What happens to the meaning of a word when it ends up becoming a meme?
Hustle, according to a dictionary, can be used to mean any of the following, ‘"to crowd or push roughly," "to convey forcibly or hurriedly," or "to play a game or sport aggressively."
In the workplace, it went from being a desirable ethic promoted by the likes of Elon Musk, Gary Vaynerchuk, and Marissa Mayer to a word that can get a founder canceled on the internet, in a matter of days. Thankfully in India, thought leadership is a recent trend and is already on its way out if we pay attention to the smart trolls.
Regardless of how the meaning of "hustle" has evolved, it enjoys the privilege of being a culturally loaded and emotionally charged phenomenon in the present day.
In a meme-dominated era, hustle is meme-fied to an extent where we’re scared to define what it means at all.
If you’re a regular on Twitter or just enjoy memes on Instagram, you will have definitely seen the “We’re not the same”, “Sigma Male”, and “Trillionaire Grindset” meme trends. They’re all part of the well archived Hustle Culture memes.
But memes help us grasp some of the loaded truths of our time by tempering them with humour.
However, I feel we’re not considering a few factors when we approve or reject hustle culture.
What do the memes miss? The Indian context.
I feel like most of the discussion on work culture in India borrows from the trends that may not be relevant to the country or the nature of our work, workplace relationships, and culture.
As an Asian nation, the stereotype of not expressing discontent has a ring of truth to it.
Moreover, our work is still largely informal in nature. The topic of hustling is rarely spoken about from the standpoint of informality. But I am taking the liberty to outline them below as the factors that influence what it means to hustle in India.
I am sure some of the factors are invisible, and rarely cross our minds while we read the endless hot takes on hustle culture. Discussing a few of them here.
1. Nature of Jobs
Think about a content writing freelancer and a plumber. Both of them do tasks that are skill-heavy but repetitive in nature. One writes and the other fixes wares.
But there is a difference in the nature of their jobs. A writer can produce content by working in sprints — write 3 pieces of content in one day and publish as and when required. A plumber, however, cannot work in sprints. On a particular assignment, they have to fix the issue and only then move on to the next one.
The nature and cadence of the output to be produced determines if a person can work in sprints or work the same amount every day.
This difference in the nature of jobs allows the writer to work on multiple assignments at once but limits the plumber to one project that takes up a lot of time. The cadence matters. The writer has 2-3 week deadlines and can rest and sprint within those 3 weeks. The plumber doesn't have the liberty of such long deadlines and most of their gigs have a daily cadence, which needs more consistent effort. That brings us to...
2. Job Requirements
Certain jobs, specifically that of a doctor or a surgeon, cannot function if there are fixed working hours — until there is a requisite supply of labour.
A hospital can entertain medical emergencies at any given hour of the day, and certain domains like cardiac- or neuro-surgery can only be performed by specialists that are not easily replaceable. As a surgeon, you might have to perform surgery at 3 am in the night: a surgery that can last for the next 18 hours.
A similar instance plays out in the case of Chartered Accountants. The requirement of the job is to have highly qualified labour. Unless more students qualify for the exams, the accountants working at top firms cannot bargain for whatever is considered “better.”
If the people working in these industries define their work as hustling or not is irrelevant because the job roles make certain demands from them which are not negotiable.
3. Market conditions
Market condition is a major factor that gets lost in the conversation of hustle culture because the effect of market conditions is a bit indirect.
When the economy moves through a business cycle, new jobs get created, and more people can be accommodated during a boom. The demand for labour varies across highly-skilled and low-skilled jobs. Likewise, during a slow-down the capacity to accommodate more labour reduces.
In a boom, your work is dictated by what the organisation values.
If working beyond the mandated 8 hours from Monday-Friday is the way to be, you will have little choice but to conform. If the supply of labour for a particular industry is greater than the demand, a person subscribing to the values will be preferred over the rest.
The supply and demand cycles of labour along with the economics of the sector a person works in, greatly dictate how much work they’ll have to put in.
A few days ago, I was speaking to a friend, who works as an Assistant Director for shows produced on OTT channels. I learnt that once a project is commissioned, mid-shoot breaks are almost non-existent.
The reason for no breaks is that all equipment on a shoot is rented out on either an hourly or per-day basis. And in a boom market, the demand for rented equipment goes up, but the supply doesn't change. This naturally means an increase in rent prices, which in turn leads to producers trying to wrap up shoots in as less time as possible to meet budget constraints.
A person, then, who wishes to work in show business in a boom market, has to be prepared to even put in 20-hour workdays.
This does not mean they're hustling, it's just the nature of their job due to current market conditions.
4. Pace of growth
There is a marked difference between the operations and pace of work at a startup and those of an established corporate.
At an MNC, where roles are neatly outlined, one is majorly hustling out of personal choice to get a promotion by putting in extra hours or going above and beyond the demands of a role.
In the case of a startup, hustling is more of a job requirement than a personal choice, as working long hours sometimes is simply needed to keep the business afloat.
5. Personal life circumstances and preference
Lastly, beyond the whims of social media influencers, each one of us has to decide how organised we want to be professionally and how hard we would like to work.
When a lawyer or an investment banker decides to work in those professions, there is an implicit understanding of how demanding the work can get. Long hours come as a part of the profession and most lawyers and investment bankers know it and are fully onboard with that lifestyle.
Some of us come from life circumstances where hustle is a way of life irrespective of how positively or negatively society views it.
But even as we pause to arrive at better definitions, there is a rise in anti-hustle conversations.
‘Quiet-Quitting’/ ‘tang ping’ / ‘The great resignation’
Right as nations got out of the pandemic-induced lockdown, we have seen a phenomenal rise in movements against the state of pre-pandemic work culture.
Quiet-quitting in the USA and a similar shift in China labelled ‘tang ping’ are all being cited as outcomes of pandemic-led epiphanies workers across the world are having, against hustle.
In India, though, we don’t have any documented proof of shifting employee mindsets post the pandemic.
But what is standard across the anti-hustle trends is that we are probably witnessing only one-sided points of view.
Biased views are dominant
Addressing a formal class of employees on Linkedin or Instagram with your latest thoughts on when and how much to hustle completely blinds us to the spirit of the class that does not have any say in the conversation. And very likely they don’t even have the time to think about and differentiate their way of life from their way of work.
But I was a bit surprised at the backlash a certain founder received for speaking about working hard in your youth. I am not propagating mindless hard work but I feel rejecting the thought of hard work stem from a place of abundance.
When I see extreme criticism against such ideas, it feels exactly what a money-poor person would on hearing a rich person telling them money doesn't matter. They may be right in saying “it doesn’t matter,” but he has enough of it to make a statement like that.
When an individual who is more accomplished speaks about the need to not hustle (or the need to hustle, for that matter), it is illogical because the said individual has no context of the person taking their advice.
I or you don’t have to work ourselves to death but based on whatever personal goals and ambitions we strive for we will have to put in the effort to achieve those. And depending on your field of work, work-life balance might not be as easy to reach right at the start of a learning journey.
So, what truly is hustle?
I think only an individual’s intention defines what hustle means. Subscribing to pop culture ideas of hustle that are rooted in extremely broad and westernised contexts aren’t the right way to define hustle.
Your decision regarding a job, a side hustle or a passion project can only be taken by you. Even if you manage to insight-simp, a topic we wrote about earlier, and copy what a certain motivational influencer tells you to do, the factors mentioned above will play a role in how successfully you can "hustle."
Hustle isn’t about having multiple side gigs or working a minimum no. of hours in a day. And it most definitely can't be a "culture."
A hustle mindset has more to do with the focus on “getting things done” without paying much attention to the mental and physical demands it makes of you. It is more of a mindset choice than a lifestyle one.
And this is why I feel it is counterproductive when hustle is imposed as company culture or a crutch to hide organizational and management inefficiencies.
Additionally, picking hustle as a lifestyle is more often than not, performative. It is done with a view that has nothing to do with the quality of output you have.
What does performative hustling lead to? A sense of burnout. By being part of the 5 AM club or taking up courses that claim to make you undefeatable, you’re blindly adopting productivity and grindset mantras in the hope that they will reap benefits.
You’re rushing to fit in or stand out.
But hustling is finally a personal choice. And many a times, there are many personal and external constraints that the market imposes, which online discourse doesn't factor in when condemning or glorifying hustle.
As always, thinking for yourself and your own unique context helps.