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Hustle culture is over-rated
Let's celebrate sustainability over all-nighters and re-define what hard work looks like.
I’ve long had this story about myself that I haven’t worked very hard in my life. It’s a story that I haven’t brought up often except to those close to me, because I worry about its impact.
Will people think that I’m bragging — that I didn’t need to work hard to get where I am? Or will people think I’m lazy and not someone who will do the work needed in a role?
What society deems hard work
When I think back to when I felt like I actually worked really hard, I’m brought back to a summer I spent in Jishou, a small Chinese city in Hunan province. With a crew of a dozen other students, we wrote and published a textbook, put together all the lessons plans, and ran a new 10-week English immersion program.
I have a vivid memory of sitting in my bed in the teacher dormitory, finishing up my final prep for a lesson I had to teach in a few minutes. I was so exhausted, I set my phone alarm to 2 minutes to take an ultra-power-nap. I woke up slightly more refreshed, and went to teach my morning class.
That this memory is what I remember as one of the times I worked really hard makes me realize that what I think of as working hard is what society has taught me to equate with hard work — all-nighters, caffeine-fueled late nights, and putting out last-minute fires. And a feeling of utter exhaustion and depletion.
For me, these memories are few and far between (at least for work — don’t get me started on parenting).
My freshman year of college, I had daily 9:00am Chinese class. About halfway through the year, in a regular 1:1, my teacher asked why my classmates looked bedraggled every morning, while I looked well-rested. I shrugged, not really knowing how to respond.
The one and only all-nighter I pulled in all of college was working on an Advanced Algorithms problem set with my friend Alec. We were completely stumped by one problem, and a few hours after the sky slowly woke up, we finally stumbled into class to hand in our incomplete work. The instructor, a acclaimed Turing Award winning professor, started off the class with, “I’m very curious what you all came up with question 4. I realized after I assigned it that it’s actually an open problem.”
It wasn’t that I didn’t do work, but even when the volume was high, the work happened more steadily and sustainably. One semester, I found that what worked best for me was a bi-phasic sleep schedule. I would go to class and have lunch, sleep for 4 hours, have dinner and code until 4 in the morning, and them sleep another 4 hours before class.
But in the absence of the sleep-deprived exhaustion that I saw my peers experience throughout my years of school and work, I was left with a feeling of secrecy and shame, that maybe I wasn’t really someone who was ambitious, motivated, or hard-working.
Now I see that I’ve always worked hard, in fact that working hard and doing and executing well is so baked into my bones, that now I’m trying to unlearn some of it so I can find space to rest. But the way I worked hard — of sustaining a 80% level of output consistently over time — was not the way that society deems working hard.
When hustle culture is glorified
I’m not saying there’s no place for hustle. There are positive attributes of hustle culture that I’m all for when it’s appropriate — scrappiness, for doing what works and doesn’t scale now for the sake of learning, and constant iteration.
But hustle culture sometimes looks like working long hours not very efficiently so that people know you’ve been working long hours. Or doing busy work that isn’t actually the most important thing. Or putting things off until they require a heroic effort to complete on time.
Let’s not conflate hustle with the glorification of poor planning and time management paired with last-minute “heroics.”
This is all-too-common in corporate culture these days. You can see it in the call-outs and kudos for the people who worked over the weekend to get something done, without looking at why it was necessary, and without looking at all the work that was completed by other people in a less heroic fashion.
When hustle culture is glorified, it incentivizes people to work longer hours, not because it’s a good way to get the work done, but because they want to be perceived as working long hours. Like in college when people would meet in large groups in the library to “study” for hours — to me, it looked more like having snacks with their textbooks open.
A place for hustle
Especially in startups, there are absolutely times for last-minute fire drills, for staying up late to get something done, for putting in the extra hours and work to get the results you want.
But society, tech culture, and founders can create a environment where this type of hustle is the expected norm, rather than an exception when necessary.
Unnecessary and sustained hustle leads to frustration, burnout, and just poor work.
Save the hustle for when it’s absolutely necessary, for when you’ve already planned for edge cases and around known unknowns, and then unknown factors outside of your control crop up that are urgent to address.
By staying at a steady non-hustle state, you and your team have the capacity to spike when it’s important.
Let’s celebrate the steady people whose work doesn’t require heroic efforts to complete or fix. People who make a plan and execute on it, instead of waiting until the last minute to do something that was in the books for months.
Let’s celebrate the launches that go off without a hitch, that have engineers sitting around twiddling their thumbs. Celebrate the amount of planning, risk mitigation, and steady execution that it takes to pull something like that off.
If you’re a manager or a leader at work, think about what you’re celebrating directly or indirectly, and what behaviors you’re encouraging from team members.
I shared with a friend recently that even as I believe whole-heartedly in what I write as I write it, there is a small voice inside that is nervous about its impact, that worries that future employers will think that I’m not serious about the work, that I don’t work hard.
But my thoughts on hard work, sustainability, and managing people means that I lead engineering teams where I encourage people to work together to get their shit down and also carve out space for themselves. Teams where people take it easier when they are sick and new parents are encouraged to find time off so they aren’t scrambling between childcare and work with not even time to breathe — that they might hold on to a semblance of self during a challenging season of life. Teams where work is sustainable, and where we can get a massive amount done by working smart and supporting each other as a team. To me, that’s what a high-performing team looks like, and I have the honor of working with one now.
Remote work and sick days - on how remote work makes taking time off feel challenging when you’re sick, and why you should do it anyways.
Sustainability in remote work - a twitter thread from early last year on how to make remote work feel less like a slog and more sustainable
What I’ve been eating
In case you missed it, I shared that I’ll be adding a new little section about food to my posts.
Today, I want to share a deliciously inflation-proof food purchase, which is Costco croissants. I shared it on twitter a few months ago (last Costco run), but it’s top of mind since we are working our way through another dozen. For $5.99, you can buy a dozen large croissants from Costco. Eaten plain, they’re not so good. But if you have an air-fryer, pop them in at 350 for 4 minutes and make a breakfast sandwich with ham, soft scrambled eggs, and shredded cheese, and you have yourself a delicious meal for cheap! The kids said it was better than Starbuck’s breakfast sandwiches, which I’ll interpret as a compliment.
At first, 12 croissants seemed like way too many, and I figured we’d freeze some, but the last two times, we’ve finished all of them within a few days (3-4 per morning with breakfast).