American Hustle Culture Is Soul Debt: Earning Your Existence

Lisa Martens

Photo by RODOLFO BARRETO on Unsplash

Working hard is not enough...and that's fine.

In the United States, we love to say that hard work guarantees success, even though it's an absurdity at this point. It's just not true. The federal minimum wage is $7.25/hour, which is $15,080/year. Even if you worked two full-time jobs, at this rate, you'd only make $30,160.

Unfortunately, we have limited hours. So working hard alone is not enough. In order to survive, you have to do more than work—You have to be innovative, educated, or maybe you have to learn a skill that is in demand, or maybe create a demand for something. So working hard is not enough—You have to somehow market yourself so people believe you are in demand.

What else does American hustle culture demand? Never relaxing. Always earning your existence. Never being comfortable, not even in your own home, because someone can kick you out or take it away. Hustle culture is working when injured or sick (even through a pandemic) as though it's a badge of honor (it's not; it's just cruelty) so you can survive.

It's fake honor, fake sacrifice, invented pride—and debt.

A crushing soul debt that, when unchecked, can lead to a mountain of self-harm.

If you yourself believe you need to constantly earn your existence, that you are a stain upon the earth that needs to justify its worth, then what is a credit card? What is a student loan? What is a mountain of debt, when you feel worth less than zero already?

When you feel less than zero, you'll be in debt forever.

And I'm not talking about credit card debt. I'm talking about the feeling that you are in a hole that you have to constantly crawl out of...that you need to "earn" through work.

What are the negative effects of this hustle culture that is imposed upon us?

In a constant state of "need."

One thing survival mode and hustle culture does extremely well is put us in a constant state of "need." Feeling like we "need" something leads to disappointment when we do not get it.

We like to think we know the difference between a want and a need. But too often, when we are consumed with making money and earning the "privilege" to exist, so everything feels like a need because everything feels like an emergency. Everything feels dramatic.

I need that job. They need to do this. I need that money. This needs to come through.

A tactic that helped me was to aggressively realize that I was doing things I wanted to do. Every time I caught myself saying "I need to..." I switched it to "I want to" and felt more empowered.

This shift came when I became a caregiver last year—The word "need" was floating around a lot. I need to do this or that. I need to do this, or this person will die.

I decided instead to aggressively want to do what I was doing. I want to take care of this person. I want to set up a schedule so I could have breaks to go on dates. I want to do a good job so she could spend time with her family.

Do you see the difference in the shift? It seems miniscule. My actions themselves hadn't changed. But my mentality did. I didn't see my work as something I had to do. I began to view my work as something I wanted to do...and this breaks hustle culture. Hustle culture is not having any wants, any desires...just sacrifice.

And then, once I applied this method to the rest of my life, I realized I had been thinking I needed things I didn't really need.

I didn't "need" to live in New York. I wanted to.

And, similarly, nobody "needed" to do anything for me. And I didn't need to do anything I didn't want to do for them.

Once I looked at life and asked myself what I wanted and what I needed, and realized that I was actually doing what I wanted, I felt more in control...I also felt hustle culture growing smaller and smaller the more I embraced honesty in what I wanted.

But American hustle culture creates that feeling of need—An itch that must be scratched, an urgency, and a tendency to think of relaxing, asking for help, or just settling for something that is "okay" but not "perfect" as a failure.

We beat ourselves up for not making money in a pandemic, for not marketing ourselves well enough, and we also beat ourselves up for not having enough stuff, enough land, and we give items and money more worth and value than we need to—and why? Why is it so hard to evaluate what we have, to accept help, to ask for help?

We no longer are good at evaluating our wants and needs. Our wants have become needs, and we don't make space for what we truly want in our lives, and so all there is is urgency, desperation, and a clawing toward a feeling of security that we don't believe we deserve.

Denying the humanity of others.

Hustle culture also allows us to deny the humanity of others. If something bad happens to someone else, we get to say it's because they didn't work as hard.

We get to decide what people deserve and do not deserve. How can someone who just sits around all day really deserve something nice?

It's not justice. It's bitterness.

How does hustle culture hurt us?

We like to lie to ourselves and tell ourselves that we are being "productive" and "hard-working"...but are we really?

Hustle culture is good at giving us ego boosts. Badges of honor. I worked all day! I hustled! I am a harder worker! I am not lazy, like those other people! I am better than they are because I worked more, even though it hurt me!

Is that really honor, though? Most of the time, I don't think so.

Hustle culture and the poverty cycle hurt us psychologically, emotionally, and financially. This kind of prolonged stress is detrimental to our health. Poverty even impacts intellectual development, and long-term stress has a negative impact on working memory.

Workaholism is a creative form of guilt. We feel guilty for not working because maybe we think it makes us lazy or weak. We think we are disappointing a parent. Society. The country and its whole work ethic. But these are not positive motivations. They're negative ones.

How can we stop clinging to this lie?

We can't entirely help the culture we live in, the struggles being presented to us both before and after COVID-19, and the reality of financial hardship. Denial does not help.

But what we can do is stop clinging to the lies of hustle culture—by defining what we want, deciding it's not selfish to want to do what we want with our own lives (even if we never get to do it; it's not selfish to acknowledge our desires), and to stop praising people who hurt themselves hustling and use it as a badge of honor.

We can all stop worshipping hustle culture. What is it, exactly? It's cruelty. It is cruelty disguised as morality, as Darwinism. Hustle culture tells us, "You dont get to live or be happy because you don't deserve it." We can't control that part—Just our response.

I don't feel guilty about relaxing or doing what I want with my own life. I'm not going to tell hustle culture that it's somehow right, and I'm wrong. Because I'm not.

We can recognize the system for what it is: an unneccessarily cruel system asking us to participate in self-harm, to limit our own potential, and to reduce ourselves to our monetary worth.

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