic, unmotivated, or lost?
If your feelings often fall into the latter category, then that’s another sign that hustle culture is taking a toll on you.
Hustle culture has a way of tapping into — and reinforcing — negative feelings. That emotional toxicity then becomes a breeding ground for increasingly bad decisions — including the choice to just keep hustling, in the hopes that one day it will finally “fix” these unpleasant emotions.
Study your patterns.
In addition to checking in with your thoughts and feelings, it’s important to zoom out and look at the larger patterns in your life. These trends will tell you whether the content you consume is actually making you a better person or keeping you stuck in place.
- Are you becoming more skilled, more knowledgeable, and more effective in your life? Or are you plateauing in terms of your expertise, curiosity, and impact?
- Are you making objective progress in your life and your career, by whichever metrics you choose to measure them (e.g., impact, responsibility, salary, fulfillment, etc.)? Or do you feel stuck in place, lost, or even regressed?
- Are your relationships with people getting stronger, more productive, and more intimate? Or are they remaining superficial, transactional or even fading away?
- What role is self-help playing in your life in general? Do you find it additive, insightful, and supportive? Or does it feel burdensome, confusing, or difficult to implement?
- To put it simply: Has hustling and grinding actually gotten you anywhere?
The answers to these questions will tell you whether this stuff is actually working.
Of course, if it isn’t, then hustle culture will blame you. It’ll say, “Well, you must not be working hard enough,” or “Keep going, you’re just not there yet,” or “You have to really want it.” But at the end of the day, the proof is in the productivity pudding.
If your thoughts, feelings, and patterns are trending toward the negative after you interact with hustle content, then you’re almost certainly consuming toxic content. There’s no better barometer for the quality of this stuff than your own personal experience with it.
As I mentioned earlier, this doesn’t mean that all self-help should make you feel good all the time, or that all self-help that brings up difficult feelings is automatically bad.
But when you zoom way out, on the balance, self-help should be making you more empowered and effective — not less.
If it’s not, then it’s time to make a change. And that begins by getting clear on the ideas you want to prioritize.
Create your own values.
- Hustle culture implicitly preaches a handful of principles.
- That the answer to life’s most pressing problems is more work.
- That working yourself to the bone is inherently good.
- That toiling for material wealth is worthwhile.
- That competing with other people is healthy.
- That your labor is more important than your physical health, your mental well-being, and your close relationships.
Of course, these principles are highly simplistic and deeply flawed. But hustle scammers rarely acknowledge them openly. They just bake these ideas into their whole curriculum. When you consume it, you’re also consuming these more fundamentally toxic ideas.
If you’re going to break your dependence on hustle content, you have to come back to your own values, standards, and expectations.
- What do you believe is most important in life?
- How do you want to spend your precious time?
- What do you want to spend the fruits of your labor on?
- Which goals, missions, and problems do you find inherently rewarding to work on?
- Where in your life and career do you make the most impact?
- How do you judge the value of your effort?
- What would make you proud, content, and fulfilled?
Answer these questions, and you’ll start to create a system for yourself that is much more meaningful than whatever some fitness bro putting clips of Joe Rogan over NBA footage on YouTube will tell you.
In addition to making you more effective, developing your own philosophy will also make you more equipped to judge the credibility of self-help in the future. When you’re in touch with what really matters to you, it’s a lot easier to watch a ‘roided-up life coach talking about outworking everyone in the building and say, “Yeah, no, I know that doesn’t work, and that’s not who I am.”
And if you go through this exercise and you realize that what you truly value is more work — and that what you really want is tons of money to enjoy nice things because that level of material success actually does bring you joy — then more power to you. But then you’ll have arrived at that position on your own, rather than inheriting it from a teacher who’s pushing you to buy into that particular definition of success for their own benefit.
Although my guess is that if you really did this exercise, you’d also find additional sources of meaning beyond rising and grinding — and that’s the whole point.
Cut out toxic content.
Once you’ve developed a set of values that are truly your own, it’s time to make a conscious choice to stop consuming hustle BS and replace it with more nourishing material. This is no different from cutting out unhealthy food, dangerous substances, bad TV, or toxic friendships. You just have to choose to do it.
From there, it’s up to you to create a new information diet. My recommendation is to go cold turkey on all motivational content, productivity porn, and other rise-and-grind-type nonsense.
Unsubscribe from those podcasts and channels. Donate or toss out those books and magazines. Clear those websites and bookmarks from your browser.
And if you find it hard to avoid this content — or if your algorithms and filter bubbles keep serving it up to you — then get even more proactive. Block certain websites. Create new accounts with a fresh history. Mute people who post this garbage. It’s worth drawing a hard line here.
Cutting this stuff out will be liberating. And it’ll make room for more substantive influences.
But you don’t need to fill that room with other self-help right away. In fact, I recommend taking a break from self-help in general for a little while, and just getting back in touch with your own thoughts and rhythms. This is a detox. Part of the reward is coming back to yourself, free from all influences, good or bad. Then, when you’re ready, you can start consuming better content.
Once you shake off these toxic influences, stay vigilant. It’s amazing how quickly hustle culture can sneak back into your life. You might watch a talk about vulnerability by Brené Brown, and the next thing you know you’re feeling like crap because you’ve watched eight YouTube videos about Mark Wahlberg’s batshit crazy morning routine. These algorithms understand the appeal of this bullshit, so you have to stay on top of your information diet. The moment you notice yourself engaging with toxic content, disengage and do something else.
And this kind of thing doesn’t just happen online.
You might find yourself at a party where someone mentions how they start their day at 6 a.m. with an ice plunge, which causes everyone else to throw out their favorite life hacks to get more done. Suddenly, you’re standing there feeling like a lazy POS for getting eight hours of sleep and not greeting the day by dipping your junk in sub-zero temperatures.
Or — to name another common scenario — you might overhear your colleagues at work bragging about hitting the gym at dawn, getting into the office early, and staying later than everyone else so they can crush it. Before you know it, you’re paranoid that you’re not taking your career seriously enough because you’d rather put in a focused work day than miss your niece’s birthday to work on a spreadsheet on a Sunday.
These are forms of hustle culture, too. And unlike videos or books, they can be a lot harder to avoid.
So when you encounter this stuff in real life, check in with yourself. Recognize that you’re in contact with some hustle nonsense. Take stock of your thoughts and feelings. Remind yourself of the values you’ve chosen for yourself. And then catch yourself falling into any old responses.
If you can do that, hustle content might still find you from time to time — but it won’t be able to sink its teeth into you the way it once did.
Seek out higher-quality resources.
Once you’ve cleared the decks, you can start seeking out healthier influences. Those will look very different from person to person, but here are a few principles to guide you.
Look for resources that actually contribute to your skills and knowledge.
Avoid those “you-go-girl” manifestos, motivational masterminds, and rah-rah summits. Look for books, courses, and conversations that teach you concrete skills and deepen your expertise in specific areas. The more you can immediately apply what you learn to generate results, the higher the quality is bound to be.
Gravitate to people who are truly committed to your growth.
This applies both to experts and to their followers (your peers). Don’t settle for teachers who traffic in bromides and clichés, tell you to double down on your existing patterns, or encourage you to power through adversity with blind determination. Look for experts who value critical thinking, care about higher ideals, and focus on meaningful results. Most importantly, seek out influences that don’t keep you on the hook for more of their products. If you find an idea, teacher, or institution that encourages you to run with what you learn and never look back, that’s usually a great sign.
Be wary of people who fetishize their success.
Excellence without failure is a myth. Look for teachers and peers who openly struggle, grow and put in the work to get better (or have in the past). True experts understand that real growth is hard. They don’t gloss over adversity; they acknowledge and lean into it. If you’re consuming content that’s largely about “crushing it” all the time, that’s a sign that the content is purely motivational in nature and lacking in nuance. Time to graduate to higher-quality stuff.
Good self-help equips you to navigate life’s challenges — not with endurance and faith, but with skills and purpose.
If it encourages you to increase your input, it’s not because it shames you into working harder, but because it empowers you to chase the goals you find inherently meaningful.
Most importantly, it doesn’t preach a system that pits you against other people in the pursuit of success. Instead, it puts you in touch with what you believe is most important in life — and helps you hold yourself to your own standards.
In fact, one of the most interesting things I’ve noticed over the years is the correlation between hustle culture and poor relationships. The most intense hustle disciples I’ve met have all been extremely alienated, lonely people.
That’s partly because their hustle curriculum taught them to view other people as competition. But it’s also because hustle culture implicitly teaches you not to acknowledge difficult experiences with other people. If you ever lose sight of your purpose, struggle with envy, or fail to accomplish your goals, a hustle scammer would never tell you to open up and process that with a good friend. They’d just tell you to stuff it down and grind harder.
So if there’s one antidote to this whole toxic productivity culture, it’s probably the people you surround yourself with — and the quality of the relationships you form with them.
It’s only within these close relationships that we really become our best selves and do our best work. And it’s only by sharing our experiences with those people — experiences both good and bad — that we can find the lasting motivation to go after what we want. Not by chaining ourselves to our desks or running to second, third, and fourth jobs out of desperation, but by figuring out what really matters in life with other people who care about those values too — and drawing on those relationships to realize our goals.
Hustle culture is corrupt. High-quality self-help can be great. But strong, meaningful, intimate relationships — that’s where the magic really happens.
[Featured image modified from work by Shane]