When people talk about working hard, it can get competitive. One person’s “I’m just completely swamped at work” is met by another’s “I’m working so hard right now I just can’t remember the last time I was home by 8” – and inevitably raised by someone else’s “I spend so much time at work I may as well just sleep there!”.
As much as the comments sound like complaints, underneath all of them is a layer of pride. The hidden meaning is that these people are dedicated to their jobs. Unlike anyone who spends their evenings in bed with Netflix and can meet for 6pm drinks (“6pm? If only!!”), they’re the real hard workers. They’re ambitious, they’re committed and they’re going to go far. They’re hustlers.
In the States, this attitude has a name: hustle porn. Alexis Ohanian, the co-founder of Reddit (and also Serena Williams’ husband), explained it to an audience at the Web Summit in Lisbon this week: “Hustle porn is one of the most toxic, dangerous things in the tech industry right now. And I know so much of it comes from the States. It is this idea that unless you are suffering, unless you are grinding, unless you are working every hour of every day and posting about it on Instagram, you're not working hard enough. It's such bullshit, such utter bullshit."
The problem is that not everyone sees it as bullshit – instead, they’re subscribing to it. In the States, where people are typically only given two weeks of annual leave and paid sick leave is not guaranteed by the law, it’s part of the working culture. “At the very core of being American is the idea of being a hard worker,” LeaAnne DeRigne, associate professor of social work at Florida Atlantic University, told the BBC. “No one's allowed to be sick. Sickness is weakness. The attitude is 'I'm irreplaceable – if I don't show up, my job won't get done.' Whether by having too many sick days, too many absences, you are not seen as reliable."
More than a quarter of US workers surveyed in 2014 by public-health agency NSF said they always go to work when they are ill, while 52% of Americans said they didn’t take all their paid leave in 2017, and a scary 24% said they hadn’t taken any paid leave in more than a year, according to campaign group Project: Time Off.
People explained their reasons on social media. “If we’re not working 24/7, we’re viewed as slackers,” said PhD student Gerald Audet. While another American, Robert Elmore, was more proud of the stats: “Because we’re not lazy, and we like money.” One person, when working for a corporate American law firm, revealed to me that they were told: “Start working less efficiently in the day so that you’re still here in the evening. You’re leaving too early.”
Hustle porn all centres around this central belief: that people who work the longest hours are the ones who work the hardest and will have the most financial success. It’s why people proudly post snaps of themselves at the office at 7am on Instagram with the hashtags #firstonein and #earlybird, and it’s why Ohanian used to put his health at risk in the early days of setting up Reddit.
“Believe me I know, the to-do list is long,” he said. “There are so many things that you want to be doing, that you can be doing, there's another event to go to, there's a meetup, there's a client to talk to, there's an engineer you have to close. I see so many founders who don't appreciate and properly value their time, and that is to say there are infinite things you could be doing... the more successful you are, the more things you will have nipping for your attention."
This isn’t just a problem on the other side of the Atlantic – and nor is it just an issue for founders and CEOs. How many of us can say we haven’t been secretly proud to be the first one into the office, and haven’t fallen prey to the clutches of presenteeism, where you stay at your desk purely so that everyone sees you at your desk? It’s something I definitely felt the pressure of in the early days of my first newspaper job, and even now that I’ve broken free of hustle porn in favour of the exact opposite (freelance life), I still feel guilty explaining to people that I don’t work a full week.
Hard work is obviously a key component to work success, but it’s not everything. You can still pay your bills and not work every hour under the sun – take it from me – and not every company only promotes the people who are chained to their desks. There are bosses out there who value people who work efficiently enough to leave the office before 6pm, and who appreciate the fact their employees have a life. “Honestly, I don’t want to spend my whole day sitting next to someone who has no life other than work,” one newspaper features editor told me. “Who would?”
As Ohanian says, there’s a lot more to life than career success. “Our time is all going to be up at some point and when you’re (hopefully) looking back on it, the people and experiences you have in your life will be what you cherish or regret,” he wrote earlier this year. “You’ve got one life remaining, don’t squander it.”