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Hustle Culture: How did we get here? And what do we do about it?
American culture is hustle culture.
We place extraordinary value on productivity, efficiency, and the willingness to suck it up and squeeze more in. Our heroes are entrepreneurs and artists who put in the work. We are educated in hustle culture from the time we start school to the time we leave it.
Search for productivity tips (or, tellingly, stress management tips) today, and it won’t be long until you’re swimming in a sea of recommendations for how to structure your morning routine. The morning routine—or, as the youths are calling them, 5-to-9s—seems to be the cornerstone ritual of hustle culture.
Google “morning routines” specifically, and the results are both predictable and laughable:
Best morning routine: 21 steps for a more productive day
5 best morning routine ideas of productive people
The ultimate morning routine to make you happy
Top 10 morning routines of highly successful people
And even I found this delightful video cheekily titled, “THE ULTIMATE MORNING ROUTINE (parody).” It skewers popular advice with lines like this: “I wake up 3 hours before I go to bed.”
It’s rare to find a work of self-help that doesn’t mention morning routines in one capacity or another. It’s one topic that both hustle-and-grind strategies and work-as-art philosophies have in common.
And don’t get me wrong: I love my morning routine. And yeah, my morning routine is a 5-to-9.
Morning routines aren’t new, of course.
But our obsession with them—and their near-necessary presence in our lives—is more recent. So why are we so concerned with spending unpaid hours working on ourselves before we ever get to work?
There are two main ways morning routines are presented in self-help texts. The first way is that the morning routine makes you more productive the rest of the day. You work out, read books, meditate, and sip tea specifically so you can crank even harder while you’re at work. The second way is that the morning routine is invaluable “me time” before others can start making demands on you. Morning routines become a way to gird your spirit to face a thankless and often unforgiving world.
It’s fitting, then, that the youths on TikTok have started to refer to morning routines as 5-to-9s. In many ways, these long, elaborate rituals are an extension of work. Whether you consider them a productivity hack or a hedge against the risks of unsustainable systems, the need for a 5-to-9 is a product of the 9-to-5.
And who really benefits from workers devoting their mornings to a carefully calibrated practice that begins before dawn? Employers, of course. And in that group, I include self-employers. They—or we—profit off our willingness to do what it takes to stay marginally healthy despite unhealthy working conditions. Workers end up being the ones who compensate for the lack of appropriate compensation.
This is the final installment in the Self-Help, LLC series. So far, we’ve tackled many of the core messages in the medium of self-help. We’ve looked at winning, empowerment, trust, identity, confidence, and bodies. This week, we’re exploring “the hustle.” This piece is in two parts: first, a look at what’s really going on with those morning routines in light of the productivity-wage gap, and second, my conversation with Jadah Sellner about her new book, She Builds, a decidedly gentler addition to the business bookshelves.
Profit & Unpaid Work
Life is full of work—and much of it is unpaid. Hustle culture gives us the impression that any way we can supercharge our ability to produce during paid hours is financially valuable. We channel effort into exercise, meditation, food preparation, and even sex to maximize our productivity when it really counts. Our availability and capacity for paid work turn our off time into unpaid work.
Labor theorist Silvia Federici argues that “the wage gives the impression of a fair deal.” After all, you agree to devote yourself to work for a certain period of every day, and you get paid for that time or for the marginal value of your labor. But Federici says, “...in reality the wage, rather than paying for the work you do, hides all the unpaid work that goes into profit.”
How does a business profit from unpaid work?
Imagine the Fordist fantasy of the post-war era. There’s a white, quote-unquote traditional family who lives in a ranch-style house in a suburban subdivision. The father goes off to work from 9-to-5—maybe, as I do, you picture this dad as John Hamm. The mother, perhaps appearing as a Stepford Wife, is at home during the day. She gets the kids off to school and then sets about the work of the home: cleaning, doing laundry, running errands, and prepping meals. When the kids get home from school, she has snacks already laid out. When father gets home, mother brings him a cocktail and turns on the TV for him. She heads back to the kitchen to finish dinner and set the table. Father gets to eat dinner, smoke a cigar, and drink a glass of port before heading to bed. Mother does the dishes, ensures the kids have finished their homework, and gets things ready to do it all over again.
This is, as I said, a fantasy. Not my fantasy, for sure. But this fantasy is embedded in our expectations for ourselves. And it’s embedded in the way we learned to work for a living.
Note that the main thing the father has to focus on in this scenario is paid work. When he gets home, his wife works—unpaid—to replenish him for the next day. He is more productive at work because she makes it so.
That’s how businesses profit off of unpaid labor.
Our conceptions of work still revolve around the idea that going home at the end of the day means getting the chance to be replenished. But except in very few cases, no one is waiting to take care of us at the end of a long day of work. No one has a cocktail or cup of tea in hand when we leave the home office or walk through the front door. No one is doing the dishes for us or wrangling the kids so we can watch the evening news in peace.
This is true for people of all genders. Since everyone is expected to work for pay today, very few people have unpaid caregivers waiting at home for them. And as more people stay single longer or opt to remain single, few people even have someone to share this labor with.
The home has always been a worksite. Running a home takes labor—whether it’s yours, a partner’s, or a low-wage worker’s. For most of us, this has meant increasing expectations at work and at home. We require elaborate coping mechanisms—like 4-hour morning routines—to make it all work.
The Productivity-Wage Gap
“In the year 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by century’s end, technology would have advanced sufficiently that countries like Great Britain or the United States would have achieved a fifteen-hour work week. There’s every reason to believe he was right. In technological terms, we are quite capable of this. And yet it didn’t happen. Instead, technology has been marshaled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more.”
— David Graeber, Bullshit Jobs: A Theory
Productivity grew 118% from 1948 to 1979, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Wages grew at about the same rate: about 110%. But in 1979, the growth of productivity and wages diverged dramatically. Since 1979, productivity in the US labor force has increased by 62%. Meanwhile, wages have only risen 16%. Workers are producing more than ever, but compensation just hasn’t kept up.
If you’re a business owner or independent worker, you might be thinking: “well, that stinks—but I set my own pay and expectations for productivity.” And that’s true—but we still work within a socioeconomic system that relies on the productivity-wage gap.
The differential is embedded in how we think about work and even what earning a living looks like.
The productivity-wage gap is an origin story for contemporary hustle culture. The chasm between our ability to produce and what we’re paid to produce it is one of the more personally destabilizing components of the 21st-century economy. On that note, I want to recall a line from Micki McGee’s Self-Help, INC, that I shared in the first installment of this series. She writes: “A sense of personal security is anomalous, while anxiety is the norm. To manage this anxiety, individuals have been advised not only to work longer and harder but also to invest in themselves, manage themselves, and continuously improve themselves.”
Hustle at work. Hustle at home. Hustle at the gym, in your bed, on your meditation cushion. All of our hustle outside the office supercharges our hustle in the office. In her new book, Rest is Resistance, Tricia Hersey (aka @thenapministry) puts it this way: “The culture does not want you rested unless it is attached to your increased labor and productivity.”
Economically speaking, why does the productivity-wage gap exist?
Imagine you employ 3 people in addition to yourself to handle the workload of your business. So 4 people working in total. Over time, your team becomes more efficient, makes better use of software products, and is able to produce more in less time. At that point, you essentially have 3 options: add more work into the mix, lay someone off, or allow your team members to work less (and/or pay them more).
Two out of the three of those options have the effect of increasing the productivity-wage gap. If you add more work for you and your team to do and don’t increase their pay, productivity goes up, but wages stay the same. If you lay someone off, the remaining workers are less likely to ask for a pay increase because they’re just lucky to have a job—and still, their productivity goes up because now your team is 3 people doing the work of 4.
The only option that doesn’t increase the productivity-wage gap is to allow your workers to work less (and/or pay them more). Maybe you realize that the work of running the business only takes 4 days instead of 5 each week. So nothing changes—except that the office is closed on Fridays. Everyone works 32 hours per week rather than 40. This not only reduces the hustle at work—but reduces the hustle at home because you have more time to focus on caring for yourself.
But very, very few companies and small business owners take this third option. Profit always seems to trump rest.
And taking either of the first two options? Well, it leaves us with today’s economic reality: we are working harder than ever but lack any sense of personal stability. Plus, no one is coming to save us but ourselves. At least, that’s what we learn from the medium of self-help. Whether we’re talking about business advice, productivity hacks, or confidence culture, we absorb the explicit message that it’s up to us. Our relationships with others are dissolved into a reliance on self-mastery and individualism. And from there, exploitation and domination become not only easier to stomach but logical.
Productivity, as a data point, was not originally applied to human beings. One might speak of how productive a field is—as in, how many bushels of grain does it produce each year? One might speak of how productive a machine is—as in, how many pages does this printer produce per minute? But with the advent of scientific management, human workers became the object of productivity measurements.
Jobs became highly specialized. Instead of being the person who built a chair, you became the person who glued the legs onto the chair. Later, you might have even become the person who glued a leg onto the chair—if it meant the chair was produced more quickly, and more chairs could be produced in a day.
People management—human capital—became about the numbers. Time was no longer an abstract concept of lived experience—it was a standardized unit for measuring output. Compensation was no longer tied to the real value of what you produced in a day—it was tied to the time you spent producing. As the systems around worker productivity evolved, the relational components of work broke down.
Anthropologist David Graeber provocatively suggests that ours is a system of “converting love into debt.” His book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, details how local markets have historically defaulted to foundations of “honor, trust, and mutual connectedness” when not besieged by violence. But whenever violence and coercion maintain our systems of trade—as they do now on a global scale—then “the products of human cooperation, creativity, devotion, love, and trust [turn] back into numbers.”
And when everything is about “the numbers,” it’s pretty easy to work the numbers. Graeber writes:
“For me, this is exactly what’s so pernicious about the morality of debt: the way that financial imperatives constantly try to reduce us all, despite ourselves, to the equivalent of pillagers, eyeing the world simply for what can be turned into money—and then tell us that it’s only those who are willing to see the world as pillagers who deserve access to the resources required to pursue anything in life other than money.”
Hustle culture not only encourages us to see the world as pillagers—but see our own time and life experience as a resource to be pillaged. We center productivity instead of meaning, curiosity, or love.
Jadah Sellner is an artist and business coach who does not see the world (or her experience) as a pillager. Her new book offers a more generative and human approach to business-building. It’s called She Builds.
At first, I’ll admit, I was a bit uncomfortable with the title. I’m a bit allergic to business books marketed to women. But as soon as I opened up the book, there was a thoughtful explanation of the title. “She” gestures toward a more nurturing, interdependent, abundant, and intimate approach to business. And “builds” is an excellent reminder that the goal of a business is to create value rather than extract it from financial markets or followers on Instagram. The book was rigorous, thorough, and culturally aware—in other words, refreshing!
And it makes a great companion to my book, of course.
Our conversation is below. It’s been edited for clarity and length.
Tara: The first thing I wanted to ask you about was: Why write this book? And I don't mean that just in terms of the mission behind it, but how you thought about engaging with the greater discourse around entrepreneurship, hustle culture, and doing things differently. How does the book build on or refute books with similar aims?
Jadah Sellner: I've been an entrepreneur for over 14 years now. The business books I read were things like $100 Startup, The Four-Hour Workweek, The E-Myth—just all these books that were written by white men who weren't parents.
They weren't speaking to the things that I was juggling and holding onto. And as a woman of color—I'm Black, Chinese, and white—also a mom and non-college educated, I'm learning from these people that have don’t share my identities and challenges. So I was trying to look for proof of possibility. The closest thing I could get to was a Jewish man who is a dad but also a great friend and mentor of mine, Jonathan Fields, the host of Good Life Project. I was really searching out who was navigating that world of parenting, entrepreneurship, and caregiving.
That was just always something that was planted on my heart. I wanted a book that represented my reality, my world. Even today, these are the books that are still being written and served up to people who hold more marginalized identities. And so business books really aren’t speaking to the whole person.
My coaching style is very holistic. I believe the things that impact our personal lives also impact the way that we show up professionally. And that's true whether you are running your own business or you're an intrapreneur inside a company.
Tara: I’m trying to put out, what I hope, is a fairly subversive book onto the entrepreneurship shelves. And I’ve run into, and I'm continuing to run into, misconceptions about what the book is about.
For instance, I’m trying to avoid any marketing copy that includes the word “achieve.” There's nothing wrong with achievement, but the whole point of the book is shifting from achievement to practice. So I'm curious if there were any language or conceptual things that you ran into with the publishing industry, with your agent, with your editor, with marketing the book where you've really had to over-explain yourself to be heard in the way you want to be.
Jadah Sellner: I'm actually very surprised with Harper Business. One, they were totally down with anti-hustle. They were totally down with using “she,” even when I started to question it because it’s important to me to have the book be inclusive of people in my world who are queer-identifying or non-binary.
I was really surprised that they were advocating because I was, starting to question it. It was almost like the internalized patriarchy was like making me question, “is this inclusive enough? Or expansive enough?” So I was very shocked about that.
And then, my book cover has a gold foil heart on it. We were looking at a lot of different options but Harper was pushing for that. I'm like, “is that too fluffy?” It's interesting because I'm all about love, right? People will know that, but I'm also very practical. I'm very strategic.
On the other hand, I actually saw some pushback was more in the editing process and the readers that I was collaborating with. For instance, in the Refill Your Well chapter, I talk about self-care not being about bubble baths and massages. I also mention that my self-care style was “solo lounger.” And one reader said, “oh, that feels like lazy.” I found that interesting wording. And I remember in the comment box that I was like, “Look, it's okay not to be doing something all the time.” There's nothing wrong with being lazy because I am actually a huge advocate of “the lazy river” of building businesses. I'm surrendering, I'm trusting the process, all of those pieces. And so it's just interesting that we can kind of move against some of that. Productivity language claims there’s a right way to do it and a wrong way to do it.
Tara: I think about it as “values hijacking.” There's a way in which we give lip service to what we care about while not interrogating the systems that have convinced us to do things in a particular way. And so it sounds like that might be sort of what you were experiencing with that reader.
Jadah Sellner: I love the term “values hijacking.” I actually experienced that with a male coach I had. I remember him condemning all the words that were part of my highest values, things like freedom and lifestyle. These are things that matter to me. So I started to feel like I wasn't a real entrepreneur: “Well, if I value freedom, if I value lifestyle, then I'm not a real entrepreneur.” So now I know that I have to look for coaches that align with my values and support what I most care about.
And I think that's something that we can get caught up in, right? We start to work with people or systems or structures or marketing tactics that actually don't align with who we are and what we care about. And then we start to feel like we are in the wrong.
Tara: What does hustle culture mean to you?
Jadah Sellner: Hustle culture is the constant push for more—where more is actually never enough. So we're in this constant hamster wheel, pushing the goalpost just a little bit further down the field. We're constantly chasing the arrival, the achievement.
Your to-do list is a bottomless mimosa. Like it's just never-ending. It just keeps going, and it's never enough, and you're never well rested, and then you’re exhausted. So how I kind of define it as this: Forcing, Exhaustion, Avoidance, and Rigidity—FEAR.
Forcing is trying to push a plan or agenda. We're just holding on for dear life and pushing when we really should be surrendering. That leads to burnout and Exhaustion. We don't want to do anything—and we’re shaming ourselves. Avoidance comes from Exhaustion. We avoid the work and go deeper down the same spiral: Why can't I do it? Why am I procrastinating? And Rigidity is clinging to this one way of doing things: “This is the plan. This is the goal. I'm inflexible. I'm not going to adapt.”
I really love what you're saying about looking at this as a practice. Writing a book to completion, right? We think that's an achievement, but it's a practice to prepare us for what's next. I know that I am playing with that. The inner critic is going super loud when we complete a project: “That wasn't good enough. Is anyone going to like it?”
If we look at that book as practice, then we can kind of release, soften, and let it go a bit. It's just preparing me for the next thing that I'm going to do. And the next thing that I do is not the end. That's another level of practice and deepening into that body of work.
Tara: I love your bottomless mimosa metaphor because, I don't know if you intend this or not, but the more and more and more you drink the bottomless mimosa, the more intoxicated you get with the systems. You end up complicit in the process. So even as you're burning out, your expectations are getting bigger and your feelings of inadequacy are getting bigger—even though you're like, “oh God, I’m so drunk.”.
In the first third of the book, you talk about the role patriarchy and internalized patriarchy plays in our relationship to hustle culture. Can you explain how hustle culture is a tool of patriarchy and how that impacts us as people who would prefer to not live in a patriarchal society?
Jadah Sellner: It has defined success in a way that doesn't actually work for our lives. And yet, that is what we're comparing ourselves to. We're comparing our lives to the 1950s housewife model. The way that people describe balance is based on having that type of support at home. But most people who identify as women or were socialized female, are holding on to two roles at the same time.
Even if we have domestic support or a partner taking on some of that load, there's still a psychological component. Open tabs, open loops—we are still tracking all of those pieces. We've been trained and socialized in that way to take on the responsibility, even if we've delegated the tasks.
And that also shows up in our work, right? We can delegate. We can hire a team and get support. But it's taking up the psychological bandwidth, and we're keeping those tabs open. That becomes very overwhelming and exhausting.
We have to retrain ourselves out of that way of thinking and operating. I talk about toxic productivity, thinking that we have to be doing and being, and creating and achieving constantly. That's actually not how the creative process works. There is rest. There are seasons when we slow down. Thinking is a form of action—and we kind of skip that step in planning. We go right to execution, and we're not giving ourselves enough time to be intentional about what it is that we want.
Tara: There's an information architect named Abby Covert, who has a book called, How to Make Sense of Any Mess. And she talks about one of the first steps of any project is defining what is good and what is bad.
So often we just assume what is good and what is bad. And we don't actually define those things for ourselves. But we can't plan if we don't know what we're planning for. And it seems so obvious, but it's not.
Jadah Sellner: It's not, it's not.
Tara: So I wanna shift gears a little bit. One of the books that I'm using as the theoretical foundation of this series is called Self-Help, INC by a theorist named Micki McGee. She writes, that what she studied fell into two distinct options: the path of endless effort and the path of absolute effortlessness. And my guess is that you don't subscribe to either path exclusively. And so I'm curious how you personally navigate the territory between effort and effortlessness.
Jadah Sellner: I talk about “embrace your pace” in Chapter 12 and really look at the seasons when I need to push, the seasons when I need to pause, the seasons when I need to pivot. And I think that we operate in all of those different paces at different times based on our values and what’s happening around us.
One time I needed to pause was when I was doing a lot of output in my business at the time, and I was working on my book proposal. I had a group coaching program launch going on. I was doing podcast episodes for Lead with Love. And then I had grief. My 59-year-old father passed away. A few months later, we had to put the 13-year-old dog that we'd had since she was a puppy to rest. And then, a few months after that, my brother, who was 16 years old at the time, passed away in a car accident.
And that all happened within six months. It was compounding grief. I needed to heal, show up for the logistics of grief, and still navigate a business and all of the moving pieces that were happening.
Hustle culture tells me that I should just keep pushing. I should just keep going. I just need to compartmentalize that and put it on the side. I had to make an intentional decision to pause.
I pushed pause on my podcast by shifting to a seasonal format. I paused with my book coach because I realized I was living the book—I could not write the book then.
I even had to ask for support from our resident life coach and friends who stepped in to support our group coaching program. So it was that intentional pause—to really show up for my whole life, be there for my family, and tend to my grief.
Tara: I think one of the stickiest things about hustle culture, toxic productivity, and all the crappy things that we associate with success is that we’ve formed identities or aspirations around them. “I'm becoming a successful person. I'm becoming a boss. I'm becoming this particular brand of leader.” Wrestling with these different systems and philosophies that are harming us also means wrestling with these identities that we've clung to for a long time.
And so I'm curious, as your thoughts and awareness around this have grown and deepened over the years, was there any point in time where you sort of had to set aside an identity that you thought was important to you and kind of form a new identity that was anti-hustle, going at your own pace, etc.
Jadah Sellner: For me, it was more stepping into a new identity versus letting go of one. It was a reclamation of being an artist. So I actually decided that I would be an artist first and a business owner second. So I started to think about: How do I deepen my artistry? And how is the business actually a vehicle for my creative expression? I use my business to promote and highlight love; I want more love in the world. I will use business as a vehicle to share not only self-compassion but compassion for others—a sense of love, and grace, and patience.
I signed up for a memoir writing class. And so some of the stories weaved to this non-fiction prescriptive knowledge-based business book are actually stories that I wrote in a memoir writing class. Through that class and my writing process I started to lean into those identities more: I am an author, I am an artist, and I am a creator. And as I do that, I actually attract and call in more business owners who identify as creatives and artists too. They are using their vehicles for a business of creativity and expression.
I was a spoken word poet, I was a theater major in high school at a performing arts high school in Las Vegas. That's where my roots are. So I also started to unsubscribe from business leaders and marketing emails and ask myself, “who are the artists that I'm inspired by?” I started to fill my world with more art to inspire and refill my well in that way.
And that's what makes me think outside the box and how I show up in my work.
Tara: We have been on such a parallel path these last couple of years. I've talked about this year as, “my year of focusing on craft.” The craft of writing, the craft of podcasting, the craft of whatever I'm doing. I love what you said about being an artist first and a business owner second. It's the same thing for me, except I’m a scholar first, business owner second.
I’ve also taken a number of writing classes over the last year, and it’s been so helpful for integrating that identity.
Jadah Sellner: And writing classes are so rigorous! I am just so in awe of the writing process, I feel so green, so new, but it also feels so good because I'm on a 10-year journey. There are several books that I want to write. I want to jump genres, and I'm just at the beginning.
I have to be really kind to myself and know that I'm not gonna write this literary thing from the very beginning. But I'm at least practicing. And I even labeled my season of grief and healing as being in my creative cocoon, where I'm kind of nurturing that artist, taking care of or tending to my emotional self.
And then, as I stepped out of that season, then I labeled that emergent expression. So I'm starting to expand and move into that space, but it doesn't have to be fast. It doesn't have to be this thing that we are rushing. I am emerging into that creativity and expression, not rushing myself to that.
Tara: So you've used two words that I pair together quite often, which are rigor and rigidity. I want to have a rigorous approach to my work, but I don't want to have a rigid approach to my work. That's where my book leaves off: focus on rigor, not rigidity.
How do you keep a rigorous approach to your work from becoming a rigid approach to your work or to your life?
Jadah Sellner: I'm sure you probably talk about this in your book but it's even in how we set our intentions or our goals. That there is fluidity and flexibility. So for me, it's all about high intention.
I know what I want. I know why I want it. But I don't know how or when. Part of my work is to try on a bunch of hows. I have no control over the when, but I can do my best to make educated guests and keep pushing the timeline. So for me, it’s quarterly planning and knowing that this is what I want to do, but also that life is going to happen.
How do I make sure that I take into account my capacity and commitments? I need to be a lot more honest about what it really takes to do something. And I make time for a reflection process: what worked, what didn't work, what might I do differently next time? So that's the opposite of rigidity.
I’m seeing what worked. Then I'm adjusting the plan and shifting the timeline. And I’m also checking in to see, “Do I even want to do this anymore?”
As I mentioned, my book leaves off with a call to pursue rigor in our work rather than rigidity. Hustle culture and productivity hacks produce rigidity.
“Embrace rigor instead of rigidity. Conditioning, in all its forms, tries to squeeze us into a rigid idea of success, belonging, and productivity. The more social, economic, and political conditioning influences our goals and behavior, the better our social, economic, and political systems seem to work. But it's an illusion. Rigidity will never give us enough space to stretch out and explore our humanity. Rigor, on the other hand, requires dexterity. Rigor requires finesse. Rigor requires practice. To approach personal and professional growth with rigor is to approach it with curiosity. Rigor inspires us to unusual—and sometimes uncomfortable—questions. A rigorous life is one full of learning, delight, and openness.”
Turning everything into a cold calculation or evermore optimized process produces rigidity. A more human approach to capacity, a more relational worldview, a more holistic view of our resources can create the space we need for a more rigorous approach to work and life.
Over the last few years, I’ve changed how I think about whether or not I should say “yes” to an idea, project, or ask. Instead of asking myself whether I can squeeze something more into my workload, I ask myself whether I have what I need to do that thing well.
I simply don’t want to do it if I can’t do it well. I won’t do it if I can’t do it in a way that’s satisfying to me.
The specter of the productivity-wage gap has taught us that we can do more using fewer resources. Hustle culture convinces us we can get by on fumes. But I was tired of just getting by. I was ready to move on from my belabored self. I was ready to shed the shoulds & supposed-tos embedded in the medium of self-help.
And being satisfied with one’s work is a surefire way to quit the culture of hustle and the productivity scam.