Want to Get Ahead? Stop Hustling

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. 

What’s the Difference Between Depression and Burnout?

I’m sitting at my desk on a Saturday trying to get work done. It’s November of 2019. But just like every day for the past three months, I can’t complete a single task. Just opening my email inbox has become painful. I have little to no motivation, energy, or joy.

When I describe this apathy and fatigue to a therapist, she says: “If we’re anxious for long enough, we’ll eventually become depressed.”

That must be itMaybe I’m depressedResearch shows that low to mild levels of anxiety can be normal and healthy; they keep us alert, safe, proactive, and productive. Manageable anxiety drives us to overcome challenges at work, propose effective solutions, and collaborate on shared goals.

But now my tank reads empty. I procrastinate on everything. I’m too tired to be anxious. Since anxiety no longer has a productive place to go, it disappears.

After a year of living this way, I decide to make a major career shift. I withdraw from my Ph.D. program. And for the first time, I have no concrete plans for the future. My sole focus becomes rediscovering what makes me happy. And then something amazing happens.

Healthy anxiety returns in the form of motivation. My passion to write and create is reignited. I’m inspired and excited about the future again. And from this excitement erupts a realization: I hadn’t been clinically depressed at all. I was burned out.

But what’s the difference? And why do we — including clinicians — often confuse the two?

What is depression?

Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide and impacts over 264 million people, according to the World Health Organization. Although depression can arise at any point in one’s lifetime (and more than once), it typically first occurs between ages 18–25.

Symptoms include depressed mood, anhedonia (i.e., diminished pleasure or interest in things), change in appetite, insomnia or hypersomnia, feeling worthless or guilty, fatigue, poor concentration, psychomotor agitation, and thoughts of suicide or death.

Although symptoms fall on a spectrum of severity like any clinical disorder, one must experience at least 5 symptoms for at least 2+ weeks to meet diagnostic criteria. Depression is pervasive; it makes it difficult for one to experience joy in nearly all areas of life for much (if not all) of the day on most days.

Some people can pinpoint exactly what they believe to be the cause of their depression such as a major life transition, stressful life event, or past abuse and trauma. It’s important to note that major depressive disorder is different from grief and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), although these things can certainly coexist.

Others experience depression and have no idea why. This can lead to feelings of guilt. Maybe you’ve thought “I have everything I need. I shouldn’t feel this way” or “Others have it much worse than I do”. But discounting the reality of our mental health only worsens symptoms. There are often other factors at play beyond our control like genetics and biochemistry.

The good news is that depression is one of the most widely researched topics in mental health. It is also one of the most treatable. There are many scientifically validated interventions and strategies to improve daily functioning.

What can I do?

1. Self-employed strategies

In some cases, it’s possible to minimize or eradicate symptoms of depression through self-employed strategies.

Changes in diet have been shown to improve overall mood and alleviate depressive symptoms. Increasing one’s intake of selenium (e.g., Brazil nuts, whole grains), vitamin D (oily fish, eggs), Omega-3 fatty acids (e.g., flaxseed, walnuts), antioxidants (e.g., berries, vegetables), and protein (e.g., animal or plant-based like tofu, lentils, and chickpeas) can improve mood and sleep.

The benefits of exercise in treating depression are also well-established. For example, one study found that depressed adults who began walking for 20 to 40 minutes 3x per week for at least 6 weeks showed a significant reduction in symptoms compared to a group that did not exercise regularly.

If you’re not yet ready to consider psychotherapy or medication, implementing a healthier diet and regular exercise into your routine has shown significant benefits. Setting and accomplishing small goals is also helpful in alleviating depression.

2. Psychotherapy

None of these treatment approaches should be considered in isolation. Indeed, many doctors and clinicians recommend a combination of therapy, improved diet and exercise, and medication.

I’m a major advocate for the importance of therapy in treating mental health. Research shows that people who engage in therapy have better psychological outcomes compared to those who do not.

Although cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the most common modalities for treating depression and anxiety, there are additional approaches guiding therapeutic intervention.

No matter which approach works best for you and your therapist, the process is designed to be a collaborative effort to identify unhelpful thought patterns and behaviors that may be contributing to your depression.

I’ve seen a handful of therapists throughout my lifetime and can personally attest to its immeasurable benefit to the quality of my life. No need to wait until you’re depressed either. There’s a reason we go to the doctor for check-ups, not just when we’re sick. It’s preventive. Here are some tips on beginning your search for a therapist.

3. Medication

Although there is still a stigma surrounding the use of medication in treating mental health, antidepressants can literally save lives. After consulting your doctor or psychotherapist, you may find it helpful, even imperative, to supplement treatment with an antidepressant. Others find their depression lifts over time without medication.

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are among the most commonly prescribed medications worldwide. It’s always important to discuss potential side effects with your doctor and/or therapist. Since I am neither, this article won’t outline the pros and cons of antidepressant use. However, I encourage everyone to do their own research and advocate for their needs.

Ultimately, this decision should be between you and your healthcare professional(s). If you or someone you know is in crisis, here is the link to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

What is burnout?

The term “burnout” was first introduced in the 1940s but was not systematically analyzed until the 1970s by a psychologist named Herbert Freudenberger.

Thanks to the research of psychologist Christina Maslach, three major clusters of burnout have since been identified.

1. Emotional and physical exhaustion

2. Cynicism and depersonalization (i.e., perception of observing oneself from outside one’s body)

3. Diminished sense of personal effectiveness

Other symptoms include fatigue, body aches, headaches, and gastrointestinal disorders. Cynicism may manifest through anger, frustration, or feelings of isolation. Changes in appetite and sleep may occur as well.

Unlike depression, burnout is not traditionally recognized as a medical diagnosis. Most countries, including the United States, describe burnout as an occupational condition. Indeed, this is a key difference; the cause of depression may be unclear or arise “out of the blue”, while burnout more clearly results from an occupational source or work stress.

One report argues the five main causes of burnout are: 1) unreasonable time pressure, 2) lack of managerial support, 3) lack of role clarity, 4) unmanageable workload, and 5) unfair treatment.

So, who is most likely to experience burnout?

Freudenberger (1974) argues it is primarily “the dedicated and the committed”. This is why those in the helping professions (e.g., physicians, nurses, social workers, counselors) are experience burnout at higher rates. These are roles marked by long hours and excessive demand of one’s energy, resources, and emotional capacity.

More women than men tend to experience burnout in their lifetime. Some studies suggest this is due to differences in work conditions; women make up more of the helping profession/human services job sector and have been shown to have, on average, less authority in the workplace.

My experience as a burned-out graduate student looked like cynicism, irritability, disillusionment, and dissatisfaction. I was emotionally exhausted and felt unable to focus on even the most mundane tasks. I had lost my sense of purpose, direction, and meaning in the work I was doing.

Of course, I didn’t attribute this to burnout at the time. I didn’t yet have the language for it. It seemed neither did my therapist.

What can I do?

Researcher and author Brené Brown shares she once heard a priest say: “If you don’t want to burn out, quit living like you’re on fire.”

We live in a culture that prioritizes hustle and productivity at the cost of employee or student wellbeing.

Unfortunately, because burnout is not considered a clinical mental health disorder like depression, it’s harder to obtain an accurate diagnosis and receive proper solutions.

When my exhaustion first arose, I thought the problem was me. I believed if I just pushed harder, worked more, and stuck it out things would magically improve. Or at least I would adjust to the pressure.

But I was wrong. Who wants apathy in place of misery? I wanted to feel alive again. So, after a year, instead of continuing to drown, I chose to get out of the water.

When I left the culture of academia, I regained my sense of clarity, purpose, and drive. I took my intellectual curiosity with me and utilized it in ways better suited to my values and goals.

It’s clear in retrospect that not only was I not the problem but neither was my burnout. The problem? A profession or work environment that doesn’t fit and leads to depletion.

Indeed, Freudenberger argued that since burnout is linked to undesirable job conditions, it should therefore be approached at an organizational level not just at an individual level. His suggestions include shorter working hours and more staff supervision, support, and training.

Quitting one’s job is not always the feasible — or even optimal — choice in many cases. There are other science-backed strategies to alleviate symptoms of burnout.

1. Prioritize self-care

This includes everything from improving our diet (i.e., meal planning over vending machine runs) and making time for exercise. We make time for things we prioritize. Those 20 minutes spent scrolling could be reallocated to a brisk walk outside the building. Five minutes of a lunch break could be spent practicing mindfulness, deep breathing, meditating or praying.

One thing I’ve started doing is tracking my daily activities in an Excel spreadsheet. In the evenings, I give the day an overall rating from -2, -1, 0, +1, +2. At the end of the month, I track how much time spent on which tasks were most likely to result in a higher rating for the day. Then I schedule my time accordingly.

2. Change your circumstances

This doesn’t necessarily mean you need to put in a 2-week notice.

It starts with consideringwhich elements of my job are fixed, and which ones can I alter? Can you delegate certain tasks to others? What projects can you put on hold? Can you temporarily work from a new environment or at home? Sometimes implementing these changes requires advocating for your needs to a boss or supervisor. Don’t be afraid to do so. It will likely improve the quality of your work.

3. Seek support

One of the hardest parts of both depression and burnout is feeling like you’re in it alone. There can be shame wrapped up in our exhaustion, which inhibits us from reaching out for support.

Research shows that support systems help us better cope with stress and improve our motivation. Support can come from anywhere: friends, family, colleagues, or therapists. It can also provide us different but equally important things such as emotional support, comfort, advice, information, or a new perspective.

Much like depression, burnout leaves us feeling trapped and helpless. But we get to choose how we respond to our circumstances.

It’s important to a) name what we’re feeling, b) take steps to change/improve our circumstances where we can, and c) establish connections to those who can help in circumstances we cannot. Then we will be on the road to recovery.

If it feels like you’re drowning, look for a life raft nearby to catch your breath. And if that doesn’t help, it might be time to get out and swim in new waters as I did.