Who unearthed the word “hustle” and made it an anthem?
Hustle and grind. The hustle never stops. Hustle harder. You gotta hustle.
We exalt the hustle. We celebrate the hustlers. We say that successful entrepreneurs, from Jay-Z to Oprah, had to hustle to get where they are.
Somebody took a term about aggressive pushing, forcing, jostling, and shoving and turned it into a charming motivational motto, catapulting it to the front pages of our cultural lexicon, where it now poses on its lofty platform and shouts at all of us to DO MORE, BETTER, FASTER, NOW.
If you search for “hustle” on Urban Dictionary, these are a few of the top related words:
Money. Scam. Cheat. Con. Steal. Swindle. Grind.
I’m all for breaking boundaries and kicking down walls. I’m all for big leaps and boldness. I’m all for striving towards ambitious aims. And I understand that Jay-Z and Oprah didn’t become Jay-Z and Oprah by crawling through their careers in slow, timid steps.
But the more we glorify the hustle, the more we praise the pursuit of personal goals above all else — the more straight A’s trump simple acts of kindness, the more promotions take precedence over poetry, the more we aspire to get our names in lights instead of in other people’s hearts.
There’s something so insidiously harsh and shamelessly self-focused about the word “hustle.” It feels inflexible and unapologetic. Though it slips gently from the tongue like something cute, its true connotations are sharp.
I’m not the first to notice that “busy” has become a buzzword. I think we’ve learned to employ it as an excuse: if we call our lives “hectic,” we imply personal progress. We assume that if we’re thrashing around in the murky waters of our dreams, we must be making more than surface-level ripples.
Busy, hectic, hustle — these trite terms all suggest whirlpools of productive action. While they may be the inevitable side effects of swift forward motion towards bold aspirations, they can also be sly stand-ins for genuine growth. They can serve as simple sources of validation — things we say to assure ourselves that we’re trying hard enough, that we’re accomplishing enough, that we’re doing enough. Hustle helps us believe in our enoughness.
We harp on hustling as if it’s the hard part, but I think rushing and pushing are easily adaptive habits because we’ve tied them so closely to our self-worth. Our brains are trained to seek the dopamine jolt that accompanies every hustled accomplishment.
I think what’s harder than hustling is unwinding that addiction to achievement. I think it’s more difficult to master the anti-hustle — not the doing, driving, pushing, and stretching, all the Pinterest-perpetuated girl-bossing and butt-kicking, but the slowing down and even stopping to rest for a moment.
Rest is challenging because it requires so much faith that we’re good enough as we are. That our greatness doesn’t need to be coerced out of us — it’s inside us all along. That we don’t have to earn our donuts or our bubble baths or our lazy mornings — every human has a right to joy and sweetness.
I’m no stranger to the hustle. I hustled all the way through high school. I hustled straight through college. I’m hustling now to build my creative career — the hustle brought this blog to life.
But I can tell I’m hustling into overdrive when I start staying up too late in the quiet, dark hours of the night, eating too many spoonfuls of almond butter with dark chocolate and reading too much Dear Sugar when I should really be sleeping, just because I crave the sensation of something slow and soft. That’s my sign that the hustle has seeped into too many aspects of my day — not just my work, but also my breakfast, my self-care, my social life. Everything takes on the harshness of the hustle.
The tricky thing about mottos — hustle harder, hustle and grind, the hustle never stops — is that they have a tendency to spread through all of our routines, not just the ones that we intend. They slip surreptitiously into our everyday habits and manifest in ways we don’t anticipate or even notice.
The diffused pervasiveness of the hustle is why we rush to hang up the phone instead of giving that final “I love you” its warranted oomph. It’s why we spill our morning coffee on our shirts as we try to slug it down on our way out the door, already sorting through our mental to-do lists with gritted teeth. It’s why we groan when we miss the green light or feel frustrated when someone snail-paced blocks the sidewalk. We miss the sweetness of soft slowness and occasional stillness in their simplest forms. We neglect the wisdom of slips and trips, the splendor of sunsets, and all of the poetry that can only grow in an expansive, unhurried space. We focus too much on ourselves and where we want to go.
And we rush until we wear ourselves down. The more exhausted we are, the more we need an encouragement to work when we yearn for rest, and therefore the more we tell ourselves to hustle. And so we hustle harder, and then we wear ourselves down further, and the pattern begins again.
If the hustle never stops, the cycle never stops.
We get stuck in a state of constant doing and moving, rushing from one destination to another in pursuit of what’s next. The present stops seeming like enough. Who we are, right now, stops being enough.
I don’t think that the real secret to the successes of our entrepreneurial icons is their hustle, though it’s one undeniable factor. Instead, it’s their confidence in their enoughness. It’s their deep and dedicated belief in their own power and in the potential of their dreams.
The hustle happens on its own. It’s the automatic aftereffect of that wholehearted passion. The passion demands attention from a place of profound love and meaning, instead of fierce force or a hunger for validation.
My theory is that we’d be wiser to focus on wholeheartedness than hustle. The point isn’t the pushing — it’s the passion that precipitates the push.
Besides, our world might collapse in its chaotic whirlpools if we hustle any harder. I think we need to be reminded to hustle softer instead, by which I mean:
Sit down when you need to sit down.
Eat spoonfuls of almond butter and dark chocolate for breakfast if you feel like it.
Stay in your pajamas until noon on Sundays. Watch the way the sunlight hits the coffee steam.
Draw out your “I love you” at the end of every phone call.
As for your goals, keep pursuing them. Show up with sincerity, prepared to work for what you love and believe. But don’t drown yourself in the busy hurry in your own head. Save time and space for compassion. Understand that you might sometimes need to take a break at the expense of the hustle but at the benefit of the heart.
Every human, hustle or no hustle, has a right to joy and sweetness. Those are the goals towards which we really need to hustle.