riseandgrind

Rise, Grind and Ruin: The Dangerous Fetishization of ‘Hustle Porn’

'All the hustle porn, work-harder-and-be-better shit... it basically ruined my life'

There’s a video I receive on WhatsApp every so often from relatives who want to help “get me out of my state of sleep” regarding my work life. On YouTube, it’s titled “The Greatest Speech Ever,” and it has more than two million views. Set to the sounds of a string orchestra, a voice tells me that “millennials spend too much time valuing themselves on Twitter” and “want everything… but so many of them, they don’t know how to hustle. They don’t know how to work on weekends.” The man in the video goes on to say that for anyone to “build an empire” they need to project positivity. “You want to be the guy that wants to build the biggest building in town, not tear down other people’s buildings,” he explains.

The guy hoping to help me pick myself up by my bootstraps is Gary Vaynerchuk, an entrepreneur known for investing in tech companies like Facebook, Twitter and Venmo and amassing a $50 million fortune in the process. But it’s unlikely that you know him as a successful businessman. More likely, you’ll recognize him being plastered all over your social media feeds as an “inspirational speaker” and internet personality who gives lectures on how to hack your life in such a way that you become “more productive” and “more successful.”

Similarly, Jay Shetty, a former management consultant who now calls himself an “urban monk,” earns millions of views every month by making videos about waking up before dawn to work long before your job actually starts, preaching the benefits of speed reading seven books a week and not sweating it if you haven’t gotten rich by your 30s or 40s because Mark Cuban and Richard Branson didn’t make their millions until then either.

These popular “inspirational” videos are monetizable offline too. For example, Simon Sinek, the motivational speaker notorious for the viral “Millennials in the Workplace” video, in which he claimed that young people are unable to work in offices because they’re so used to earning “participation trophies,” got hired to be a “motivational consultant” for ICE (yes, that ICE).

It’s no surprise that such content has found popularity among the tech community, as so many of these inspirational gurus openly admire — and more or less copy — the style of tycoons like Steve Jobs, Elon Musk and Scott Geller. After all, it was in Silicon Valley where “life-hacking” culture took off, and companies attributed their success not just by profits but by how much their employees personally cared about them. In fact, as a term, the concept of “life hacking” was coined at the O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference in San Diego back in 2004, mainly referring to the technical tricks and shortcuts computer programmers were employing to get more work done. Nowadays, though, there’s a “life hack” for everything, from cleaning your teeth to working out in seven minutes to turning a box of Tic Tacs into a USB key holder.

That said, the most contemporary “life hacks” tend to be more associated with how individuals hack themselves — i.e., their own bodies — in order to enhance their job performance. But along with inspiration, this attempt at being as productive as humanly possible has also come under a fair amount of criticism. In Grazia, journalist Vicky Spratt argues that “hustle porn” is “making us miserable” and that social media has turned working into a “lifestyle brand,” which dismisses the generational decline of wealth and material production in the economy. “Our generation was told that we could be, that we could do anything, and we have entered the working world to find that it’s just not true yet. Things have improved but there are still huge obstacles to overcome and pursuing perfection along the way will only make that harder to do,” she writes.

Spratt goes on to argue that hustle porn culture can often serve as a smokescreen for real, structural problems in the modern workplace. “No amount of grifting or endless working” will help alleviate the gender pay gap, which, according to the World Economic Forum, won’t close for another 200 years, or the fact that nearly a quarter of all women in the American workforce are afraid of reporting on-the-job sexual harassment. Furthermore, last year, the American Association for Cancer Research found that those working long, night-shift jobs were 19 percent more likely to get some form of cancer, while Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor at Stanford Business School, says that work-stress-related deaths are among the top five causes of death in the U.S. today.

Last week, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian called bullshit on this culture, too. “Hustle Porn is one of the most toxic, dangerous things in tech right now. This idea that unless you are suffering, grinding working every hour of every day, you’re not working hard enough.” Ohanian, a product of Y-Combinator, a California based start-up hub, argued that Silicon Valley has for too long encouraged its employees to work extremely long hours under the guise that it would lead to both a better product and them becoming better people. “It has deleterious effects not just on your business but on your well-being,” he added, referencing the death of his mother that occurred while he was building Reddit. “As entrepreneurs, we are all so busy ‘crushing it’ that physical health, let alone mental health, is an afterthought for most founders. It took me years to realize that the way I was feeling — when working on Reddit was the only therapy I had — was depression.”

Along those same lines, in a Medium post last month, Nat Eliason, founder of another startup hub, Growth Machine, wrote, “Struggle porn has normalized sustained failure. It’s made it acceptable to fly to Bali and burn through your life savings trying to launch an Amazon dropshipping business. Made it reasonable to keep living on your parents money for years after graduation while you try to become #instafamous. Made LinkedIn into a depressingly hilarious circle jerk for people who look way too excited to be having their headshot taken.”

Eliason adds that the most dangerous part of this culture is how it lauds the lack of progress as a sign of success, and in so doing, considers “quitting” weak and a sign of failure. “When you believe the normal state of affairs is to feel like you’re struggling to make progress, you’ll be less likely to quit something that isn’t going anywhere.”

“All the hustle porn, work harder and be better shit, it basically ruined my life,” says Jamie King, a 30-year-old tech consultant in London. King explains that he was “a sucker for all the motivational stuff you see on YouTube, all the epic videos where guys play [American] football in the rain, or where they’re climbing mountains and stuff.” He turned to these videos after years of trying to figure out how to overcome procrastination, a problem he says has led to missed deadlines and jobs.

For King, these videos were a quick way to stay on track, to push himself into thinking that “if there were guys that spent months losing weight by running up hills everyday without fail, I could push myself a couple of hours to finish a report or a project I was working on.”

In the short-term, the strategy worked. But because the YouTube algorithm kept recommending more and more of these videos, they ended up severely impacting his sense of self-worth. “The more videos you watch, the more you end up feeling like you aren’t doing enough,” he explains. “For example, there were videos I watched that basically said that buying your lunch was a form of weakness, because more efficient people meal prepped beforehand. Or there was this short period of time last year when I tried to wake up at 4:30 a.m. every morning because there were all these videos saying that the most successful people do that so they can start their days before everyone else. I was able to wake up, but I ended up just being tired and miserable all day. There were months where I wouldn’t speak to anyone at work because I was just too tired to do so.”

Overall, he says the thing the videos were best at were “warping reality.” Per King, “One of the reasons this kind of motivation culture works is because it’s targeted to guys like me, who feel like they just need to tweak a few things in their lives to make everything better. And so, you go and search for advice — I guess in the same way as if you were sick, you’d go online to get an idea of how to make things better so you don’t have to go to the hospital. But the more videos you watch, the more problems you think you have. Because you’re always told you aren’t good enough, that making mistakes is a problem with your personal character and you have to embody the kind of determined lifestyle that these motivation YouTubers have. But at the end of the day, when you realize their advice doesn’t help you in the long-term, you just end up feeling shit.”

Twenty-three-year-old Deeyah tells me over Twitter how a once close friend had fallen into the trap of watching hustle porn after she was laid off from a PR firm. “My friend had been spending a lot of time online, looking for jobs, but she was watching these videos as a way to cheer herself up.” After a month, Deeyah’s friend ended up joining what Deeyah calls “the most transparent pyramid scheme you could imagine — a company that was pushing energy drinks online. They called themselves an international corporation with a global distribution, and promised that their hires would be sales reps who would be ranked based on how much of the drink they sold, as well as their contributions to the company.”

It wasn’t long before Deeyah’s friend tried to get Deeyah involved as well. “We had so many fights about it — like she was telling me that I’d lead a more fulfilling life if I joined the company, that it was the best work ethic, that work felt like family. It was all the things you’d expect from a pyramid scheme, but they kept people hooked by sending them motivational videos where the struggle of selling was the motivation. Like, there were sales guys in the videos saying, ‘The early bird catches the worm, but if you want to succeed, you need to be the first bird to wake up.’ She really bought into it, and it’s had a big impact on our friendship because you can see how obsessed she’s become by it all.”

It’s that kind of exploitation that, according to Nick Srnicek, a lecturer in the digital economy at King’s College in London and co-author of Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work, is the real problem with contemporary work environments. While Srnicek says that hustle porn influencers can encourage damaging habits, they also promote the myth that “if you work sufficiently hard, you’ll be one of these major influencers and one of these top people.”

“Lots of this culture tends to be very performative too,” Srnicek continues. “Because lots of this culture is taken from the fitness world. What you find is that, like fitness people who want to show and talk about their gains and what they’ve been working on, you’ll have guys who want to show off their life hacking. You’ll have people who want to talk about how they wake up early in the morning to start work, or how they stayed in the office all night working. It’s almost as if they value themselves based on this performance, which makes sense, because if you think about it, in an industrial economy where people made things, they could say that they went to work and did something. Whereas in an office environment — and in a service-driven economy — that’s harder to determine. So some people end up thinking they have to do particular things that their colleagues don’t do to justify why they haven’t wasted their day.”

Ultimately, though, like Spratt noted, this mostly points to a broken work system, one where motivational YouTubers or inspirational posts are only a symptom of a much larger problem. “We’re in an economy where, in theory there’s high employment, but also a record number of people who say they feel insecure in their jobs, or how long they’ll stay in them,” Srnicek says. “Until that issue around security and safety is addressed — and that’s a systemic change that requires political momentum — you’ll always have people wanting to find ways to differentiate themselves, and other people who will make money based off the claim that they know exactly how to do that.”