Friday, May 30, 2014

Against hustling

Not all that long ago, one could be successful in many fields of endeavor with nothing more than enough education, a minimum of talent, and lots of hard work. (Is that all, you say!) In some fields, of course, this was never enough; to be a best-selling novelist or NFL quarterback also required luck and possibly more than a minimum of talent. Other fields required hustle - a constant sales pitch to the world around you. Sales jobs, of course, meant hustling, but so did any kind of contract or freelance work.

Today, in our new downsized, casualized, contract-based, unpaid internship-heavy workforce, hustle is the new norm. Everyone is supposed to be an entrepreneur, constantly on the make for opportunities.

It’s one thing to keep one’s resume up-to-date, of course, or to attend the occasional continuing ed class. But hustle goes farther than that. We are all brands. We all have platforms. We network. We’re looking for the next opportunity as soon as we secure this one. We are devoted to our “dream” full-time, and if we aren’t we don’t deserve it. (No one can have more than one dream, in this mindset.) And this full-time marketing of ourselves is making me tired just thinking about it.

For one thing, it’s work, and for some people it’s more work than others. It’s like requiring everyone to be an extrovert, or insisting we all deliver excellent customer service. Only some of us thrive under those conditions.

For another, it’s unrelated to how good we actually are at the job itself, at least for most jobs. Is someone a better accountant because of their Twitter feed? No.

Finally, and most importantly, it’s taking time away from the jobs we’re actually trying to do. Every minute spent selling myself is a minute not spent doing my actual work. The thing that long-term employment (or tenure) gives us is the freedom to think about things, to produce lasting, significant ideas and things, to make decisions upon conviction and evidence, not fear that we’ll be unemployed next week. Places of discovery like Bell Labs are being replaced by ever-changing grant-money gigs with no room for serendipity.

Hustle is everywhere, in coding and in design and in marketing and in entertainment, but I see it up close in academia. Hustle is necessary in the adjunct system. Unless you’re an adjunct teaching a class on the side from your main job - as I am; they could fire me and I’d be fine - every semester is a whole new gig, or series of gigs, and you need each and every one of them to make rent. There is no room for experimentation or error. For those lucky enough to be on the tenure-track, the ratcheting up of publication expectations means exhausted assistant professors looking for easy-to-mine data sets, Least Publishable Units, and not a lot of room to think about big ideas.

Our students are hustling, too. Trying to be full-time students with an unpaid internship and a job that pays the bills, just so at graduation they can get an entry-level job that two decades ago they could have gotten with an associate’s and no experience is wearing them out.

We have gullibly swallowed whole this idea that constant accountability is a good thing, and the best way to achieve that is to make all of us precarious. Motivation by fear, fear of slipping out of the middle class, fear of slipping out of decent wages into poverty - it drives us to degrees we can’t afford and aren’t interested in, to working without pay, to competing solely on price, to putting up with sexual harassment and time theft at work.  We don’t join unions, because we want to be judged on our merits rather than time served, but what we don’t realize is that we aren’t being judged on our merits anyway. We don’t want to pay welfare, because we want to believe everyone who is unemployed deserves it. We refuse to believe in structural explanations for anything, because that would be to confront our own helplessness.

Don’t stop and breathe. Don’t take time off for kids. Don’t fail to apply for every opportunity. Don’t be the one who refuses to stay late. Don’t question the meritocracy. And whatever you do, don’t stop hustling.

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