Hustle Culture vs. Chill Work

A few weeks ago, Wil Reynolds and I were on a video call together. I think I joined in a couple minutes after him, and the discussion was already starting:

Someone on the call: “… just hustling”

Rand: “Ugh, I hate hustle culture.”

Wil: “Yo, Fish*, can you define hustle?”

Rand: “Easy one. Hustling is working hard to work hard. It’s valuing work for its own sake.”

Wil: “Ooo… That’s good.”

(Wil’s stingy with compliments so I kinda live for ’em. Also * no one gets to call me “Fish” except him)

If you take pride in long hours, never slowing down, living on too little sleep, and believe these qualities are what make one deserving of material comfort/a safety net, this post probably isn’t for you.

Likewise, if you’re looking for a post that critiques the misleading, problematic aspects of hustle culture, you’re probably better served by Steven Clark’s 2019 takedown, Don’t Do The Hustle.

But, if you’re interested in something more nuanced, maybe stick around. I’ll aim for brevity.

Here’s the sauce—I get why hustle culture evolved. I empathize, deeply, with the appeal. Hustle world tells you:

  • Anyone can get ahead if they work hard enough
  • Work is what you should be doing; it’s fulfilling and praise-worthy on its own, even if it’s not (yet) bringing the results you’re seeking
  • Those who work hard are better, more ethical/good people than those who do not
  • Those who work hard deserve to be rewarded
  • Therefore, those who’ve had great financial success must have worked hard
  • The capitalist model may be brutal, but it’s fair; we live in a meritocracy

Some of those bullet points are provably false (e.g. belief in meritocracy is false and it usually makes you a worse person). Some feel true, at least culturally (e.g. hard work *deserves* praise, work is what people should be doing).

Sadly, the role of luck massively outweighs that of talent, including hard work.

Yet, almost no one is willing to attribute their success to luck. In an unfair world, this makes sense. Deep down, I know that my old startup (and this new one) did well based mostly on luck. But I really, really don’t want anyone to think of me as just “lucky.” That quality isn’t appealing or valued by our society. Instead, I want them to think I’m intelligent, hard-working, thoughtful, determined, passionate… all those talent-based things that society wants to believe capitalism will reward.

So, the logical move is to either A) work genuinely hard or B) pretend and posture as though I work hard. We can easily rule out C) honestly share that my journey, like most successful entrepreneurs, is 80% luck, 20% talent, maybe less.

Foolishly, and despite the advice of the above paragraphs, I’m taking option C.

I hustled at my previous startup. Long hours, late nights, a lot of work I didn’t enjoy or find valuable. I did it out of a sense of obligation, guilt, and yes, to back up the perception that my “success” required it. One of the most quoted passages from Lost & Founder (the book I wrote about that experience) describes how I blogged five nights a week for two straight years before getting any traction.

Guess what, friends?

If I’d slowed down, blogged once a week, slept and exercised and snuggled Geraldine on the couch while watching bad TV the other four nights, I bet my old company would have been just as successful. Scratch that, I bet it would have done *better* because instead of tiredly, doggedly pushing myself to pound out another post at the cost of my next day’s performance, I would have had a well-rested, more thoughtful approach. I probably would have figured out what was working and wasn’t far faster. Maybe I’d have made better decisions about who to hire, promote, fire, work-with, partner-with…

My problem with hustle culture isn’t just the posturing (though I admit to an intense distaste for it). It’s the three big lies.

  1. The lie that long hours and relentless, difficult challenges are the only paths to a better, more “successful” company.
  2. The lie that choosing fewer hours, easier work, and to be a more balanced person isn’t a superior path to success.
  3. The lie that financial success is the only kind of success.

At SparkToro, the three of us practice “Chill Work.” It’s evocative of the Italian Slow Food and CittaSlow (Slow City) movements, centering around a Zen-like appreciation for the fulfillment and rewards of high quality work, but never letting work intensity overwhelm the rest of life. It recognizes that both too much work and too much free time are linked to unhappiness.

This Chill Work thing we do is, so far, informal and unstructured, but generally subscribes to the following:

I. Work to Live. We build our jobs to work around, fund, and enable our lives, not the other way around. That means we have almost no meetings, near unlimited ability for anyone to say “I need more time to get this done,” and cadences built for the flexibility that parenting demands (as both Amanda and Casey are big on gender-balanced co-parenting, and while I don’t have kids, I love supporting folks who do).

II. Trust and boundaries. Casey’s never asked me what I’m up to and why I can’t get XYZ done faster. I’ve never asked him. Sometimes we share what we’re up to, but more out of socialization than need. Casey probably assumes Amanda and I are cooking some crazy new meal. We assume he’s doing laundry or getting his girls their 72nd snack of the day. All of us completely trust that the others are working as much as they need to get things done, and that if they need another day or week to finish something, that’s cool, too (as long as it’s not negatively impacting customers, in which case one of us picks up the slack).

III. Outcomes > input. We take pride in results, not the difficulty, quantity, or intensity of our labor.

IV. Do less, better. It’s better to take on a small number of projects, work on them when we feel most capable, and say “no” to almost everything. We do work that matters or work we find fun, and happily cut out all the rest.

V. Priorities: Customers, team, community, investors, in that order. That might sound strange, but it’s a great way to run a business, and a great way to build a business people want to support, work for, and cheer for… Which, coincidentally, we think might work out well for investors, too.

I’d estimate that I work ~60% of the hours on SparkToro that I did at my previous company. And yet the growth rate these first 17 months looks better than my first stab at a SaaS marketing business. I’d bet that’s not coincidence, but causation. Chill work means better decision making, better prioritization, and better results.

Doing some Chill Work yesterday during our mini-vacation, 13th anniversary trip to Victoria, BC

I just hope I can stay well-rested enough to keep making good decisions, work slow enough to enjoy the journey, and work with great boundaries between my professional goals and the happiness of myself and those around me.

I love Chill Work. I don’t think I’ll ever go back to the hustle. But even if you do so with pride, maybe some of these ideas will make your hustle’s results a bit better.

p.s. All this requires a lot of thoughtful structure – who you hire, why, how, for what, how you design your product, your marketing, your ability to outsource, and more. I don’t want to suggest it’s equally available to everyone, but I can promise that almost everyone who speaks pridefully about “hustling” in the online world can benefit from fewer hours worked and a more thoughtful approach to the design of their business and workload.