Why Hustle? Hustle Culture as a Survival Mechanism and Driver of Human Progress

Samson Zhang
5 min readFeb 18, 2021

Edyfi is a house of young techies with shared traits of curiosity, bias towards action, and “recursive self-improvement.” These values are par for the course in tech: they signify a culture of constant learning, making, and growth. To not do one of these things — not be pushing yourself into new knowledge, pumping out new things into the world, or pursuing more and more ambitious personal goals — is to stagnate. By another name, this is the hustle culture that any ambitious student, entrepreneur, or professional knows well.

Done right, hustle culture creates amazing results. It brought the fourteen of us together under this roof, where we’ve happily pushed ourselves to pump out software projects, writing, and new habits alike. It connects us to some of the most interesting and powerful people in the world online. It gives several of us a sense of direction and purpose as we float through life untethered from traditional schooling or jobs.

On the flip side, the harms of hustle culture are well-harangued about online. Reading through “hustle culture quotes”, it’s easy to see why (“Look in the mirror. That’s your competition.” Motivational, but on a personal lifestyle level, sheesh). In a late night conversation at Edyfi, we can’t help but reflect on the “curse of ambition” too.

“I’m less happy than my siblings, and I think I’m less happy than the average person,” Ben says. “I relentlessly compare myself to others. No matter how well I’m doing now, there are akways 19-year-olds who raised millions of dollars.”

More interestingly, Ben reflects on the times he did feel happy. “I didn’t compare myself to anyone when I was at The Mountain School.” Pushing back against the idea that comparison is simply a result of exposure to success and personal possibility for it, Ben mentions a friend at The Mountain School high up in the Sunrise Movement that he felt no pressure to compete with, at a time when advocacy was his ambition. “I was doing four hours of manual farm labor a day, surrounded by these really crunchy granola people [1], and I didn’t think of anything more. I was happy.”

I think back to the very similar experience I had in the winter of my senior year, in the two-month window between college apps and decisions. After two years of taking on the hardest classes and biggest leadership positions I could, “I didn’t feel the need to do anything, to have any ambitions,” as I wrote in a recent reflection. “I was content to take my relaxed courseload, write the ocassional blog post, sleep at 10 PM, and wake up at 5 AM to go on sunrise runs. I didn’t write or take classes to satisfy anyone else, I didn’t run to beat anyone’s time. I did it simply because I enjoyed it, and I felt no pressure to do anything different.” Like Ben, I was surrounded by people far better than me at everything I spent my time on: piano, running, studying literature and social sciences. But this brought me comfort and joy rather than the feeling of urgent need to do more.

This bubble shattered when college decisions came back. “I had often looked forward to college being a confident fresh start, the continuing growth of my potential and self; instead, with spring warmth and longer days came the realization that I would be spending my next four years at [a school] that didn’t offer an English major,” I wrote in my graduation essay. “It seemed like it was once again time to humble myself, just put my head down and move forward through the uncertainty. I scrambled to apply to internships, programs, whatever I could find. I completely forgot the self that I had previously found.” In the next few months I would abandon my humanities ambitions, my lifelong hobbies, and my friends to fit myself into the new culture of hustling that I hoped would bring me to a better place than where I was.

Why do we feel the need to make these comparisons now and not before? What did my unexpected college decisions — placnig me still at an excellent school, with amazing career prospects — change so fundamentally in my outlook?

My hypothesis is that it’s all about belonging, about whether you feel like your existence and place in the world is at stake. As a senior at Andover, I felt like my place in Andover’s community, and in the larger elite education bubble, was secure, at least for the next couple of years. When college decisions came back, this comfort was shattered, and I abandoned everything I was doing before, eventually even the people I was friends with, in a scramble to catch back up, to reach some sense of safety.

When I came to Edyfi, my mental health actually improved by a huge amount, because I found a community I could unequivocally be a part of. I felt accepted and secure. I found myself going back to the things that bring me fulfillment: tons of writing. Spontaneous workouts. Reading clubs. Practicing piano. Passion software projects. If Edyfi were to establish itself as somewhere I could stay and be a part of for the next decade, my ambition would probably fade. The TKS and tech culture “hustle” would become unnecessary and distasteful. I would explore and do what I actually wanted to.

The sense of hustle, then, is useful because it’s a mechanism for finding a sense of belonging. It’s a survival mechanism, a reaction to a perceived threat to stability.

This seems like a damningly negative revelation about the nature of hustle culture. The ethic of hard work and ambition that so many live their lives by turns out to be fueled not by some idealistic inspiration to make the most of life, but fundamentally by the fear of not being enough for others, of being out of place and acceptance.

I would agree with this negative characterization. I think it’s dangerous and shallow to idolize hustling for the sake of hustling. Yet, when you give some more thought to it, there is nothing in human behavior or society that isn’t driven by the need to belong and survive in some way. Embracing this cynical outlook, endless hustle actually has a profound nature to it: it’s the feeling that you’ll never belong in this world, that you’re always seeking more. Rather than changing oneself to fit in with the world, the entrepreneurial hustler refuses to concede, instead attempting to change the world to fit in with oneself. There’s no promise that this is a healthy or enjoyable lifestyle [2], but at its best, it’s the attitude that empowers people to change the world and drives humanity forwards.

In the words of Steve Jobs: “the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.”

Originally published on my blog on Feburary 18, 2021

[1]: I had no idea what this meant when I heard it — Reddit informs me: “Granola usually refers to politically liberal people who want to have the image of being outdoorsy and wholesome. They are known for things like driving Subarus, shopping at Whole Foods, being gluten free, wearing sandals, doing yoga, etc.”

[2]: “Being an entrepreneur is like eating glass and staring into the abyss of death,” Elon Musk once said.