Is ‘Hustle Culture’ Healthy for Artists?

Actually, is Hustle Culture healthy for anyone?

Alright, Black Friday shopping is over, my store is closed for the year, and with two weeks left of 2021 I feel like this is a great time to talk about hustle culture.

Hustle Culture is loosely defined as working constantly and rejecting rest as weakness or a lost opportunity. Overworking is seen as a symbol of success and something to be proud of. Sustained and consistent productivity is almost worshipped.

I’d like to officially state that I hate hustle culture. I love to work, and actually have been hustling hard for the last few weeks, but I can’t stand hustle culture as a whole. When I see social media posts from other creators touting the benefits of their hustle routine, I grimace at my phone. Rise and grind! Hustle hard! Can’t stop won’t stop! No off day! I’m pretty sure I’ve uttered similar sentiments unfortunately, but prioritizing rest is a must.

I am a full-time creator. My only income comes from my art business and it’s been this way since October 2016 when I quit my last “real” job. I quit my job because I burned out. I can’t help but hustle, but I can’t sustain consistent productivity. Five days on and two days off, 52 weeks a year minus two weeks vacation, doing something someone else tells me to do sucks the life out of me. What’s funny is that I traded it for a seven day work week as a creator with no baked in off days. But there’s a big difference now: My schedule is adjustable and adaptable to my current needs.

I often work more hours for less pay, and there is a good amount of hustle in the life I chose. There are days where I start working before I even finish my coffee and I don’t stop until it’s time to go to sleep–but there are also random days and/or weeks where I don’t do a damn thing. With work/productivity, I try to have a minimum baseline for output, but I often jump between the extremes of zero output to maximum output. I just try to work according to my needs.

When it comes to hustle culture, we’re encouraged to only focus on maximum output all the time. Rest is weakness! Lack of productivity is failure! *grunts and throws a paint bucket at the wall*

Hustle culture doesn’t work for most people long term, but it especially doesn’t work for creatives. It’s not realistic to hustle all the time and I don’t want you to put expectations on yourself that are potentially detrimental.

Hustle and Burnout

When you spend a lot of time and energy hustling and don’t rest, burnout is likely on the horizon. When you focus too hard on future rewards and neglect present enjoyment; when you work for a future you don’t even want–yep, burnout. At least for me.

The other day, I was thinking about when I was a full-time student and I don’t know how I survived. In high school and college, I took full course loads and worked a part time job. If I wasn’t in class or at work, I was studying. Sophomore year of college, I was taking 17 credits, working part time, barely sleeping, and consuming way too much coffee. I was so overworked and tired that I found myself in the student health center with really weird heart flutters. My body didn’t like what I was doing, but I had to hustle. I had classes to ace and rent to pay. And then every semester’s end or holiday break brought about some sort of sickness. “Oh we can rest now? How about the flu?”

I was depressed and exhausted, working toward goals I didn’t really want, and I needed to change something. I asked myself this question:

How do you want to spend your time and your life?

What life did I want? What was I working for? Was I making my own decisions or just following the path that society laid out for me? Did I want or need the college degree I was working for? Did I want a specific career? Did I want to spend five days a week in an office and count down until I could take my two weeks of vacation? I asked all these questions for years.

For a long time I didn’t know what I wanted, but I watched myself burnout over and over again. Why? I was hustling in ways that didn’t fuel me in the present for a future I didn’t even want and/or need. When I was in school for biochemistry freshman year of college, I was planning for a future of working in a lab. Did I actually want that future? Was I obsessed with biochemistry? No! I was just good at math and science and wanted a job that would provide financial security. In 2016, I worked on a finance team doing accounts payable and receivable. Did I have passion for that work? Did I have the energy to spend 8 hours a day looking at spreadsheets and accounting software? Nope.

The hustle needs to be what fuels you.

Why do people hustle? Most likely it’s for the future payoff, right? As an artist, hustle for a lot of things. I hustle for more followers, more sales, more money, more recognition, but most of the time I hustle because there is something satisfying about the process of whatever work I’m doing.

When you hustle, the acts you perform need to feed some part of you otherwise you will not be able to sustain it. And even when you love what you do, you still need rest. One way to test if your currently hustle is fueling you is to evaluate how you’ll feel if the future payoff you hope for doesn’t come. Will you still consider the work worth doing? Hustling for a future payoff alone isn’t a bad thing, but it helps to have something else driving your efforts.

Let passion and obsession drive your hustle.

In the past, I hustled to get good grades. I hustled to please my bosses. I didn’t hustle for my own enjoyment. Today, I hustle and chase my passions to fuel me. The days where I’m working from morning to night, I’m usually so obsessed with a project that you can’t pull me away. When I’m in the zone with art, I can’t stop until I’m done. When I get lost writing, an entire day flies by in a blink, and I love it.

I feel like the whole “rise and grind” mentality around hustle culture dictates that you shouldn’t enjoy the hustle. That the tasks before you require a lot of discipline and internal convincing to tackle. Most of the pride around hustling comes from people overcoming their own lack of energy or desire to do something and carrying out discipline and routine despite the body’s call for rest.

Healthy creative hustles aren’t like this. They are passions. Healthy hustles are passionate sprints to carry a project to the end just because you can. Not for a reward, not for a payoff, but for the process and for the act itself. This is really important for any hustle, side-hustle, or creative hustle. You have to find fulfillment in the process because:

There is no guaranteed return.

Anything we do, there is no guarantee of a return. At least a monetary return. This is true with traditional career paths too, but even more so with creative career paths. When it comes to the hustle put into non-creative careers, you can usually count on some sort of payment. If you work multiple odd jobs, unless someone is being shady there’s usually a paycheck at the end of it.

With a creative hustle, there is no guaranteed return. (Excluding creative hustles inside of a traditional employment structures. Example: Graphic Designer employed by a marketing firm.)

Any of the work I have done in my creative life came with the hope of future payment/return, but most of the time I settled with the possibility of never making money. Even after all these years of selling my work, there is still no guarantee of return. Even from the things I’ve made good money from in the past.

For example, take the holiday shopping season this year. I know every type of business was hustling to get inventory ready and promote sales on or around Black Friday. I was one of them. I’ve been mentally prepping for the holidays since summer, and physically prepping since the start of November. I ran my sale and made a whopping $39 on Black Friday, just a fraction of what I’ve made in past sales. At the end, I realized I would have netted more income having just ignored Black Friday entirely.

The only return that you can guarantee is the enjoyment you get from hustling. Hustling and completing tasks that provide little enjoyment for a future return that never arrives sucks. Sometimes we have to do things that aren’t enjoyable, but there’s a better way to approach your hustle. Over the last few years I have learned how to hustle in a healthy way.

How to make hustle culture work for you without burning out:

Establish why you’re hustling:

Is your hustle for today or for tomorrow? Like I said before, creating tasks that are gratifying and fulfilling on their own helps to recharge the battery and give you more hustle power. When I go to the gym, I do it for the immediate payoff. Cardio helps quiet my mind. My anxiety and restlessness decreases. Lifting weights helps me focus and pull me to the present moment.

Focus on the now. Focus on passion. If you want to hustle to grow your social media following and eventually make more art sales, what can you do today that is fulfilling? The task on your to-do list could be to make videos of your art process and post online. Hopefully flexing your creativity fuels you. Creating art and getting into a routine can be gratifying in the moment.

If you are hustling for the future, make sure you give yourself a reward today.

Hustle for goals you control:

Late 2020, I wrote the first draft of a novel for no other reason that to write a novel. Every hour in front of my laptop was well spent even if the book goes nowhere (which is likely its future). Reaching my goal of writing a complete novel was fulfilling on its own and this made the process of writing it almost euphoric at times. I can’t control if a publisher ever wants to print my words. I can only control what I do, and my goals are created with that in mind.

Hustle Intermittently:

We can’t hustle all day every day. You may think you can, but you probably shouldn’t. Rest is important and this is why I hustle intermittently.

For the less enjoyable tasks, the hustle may never fuel you. There are things that I will never enjoy doing, and the future payoff is the only thing I can look forward to. Updating inventory for my store is one of my least favorite tasks. It requires hours of photographing, editing, copywriting, and marketing, and I hate it. When there are tasks you need to complete try to sandwich them between tasks you actually enjoy. OR, you can save these tasks for when your best self does show up. I like to prioritize the easy hustles on my worst days and save the harder hustles for my best days.

When the hustle is more arduous, intermittent bursts of energy seem to work for me. Recently, I have taken on a project to switch my online store to a new platform. I have been dreading it because of the time commitment, but December hit and suddenly my inner hustler was like “hey, we’re doing this now.” And I’ve logged over 40 hours in the last two weeks just on this project while also doing all my other business tasks. But I can’t and won’t sustain this energy. It goes something like this:

Hustle –> Rest–> Big Hustle –> Rest –> Repeat

Cut out the crap:

What has society told you that you should want, and what do you actually want? Are you hustling for something that doesn’t bring you any sort of joy? Are you unhappy even when you reach the goals society has forced upon you? What are you hustling for that isn’t actually going to serve you? Can you do without those things?

I love simplicity. It works for me in my life and it has helped me hustle in more meaningful ways.

Understand your creative cycle:

When I’m hustling intermittently, I’m usually paying attention to my creative cycle to time it with my most productive window. The creative cycle looks a little different for everyone, but in general if follows this course:

Input–>Incubation–>Creation–>Rest->Repeat

For 3 of the 4 stages of my creative cycle, I don’t look all that productive, but during the creation phase of my cycle, you can’t get me to stop. I hustle so hard I wish I could bottle the energy and sell it. For me, when I try to hustle outside of the creation phase, my burnout risk increases. We need the input phase. We need the incubation phase. And we need the rest phase.

Understand your creative cycle, and:

Recognize the resistance of comfort vs the resistance from depletion:

There are times when we can push harder, but it’s important to know your limits. Some mornings, I want to drink coffee and zone out watching random YouTube videos rather than work. There are times where I push past the urge and get to work because I know I’m just being lazy, but there are times when I give into my urge to zone out and I set work aside for awhile because I’m actually depleted.

I have learned to be mindful of the differences between these two states and I act accordingly. Where hustle culture gets it wrong is that this state of depletion is still treated as a lack of productivity that we need to overcome.

Rest is productive. Doing nothing can be productive.

Define your minimum output:

Hustle culture depends on out best, most motivated selves showing up every day, and the discipline/masochism to overcome our least motivated selves when they show up instead. I don’t know about you, but I fluctuate a lot. Sometimes multiple times a day. I have set hopeful minimum goals for myself that I have needed to adjust over the years because they just weren’t sustainable.

For example, my Patreon page. For awhile I was offering a print of the month for select patrons. Which meant I needed to create a work of art, photograph it, print it, and have it ready at the beginning of each month to go out to patrons. Sounds simple, but it stressed the f*** out of me every month. Why? Because it depended on my best self showing up on schedule, and that wasn’t realistic for me.

What can the least productive version of yourself accomplish every day? Not the best version of yourself.

I work best when I set a minimum output goal instead of the maximum goal. Instead of saying “I’m going to make art 4 hours a day every day,” I say something like “I’m going to show up and try to make art.” When I set a minimum, the initial burst of energy I need for such a small promise isn’t a barrier. If I try and don’t have the energy, I can stop. Since creating fuels me, I often generate more energy to continue after I start and I can often exceed the lofty goal of making art for 4 hours a day. But the energy needed to commit to the entire sprint can be intimidating enough to not try at all.

Set a minimum to show up and try. When you encounter resistance, know the difference between the benefits of pushing through versus the call for rest.

Readjust as you go:

I make a lot of goals. I dream big things. I want to hustle every day. I want to do cool things, but I have had to learn to step back and make adjustments when my goals aren’t serving me. The hustle is only good for you if it fuels you. The hustle is not virtuous on its own. I have burned out in my art career from pushing too hard. Thankfully, I have the ability to rest and try new approaches.

Life is short and what good does miserably hustling for decades do? In my opinion it doesn’t do any good and we should be getting away from hustle culture. If the hustle doesn’t serve you in some way in the present moment, then I’d say it’s time to redefine what you’re working for.

Lastly, don’t compare your hustle to others:

The beauty in being human is that we aren’t all the same. No matter how hard you’re working, there is always going to be someone who works harder. No matter how little you accomplish today, someone out there is even less productive than you. Your value is not determined by how you compare to others.

Don’t waste your energy comparing your efforts to another creator’s. Are you happy with what you’re doing? Do you think you have more to give? Listen to your inner needs and wants and hustle accordingly.

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What do you think about hustle culture?

Please leave questions and comments below while commenting is open or reach out to me directly through Instagram or email. I’d love to hear from you! Make sure to sign up for my email list below to never miss a blog post. New posts are published every week (kind of). And if you’d like to see more content like this in the future, consider becoming a Patron of mine! (See details below.)

-Kelly

@messyeverafter

2 Replies to “Is ‘Hustle Culture’ Healthy for Artists?”

  1. I absolutely love, love, love this! I cannot agree more that you need to know your why, your how and that there should be a balance in your life or you will be left burned out in a ball on the floor. I find the hustle culture around social media tiring, exhausting and without a lot of payback. I am trying to look at it differently and congratulate myself on learning something new, sharing my journey and leaving positive comments for fellow creatives. That fuels me! Not obsessing over the numbers or the reels or the likes or shares. Creating needs some downtime, its the only way.

    Thank you for all that you do and the generosity that you have in sharing your process, thoughts and creative life.

    1. The social media hustle is probably the worst in my opinion. It’s hard to keep up with the demand for content. I love the shift in perspective you are taking. That will be way more satisfying in the end! Thank you so much for reaching and sharing your experience!

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