Posted on February 25, 2021
One thing many of us struggle with is being still. We find ways to make sure we don’t slow down for long. We use something to keep us moving, busy, and avoiding our fears and feelings. Maybe it’s a career, a side hustle, hobby, or general life goals. But whatever “it” is, it’s in the future. And so we spend the present focused on what’s next.
Me? My thing was education. I spent the first 25 years of my life working toward the next degree. High school diploma, Bachelor of Science, Master of Education, Doctorate of Philosophy. Being a full-time student was my job, but it didn’t feel like enough. To fill my limited free time, I held down jobs as a nanny, hostess, advocacy intern, and graduate research assistant.
If the drug was being busy, I was a junkie. Doing one thing at a time was never enough. I hustled in a culture that told me hustling equals success and respect. I chased resume lines like they would define my worth as human. As if, at a certain point in the future, I would finally feel like I made it. Like I had reached the mountaintop and conquered life at its own game.
One spring afternoon during my Master’s program, I’m sitting in the office of my clinical supervisor, Oliver.
“I’m going to apply to Ph.D. programs,” I say.
I expect this might shock him since most students in my program become licensed professional counselors. But it doesn’t seem to.“Tell me more about that,” Oliver says.
“Well, I don’t want my career capped off as a therapist seeing clients from 9 to 5. I want a degree that will allow me to teach at a university and make me credible enough to write books and deliver large-scale presentations on mental health.”
“Do you believe you won’t be credible as a writer or presenter without a Ph.D.?”
I actually have to think about that question for a moment.
“No, not necessarily. I just might not have the same reach. Or as many opportunities. I’d have a harder time securing a teaching position at a university.”
“What area of psychology are you interested in teaching?” he asks.
“Well as you know, my experience is mainly counseling and clinical work. But I’m also considering social and personality psychology programs,” I say.
“OK. And what kind of research would you want to do?”
I glance over at his bookshelf. There are textbooks on psychotherapy theories, substance abuse and addiction, multicultural counseling, the DSM-IV, works by Carl Jung, Carl Rogers, and Aaron Beck. There is so much. Too much. I’m interested in all of it, and none of it at the same time. I don’t have a focus. Just a misguided desire to achieve what other psychologists and academics had before me.
“I guess I view the research part as the means to an end.”
Oliver raises his eyebrow, looking puzzled for the first time, and asks me what I mean.
“Well, it’s not conducting research that excites me. I know I’ll have to do research, but I see it more as the prerequisite needed to become a professor. Research isn’t what I want to do for the rest of my life.”
There’s a long pause. I watch him forming his thoughts to be deliberate, concise.
“You know,” he begins. “When I was about your age, I considered getting a Ph.D., too. I told my own supervisor this, and he was very encouraging. His only piece of advice was to be prepared for the culture of ‘publish or perish’. Are you familiar with that?”
I nod. I often hear the stress-inducing stories from the doctoral students in my classes.
“Then you’ll know there is immense pressure on graduate students to publish as many research articles as possible. The quantity of publications in high-impact journals exceeds everything else when it comes to being competitive on the faculty job market. And once on the job market, the ‘publish or perish’ mindset is critical to maintain for a tenure-track position. My supervisor suggested that unless I was very passionate about research and open to a competitive environment, I might want to consider a different path.
“So, I thought long and hard about my motivations and realized what I really love is working with people. I stopped after my Master’s, so I could begin counseling people as soon as possible. Now every day on the job looks different; I attend task force meetings, mentor graduate students like you, have my own supervisor, and work with clients on mental health and substance use. I love my roles.”
He takes a sharp inhale before continuing. “Now, Taylor, you’re a high achiever. You might not think of yourself this way, as many high achievers don’t. But you’re clearly very driven and motivated. I’m sure you could excel in a Ph.D. program. If you want to be a tenure-track professor, you’re right; there is no other way. If you’re passionate about research and want to publish articles in scientific journals, then this path would make sense for you. But I’d be wary of discrediting yourself or your ability to succeed without a doctorate. I want to be supportive and helpful in any way I can.”
I sit back in my chair and swallow hard, digesting everything he said. I can’t articulate a burning desire to conduct research or publish scholarly articles at a high volume. All I want is a continuation of the work I’m already doing: attending class seminars, discussing case studies and grounded theory research, counseling college students, and writing about and presenting on topics in mental health.
I want to use existing research to help other people, not pioneer research to advance my career. I just don’t know that yet.
I leave his office feeling supported and confused. Up to this point, my self-worth came from a strong work ethic and big career ambitions. My identity was based on solid academic performance. I wanted to be a writer and educator without realizing the ways I already was. In retrospect it’s clear this is what Oliver was trying to get me to see. But I’d have to learn the hard way.
When our ambitions and accomplishments take precedence over our joy and creativity, hustle culture wins.
“You can’t stop here,” anxiety whispers.
“You must achieve more,” society adds.
And before we know it, our dreams no longer belong to us.
I went on to attend a Ph.D. program in psychology. And one year later, disillusioned and burned-out, I withdrew. I took my time gaining clarity on my goals and purpose. And I found it. Eventually. Just not in the ways I thought. Sometimes if we want to get ahead, we have to stop moving so fast.
Why Hustle Culture is Toxic
I once heard someone say, “If you don’t have at least one mental breakdown in front of your advisor, you’re not doing graduate school right.”
Nothing about that sounded “right” to me. Why should the marker of success be poor mental health? Why do we glorify overworking ourselves to the point of exhaustion? I thought about times when I felt most effective at work. They happened to be times when I felt most socially connected, joyful, and optimistic. I was busy, yes. But I had a say over how I allocated my time, and I ensured as much of it centered on hanging out with friends, working out, traveling, and trying new things as it did on work tasks. My happiness wasn’t a result of the quality of my work; it was the prerequisite for quality work.
When our sole focus is on all the things we still need to accomplish, we lose sight of how we’re already equipped to serve people. When our first priority is keeping our schedule full, we lose sight of what fulfills us. Hustling promotes quantity over quality, time spent over time spent well, scarcity over abundance, and competition over collaboration.
Perhaps what’s most toxic about hustle culture is delusions of worthiness. If we believe we are only worth how much or how hard we work, what happens when we need a break? What happens when our body sends us signals of exhaustion through aches, pains, and irritability? We ignore the cues. We equate these symptoms to laziness and inadequacy. We believe we are less worthy. Even if it’s not ourselves who suffer initially, maybe it’s our significant other, our kids, our friends. Our colleagues. No one benefits when we don’t make the time to show up well in our relationships.
Negative implications seem to arise from one of two things. First, you might be addicted to the chase of ambition like I was. When this happens, your purpose (your “why”) is unclear. You think to garner respect you must shoot for the stars even if you’re not sure what you’re aiming for exactly. Let me tell you: that’s a recipe for disaster. And burnout.
On the other hand, you might already be in the right occupation and feel certain of your purpose. That’s amazing. But if you don’t know how to rest or slow down, that can also be detrimental. Those in the helping professions like physicians, nurses, counselors, social workers, and educators have the highest rates of burn-out for this reason. It’s a result of high demands on both physical and emotional resources but limited opportunities for time off to unwind. What compounds this distress is our cultural glorification of hustling. It’s as if a lack of free time is a rite of passage to prove determination. But honestly, working so hard you hit a wall isn’t admirable. It’s not even productive.
So, what’s the solution? How can we move away from hustle culture and toward intentional rest? Because, believe it or not, doing so might take you further than you could’ve gone otherwise.
How Slowing Down Takes You Farther
We all know the tortoise and the hare fable. The hare is so confident in his speed he falls asleep during the race. Meanwhile, the tortoise, moving slower but never giving up, ultimately passes the hare and wins the race.
OK, so it’s a cute kids’ story about perseverance. But does that apply to adults in the workplace? Actually I think it applies best in the workplace context. I’m a living example that you can actually get ahead if you’re steady and deliberate as opposed to fast and furious.
When I left the Ph.D. program, I didn’t have a backup plan. I didn’t have a job waiting for me. No ideas on how to spend my time. I let go of all expectations and decided to trust the process. Thankfully, just days later, my former advisor offered me a full-time remote position that provided me with flexibility, familiarity, and financial stability. This job allowed me the freedom to sink into stillness. To be OK with meeting expectations without overachieving. To get comfortable with extra time without trying to fill it. To stop comparing my productivity to others. I slowed down to a near halt and took it for what it was: a total reset.
During this reflective period, I began to remember my “why”. For some of us, this question might be spiritual (e.g., Why did God put me here? What am I being called to do?) and for others, it might be strictly vocational (e.g., Why am I interested in this? Why do I gravitate toward this line of work?). We only remember our “why” when we take the time to quiet the noise and make space for our own voice to rise. You might be able to accomplish this in a 5-minute check-in with yourself before bed. But I have a feeling if you’ve been running on fumes for a while, burned out from nonstop grinding and feeling lost on the journey, it may take much longer. For me, it took about a year.
I waited until feelings of restlessness and curiosity began to emerge. This felt like my nudge; it was finally time to explore new career paths. This wasn’t fear, desperation, or insecurity. You can tell the difference based on whether your desire to move forward brings you peace and excitement rather than anxiety and immediacy.
Ultimately, I found a job that fits my experience, professional goals, personality, and purpose. But what made the new position perfect wasn’t simply how well it fit. It was my new mindset: your identity does not come from your career. Your worth is not contingent on how hard you work.
Releasing ourselves from this trap is the greatest gift of self-compassion. One thing they don’t teach you about obstacles is that sometimes they’re not put in your path as hurdles to overcome. Sometimes they’re there to signal it’s time to change course. But only you have the wisdom to know the difference. And it requires you to slow down enough to notice.