We’ve Embraced the Hustle Life, and It’s Making Us Miserable

We have side jobs, the latest products, and an obsession with doing instead of being. But have we all been buying snake oil?

Photo: Gpointstudio/Getty Images

DDoing my taxes this year, I noticed that the W4 form has transformed into a somewhat confusing jumble of tables and boxes. In one of these boxes, you’re meant to identify if you’re working another job to make ends meet, like freelancing or picking up Instacart shifts. Basically, the form wants to know: “Are you hustling?”

For most people I know, the answer is a resounding yes. A friend of mine is a talented videographer who bartends and takes odd jobs on the side. I know a preschool teacher who also babysits and moonlights as a Lyft driver. Two employees in my company run a side company and create content on Twitch. A fellow writer on Medium works a nine-to-five, then freelances in the evening. And me? I’m no different. I write, freelance in graphic design, and build websites to provide for my family.

Looking around, it appears we’re all doing the same shit. We’re hustling to make ends meet, “building our brand,” ensuring our startup doesn’t tank, or dreaming about the day our side hustle takes off and we can walk into the office and give everyone the bird.

Some of the things exacerbating Hustle Life™ are out of our control. I live in Austin, Texas, where the cost of living has skyrocketed in the past few years. Between 2017 and 2018, the cost of living rose by $20,000 per person, about a 33% increase. Also, the average CEO’s salary has grown by 940% since 1978, whereas their workers’ wages have grown by just 12%. It stands to reason, then, that most of us are hustling because we literally have to in order to survive.

Yet while it’s easy to place all the blame on these outside forces, the most insidious factor is the one we’ve all bought into. Somehow, society has collectively agreed that workaholism is normal, even good. If you aren’t working your ass off, then something is amiss. Just ask anyone our everyday go-to question: “How are you doing?” Guaranteed nine out of 10 times, you’ll hear the response, “Busy!”

We’ve tied our worth and identity to our performance, become a culture obsessed with the latest knickknack, and, because we don’t know rest or contentment, bought into a lie that’s killing our souls. I forfeit sleep to take odd jobs and eat up the horseshit that hustle gurus serve on their blogs, newsletters, and social media. I become convinced that I, too, can become an accomplished author, family man, designer, web developer, and veteran advocate and hold down a job while still keeping my sanity. Spoiler: I can’t.

Apparently I’m a member of a weird microgeneration known as Xennials — those born in the late 1970s or early ’80s, who have an “analog childhood and a digital adulthood.” It checks out: My childhood was analog. My family had a TV with a turn knob and four major channels (CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox). I remember looking up movie times in the newspaper, calling a number on our rotary phone to find out the time and temperature, and being banished outdoors for well over eight hours a day. This was a period in America when kids were forced to use their imaginations. By the time I came of age to hold down my first job at McDonald’s, the money I earned was going toward items I needed, like gas and car insurance. When I didn’t have money to eat out or go to a concert, I simply didn’t go. Or I sat with my friends while enjoying a glass of water. Adults came home from work and watched television or had dinner parties with the neighbors. They didn’t have side gigs; they had hobbies.

But in the year 2020? We huddle around our phones at dinners we can’t afford while answering emails we’re convinced “can’t wait.” We keep hustling to afford the consumer-based lifestyle we’ve bought into. And it’s easy to buy into, because we’ve confused wants with needs.

In truth, I don’t need every single streaming service, but I’ve convinced myself I do. I don’t need a $10 craft cocktail when a Coors Banquet is fine, but I don’t want to be left out while everyone else at the table raves about their magical concoction. I don’t need half the crap I buy on Amazon, but hot damn, that gadget can save me time I could be using to hustle more. I’m part of a generation of hoarders — of time, resources, trinkets, relationships, and superficial technology. Hustling, if anything, allows us to keep some semblance of contentment in an endless sea of discontentment. We are far too entertained to realize we’re anesthetizing and working ourselves to death because we cannot learn to be content with less. If you’re like me, there are probably numerous times you’ve thought, “If I just made X, then Y.” To achieve whatever “Y” is, you hustle. Once you achieve that goal, the melancholy sets in, because you realize the bar has raised once more, and once again you’re back at just not enough.

Of all the things I miss most from my time at war, one of them is, oddly, not having access to a cellphone. Between missions, I would read, play poker, have deep conversations with other soldiers, exercise, or sit on my cot and think. No one could reach me, and I couldn’t distract myself with an app if I got lonely. Defying all current cultural logic, I was completely content without a phone, laptop, or flat-screen TV. I didn’t feel like I needed to do extra work to keep up with my field or stand out — my mission was clear, my workload was set, and it felt like enough.

I guess that’s the beauty I’m trying to rediscover: the life-changing magic of having less, but being more content. Make no mistake, there is an initial pain of severing when you step out of the hustle cycle. You will feel like you should be doing instead of being. There will be finances to fret about, tasks and accomplishments to push back, and constant combat with a cultural mindset that reinforces worth attached to work.

As you step away from the hustle and become more present, however, you’ll feel more at peace. These days, I’ve discovered I’m thankful for my dirty sedan that gets me to and from work and takes me home at night. When I drag my tired body from the car, I’ll smile, knowing what comes next. I’ll open the door, and my three-year-old daughter will exclaim, “Daddy! You’re home from work!”

Indeed, I am.

Storyteller | Combat wounded veteran | Metalhead | Designer | Bleeding on a page just makes it more authentic: https://benjaminsledge.com

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