Hustle and Float
eBook - ePub

Hustle and Float

Reclaim Your Creativity and Thrive in a World Obsessed with Work

Rahaf Harfoush

  1. English
  2. ePUB (apto para móviles)
  3. Disponible en iOS y Android
eBook - ePub

Hustle and Float

Reclaim Your Creativity and Thrive in a World Obsessed with Work

Rahaf Harfoush

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Información del libro

OUR CULTURE HAS BECOME OBSESSED WITH HUSTLING. As we struggle to keep up in a knowledge economy that never sleeps, we arm ourselves with life hacks, to-do lists, and an inbox-zero mentality, grasping at anything that will help us work faster, push harder, and produce more.There's just one problem: most of these solutions are making things worse. Creativity isn't produced on an assembly line, and endless hustle is ruining our mental and physical health while subtracting from our creative performance. Productivity and Creativity are not compatible; we are stuck between them, and like the opposite poles of a magnet, they are tearing us apart.When we're told to sleep more, meditate, and slow down, we nod our heads in agreement, yet seem incapable of applying this advice in our own lives.Why do we act against our creative best interests? WE HAVE FORGOTTEN HOW TO FLOAT. The answer lies in our history, culture, and biology. Instead of focusing on how we work, we must understand why we work—why we believe that what we do determines who we are. Hustle and Float explores how our work culture creates contradictions between what we think we want and what we actually need, and points the way to a more humane, more sustainable, and, yes, more creative, way of working and living.

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For years, we’ve been using our cellphones as alarm clocks. As our sleepy eyes sharpen into focus, we compulsively check the activity that has piled up throughout the night. Scanning, browsing, and clicking, we complete a morning triage of all the emails we can safely delete before our feet have even touched the ground.
The implication for work, of course, is that as long as we’re reachable, we can be working—and since the smartphone tipping point of 2007, we’re always reachable and never quite unplugged. However, burnout caused by connective technology isn’t just related to work. When you’re done checking your work and personal email (increasingly one and the same), you’ll probably dive into the social graph, the content feed, or perhaps a game.
In an article he wrote for the Atlantic, game developer and philosopher Ian Bogost reframed many of our social media activities as a new type of hyper-employment. He writes about the feeling of overwhelm many of us experience in the face of never-ending notifications, emails, DMs, statuses, and updates. “Often, we cast these new obligations either as compulsions (the addictive, possibly dangerous draw of online life) or as necessities (the importance of digital contact and an online brand in the information economy),” he writes. “But what if we’re mistaken and both tendencies are really just symptoms of hyper-employment?”
Our activities on these platforms—managing the flood of information, contributing value as users, creating new content—are all small bits of work we do for companies like Google, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. “Today, everyone’s a hustler,” Bogost continues. “But now we’re not just hustling for ourselves or our bosses, but for so many other unseen bosses.” The burden of supporting, reacting, creating, has become in itself a new type of labor in the digital age. Even leisure activities have started to resemble work. This is uncompensated work that goes well beyond simply being the “eyeballs” of traditional media, and we do it for “fun.”
Despite what we read about leisure and status in the last chapter, many of us intuitively agree with Aristotle, who said that “We work to have leisure, on which happiness depends,” but how does that manifest in reality? For the hyper-employed, productivity may have created the space for more leisure, but we’ve simply filled it with more work, paid and unpaid alike.
The blurring lines between work and play and the relentless demand of attention and action shape our impulses. Digital burnout has a role to play in feeling overworked, even when we’re not “working.” The goal, of course, isn’t to abandon email and delete Facebook but rather to acknowledge how our expectations of ourselves and others are changing. Perhaps, more importantly, it is to take the momentum of history for what it is: inconsequential. Just because things have been a certain way, that doesn’t mean that is how they have to be.
The impacts of a never-ending stream of information are far-reaching and have as many social implications as professional. Is it any surprise that overwork has become so normalized? Contemporary work culture was built on the notion of constant productivity, which has been reinforced through societal values around the link between work and morality, as well as the idealized archetypes that are widely circulated throughout the media.
However, it is the injection of creativity as an essential business skill and valuable economic unit that has made our current position so untenable. It turns out that to do the work we need to do to succeed, we need to work less, not more. And so today’s Productive Creatives (anyone who deals with unstandardized, non-repetitive tasks) find themselves in a paradoxical situation where behaviors that have been touted as symbols of success and achievement are the very things that might be preventing us from reaching our goals.
Here’s one undisputed fact: if we don’t change our behaviors we will have to deal with more than simply a diminished capacity to produce work. We are putting our health, our relationships, and our whole economy at risk.
The word burnout was originally used as a metaphor for extinguishing a flame—what happens when our own sparks of vitality and creativity are snuffed out. In the early twentieth century, “to burn oneself out” was English slang meaning to work so hard that you die early. It turns out that it isn’t just our Japanese friends who have a word to describe death by overwork!
The term “burnout” was popularized in a medical context by Herbert Freudenberger, a German-American psychiatrist, in 1974. While working at an alternative health clinic in New York, Freudenberger witnessed a repeating pattern of exhaustion and fatigue among the idealistic young volunteers who faced a sustained emotional drain from working with drug addicts. He noted that exhaustion and deep fatigue were most often reported by the staffers who were the most committed to the clinic’s cause, usually after they had worked at the clinic for one year.
The term was originally used in relation to the symptoms of stress that were experienced by workers at aid organizations, women’s shelters, inner-city schools, hospitals, and in the criminal justice system.1 Today, the term has expanded across professions, industries, and nations to reflect a state of psychological distress that is impacting economies around the world. (One of the more interesting reports we stumbled upon described the “alarming rate of burnout” in pastors and preachers within the Baptist church.)2
Despite the many documented side effects of burnout, the underlying mechanisms are still generally unknown, but research is emerging that is proving that burnout—both psychological and physiological—is not only real but a dangerous threat that is heavily impacting the way we work. Symptoms include exhaustion, a reduced commitment toward work in the face of increased demands, an increased risk of depression, the use of aggression as a coping mechanism, impaired cognitive performance, motivation, creativity, and judgment, an erosion in the quality of one’s emotional and social life, and finally, despair. One of the most succinct and powerful definitions of burnout that we came across was in “The Burnout Companion to Study and Practice: A Critical Analysis,” which described the phenomenon as “the long-term result of an imbalance between investments and outcomes.”3
While the term itself might be relatively new, the phenomenon it describes is not. In his book Burnout: History of a Phenomenon, Flavio Muheim counts early historical examples going all the way back to the prophet Elijah from the Old Testament, who “was famous for his success in accomplishing various miracles and victories in the name of the Lord. However, confronted with persistent obstacles and having suffered a major defeat, even he was suddenly plunged into deep despair, longing for death, and wishing to fall into a deep sleep.”4
In a 2011 academic paper, Dr. Wolfgang P. Kaschka explains that burnout is often derived from a complex mix of internal and external factors. Personality traits such as a strong need for recognition, a tendency to use work as a substitute for social life, and having an idealistic sense of self can clash with high demands at work, time pressure, and overwhelming responsibilities. While the triggers can differ from person to person, feelings of disengagement, unhappiness, and exhaustion seem to be common outcomes.
So what exactly is happening to the brain and body when someone experiences burnout? Armita Golkar and peers at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden designed a study that suggests burnout affects the parts of the brain that are the most responsible for emotional responses and executive function—namely the limbic structures, the amygdala, and the mesial prefrontal cortex.5 In short, they found reason to believe that burnout can reduce a person’s neurological resilience, compounding stress into a downward spiral.
The study looked at forty participants with formally diagnosed symptoms of burnout—people who had worked 60-70 hour workweeks consistently over several years—as well as a socioeconomically matched control group of seventy healthy, unstressed participants. In the first of two sessions, all the participants were asked to focus on an image. While they focused, a loud, startling noise would sound in the background. An electrode taped to the participants’ cheeks recorded their reflex reactions to this stressful stimulus. While both groups were equally startled, the real difference emerged when they were asked to down-regulate their negative response. The burnout group had a much harder time doing so.
In the second session, an MRI was used to scan participants while they sat quietly. The amygdala (the brain king of emotional reactions like fear and aggression) was enlarged in the burnout group, and researchers also noted more connections between the amygdala and other areas of the brain that are linked to emotional distress. Interestingly, the burnout group also showed weaker connections between the amygdala and the mesial prefrontal cortex (a critical actor for Executive Function). The study makes a case for more research but proposes some important hypotheses on the impact of stress on our experience of negative emotions, as well as our ability to regulate them. The results aren’t shocking, but with relatively few studies on the neurological impact of burnout, they move the conversation to one that is evidence-based instead of strictly anecdotal.
Dr. Esther Sternberg, director of the Molecular, Cellular and Behavioral Interactic Neuroscience Program at the US National Institute of Mental Health, explores the prolonged experience of stress on the body in her book The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health and Emotions. The research she shares draws powerful connections between memory, emotion, and stress and their role in causing or exacerbating disease.
“As soon as the stressful event occurs,” she explains, “it triggers the release of the cascade of hypothalamic, pituitary, and adrenal hormones—the brain’s stress response. It also triggers the adrenal glands to release epinephrine, or adrenaline, and the sympathetic nerves to squirt out the adrenaline-like chemical norepinephrine all over the body: nerves that wire the heart, and gut, and skin. So, the heart is driven to beat faster, the fine hairs of your skin stand up, you sweat, you may feel nausea or the urge to defecate. But your attention is focused, your vision becomes crystal clear, a surge of power helps you run—these same chemicals released from nerves make blood flow to your muscles, preparing you to sprint.”
“All this occurs quickly,” she continues. “If you were to measure the stress hormones in your blood or saliva, they would already be increased within three minutes of the event. In experimental psychology tests, playing a fast-paced video game will make salivary cortisol increase and norepinephrine spillover into venous blood almost as soon as the virtual battle begins. But if you prolong the stress, by being unable to control it or by making it too potent or long-lived, and these hormones and chemicals still continue to pump out from nerves and glands, then the same molecules that mobilized you for the short haul now debilitate you.”
When stress becomes chronic, your immune system is impaired and is less able to defend your body. If you’re exposed to any kind of illness while you’re chronically stressed, your body is far more vulnerable. But tiredness and stress are only skimming the list of symptoms, which also include exhaustion, disinterest, boredom, heightened irritability, feeling unappreciated, loss of concentration, and feelings of detachment. If burnout lingers, it can also lead to depression, substance abuse, and a worsening of overall health.
The motivations around “hustling” aren’t completely misguided. Our bodies are wired in a way that pairs stress and efficiency—as the former rises so does the latter. Unfortunately, there is a catch; our efficiency only increases up to a certain point. After that, stress causes our performance to decline dramatically.
Researchers including the American Sleep Disorders Association and Center for Sleep and Circadian Neurobiology have been exploring this topic. Most of the numerous studies on the connection between lack of sleep and performance, creativity, fluent, flexible, or original thought, memory, decision-making, and visuomotor performance don’t yield surprising results: the less you sleep, the worse you perform. Make it chronic, and you can cause permanent damage to the neurons that regulate your alertness.
A recent UCL study that surveyed over 10,000 civil servants in London revealed that people who work three or more hours longer than a normal seven-hour day have a 60 percent higher risk of heart-related problems, such as fatal and nonfatal heart attacks and angina.6 In the United States, Gallup estimates that overworking costs American companies between $450 and $550 billion annually in lost productivity.7 A report issued by the World Health Organization back in 2000 stated that, “In most countries there is no specific legislation addressing the impact of job stress. Most countries have at least minimum standards for safety and health features of the workplace. These standards tend to focus on the physical aspects of the workplace and do not explicitly include the psychological and/or mental health aspects of working conditions.”8
Despite the lessons that our industrial-era predecessors learned at such cost, we have chosen to ignore the perils of overwork, as we embrace a culture where work continues to creep into the hours previously reserved for leisure, or, worse yet, sleep. Whether you’re a freelance journalist or employed by a tech giant, burning the midnight oil at work has become a touted and/or dreaded reality for many people, and governments are finally starting to address this problem.
  • Concerned about the burden on the Canadian health care system, a 2017 survey by the Canadian Medical Association reported that 54 percent of their 80,000 members have symptoms of burnout. That means if you go to the doctor in Canad...