Hustle culture’s not your fault. What to do about workism - Alina Reyzelman

Hustle culture’s not your fault. What to do about workism

Simone Stolzoff worked in advertising, tech, journalism and design during his 20s, trying to find a job that would do way more than pay the bills.

Five years ago, Stolzoff found himself at a crossroads where he could continue to work as a journalist or accept an offer to work as a designer.

“I really didn’t feel like I was choosing between two jobs,” Stolzoff said. “I was choosing between two versions of me.”

Excited about the prospect of something new, Stolzoff picked the designer position. But at the time, he also realized he was hoping to find his “vocational soulmate,” a job that would decide his identity.

It was then that he learned his mindset was the product of “workism,” a term coined by journalist Derek Thompson. Instead of just looking to work for a paycheck, it’s when people also rely on work for “community, purpose, meaning and transcendence” — just like some people do with religion, Stolzoff said.

It can be a precarious way to approach work. “Our jobs are not necessarily designed to bear this burden of being the source of meaning and self-actualization for ourselves,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with looking to work for a source of identity or a source of meaning, but it becomes particularly risky when it is the sole source.”

Some people became aware of workism when they lost their jobs during the pandemic — but not enough to change the culture. Wondering how our jobs became so central to our identities, particularly in the United States, led Stolzoff to write his new book, “The Good Enough Job: Reclaiming Life from Work.”

If you don’t want to live this way anymore, here’s what Stolzoff says you can do.

How work became more than work

Stolzoff wants people to know the US culture of workism or constant striving for the next or biggest thing isn’t their fault. “The Protestant work ethic and capitalism are really the two strands that intertwine to form our country’s DNA,” he said. We work in a system that often rewards us for always doing and producing more.

The consequences of losing work in the US — such as inability to access health care — can be dire. “This drives a lot of people to overwork, especially recently with jobs being more precarious,” Stolzoff said. “People feel the need to constantly prove themselves, to think that if they aren’t somehow getting ahead, they’re falling behind.”

Workism has also increased due to a decline in the participation in organized religion and community groups since the 1970s, Stolzoff said, but “the need for belonging and purpose and ambition remain.” That’s why many people have transposed those needs to the workplace, he added.

What to do about workism

Establishing work-life balance requires systemic change. “We need to be able to decouple our basic human needs from our employment status,” Stolzoff said, and employers should honor employees’ lives outside of the office.

But even without institutional change, there are some steps individuals can take to alter their relationship with work.

Stolzoff, now 32, left his designer job in 2022 to finish writing his book and explore other sides of himself that had been crowded out by his day job. He now works for himself and pays for health insurance out of pocket, a risk and a privilege he acknowledges not everyone can do.

He now carves out non-work time doing activities that don’t allow him to multitask on work — such as going for a run or walk with a friend.

He created what he calls those “structural protections” for his leisure time to avoid that “perpetual state of half-work, where (people are) sleeping with one eye open, and their eyes are always on their email to see if anything new has come in,” Stolzoff said.

He also found through his interviews for the book that many overachievers apply workism to their leisure time. “The first place their mind goes is, ‘Oh, I’ve got to do an Ironman Triathlon or read 53 books this year,’” he said. “There’s this natural inclination, especially in the US, to always try and be the best even in our recreational lives. One of the necessities is to take some time away from that.”

If you can’t work for yourself, another strategy is working a “good enough job,” which rejects the conventional wisdom that we should be seeking our dream job, Stolzoff said.

The concept originated in the “good enough” parenting theory devised by 20th century pediatrician Dr. Donald Winnicott, who “was observing this growing idealization of parenting in the UK, where these parents were trying to be the perfect parent and shield their kids from experiencing any harm,” Stolzoff said.

When children would feel frustrated, sad or angry, parents would take it personally, seeing their children’s negative experiences as reflections of themselves. Winnicott thought good enough parenting would benefit the child by teaching them how to self-soothe and resolve their own problems, and the parent by helping them not lose themselves in their children’s emotions.

“A job, like a toddler — is that something that we can always control?” Stolzoff said. “I argue that people would be better off by thinking about how their job can support their life, rather than the other way around.”

Whichever route you take, you get to decide what’s good enough to support your idea of a life well lived, he added, whether that’s a particular salary, title, industry or schedule. Whenever you decide what suffices, you aren’t left wondering whether there’s always something better out there.

“Work is certainly one container with one set of metrics for success and one definition of what ‘good’ looks like,” Stolzoff said. “The more containers we can have in our lives, the more well-rounded and balanced we will be.”