[Image: The Ray Family, dancing and jumping on a bed as if we were a stress-free and fun-loving family pre-pandemic family. It’s a lie! Or at least, an aspirational reminder of who I want to be more often. We’re stressed out all the time , rarely have fun, and are like, medium-good parents, at best. Text says “Raising Luminaries with Ashia Ray”]
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This is Chapter Two for winter parent activist incubator. This week, we’re going to address why we feel the need to make every minute count and how this impulse gets in our way. And then we’re going to work together to cut it out.
So what I’ve been hearing a lot is: “I want to feel like I’m not wasting my life even a little bit.”
And I get that feeling. I embody that feeling! We all want to make the most of our lives because we’re here for such a short time. We have big plans, and we want to change the world and help others. But what I have found is that this is a root problem that leads to activist burnout, parenting burnout, and actually reinforces the kyriarchy.
So today, we’re going to talk about how this mindset reinforces social inequity and hustle culture. We’re going to talk about where the impulse comes from. And then we’re going to talk about how to disrupt that mindset, and transform it into actual change based in sustainable work and resilient activism and parenting.
So first, let’s just name it: Hustle Culture.
The underlying assumptions behind hustle culture are that:
We as individuals are vessels of energy. And we can spend that energy. And how we spend that energy takes on like a moral direction. There’s a concept of ‘up’ – towards power. And ‘down’ – towards those poor pitiful souls below us – which is not a real thing.
But nevertheless, we attribute a moral direction to where we direct our energies.
So when we attribute ‘directing our energy and our power up’ – towards people with more power, we’re ‘sustaining’ the system. It’s kind of true, we’re sustaining the kyriarchy with that energy. And then when we direct our effort towards people who have less power than us, it’s percieved as kind of heroic.
And through the unspoken cultural rules of our current society, we can percieve this as moral or immoral, depending on what cultural assumptions you’re making about the hierarchy.
And then there’s the idea that if we conserve any of that energy, or save any of it for ourselves to keep to survive, it’s considered selfish or a wasted energy. As if there are parts of our life that we could waste, or be irresponsible with, based on where we’re directing these energies.
So what does hustle culture look like?
Hustle is when we we default to ‘yes,’ no matter what people ask of us.
Putting people on pedestals who we admire – and we tend to attribute these people as morally superior, because they have visibly hustled or what they’re doing is visible and measurable.
Or we pedestal people who are martyrs, where they give so much of themselves that they’re completely depleted. That’s supposedly a good thing.
There’s an assumption, that regenerative work, where we give and take in non-transactional, but still reciprocal way, is almost selfish or self-involved in some way.
That glorification of independence and dependence: where we take care of ourselves, and there are people who rely on us. And that energy supposedly goes in just one direction – outward.
Supposedly, that is the way that things should be. As opposed to interdependence, which is kind of seen as soft, impractical, or ‘woo.’
Okay, let’s talk about how hustle culture reinforces social inequity, and how our own compulsion to hustle actually does the opposite of what we’re hoping it’ll do.
So when we reduce ourselves into commodified outputs: our energy, the results we make, even our attention – this actually dehumanizes us and other people, and it we can cause real harm.
Our hustle hurts us, the people we love, and ultimately hurts the people that we’re trying to supposedly help.
For those targeted identities that we hold, we reinforce the idea that people like us SHOULD hustle harder than those with power, that it’s right and natural for us to make up for our percieved inferiority. And when we comply with expectations to work unsustainly, our hustle normalizes expectations on people like us. When we’re given less privileges, we try to ‘earn’ a right to exist by scrambling through unsustainable work, and we burn out. Whether we’re hustling to keep up, or to dissipate guilt over having power over others, we over-promise and under-deliver on work that we can’t actually complete. This takes a toll on our phyiscal and mental health, and keeps us from showing up when we could be most impactful. When we’re just defaulting to ‘yes.’ regardless of whether or not an initiative fits our skill set, or it’s the right time for us, or we actually have the resources to do a good job.
And if it’s not stressful, then it’s boring, right? We end up collaborating in doing initiatives with other people, hitting bottlenecks. If we’re doing ‘all the work,’ then we don’t have a strong interdependent network where we can rely on each other to pick up slack. So if we hold all the passwords, if we’re the only one how knows how to do a vital part of an initiative, things fall apart when something happens to us, we get sick, or things don’t go exactly as planned within the 15-minute increments that we’ve scheduled for the next year (and I’m talking about myself, I’m very, very guilty of this.)
So we become the bottleneck that holds initiatives back. If we’re out, it just doesn’t get done. And that ultimately harms not just us, but the folks we work with and the movement as a whole.
If we don’t acknowledge how our hustle-burnout cycle impacts our work, we can develop a reputation that ripples into future movement work together. We can develop a reputation for being controlling, inserting ourselves into things that really don’t have anything to do with us, and swerving outside of our lane – all of that is kind of embarrassing, but more importantly it destroys trust between us and our collaborators, and those we work with have to do extra emotional and contingency labor for if we continue to be difficult, or fail to show up.
And again – I’m also guilty of this. The question is – what rituals and routines are we putting into place to notice and redirect our behavior so we can reduce harm moving forward?
That impulse to give, give, give – direct all of our energy outward, ultimately isolates us. You kno, we just watched in ‘Encanto’ with the kids, a Disney movie, and there’s a song ‘Surface Pressure’ by Louisa the ‘strong sister.’ The kids love that song – and it embodies that sense of ‘Everything is on me. And if I fail at all, I’m going to be crushed. And everyone I love is going to be crushed.’
Which ultimately leads to burnout. That is not a sustainable way to parent, to collaborate as an activist. Nevermind, trying to meld both of those together.
So how does hustling hurt the people we love?
Everything we do has to be through the lens of how are we modeling the ways we move through the world for our kids? What are we showing them, in terms of how a kind and courageous leader operates toward justice? When normalize victim/savior culture: There those of us who are rescuing, and those of us who need to be rescued, we’re normalizing unhealthy expectations.
If our kids identify with us, then they’re going to expect that they have to hustle. And if they don’t – they’re gonna expect that maybe their partners, or the people they work with are going to have to hustle. We create a sense of entitlement about who is responsible for what kind of work, and what percentage of the load. Who is responsible for taking on more than a sustainable share of labor and risk?
We end up normalizing codependent relationships, which ultimately leads to resentment, and even exploitation and abuse. And we don’t want to set that model for our children, right?
And then, of course, hustling hurts people, we’re trying to help, and reinforces that unequal power dynamic. So when we spread ourselves thin, obviously, we’re working on a shoestring. And our initiatives end up being reactive instead of responsive.
Reactive work is where we’re scrambling to handle the mountain of daily work we already can’t deal with, and then take on another mountain of work to handle the damage when shit hits the fan. We know this feeling – this is a very March 2020 feeling.
Responsive is when we’ve prepared for shit to hit the fan. We’ve done our research and we can identify the pattern of social behavior that led to this moment. And we can grasp this horrible moment as an opportunity to show people who were previously ignorant to injustice, and say ‘Now that you’re paying attention, here’s how this happened, and here’s how we can heal and prevent this from ever happening again.’ That’s transformative justice, folks.
But if we’ve been hustling to keep up, spreading ourselves in too many directions BEFORE shit hit the fan – well, we’re going to end up in reactive mode, and we’re gonna burn out. This isn’t sustainable.
If we don’t have the energy to prepare and prep, we’re just going to react to whatever comes next to us. And the quality of our work is going to suffer. When we over-promise we end up not following through. Or if we do follow through, we sloppy, amateur work. And ultimately, for the folks that we’re trying to support, it’s re-traumatizing for them to be flaked on. To have to deal with no-shows and poorly-planned ‘support.’
I think about that old trope on voluntourism – where a bunch of young folks with no carpentry experience spend thousands to travel to developing nations and places recovering from disaster, to build housing and schools. And then they do amateur work building shit, and when they go home, the folks who they were trying to help end up having to tear it all down and re-build everything themselves. Dude, unless you’re a skilled carpenter with training and expertise, just send the money you wasted on travel.
But it’s not about the housing, right? It’s about the happy warm savior feelings. About the ‘experience’ of vacationing with a bonus of heroism. It’s about ‘exposure’ for folks with power and wealth, using folks with less resources as a sort of interactive human petting zoo.
The most targeted folks are the ones who will have to deal with cleaning up the crap we provided, which doesn’t doesn’t actually help or solve their original problem. It’s just more work for them.
When we hustle, our work is shallow. We never get a chance to retreat and develop deeper skills. It shows in our work, but we haven’t developed the eye to tell how truly sloppy our work is. We’re a Dunning-Kruger punchline.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t start before we feel ready. I’m just saying we need to set aside some procedures for reorientation and humility. We need to focus less on hustling for output, and create some space and time for self-awareness and reevaluation.
We can’t do this anymore. We can’t retraumatize people. We can’t show up and say ‘Sure, I’ll help’ without actually showing up with mindfulness and energy to do the work. ‘I’ve been doing so much for you people’ is never an appropriate response, and it’s not good look when we get called up for our harm. It’s our responsibility to make sure we have that energy ready and available.
And this sense of obligation to care for everybody, all the time – this lack of clarity on what our roles and responsibilties are that leads us to spreading thin – we create a feedback loop that reinforces our bad habits.
When we fail, when we mess up, either we’re going to blame others who don’t deserve that mess, or we’re going to think ‘Oh my gosh, if I had just done this better, if I had been more capable, if I had cared harder, we would have succeeded.’
‘So I need to hustle harder next time.’
We develop the arrogance of ‘No one is as capable and caring as me. And if I don’t step up, every single time someone asks, everything is going to fall apart.’
That feedback loop leads to hubris, arrogance, controlling behavior, and perfectionism, Which really doesn’t help anyone and makes us insufferable.
So this the mess behind the idea that life is something we can waste, that we are buckets of privilege, and we must dump all that privilege on others.
Let’s meditate on that for a little bit. Our good intentions to help others, executed poorly, usually stems from a moral intent to direct good things it outward, to others, whether it’s up or down or whatever, but never towards ourselves. We’re actually reinforcing power hierarchies and inequity.