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Can you outrun 'hustle culture' without — hustling? An ASU workshop tries to combat toxic effects

Not long ago, Arizona State University professor Dr. Neal Lester, Ph.D., was sitting in his office, when one of his grad students came in. As they talked, Lester noticed that the student seemed distressed. 

"And that student actually broke down in tears because they were overwhelmed by all the things that they had to do," said Lester.

Lester did his best to comfort the student. But as he started asking the student questions, he was troubled by some of the answers.

"They pulled out a calendar of all the stuff that they were doing, and some of the stuff I had invited them to! And then I realized that my inviting them felt like it was adding to their plate — that they couldn’t say no," said Lester.

Lester asked what the student was doing to take care of themselves. They didn’t have a clear response. Lester encouraged them to seek out counseling services, and did his best to remind them that their health was the most important thing to prioritize. The student wound up taking a leave of absence from ASU. But the conversation haunted Lester. Shortly after it happened, he brought it up with some co-workers. 

"And one of the staff members said well, that’s what we call hustle culture. It’s really a thing. And I thought, well, you know what? We need to talk about that," Lester said.

Hustle culture is, indeed, “a thing.” In recent years, outlets ranging from the New York Times to Good Housekeeping have published pieces with titles like: " Why Are Young People Pretending to Love Work?," or " Hustle Culture and What You Can Do To Break Away." Lester told me that for a lot of students he’s talked to, hustle culture is pervasive. 

"It’s not a matter of just doing enough to get by, but you’ve gotta be above and beyond. It feeds into this notion that we don’t have boundaries," Lester said.

As Lester and I were talking, I had his bio open on my laptop — which is very impressive. Lester has a doctorate from Vanderbilt, he’s authored and edited eight books, been nominated for dozens of awards, he’s the founding director of ASU’s Project Humanities initiative, and that’s barely scratching the surface. I found myself wondering if, as he started looking into the hustle culture phenomenon, if he felt like a participant.

"Actually I did. And do. You know, if we talk about having a job that’s 9-5, then at 5 o’clock, we should be finished. But in my own experiences, there is no cut-off," said Lester.

And so, in light of his own experience and his conversations with students and co-workers, Lester and his team at Project Humanities decided to do something about it. They organized an event called "Rejecting Hustle Culture" — free and open to the public — featuring a series of facilitated workshops. 

"Much of what I hope to glean from our conversation tonight is not so much an acknowledgement that it exists, but how do we provide spaces that intervene in that, in a real concrete way?" said Lester.

Later that night — after 5 p.m. — I drove over to check out the workshop. When I got there, I found Neal Lester and his staff. Evidently, he’d told them I was coming.

"Are you radio guy?" one person asked.

"I’m radio guy. [laughter] And you must be Professor Lester?" I said.

"I am — and you must be Sam?" said Lester.

I was a few minutes early, and as I was setting up my gear, I noticed one of the facilitators, Stephen — a clinical social worker — setting up his materials for the workshop. 

"I have to ask you — I couldn’t help but notice you have three cellphones," I said.

"Yeah, that’s how I define stress! iPhone, iPhone, iPhone," he laughed. "One’s a personal, and then I’m the crisis and consultation specialist at ASU, so if there’s a crisis that goes on, the line comes directly to me, and then I have another cellphone, I manage a team ..."

As the event got underway, one of the presenters spent a few minutes listing the credentials of each facilitator. Another presenter announced that each portion of the workshop would be timed — and as the sessions began, I couldn’t help noticing that the facilitators had to, well, hustle. 

"So we got about 3 minutes, 30 seconds left, so everyone on the next page, we’ll give you guys like a minute and a half or so to look at self-care. Rushing everyone — am I creating stress for you guys?" Stephen said with a laugh.

 At another table, a financial advisor was drinking an evening coffee as he stressed the importance of maximizing your income. He encouraged us to spend some time after the workshop reading through a list of resources he’d put together.

Back at the first table, Stephen, the guy with three cellphones, also gave us some documents to take with us.

"So I was thinking what I would have everyone do is leave here with a mental health maintenance plan …" said Stephen.

I have to admit, as I shuttled back and forth between facilitators, the evening was starting to feel more like an example of hustle culture than a rejection of it.

But there is at least one person who did find something valuable in the workshop — Neal Lester. At one of the tables, a facilitator gave us a gentle reminder that we tend to overvalue our relevance.

"We tend to have this cultural phenomenon around 'busy is good.' Means I’m doing something important — means people must want me. And the reality is: Not so much! You’re not that important," said one presenter.

"I’m gonna write that down on a T-shirt," Lester said as he laughed.

And at the end of the evening, Lester told the crowd that the goal of these discussions isn’t to pretend hustle culture doesn’t exist. The goal is to find a way of acknowledging our relationship with it.    

"We want this to be not so much a therapy session, but a session where you can take some tools back, and not just acknowledge that we’re all in this quote-unquote rat race, but that we have the tools and the agency to put a speed bump there. Not necessarily stop, but a speed bump," he said.

Driving home after the workshop, my head was spinning. I tried to picture myself as an overwhelmed grad student, showing up at a workshop designed to reject hustle culture — and being sent home with a deluge of financial and psychological homework assignments. But the thing is, that’s not my relationship with hustle culture. I think a big part of the reason that I gravitated towards the guy with three cellphones is because I see a lot of myself in him. I actually talked about this with Lester in our first phone call.

"How did you discover the story and the fact that we’re doing an event tonight?" asked Lester during the call.

"Uh — well, if I’m being honest, I discovered it because I just moved here three weeks ago to start working at KJZZ," I said.

"Oh! Welcome," Lester said.

"Thank you — thank you, it’s good to be here. It’s great to be here, I should say. I have worked in audio for many years at podcast networks, but this is my first full-time job at a radio station. And I am wanting to make the best impression that I possibly can. And I have sort of not left the radio station since I got here?" I said.

"See! So you need some help!" said Lester.

"I need to think about these things, because I have told myself a story that I have finally gotten this position that I have wanted my whole life, and the way to make sure that I am able to maintain this position is to have my entire life be defined by this work," I said.

So after the workshop, I sat down to do my psychological homework. What is my relationship to hustle culture? 

The answer to that question finally arrived thanks to an unexpected speed bump. 

KJZZ staffers are technically employed by the community college where our station is located. And earlier this week, I had to spend an entire day in a campus-wide new-employee orientation session. Everyone else at the session had been hired by departments that have nothing to do with radio. But part of the orientation was a campus tour, including the radio station. And when the group walked into KJZZ, everyone else on the tour literally gasped. Their eyes got wide as dinner plates. They watched reporters huddled over scripts editing stories. They saw hosts seated behind soundboards in serene, soundproof rooms, looking out the window at the sun-baked mountains, talking to the whole world. After the tour, the other new hires couldn’t stop talking about how cool it was. One of them turned to me and whispered, “Can I come by sometime and just say something into a microphone?”

I said I’d see what I could do. But I went home that night and thought about what I get to do. Which is: to be radio guy. And in the spirit of Lester’s eventual T-shirt, that may not be all that important. But if it’s going to matter at all, it’s gotta be important to me. I’d like to think Lester will understand. 

"Part of this was a nice little holding up the mirror to say: 'How can I not feel guilty about taking care of myself?'" he said.

For me — for now — that means I’ve gotta keep hustling.

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Sam Dingman is a reporter and host for KJZZ’s The Show. Prior to KJZZ, Dingman was the creator and host of the acclaimed podcast Family Ghosts.