Today, a number of well-known influencers have risen to status by building a platform on a variation of the message: “you can do hard things.” The encouragement is alluring and attractive. It offers the possibility of changing behaviors and mindset in such a way that radically alters a person’s whole life. The notion of altering a hard situation is hopeful. And this message survives because there are elements of truth to it. At times, we are our own biggest obstacles. Everyone has fallen into the trap of algorithms and gone down the rabbit hole of social media instead of reading a book or working on a business idea more times than we can count. Logically, if we traded some of that wasted time for making a home-cooked meal or doing a twenty minute workout, our lives could and should improve. And yet, many of us continually fail to reach lofty goals and achieve self-actualization.
Why can’t you do hard things? You might have asked yourself this directly, and felt a sense of shame when you fell short of your aspirations. It is helpful to do some self-examination because life includes self-responsibility and choice. But hustle culture advertises falsely. It is smart to evaluate the messages you receive from influencers, media, and even your own personal circles. Your specific life also has its own limitations, and when you feel you have fallen short it may not be due to lack of effort. Below are 8 real obstacles that cause the ‘work hard and bootstrap yourself to success’ narrative to fall short.
Fear of missing out: We are social by nature. Jim Rohn famously said “you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” This quote has become inspirational in hustle culture — change your circle, change your life. If changing your social circle is necessary to change your life, this is going to take some time. You will have to say ‘no’ to your current circles while you build new ones. You won’t find new friends overnight, and social selection theory means you will have to significantly change yourself to be accepted into a different type of circle. Even if new friends is not your goal, you will have to pass on socializing to focus on your project. And as you accomplish new things, you still might find common conversation more difficult with your current circles. Millionaires and the middle class don’t spend much time together for reasons. It will take time for your ‘new level’ to accept you, and in the meantime you will miss out on a lot of opportunities to connect with people who have already invested in you. We do not like being alone, and this is actually a significant sacrifice to make.
Your life is actually pretty fine: Social media and marketing tells us it’s not. When it comes down to it, some of us are content with our 9–5 job and would prefer having weekends free to spend with family or enjoy a hobby. After our basic living expenses are paid, contentment is a choice. Many people are happy with close relationships and a basic level of financial security. And there is nothing wrong with that. Be very wary if the person telling you that you only need ‘work harder’ to reach your next goal is also selling you something. We might aspire to something more because our televisions and smartphones constantly tell us major purchase will change our lives. Comparison will drain our happiness quickly. Yes, income inequity is rising and more Americans are stretching financially. But individual hard work is not going to solve that problem for most of us — policy change is needed.
Exceptional cases: The examples of achievement held up in hustle culture are the rare ones. We value what is difficult to achieve, is less common or is rare. It is not possible to repackage the exact combination of factors that make a specific person successful. Maybe they have extraordinary talent in their area of focus. They might be an incredible salesperson. They may have worked incredibly hard, but early life was stable. Earlier supports can have a snowball effect in life. Maybe they have a stable job that provides free time. The person we see as successful could be willing to compromise things we are not, whether ethically or personally. The conditions for success are not fully replicable. People succeed in different types of cultures and work environments based on personal characteristics and alignment. It is rare to see an individual thrive in any environment they are placed. People who are self-aware understand where they do not work best and remove themselves from that situation in order to continue to grow. This can also provide an illusion of continued success.
Actual or perceived lack of resources: The story of success by hard work rarely acknowledges what supports you should already have in place for hard work to be the right lever for forward momentum. In the book “Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much” the authors state, “Scarcity captures the mind. Just as starving subjects had food on their mind, when we experience scarcity of any kind we become absorbed by it. The mind orients automatically, powerfully, toward unfulfilled needs.”¹ Lack can consume the mind, creating mental barriers that are hard to overcome. Hunger may drive you, while paralyzing another person with fear and insecurity. The ‘doing hard things’ advice suggests that all you have to do is make a different choice. Sometimes lack of resources are a matter of perception. You don’t have the knowledge to build a website for your digital business or money to hire someone to develop one for you? Go on YouTube and learn how to create a landing page until then. You are working two jobs just to pay the bills and caring for an elderly parent? Well…you may really not have time to focus on your side business after all.
External barriers: Systemic racism is real. Not everyone believes it is, but just because it is not within your experience does not mean it does not exist. The point has already been made that people start with different opportunities and resources. For some, this is directly tied to skin color. This topic can’t be done justice within a few short paragraphs. However, include the history of Jim Crow laws, redlining, or the war on drugs if you want to do further reading on the subject. Specific policies and practices in the United States created intentional institutional barriers that are not overcome in one generation. The wealth gap is an illustration of how wealth and assets are built over time, not just in a few years. If you have studied wealth building and read about compound interest, just know it works the same way for social capital too. Most resources have a compounding effect. Examples otherwise are extreme cases, not the norm.
Disability or poor health: When people say that your health is your biggest asset, it is not a cliché. You have to feel well to work on something else after you manage your basic life responsibilities. Chronic illness means it takes effort to do basic tasks on some days and requires a different pace of life. Some health conditions have a relationship with diet. While acknowledging personal responsibility in dietary choice, it is also important to recognize our food supply is compromised by corporate interest, restaurants have increased portion sizes, and technology makes us always accessible, which reduces time to prepare healthy and affordable meals. If you struggle with a health issue you are probably already doing hard things every day. If you try to do even more than you can handle, you may just make yourself worse.
Balance: Hard choices might require extremism. Making hard choices usually requires some type of sacrifice, whether it be time, money, or attention. It may call on you to sacrifice sleep to work on your side project for a few more hours, or time with family and friends to focus on a client project. Most of the time, we have not gone the extra degree or done the hard work because it means we have to give up something else we value. Whether that sacrifice is truly valuable is subjective, but a fulfilling life is usually one that is well balanced. One can do excellent work and still prioritize health and family. This choice just may not lead to exceptional results that get noticed. Sometimes we do not do hard things because what is necessary to make that choice will negatively impact another area of life.
Someone’s level of hard might not be glamorous: There are plenty of people working very hard every day and doing very hard things. We just do not notice them because they do not meet our standard of success. It may look like the battered woman choosing to leave her abusive partner. It may be the high school student struggling to study in corner in an insecure home environment. It might be the mother of child with a rare disease lobbying and fighting for access to better medical care. Many, many people make big sacrifices every day that we do not recognize. It is time we appreciate all the hard work that does not look like a promotion, a luxury car, a bigger salary, a fit body, or an exotic vacation.
Hustle culture persists because individual choice is real. And to be honest, it is inspiring because it reminds us that we can make better choices. We do need to be reminded that we have elements of control over our outcomes and to set our minds on higher things. Sometimes our failure to reach our goals is due to lack of discipline and dedication. But our specific choices are limited to our social context. We are not all starting from the same place or beginning with the same set of circumstances, choices or opportunities. And that is what toxic positivity and hustle culture fails to address.
¹Mullainathan, Sendhil; Shafir, Elder. Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much. Times Books, NY.