Uprooting ‘hustle culture’ & its toxic byproducts

I’m unlearning years of associating rest with guilt

Larissa describes how a culture of competitive misery has informed her life as a student.
Credit: 
Larissa Zhong

I attended a competitive high school where I took AP classes, made honour roll every year, and graduated with awards—but competition wasn’t limited to academic achievement. My peers competed for the worst sleep deprivation and greatest caffeine dependence, as if tired eyes and trembling hands were coveted symptoms of success.

I won’t act holier-than-thou now, pretending I rose above this self-destructive mentality at 15. As my friends entertained my little stories about nodding off on the bus ride home, I entertained theirs about spacing out in the middle of presentations—no one older or wiser reminded us it wasn’t ‘cool’ to be exhausted.

Most days during my senior year of high school, I greeted my friends good morning with a tall cup of iced coffee and a reason why I’d gone to sleep so late the night before. I laugh a little when I look back, wondering who I thought I was fooling and who I was hoping to impress.

This pattern of behaviour followed me into university, where I learned the phrase ‘hustle culture.’ As most students would earnestly attest, late nights and missed breakfasts are nearly inescapable, but the toxicity of hustle culture lies in the way it prioritizes the impression of success over real physical and mental health.

“I fell asleep at Stauffer last night.” “I’ve been to Starbucks three times today.” “I’ve been in and out of team meetings all day.”

I can understand our strange, misplaced pride in overworking ourselves: if we’re simultaneously modest and competitive, never bragging but needing external validation, then we can only show off how little we sleep, how hastily we eat, and how indiscriminately we consume caffeine. How else would we prove how hardworking we are?

There’s a fine but distinguishable line between sharing genuine distresses and feeding into the byproducts of hustle culture, including competitive misery and false humilities. I was guilty of this, of course.

I slept too little in first year, intentionally staying up the night before early morning classes reviewing readings I’d already done, writing papers I could work on the next day instead, and, naturally, getting distracted by irrelevant tabs I shouldn’t have opened in the first place.

I took a twisted pride in being exhausted the next day, telling my friends about my sleep deprivation-induced mishaps and feeling socially rewarded for it. More than that, however, anxiety-ridden and marred by imposter syndrome, I needed to assure myself I was working as hard as I possibly could, even if I hadn’t been particularly productive.

In hindsight, I was worrisomely callous about my health in first year. I constantly felt irritable and lightheaded, had an uncharacteristically difficult time focusing in class, and my anxiety flared up at seemingly innocuous moments. That was my body asking me to look after myself, reminding me to sleep.

***

Leaving my meal plan behind in second year posed new challenges.

For the first month or so, as my housemates might recall, I ate mostly instant and frozen foods, scarcely cooking with healthy ingredients and often skipping meals altogether with little hesitation. I didn’t think it was a problem.

I remember a friend sending me a list of the ‘unconventional’ dinners he’d eaten that semester, notable items including leftover McDonald’s from the weekend and a protein bar he’d found at the bottom of his gym bag. We laughed about it and I said, “I don’t think I’ve eaten a vegetable in a week.”

As though it was a competition. As though it was normal.

***

I was over-caffeinated on most days, hands shaking as I took notes in class and heart threatening to beat out of my chest. This led to a cycle of interrupted sleep at night and waking up exhausted in the morning, a problem I approached with more cold brews.

I couldn’t tell apart symptoms of anxiety, caffeine-induced jitters, and low blood sugar from not eating enough. I shared this with my peers and was often met with normalization— “relatable content”—or competition: “I pulled an all-nighter last night, so we’re in the same boat.”

One of my friends began keeping granola bars and graham crackers in her backpack, putting them in my lap when she saw my trembling hands. My family visited in October, leaving me containers of home-cooked dishes. These were people who loved me, looking after me because I wasn’t, reminding me to eat.

That November, I met someone with a wonderfully healthy lifestyle. He didn’t glorify sleep deprivation or wear missed meals like a badge of honour, and little by little, I stopped feeling the need to participate in conversations of competitive misery.

I started to unlearn the guilt I associated with resting and stopped letting hustle culture define my worth. I let myself sleep and eat.

For the first time in a long time, I was waking up well-rested. My hands were steady, my arms and legs felt stronger, and I started making it through day after day without feeling faint. I had more energy and better focus to do the things I wanted to do—join clubs, exercise, cook.

That was my body thanking me for finally taking care of myself.

***

There are inevitable late nights and tired mornings, but I’m trying to see them for what they are. Not working harder, not more deserving, and certainly not anything to show off.

I try to discern my motivations behind wanting to share how late I’d slept or how many coffees I’d had that week. Am I seeking support and understanding, honestly catching my friends up to speed, or feeding into the culture of competitive misery I want to leave behind?

I remind myself that it’s unproductive to sleep four or five hours a night, to willingly trade my health for the impression of success. It has never been worth it.

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