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Sunday, 20 March 2022
By Shephali Bhatt

So “hustle culture” and “productivity” have become bad words. Now what?

“Your network is your net worth.”

Four years ago, when I heard this line from a 20-something Bengaluru-based startup professional–not knowing that they were referencing the title of a popular book by marketing professional Porter Gale from 2013–I was quite impressed. That is, until last week, when Atharva Kharbade, also a 20-something startup professional from Bengaluru, pointed me towards all the parody memes it has generated so far.

     

“If You're 20-30 and Your Main Circle Isn't Discussing...” is now one of the most popular “hustle culture” meme templates. For the uninitiated, “hustle culture” is a popular term, especially used within the startup and tech circuit, for striving hard to achieve your goals, with special emphasis on the ‘hard’ part. According to KnowYourMeme.com, hustle culture memes, both serious as well as tongue-in-cheek, are an offshoot of generic motivational memes “promoting self-improvement and focus on entrepreneurship, usually at the cost of maintaining an active social life or spending time on leisure.”

They are also known as “Sigma male grindset” memes, where the phrase refers to alpha males with a mindset for grinding away at all hours, hence the “grindset”. The memes usually feature images of wealthy, successful men, or celebrities who’ve played such characters onscreen, next to a text box with some seemingly life-altering personal or professional advice.

The parody memes, while a laugh-riot, are indicative of a movement that has gone too far. In the last two years, hustle culture has been repeatedly associated with burnout, with individual tech leaders and startups regularly being called out for the glorification of ‘toiling’ at the cost of one’s physical and mental wellbeing. “I cannot stand people cheering Elon Musk for working 19 hours. I cannot stand a lot of these Twitter gurus who share their all-nighter stories,” says Aryan Kochhar, an active member of Indian tech Twitter who is building a financial content platform.

Conversations around burnout happen when something drastically tragic happens, like the untimely death of a young tech entrepreneur. But there’s a Twitter beef on the topic of hustle culture every few weeks. Last week, an entrepreneur blamed hustle culture on consumers who demand 10-minute delivery and customer service at 1 am, among other things, arguing that you cannot build a startup, especially in the initial stage, by adhering to a relaxed ‘9-to-5’ schedule. He received roaring applause but also some thoughtful criticism. Amod Malviya, co-founder of a popular B2B commerce platform, posted a take on the entrepreneur’s tweet, saying that hustle is great when it is personal but can be horribly exploitative when it is forced upon someone. “From what I’ve seen, those who praise it are praising the former. Those who criticise it have experienced the latter.”

Hustle has become synonymous with toxic and exploitative work environments because many people working in the startup ecosystem have not received outsized returns (in the form of equity, ESOPs) for the hustle they showed, says Srijan R Shetty, co-founder of a blockchain-based creator monetisation platform. That is changing rapidly now, he says.

But that’s not the only reason. The undoing of hustle culture began with the onslaught of “hustle p0rn” that started much before the pandemic. Individual media personalities and entrepreneurs, like Gary Vaynerchuk in the US and Ranveer Allahbadia back home, heavily popularised the idea of hustle culture as a lifestyle on the internet. Realty-tech platform, WeWork, pushed it with stickers saying “hustle Harder” and “Thank God it’s Monday” plastered on every wall inside its offices and co-working spaces across regions. “People had it on their laptops,” Srijan recalls. “When you see it everywhere, it becomes unbearable.”

An ongoing pandemic has only made things worse. “Hustle culture has not been able to accommodate the deaths caused by the pandemic and the individual circumstances and environments it has created,” says Anshuma Kshetrapal, a creative arts psychotherapist from Delhi. “You cannot expect the pre-pandemic level of productivity from a traumatised population,” she says.

Conversations around hustle culture and productivity also exclude neurodivergent people, that is those who are born with neurodevelopmental disorders like ADHD (Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder) and SLD (Specific Learning Disability), adds Anshuma. As per multiple medical studies, one in seven people in the world deal with some neurodivergent condition that they may or may not know about. “Hustle culture is very ableist in the way it expects the same level of productivity and drive from everyone across the spectrum of abilities. If they fail to deliver, it shames them into thinking they are incompetent.”

Naturally, it is now being resisted. The retaliation has come in the form of “the great resignation” for companies that are unable to provide a healthy work environment, and a counter-movement in the creator ecosystem against the individual flagbearers of hustling.

Some entertainment content creators are in the frontline of the anti-hustle squad, taking on “productivity and motivation influencers” by making light of stereotypical hustle culture tenets like waking up at 5 am, having coffee and avocado toast, hitting the gym, and celebrating sleep deprivation, among others. Earlier this week, standup comedian and chess player Samay Raina was seen indulging in Twitter banter with content creator Raj Shamani, taking friendly digs at the latter’s motivational content.

While Samay hinted at it all being a “just for fun” exchange with a pal, he made a few serious points on the larger issue of hustle culture and motivational influencers when I approached him with a few queries on Twitter DM. “During the pandemic, when so many were dealing with the loss of life or livelihood or both, I read some bizarre thing from one of them about how the pandemic is not a vacation. That work must go on and one must invest hours into work to reap the benefits after the pandemic.” If you “zoom out for a second, you see that these motivational speakers made a rat race even out of the most difficult time we were in,” he says.

The pandemic, which inarguably brought the concept of mortality closer to everyone irrespective of their age, has got many people calling this type of content out as they begin to prioritise their health above all, says Sukhada (@appadappajappa on Twitter), a digital marketer from Nagpur. Her social media posts promoting ‘slow productivity’–a concept where an individual’s work volume is kept at a sustainable level–have been gaining a lot of traction of late. “The slow productivity movement will only get stronger,” she says.

That said, a majority still buys into the hustle narrative, “especially folks in their late teens and early twenties who are stuck in an echo chamber,” says Atharva, who went from pro-hustle to anti-hustle in the last few years when he realised most of the hustle gurus he was following were, in his own words, mere charlatans. “Now I have this mental image of people opening their skulls and those influencers sh*tting into their heads,” he says, rather seriously.

Hilarious as that image may be to some of us, this counter-movement, that Atharva is a part of, “is limited to opinions and rants on social media from a few,” says Farah (@farhanaahm), a tech-recruiting professional who called out a pro-hustle hot take on Twitter recently. “How this [resistance] is translating into forming [or altering] company culture is still a question. Most leaders take neutral stances instead of openly admitting to the problematic areas in their work culture,” she says.

There is however some impact this counter-culture is beginning to have. It may not be in the form of actionable results just yet, but it is there in the form of a release, a catharsis. Every time I see an Indian or international content creator put up a Reel or a meme articulating this feeling of not being as productive as we once used to be, I feel seen. Of late, I have started sharing these posts on my feed so that I feel heard, too. After all, hustle culture is not limited to the tech world. It never has been. Each one of us is possibly hustling to achieve something. We just use different words to describe it.

Meanwhile, Srijan has stopped using the word “hustle” in serious contexts and is struggling to find another word that describes “working hard” just as well but doesn’t come with a negative connotation. He understands that an unrelenting expectation of oneself to be constantly hustling at the cost of one’s physical and mental wellbeing must be discouraged. But “working hard”, which hustling was ideally supposed to mean, is not something to be penalised for.

As a colleague and I mull over the endgame of this counter-movement, we ask ourselves what is our definition of hustle, how can we marry slow productivity with our deadlines? Oddly enough, we find the answer in a “motivational talk”, this one from the Instagram account of @kikiandkilo featuring cats (what else). And it goes like this:

“I presently have the work ethic and motivation of a lobotomized sloth. And there is not enough caffeine…, girl boss vibes or positive energy in the perceived universe to change that. And yet, bills must be paid. Go forth and seize the day.”

     

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Shephali chronicles how the internet is changing the way we live, and how our changing ways force tech companies to transform themselves. You can write to her on Twitter, Instagram, Linkedin.

Edited by: Shalini Umachandran. Produced by: Aswetha Anil

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