Right now, many people I love are being forced to put their creative ambitions on hold.
Everyone is dealt a different deck of cards and a lot of really awesome humans have been dealt a shit deck of cards. And I don’t think it does us any favors to ignore this. Sometimes circumstances ARE a problem. Sometimes forces bigger than you ARE preventing you from doing things you want to do. Sometimes you’re too bone-tired and beat to see straight let alone optimize and thrive and invest in your “higher self,” as the kids say.
Hustle culture says it’s on you to work harder. Try harder. Try again. Do it a different way. Harder stronger faster! Grit! Toughness! Fight! Persevere! Don’t give up! No excuses! Push push push push. Only you can fix this!
According to this logic, you’re either hustling or complaining.
**sticks out tongue** This is dumb.
Life exists in the gray and I’m not about to stand here and tell you that it’s ok to blame people for their lot in life.
It’s a cheap trick to sell books and bad advice. It’s an abdication of responsibility, a form of victim-blaming, and I won’t have that here.
Some things sincerely quash you. And that is a goddamn tragedy.
What people need in those moments is our compassion (and action), not our judgment. It’s a moment to listen, not to gaslight.
The people I know who’ve been forced by life to hit pause tell me it feels like they’re quitting. A pause is not quitting, I say. But I know what they mean. When you have something inside of you that wants to come out, doing anything else feels like betrayal. Mostly of yourself.
I fear what happens when that creative energy gets trapped inside of otherwise-decent human beings. It can metastasize into shadow art and that’s how we end up with cruelty. But shadow artists are borne of fear and denial and if you’re forced to put creative ambition on hold, you’re not acting out of fear nor denial – you’re trapped in necessity.
That’s good news because the energy isn’t stuck or being held captive, wreaking havoc on your soul, and working itself out on others.
It’s still there and, from what I have observed with my own eyes, finds new ways to apply itself.
Creative folks cannot help but be creative. We bend toward the light. It’s in our blood. One of my friends who “used to be an actor” reads books to his kids like it’s Broadway Opening Night. Another friend “stuck” in an advertising job writes fan fiction during meetings.
J has been trapped in freelance design work that bores him, so at night he writes music and futzes on the guitar while his kids play in the room next to him.
S paints what she calls “bad” art. K sings with her kid in her lap. M hosts dance parties in stolen moments when no one is watching, like when she’s taking out groceries. P, who “used to be a journalist,” writes “silly” poems, but they aren’t silly they’re wonderful.
And R, who says she “used to be a writer,” writes thank you cards that will literally bring you to tears.
Our creative energy seeps out whether we recognize it or not. And that seeping out makes the world a little bit lighter. And we need all the light.
If you’re someone who’s had to put your dreams, your creative aspirations, and your light on hold – I see you.
I hope you know that your existing is enough.
PS: I worry that in the 5 years since my piece on hustle guilt came out, not much has changed. Culture can be slow to evolve and that is fine, but that’s not what I’m seeing. I’m seeing that this hustle guilt for not pursuing your ambition or dream at 150% no matter the cost is something that lives inside us now. It’s not a pressure from outside anymore, it’s been internalized into how we judge ourselves and our worthiness.
Hustle culture is based on a lie. The lie that you can do this alone. The lie that MORE is better. The lie that sacrifice is noble. The lie that the reward for your effort comes later.
And it fails to consider that a life is more than one thing. You are not your job, you are not your art, you are not your accomplishments, you are not your job title, you are not your net worth or awards.
It is absolutely OK when life takes a turn you didn’t anticipate (in fact, it’s inevitable. Like Thanos). It’s not always a “setback to overcome and will make you stronger!” sometimes things demolish you. What we need in those moments is compassion. I’m reminded of how Cheryl Strayed told a friend of mine with young kids that she would write again…just not for a while. And maybe not at home. I appreciated that honesty over the unrelenting cultural screams of people telling her to, “Wake up at 4AM! Make it work! Sleep when the baby sleeps! Try harder!”
That’s the sound of someone who isn’t kind or honest with themselves, projecting their bullshit on someone else.
The system that says “no excuses” is a system that should be thrown into the garbage for not knowing the difference between an excuse (fear) and circumstances (reality).
Not everyone is afraid, some people are trapped.
They need our help, not shame. And the best way to emancipate them is to emancipate ourselves from the shackles of a culture that judges you based on hustle instead of being a decent human being.
If the choice is between doing good work or being a good person, always choose being a good person. I hope, I believe, this will one day be a false dichotomy and we won’t have to choose.
Until that day, I commend your choice. Your light is still there. Carry on.