what's your side-hustle really costing you?
9 to 5 isn’t enough anymore: it’s 9 to 5 to midnight now. Anything less, and we start to feel an insidious sense of guilt.
It’s not enough to simply hustle anymore: now you have to side hustle, too. We don’t get up, we ‘rise and grind’; we follow Instagram accounts with names like ‘Motivation Mafia’ and ‘Achieve the Impossible’, hit like on posts exhorting us to push through the pain, keep our eyes on the prize. We boast of how many hours we worked compared to how few we slept; we answer emails at 8pm, 9pm, 10. Burnout becomes almost a status symbol. There’s a reason the concept of ‘mind wandering’ has become so popular: the simple act of letting your thoughts flow freely, rather than focusing on a specific task, has become so alien to us as to seem genuinely radical.
In an increasingly precarious labour market, we’ve all become obsessed with our own productivity, ostentatiously performing our ability and our eagerness to work hard and reach our goals. A recent New York Times feature on hustle culture dubbed it ‘toil glamour’.
“We are now only able to think of ourselves in a mode of active, purposeful being,” Josh Cohen tells me. “We've lost a sense of that other dimension of ourselves, which is not just contemplative but aimless and switched off.”
“Once you start thinking in a goal-oriented mode, where what you’re trying to achieve is something visibly and verifiably done in the world, your private life in a way stops becoming private, stops being a place where you’re communing with and being curious about and discovering yourself.”
A new book by Cohen, a practicing psychoanalyst, explores these ideas. Not Working is a call to arms of sorts: in praise of inertia, against the valorisation of work. Inactivity should be an end in itself, Cohen argues; not everything we do has to have a goal, an end result, isn’t just another tick on a to do list.
“Once you start thinking in a goal-oriented mode, once you start thinking about yourself in an externalised way, where what you’re trying to achieve is something visibly and verifiably done in the world, your private life in a way stops becoming private, stops being a place where you’re communing with and being curious about and discovering yourself,” Cohen says. “And it just starts becoming another task to be accomplished in the world.”
Our recent obsession with the ‘side hustle’ may shed some light on the phenomenon. For the uninitiated, the side hustle is exactly what it sounds like: a business venture or creative project you pursue alongside your regular work. 9 to 5 isn’t enough anymore: it’s 9 to 5 to midnight now. Anything less, and we start to feel an insidious sense of guilt.
Having a side project you care about isn’t necessarily a bad thing, of course. But problems arise when it’s expected of you. “It becomes tacitly coercive,” Cohen says. “And it becomes anxiety inducing. Its secret function seems to be to make people feel excluded or inadequate if they don't have a side hustle.”
“The question would have to be: why has this become something that’s so widespread and formalised? So a podcast, for example – why can’t a podcast be something that has to do with your own singular mode of expression, rather than something that’s externally imposed on you and you’re told is a good thing to do? That’s the difference.”
It’s the coercive element that Swedish academic Carl Cederström also picks up on in his book The Happiness Fantasy . Counter-cultural ideas of self-actualisation have been bastardised by consumer culture, he says: work is presented to us as a way to achieve this sense of fulfilment.
"This isn’t just affecting our work lives, it spills over into the intimate sphere too. Who can really say they haven’t viewed a personal issue as a problem to ‘solve’, as a discrete unit that can, by whatever means necessary, be ‘dealt with’?"
This might be why office wellness programmes and ebullient talk of ‘company culture’ abounds – though, on a basic level, they’re simply a way for companies to improve their bottom line, our sometimes over-the-top willingness to embrace them might indicate how defined we are by our work, how dependent we are on it for a sense of happiness and identity. At heart, we know that a meditation tent or free fruit every day isn’t really going to make a difference to the precarious, coercive or exploitative conditions we sometimes contend with at work. But the idea that might not be the case – that our work environments could make us actively happier – is enticing.
And this isn’t just affecting our work lives, it spills over into the intimate sphere too. Who can really say they haven’t viewed a personal issue as a problem to ‘solve’, as a discrete unit that can, by whatever means necessary, be ‘dealt with’? In a recent live show at London’s Central Westminster Hall, relationship counsellor and podcaster Esther Perel bemoaned the business-like way we often talk about our relationships, thinking about them not as nuanced, complex sites of intimate relation but in terms of ‘value’ or return on investment.
Cohen also notes the “transactional and much more externalised” way we talk about our intimate lives: “there’s a practical, contractual sensibility creeping into the way we conduct relationships,” he says. This, fairly obviously, is not how relationships work. Intimacy is given and taken, of course, but its exchange is natural, private, often messy. This ineffable quality should be embraced and protected; instead, we try to cut it up and turn it into digestible, quantifiable pieces.
Even his own consulting room, Cohen says, can sometimes be transformed into a “task oriented space for ‘dealing with stuff' and feeling like you've achieved something”. Patients eventually realise that what they’re trying to ‘achieve’ is a “completely different mode of being with yourself” – a still, centred mode that isn’t focused on achievement, goals or tasks at all. But that realisation can be hard won.
So how do we combat this, both in our work lives and our private lives? Cohen suggests that we stop and ask ourselves why we’re doing what we’re doing at any given moment. Does it have a purpose? If not, popular wisdom often asks us to consider why we’re doing it at all. But if we follow Cohen’s lead, we should actually do the opposite.
“You come to a point where you’re so caught up in achievable, definable targets that you’ve lost the capacity for surprise,” Cohen says. “That comes from letting yourself go into something which might not be a state of activity, but a state of inactivity. Allowing yourself to do something without knowing why you’re doing it, or what’s going to happen on the other side.”
Meeting someone for coffee without an agenda is one example of this, Cohen says; going for a walk with no purpose, whether that’s to do with fitness or simply getting somewhere. He calls this “a small encounter with yourself for its own sake”. “It’s all about cultivating curiosity,” he says. “Cultivating that capacity for surprise.”
And for those still clinging on to the idea of achievement, there are plenty of benefits. One study found that those who frequently engage in mind wandering or daydreaming score higher on tests that measure intelligence and creativity; another found that frequent daydreamers are more likely to have a more impressive working memory. There could be a reason why our most fantastic creative ideas hit us on the toilet or in the shower: they’re places where, by necessity, we’re not trying to achieve anything in particular, where our attention doesn’t belong to our bosses, our work or our longing for self-improvement, but to ourselves.
The interest generated behind Not Working, as well as the upcoming publication of a book called Empty Brain, Happy Brain , which also praises the power of inattention, suggests that we may have come to the end of our tether when it comes to endless achievement. Of course nobody is suggesting that we quit our jobs, abandon our to do lists and stop making goals. But a pause could do us good – at least, that is, if we can afford it.