Hustle culture: is motivation a myth?

The culture of optimizing our every move has plagued workers and students alike, forcing us to chase perfection and achievement at the expense of our wellbeing.

Growing up we may have been taught the idea that less is more, that one should prioritize quality over quantity in most cases. In spite of these proverbial proclamations, the burgeoning culture of hypercompetitiveness that forces people to continuously meet higher standards to assert their competence has institutionalized a system that is willing to have individuals sacrifice their wellbeing in order to maximize all facets of their work. Rather than seeing value in preserving the mental health of workers and students, the status quo has allowed the inflated expectations and standards upon which people’s capabilities are measured to push the limits of human tolerance of labor.

In the new age of optimization, productivity and motivation have suddenly become cornerstones for justifying the morbidly high expectations of labor from students and workers. Instead of appreciating a healthy work-life balance, those who sacrifice their sleep and free time in exchange for greater output are rewarded and praised. Instead of understanding that each individual has varying levels to which they can complete their work in terms of both quantity and quality, we point to the person who can do both and ask why everyone else can’t simply be exactly like them, not acknowledging that they only received an hour of sleep or had to skip dinner the night before to continue working.

Capitalism sees its citizens as expendable, especially when their skills are not seen as specialized, burdening them with harsh pressures to consider the efficiency of every step they make or the setbacks of lingering in the bathroom for too long. Take the ever-notorious example of Amazon’s labor practices, as seen in drivers and warehouse workers who have cited urinating in bottles as a method for cutting corners to get rewarded with opportunities for overtime to get more pay or to avoid accruing minutes for their “time off task,” which could negatively reflect on their overall performance. According to analysis by the Strategic Organizing Center on data from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Amazon warehouses had an injury rate of 6.5 per 100 full-time equivalent employees in comparison to 4.0 for non-Amazon warehouses. Productivity quotas set an unfeasible measurement for workers that often end in damage to physical health. This issue is not exclusive to the United States either. In Japan, the term “karoshi” was coined to describe fatalities attributed to overwork, most commonly caused by heart attacks, strokes, starvation or even suicide. The nation’s Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare reported that 37% of 24,042 companies had employees working 45 or more hours a month in overtime, with 1,878 of them having confirmed cases of workers pulling over 100 hours of monthly overtime and 93 of them with employees working 200 hours of monthly overtime. This culture has become such an integrated part of their society that people may not even bat an eye at the sight of a fully-suited salaryman fast asleep on the pavement. The phenomenon of “inemuri” describes those who nap in public, specifically falling into a state of rest while having the ability to return to attention at a moment’s notice. In Japan, this is seen as admirable, supposedly showcasing one’s diligence and dedication to prioritize their work and study over sleeping, when in actuality it reflects the cruel priorities that corporations set for their employees.

These workers are not viewed as people, but rather a reflection of their metrics and whether or not they create a net gain or loss for the corporations they are employed by. Success is embodied by an individual who can put aside their corporeal needs to contribute to the benefit of the workplace, a mentality that is costing lives. When an individual’s capabilities — an aspect that can be swayed by an unexpected shift in emotion or physicality — are quantified on a regular basis, they are stripped of who they are, denying all facets of their identity not specifically aimed at increasing profits.

This culture of promoting excessive productivity is reflected in the educational environment as well. From our schooling years, students are evaluated by their grades and extracurriculars, judged by the rigor of their courses rather than being given time to explore their interests and personalities. While it is understandable that there must be some way of quantifying performance, the culture that has emerged from this fixation on figures and achievements has reached a destructive extent. Every moment you spend taking up a hobby that you can’t win an award for or decide to give up later on becomes a waste. A person is seen as fickle and uncommitted if they do not stick with their extracurriculars and anyone who doesn’t receive straight As gets lost in the sea of comparison. As students climb higher and higher to surmount the peaks of success, colleges become more selective. This contributes even further to the destructive mindset that causes even those who have achieved feats in leadership and academics to feel inadequate.

Society vies for consistent and optimal output from its members, reaching an extreme that treats distinct individuals as if they are machines that can be discarded when they are unable to fulfill their purposes. It is no longer about trading quantity for quality, instead, the ideal has amounted to someone who can achieve perfection in both areas. Even more tragically, rather than attempting to address the issue that may cause a person’s supposed incompetence, they are quickly brushed off as lazy and unmotivated, a flaw that reflects the issue on their own values rather than the atmosphere that has caused them to stray towards unproductivity or poor quality.

As we become more cognizant of the problems with constantly demanding higher output from people who can only suppress their wants and needs outside of work or school for so long, we must be more reasonable in understanding what someone can accomplish. Rather than taking the expectations that have been drawn from the top demographic and subjecting ourselves and others to the measurement of those standards, we must learn to see value in someone beyond what is enumerated in a day of work.

By Natalie Cheng, Copy and coverage editor-in-chief
Editorial cartoon by Remy Wong