What motivates us to hustle

Dr. Melissa Shepard Smiling in white lab coat

By Dr. Melissa Shepard

I recently wrote about breaking up with hustle culture, and I got a lot of comments from people who felt the same.


I wrote about my intention to stop hustling and delaying gratification and instead focus on slowing down and taking more calculated risks. I wrote about how I wanted to start enjoying the present and stop pushing myself to exhaustion. I wrote a bit about my previous failed efforts to move my life forward by pinching pennies, waking up earlier, going to bed later, and sacrificing more in hopes that I could get to the place where I could take a breath.


A few people praised me for giving up materialism to focus on things that matter more. And if you’re trapped by materialism and want to give that up, more power to you.


But I don’t think materialism has fueled my hustle. My hustle has been fueled by fear, guilt, and buying into our cultural belief that we will be rewarded for hard work and delayed gratification.


Most of us don’t work 60-80 hours a week because we so desperately want the newest handbag. It’s because we are scared shitless, racked with guilt, and feel like we don’t have another choice.


Fear is why I’ve hustled for so long. Fear that I’ll never be able to pay off the hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loan debt my husband and I accrued before entering the workforce. Fear that I’ll be unable to afford health insurance for a spouse who has been hospitalized four times in the last ten months. Fear that if I don’t work my ass off now, I won’t ever be able to slow down.


Guilt is another powerful driver. One of the first questions we ask someone when we meet them is “What do you do for a living?” unintentionally equating someone’s identity with how they get a paycheck. As a society, we treat people on disability as “less than” and argue about whether everyone who works full-time deserves a living wage. The message is the same: you are what you earn.


And then there is this belief that hard work is always rewarded: not always by material goods but by time to rest and enjoy life. This is the whole premise of retirement. Grind until you’re old enough to stop and then hope you are in good enough health to enjoy life then. No time to smell the roses- you have to hustle and hope there are still a few roses around when you’re ready for them. And is hard work really rewarded if there are people who will work 80 hour weeks making minimum wage their entire lives, knowing that they will never have the privilege of not working?


All of this paints a pretty dark picture, I know. But as I sit here writing about materialism on an old laptop that’s missing the cover for the “P” key, I realize that “working harder” is not the solution. Ask anyone else who has worked their asses off to make ends meet for their entire adult lives. Sure, hard work is rewarded sometimes. And I’m not saying you should lounge around all day waiting for capitalism to stop being a thing. But there has to be something in between anarchy and hustle culture, between sloth-like carelessness and grind-till-you-drop work ethic.


I think the reason behind our hustle matters a lot too. Hustling because you love what you do and you can’t wait to level up is very different than hustling because you feel like you’ll fall off the treadmill if you don’t keep moving. A hustle that is motivated by excitement feels very different than a hustle that is motivated by fear, guilt, or necessity.


Just becoming aware of this has been helpful to me. I’m learning that setting boundaries, taking calculated risks, practicing self-care, and making time to stop and enjoy the present are some of the things I need to add to my life. I don’t know what the answer is, but I’ll keep you posted, as always.

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