📈 The Toxic Grind

06 June 2022 · Updated 27 August 2022

There are several things that I’ve learned this past year regarding work-life balance. The first thing is that the Chinese have a concept of 996 which means people work from 9:00 to 21:00, six days per week, totaling 72 hours.

The second thing I learned is that the Japanese have coined a name for people who overwork constantly and eventually die from exhaustion: karoshi, which means death by overwork.

The third thing I learned is that ‘The Grind’ or ‘The Hustle’ as others name it is a toxic concept. There are tons of videos on YouTube that glorify the constant work — get up at 04:00 in the morning, stop working at never o’clock, and deny yourself any relaxing time, because there are other successful lions who’re ahead of you and who you need to catch up to.

Source: Dilbert

The Grind Culture in general, is the idea that you should “always be on” — no matter where you are, what time of the day it is, you’re hustling and trying to achieve more than others. Sleep? That’s for losers. Not opening MacBook on the weekend? Pfft, do you not want to achieve something big? You have a never-ending to-do list, and it’s a badge of honor when you fall asleep at your desk.

Work = Success

Baked into the hustle culture is the idea that it’s possible to rise up, break through, improve your situation, and finally achieve the success you always wished for. This is a universal longing in a capitalist world — getting ahead of others is the holy grail of life. Why else would you be living if not to have more material things than others?

According to the Hustle Mantra, only those who out grind the others are worthy of achieving true success. And that’s the toxic part, work = success, success = the only way your life can be fulfilled.

Of course, we know that’s not true. Fulfillment in life comes from many different things. Being successful at your job is just one of those, and not even the best one.

Selling the Dream

Back in the day, Alexis Ohanian, the founder of Reddit, coined the term “Hustle Porn” — where everyone shares how much they are “winning at life” or how much more they are doing than others. You get bombarded on Instagram with motivational images and videos where people tell you that what you’re doing is not enough and you need to devote yourself fully to the Hustle Gods or you won’t “win at life”.

All of these motivational hustle videos sell one thing — the dream of achieving the peak. In these videos, there are people on luxury yachts drinking cocktails and thinking about their next project or getting on a private jet to fly somewhere to discuss their next big deal. Fancy clothes, exotic places, and a message that you can also achieve this dream if you grind enough.

The Dream of becoming enormously wealthy, influential, and famous — they’re selling you a destination that you might not even want. They’re not glorifying the process of achieving this wealth, not the journey, just the end result, just pure “Here’s my yacht, bro”.

They don’t say that working on a meaningful mission will make you more fulfilled in life. That doesn’t sell. The idea that you should pursue something you genuinely care about, which has nothing to do with getting up at 4 AM in the morning, going to the gym, and working until 11 PM, is not so glamorous.

Fear of falling behind

But do we really need this? Is the Grind the only way we can win at life? Is getting ahead of others that important? If someone is earning more money than me, it doesn’t mean that I’m making less because of that, and it doesn’t mean I should strive to achieve more than them. It’s not zero-sum. It’s a positive-sum game. I should strive to be better than myself, not better than others.

Very few people actually want to be in this cycle of constant overwork. Most are coming from a place of fear, the fear of missing out or falling behind. What if I don’t grind enough, and I will “lose at life”?

The core of the hustle culture lies in the negative emotions — the fear of failing, the envy of others, the need to be better than others — and the grind promises to resolve all of your worries with a straightforward strategy: working your ass off. Which, of course, does only harm in the long run but gives quick short-term relief — I’m working, so that means I’m getting better than others.

What’s the alternative?

Instead of glorifying the grind, we should promote work-life balance and celebrate life fulfillment in all forms. Money and success are not the only measures in life. In fact, they shouldn’t be even any measure of your life. How much money you have or what position you hold says nothing of you as a person or how happy you are in life.

Instead of the grind, we should focus on:

  • Proper sleep, at least 8 hours per day.
  • Proper rest, taking vacation days, and not feeling bad about it.
  • Take regular breaks in-between tasks, as you can’t be productive 100% of the time.
  • Being “off” and doing other hobbies when not at work.
  • Setting work-life boundaries by setting strict Slack/Teams communication schedules inside the company.
  • Embracing social interactions inside the work environment. It’s okay to laugh with friends at work. Take it easy.
  • Doing whatever you want that brings you joy outside your work.

We should glorify the journey of achieving something meaningful, not the dream of wealth and power. Glorify the skills you build along the way, not the shortcuts you take.

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  • Nessitro

    Thanks for the reminder

  • Chetan

    Grind culture almost burned me out, thought working non-stop was the path to success. Learned the hard way it’s not. Now I take real breaks, have hobbies, and my work’s actually better for it. Success isn’t just about work achievements, but also being happy and fulfilled. Keeping it simple and balanced is key.

  • Anonymous

    I agree with everything you said! But I do think one important perspective is missing from your discussion:

    A lot of us feel the need to work hard and because of our current financial situation. We don’t want a yacht and private jet, I just want to be able to afford a decent house and standard of living for my family and I. I don’t need a mansion or luxury car, just a house with a yard and enough room for our two cats.

    I’m currently a grad student, and I don’t work 24/7, 7 days a week. But I certainly work more than I want to, and feel burned out. I feel if I don’t do this, I won’t even be able to give my family a decent life. I think a lot of us feel like this with the current cost of living, inflation, and insane house prices…

    1. anonymous

      Yeah, as a postdoc, this is why more and more of us academic workers are unionizing.

    2. Anon

      Post-doc here. agree with you on this !

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for reminding that success is not a cure-all, but relative and individual thing. Everyone who has achieved everything can list a whole bunch of things whose absence makes them unhappy. I quit!

  • Anonymous

    Now, this was an interesting read

  • Anonymous

    Yey for embracing procrastination!

  • Anonymous

    Very well written!

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for the reminder. I feel this is especially true for younger folks who start out in this industry.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for writing this, I needed this as I have been working (trying) aimlessly for a long time without a goal.

  • Anonymous

    Great write up, meaningful words. Thanks for sharing.

  • Anonymous

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