I was taught to work hard at an early age. Or, more specifically, to be “twice as good and work twice as hard,” as my parents regularly reminded me, foreshadowing the inevitable challenges ahead of me as a black girl from a lower middle-class family.
I watched my father work the night shift throughout much of my childhood while my mother worked a full-time job and moonlighted as a seamstress and hair stylist. When my parents divorced, I watched my mother hold multiple jobs before eventually opening up her own salon and cosmetology school. My grandfather and grandmother owned a commercial cleaning service. My great uncle, the son of sharecroppers, was the proprietor of the only black-owned grocery store in the county where I grew up. I was surrounded by hard workers and entrepreneurs who worked tirelessly to create a better future for the generations that would come after.
All I saw were regular people making their own way. Working from sun up to sun down—and sometimes through the night—to make ends meet. It was no surprise that I’d follow in their footsteps.
I got my first job at 15 and continued working throughout high school and college. After college, I immediately began my first full-time job. I was a junior staffer at a public relations agency cutting my teeth by saying “yes” to every opportunity, working late to assemble client briefs and award submissions, and always, always asking for more work. I was in my 20s and I knew I needed to work hard to assert my value in the workplace.
Then, in 2008, the economy began to take a dive. By then I had a lower-level job in corporate communications. It would look great on a resume, but it was not the most fulfilling work I’d ever done. I compensated for the lack of creativity I got to exercise at work by launching Black Girls RUN!, an organization with a mission to inspire black women to put their health first. Then, in 2009, I was laid off from my corporate communications job. I moved back home with my parents and continued working on my side gig until I figured out what to do next.
This isn’t a unique story. The subprime mortgage crisis of 2008 made a generation quickly realize that nothing, at least when it comes to financial security, is guaranteed. In my social and online circles, I noticed that startups and social entrepreneurs began to bubble to the surface, understanding that having a Plan A (a stable job) was great, but having a Plan A and a side hustle Plan B was even better.
This was all happening alongside another phenomenon I saw brewing among my peers: the accumulation of student debt. Having multiple sources of income was not only a safety net, but a necessity for many college-educated people.
This is where the new hustle generation began. We vowed to “rise and grind” and “hustle hard,” while pledging our allegiance to “team no sleep” and consuming copious amounts of caffeine. Sleepless nights were a badge of honor and something to brag about over brunch with friends.
The hustle had become cachet.
How much was this ingrained in my own life? I wore a bracelet that said “HUSTLE.” It was my anchor and a reminder that success meant sacrificing now and reaping the rewards later—much later.
But, as I learned, there’s a dark side to hustle culture.
By 2010, not only was I enjoying a new job at a public relations agency, I was enjoying the growing success of my health and wellness business. It wasn’t long before I turned in my two-week notice to pivot. I was ready to dedicate all my time to growing and nurturing this community of women across the country and inspiring them to live a healthy lifestyle.
Ironically, the more I poured myself into growing the company, the more I suffered physically and emotionally. Gastrointestinal symptoms and mid-day naps became the norm. I’d work from 9 A.M. to 6 P.M., take a short break, and then make my way back to my home office after dinner to put in another four to five hours. Day in and day out, I pushed myself to my furthest limits to maintain the level of busyness and perceived productivity that I thought had served me in the years before. I believed that the only way to succeed was to muscle my way through days with limited sleep, brain fog, and my body’s constant rebellion. I proudly exchanged high-five emojis with my entrepreneur friends rejoicing at our collective ability to squeeze as much as possible into a 24-hour period.
Hustling was no longer a temporary state I entered into in order to meet a deadline or crush a goal; it was just my state of being. It dictated how I lived every moment of my life.
A few years later, I made my way back to a traditional 9-to-5 setting hoping that the structure would create more balance in my life. But like any mindset or habit left unchecked, I returned to my usual modus operandi of grinding myself and my body into the ground. With symptoms that couldn’t be explained by any particular illness, my doctors finally decided on one culprit: stress.
What made this all the more confusing was that I considered myself the poster child of self-care. I was a runner and a newly-minted yoga instructor who not only practiced regularly, but also started my day with meditation. I ate mindfully, avoiding foods that I knew would cause an adverse reaction. I saw an herbalist, acupuncturist, and therapist on a regular basis—doing all of the things that I, someone with socio-economic privilege, could afford to do. Yet, my symptoms were not improving. There were days that I was so fatigued that I couldn’t manage my usual short walk to the train station and hailed a cab instead.
That’s when I realized that no amount of self-care would address the deep-seated belief that the only way for me to be successful was to emulate the generations before me and proudly be a martyr along with the community of hustlers and grinders that surrounded me.
You see, I had internalized hustle culture, the state of mind that was the result of so many factors: being raised to know I’d have to work harder than my peers to achieve the same success, the sinking economy which was making financial insecurity seem pretty permanent, and the “hustle” culture that grew in and around me as a result of those things. As a hustle culture devotee I was talking the talk of self-care, but living a lifestyle so contradictory to what is sustainable for any human being. And I wasn’t alone. I found that so many of my colleagues and friends were moving through the motions of self-care, yet were superficially addressing their complaints of stress, fatigue, and depression without getting to the root of the problem.
Then one day I found myself walking to work with my eyes brimming with tears. I was exhausted and frustrated. I couldn’t understand why my body seemed to be rebelling against me. In that moment, I knew that major changes were in order. Even though I had incorporated so many traditional forms of self-care like meditation and yoga, I needed to accept some hard truths about how much of the hustle mentality was steeped in everything I did.
I began to think of my work, professionally and personally, differently. I took drastic steps that re-centered me professionally, assessing the amount of energy and time I was realistically able to give to my employer. I had many open and vulnerable conversations with my supervisor about my workload, opportunities to create more flexibility in my schedule to work remotely, and how I could ultimately be a better employee if I created more space for mental breaks and removed myself from stressful environments.
These changes were helping, but they weren’t enough. Because my sense of self-worth was so deeply connected to my level of output, all the “self-care” in the world wasn’t making a dent in the stress that had been piling up around me for years. That’s when I realized that it was my idea and understanding of self-care itself that needed some work.
On a recent episode of the podcast, “The Nod,” lifestyle writer (and SELF columnist) Rachel Wilkerson Miller talked about her disconnect with the idea of self-care. She said that if the concept of “self-care” doesn’t resonate with you, think instead about how you can better show up for yourself. It finally clicked: How could I possibly show up for myself if I was stressed, irritable, and overall feeling yucky? How could I show up for the most important people in my life if I felt this way? I realized that feeling better wasn’t about adding more self-care activities to my routine, it was about changing my fundamental understanding of what it means to show up for me.
The first thing I did was remove “hustle” and “grind” from my vocabulary. I set aside more time to be alone, limiting social engagements to just a few events per month as a way to recharge. I used sleep to give my body and mind a physical break, often incorporating naps, especially on the weekends. When I felt like running I would, but if my body told me I needed to rest, I would honor that inner wisdom too.
I could still commit to working hard and occasionally putting in extra hours if I needed to, but I also needed to release the guilt that often plagued me when I needed to rest. I continuously repeated to myself that the art of self-care is simply reminding ourselves over and over again that life doesn’t need to be all or nothing, and in the words of Wilkerson Miller, it’s about assessing how you feel, understanding what you need in that moment to feel better (or to not feel worse). It’s finding the delicate balance of existing in a world that often forces you to choose between a congratulatory slap on the back from your company’s CEO for working on the weekends and following your own bodily signals that serve as warning signs that you’ve stretched yourself too thin.
Recently, the World Health Organization (WHO) legitimized burnout making it an official medical diagnosis affirming what many of us had already been experiencing for years. Between the costs of paying rent or a mortgage, food, and clothes, not to mention pesky student debt, caring for aging parents, and family planning, this generation might make its mark in history as the age of “get rich or die trying.”
For me, I’ve finally realized how easy it is to fall into the hustle culture trap and what I have to do to avoid it. I know now that no success is worth going without sleep and drinking five cups of coffee a day just to make it through a never ending to-do list. I can still work hard, achieve success, and make money without sacrificing my health and wellbeing.
Nowadays I work hard, but relax even harder. When I rise, my goal is to be productive but also to stop when I’m ready to stop, even if the work isn’t technically done. (Let’s be honest, when is work ever done?). Planning, consistency, and sustainability aren’t as sexy and social media-friendly as “rise and grind,” but that’s fine with me. Letting go of hustle culture means letting go of what’s cachet to focus on what I need to be well.
Toni Carey is the co-founder of Black Girls RUN!, a writer and an all-around creative. She’s been internationally recognized and was named one of the 50 most influential people in running. In addition to working in public health, she collaborates with health and fitness companies to solve some of their most important challenges. You can find her teaching yoga and walking her dogs in, and around Washington, D.C. Learn more about her at www.tonicarey.com.