hustle culture

Why Are We So Obsessed With Hustle Culture?

13 May 2021 | by Gina Lucia

If you haven’t seen it, let me introduce you to the king of hustle culture Elon Musk’s tweet about his work hours: 

Elon Musk hustle culture

Elon isn’t alone in his promotion and glamorization of hustle culture.

Everyone from celebrities to business coaches, corporate businesses, and working spaces are encouraging the world to work harder and achieve their goals.

But when we know the effects of overwork and stress, why, are we so obsessed with hustle culture? 

Well in this article I’m going to be tackling exactly that. By exploring where the term ‘hustle’ really came from, the impact it’s having on our mental health and identities, and what you, yes you, can do about it.

Watch the video:

The history of hustle culture

Do any Google search and you may think the appearance of hustle culture was first introduced by millennials, but this isn’t the case.

Hustle culture actually started late 19th early 20th century as discrimination against black people in America and beyond.

In an article by Isabella Rosario titled Hustle Culture’s Black Roots, she describes how the term ‘hustle’ was used as an association between black people and laziness.

“This idea—that black people struggle due to their own failures, rather than systemic oppression — was widespread.” 

This soon turned into the NEED for black people to hustle and fight against this oppression.

“It didn’t mean black people were buying into the racist idea that they weren’t working hard enough—but that some held onto hope that by “working twice as hard” they might be able to get by, or even in some cases get ahead.”

Isabella goes on to talk about how the term ‘hustle’ was then reframed and absorbed into black culture.

Between the 1990s and 2000s, the word was adopted into rap culture. The meaning didn’t change, it was about black resilience.

“their lyrics acknowledged that hustling was what black people needed to do to survive in a rigged system.” 


Hustle goes mainstream

It was years later that the term started to be adopted into white mainstream culture.

When once hustle meant (for black people):

  • Working multiple jobs to get by.
  • Doing whatever it takes to make ends meet and support your family.
  • Working twice as hard just to get ahead.

It transformed into (and this was taken in pieces from an article by Gary Vaynerchuck titled Hustle: The Cure for Those Who Complain):

  • Hustle is really working, day in and day out when no one is looking.
  • Hustle is simply putting it all on the line.
  • I’m sorry to call you out, but I know you don’t work as hard as me.
  • Stop crying and keep working. Hustle is the only activity of success.

Hustle was once (and still is), a necessary evil for many black people working multiple jobs. 

Now it has been adopted and glamourized into white culture. To be advertised as empowering, self-actualization, a choice, and one if you don’t make it, you’ll live an unhappy and unfulfilled life. 

Essentially, a way for the average person to create a life of their dreams by working huge hours to earn extra income.

Okay, so we now know the role history and the present day has played with the term hustle, it’s time to talk about the effect hustle culture has on your mental health and identity.

Hustle culture and mental health

The next ‘phase’ of hustle culture is where things start to take a turn and may well have been given a boost by millennials. 

Specifically, a lot of millennials grew up seeing opportunity but were then thrust out into a world with very little. While at the same time social media was gaining in popularity. 

millennials hustle

This combination resulted in a lot of millennials using social media as a way to showcase success, even if it was fabricated. 

This need to constantly perform, be better, and do better naturally leads to the need to overwork, create side-hustles, brag about our achievements, and invent more and more ways to optimize our time. 

From productivity hacks to organisational tools, and yes, even yoga, meditation, smoothies, superfoods, exercise techniques, and more. 

Of course, boosted by business jumping on the bandwagon.


This brought about a better phrasing for the word hustle. Coined by Derek Thompson in 2019 in his article titled: ‘Workism Is Making Americans Miserable’.

Introducing workism

In his article, Derek describes the term:

“It is the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose; and the belief that any policy to promote human welfare must always encourage more work.”

The emphasis is strong here, Derek highlights a common theme with modern-day hustle culture, that of identity.

“Rich, college-educated people—especially men—work more than they did many decades ago. They are reared from their teenage years to make their passion their career and, if they don’t have a calling, told not to yield until they find one.

The economists of the early 20th century did not foresee that work might evolve from a means of material production to a means of identity production. They failed to anticipate that, for the poor and middle class, work would remain a necessity; but for the college-educated elite, it would morph into a kind of religion, promising identity, transcendence, and community.”

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t see some of myself in that statement. 

Although, as the author goes on to say, there are ways to take on extra work or a side business without your identity being consumed by it. 


This obsession with people needing to love what they do and have their identity explicitly tied to what they do for money. 

Rather than simply separating their identity from work and exploring their passions outside of that, can take its toll on our mental health.

Hustle culture and mental health

A recent study found that women who work more than 55 hours a week are more likely to experience depression than men who work the same long hours.

Not only this, but if you’re:

  • Stressed due to your 9-5 work demands.
  • Or your side-business isn’t taking off.
  • Work is drying up.
  • Or you’re having to take on multiple jobs just to make ends meet. 

Then it goes without saying that your mental health will suffer as a consequence.

Not having enough time to rest, sleep or enjoy free time can all lead to anxiety, depression, and burnout.

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Glamourizing hustle culture

So let’s circle back to Elon Musk. 

To give context, Elon was running SpaceX and Tesla at the same time while the new Tesla Model 3 was in production.

In a frustrated interview with Kara Swisher from Recode, he said he was working 120 hours a week at one point (and his team was doing 100 hour weeks) which has now reduced to 80-90 hours. 

According to an article by CNBC:

“Working 80 to 90 hours a week could mean working 11 to 18 hours a day depending on whether you’ve allowed yourself a weekend. Such a schedule doesn’t leave time for much else, including sleep.”

In the Recode interview, Elon went on to say:

“It’s been terrible. This year felt like five years of aging, frankly. The worst year of my entire career. Insanely painful.”

While Elon Musk might have some justification for his long work hours, by posting a tweet like this, he’s glamourizing his unrealistic and dangerous schedule. 

Encouraging others to do the same and creating a buzz around hustle culture that shouldn’t exist in the first place.


What have we learned?

Hustle culture is a complicated topic, so I’m going to try and summerise the best way I can.

It’s fine to have additional work you do on the side, or a business you’re setting up alongside your main job. 

But bear these things in mind while you’re doing it:

  1. If you have a choice, remember you don’t actually have to have a side business, especially if it’s taking a toll on your mental health.
  1. If you do want to though, remember you don’t have to believe Elon Musk or Garry Vee. You don’t have to put your mental health at risk to achieve society’s version of ‘success’.
  1. And please, when talking about hustle culture, remember where the term hustle really came from.

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