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  • Writer's pictureElisha Bae

My Take on "Hustle Culture"

A man looking stressed out in front of his laptop.

When I got into Swarthmore, I did a lot of research on what the school would be like in terms of academic rigor. There were so many articles and forum posts saying how hard it was to keep up with the work while getting good grades.

I had just finished the IB at that point, so I was in the mindset of, "Well, nothing could be harder than that!". And at least until now, I stand by my point. Sure, you could say that it's because I have only experienced the first semester of college -- it's probably true, too. But I also want to say that the way that people study and talk about their work-life balance is much more... healthy and manageable.

The main concept that I wanted to introduce was 'hustle culture'. It's an environment where the focus is solely on one's success and productivity, with little to no regard for taking breaks and looking for a balance between your life and the work you do. I've experienced this first-hand at my high school; at Swarthmore, where everyone said it was going to be academically hell, I've been less stressed out about these things.

I don't want to generalize since I know not all people at my high school were swamped by hustle culture, and I know that there are people at Swarthmore who have pretty shocking ways of doing things that don't seem healthy in the long run. This is more of a recount of how I felt back in high school and things I noticed now that I'm in college.

Why Hustle Culture Doesn't Work

While it would be an ideal world if people could just work and work as robots do, we aren't meant to be doing work all our waking hours. Hustle culture might seem like a good way to boost productivity and increase output, but it can never be an effective long-term solution.

There's much too much lost in an environment where people are destined to get tired and stressed out. If a work/study environment causes stress, there is a higher risk of the brain's function becoming suppressed because of the hormones released when people are stressed out (de Souza-Talarico et al., 2011). And where there is anxiety and stress, people tend not to be able to reach their full potential.

It is also often the case that in a 'hustle culture' environment, there is unhealthy competition between people. In my high school, this appeared in the ways that students talked. For example, a student would start complaining about how tired they were. Other students would ask how much they slept, and the tired student would say an absurdly short amount of time (usually less than 3-4 hours). Instead of being worried or suggesting a way to change the lifestyle of their fellow classmate, they would be in awe that the other student would go to that extent to study or even be envious that the other student can do more work while they themselves sleep. This was such a sad thing to witness every time it happened.

Since hustle culture forces people to focus on the outcomes in a fixed mindset (i.e. 'success' or 'failure'), there is no room for personal development or the growth of a higher bond within the working community. This means that people won't be able to think of doing the work as a reward in itself that would help them achieve one's personal goals in life or have a support system that they can rely on when things get tough. No one benefits from this.

Why Swarthmore's System Works (and Why My High School's System Didn't)
  1. One thing that surprised me (in a good way) was that at Swarthmore, there are no rankings based on grades. This is a simple policy, yet all the students benefit from this. As a result of no rankings, everyone is always eager to help each other out. There is no toxic competition where you need to step on top of someone else to get to the top. It's cheezy, but I think this is the epitome of "everyone wins".

  2. Another thing that Swarthmore puts an effort in is constantly reminding students how important everything else -- not just the studies -- is at college. In my high school, we were told that sleep is important and taking breaks is good. But we couldn't really take it as genuine advice because every other time, the teachers would say how proud they are that students are keeping themselves busy by cutting down on lunchtimes, sleep, and other important life matters. At Swarthmore, after classes, professors don't talk about how much work we're getting done. They get us to talk about what fun things we're doing outside of school. It's the little nuances that really make a difference.

  3. This is less about the system and more about the outlook of the students. The students at Swarthmore seem to realize that not everyone is on the same path. This, again, takes off the pressure of doing exactly the same thing as the people around you and getting worried if you don't. The diversity in what people are aiming to do after they graduate from Swarthmore makes it easier to understand that each individual has a different goal in mind. I think this helps encourage each other in everything we do.

  4. Finally, the majority of people at Swarthmroe think it's better to be healthy and happy than to be suffocating under piles and piles of work and calling that 'success'. It was a great change of view from my high school where instead of boasting about how much work they got done by making unhealthy choices, people talk about the quality of sleep they got last night.

Everyone wants to do well in what they do. But once that goes beyond just putting in your best effort and only taking on what you can do, there is a danger of pushing yourself too hard until you reach a breaking point. I'm really glad I'm at a place where hustle culture is not the prominent thing and that 'success' is not the only thing that is asked of students or the only thing that defines us.

References used in this post:

de Souza-Talarico, J. N., Marin, M. F., Sindi, S., & Lupien, S. J. (2011). Effects of stress hormones on the brain and cognition: Evidence from normal to pathological aging. Dementia & neuropsychologia, 5(1), 8–16.

Since My take on "hustle culture"

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