Recently, I received a message from my high school guidance counselor. She’d come across a recommendation letter a teacher wrote for my college applications way back in 2000. As I slowly read each line, something clicked inside of me, that inner voice. It told me that nothing had changed in almost 20 years with how I work, how I push myself, how I multitask my way through every situation.
Granted, I believe this is why I am as successful as I am today, but the letter made me pause to ask myself — at what cost?
The girl described in that letter to the college admissions office grew up and went on to start college. I was not the student pulling all-nighters to leave room for parties, attempting to prove to my professors through my glassy-eyed stares that I was productive and that they should see it through my sleepy stupor. Instead of partying, I worked. I’ve always had a strong work ethic, something ingrained in me from my grandparents. They told me that having an education and putting in the work to get there would be the key to success; to have my bachelor’s degree was as important as having the piece of paper in hand.
I got a job as soon as I could, and then a car, so I added another job to pay for the car to get me to and from work and school. I was not afraid to work, and eventually I saw my value as a person reflected in the bathroom mirrors I cleaned as a maid to wealthy people who vacationed in the Hamptons every summer. I had something to prove to someone, not only myself but to others. I didn’t know it then, but I was a bonafide member of the “grind culture.”
I was a part of a growing number of people who wanted to show up and show out, who wanted to give their all to their work, often to the detriment of their physical, mental and emotional health. The people who strive to just get the job done no matter the cost, the relationships lost or bridges burnt. What was being created in this culture were men and women, like myself, who found my self worth in how long my to-do list was and how successful I could be in checking things off of that list?
Even as I type this, as a 38-year-old working mom with a wife and three kids, I don’t know how to rest, how to unwind, how to settle down. I must always be intentional about it, scheduling in my bubble baths, or days out with my friends (pre-COVID-19, of course). The workaholic within me is the only me I’ve ever known, pushing myself over the years, leaning into the mantra “you got this.”
And most of the time, I do. I’ve got it, but I am tired.
Some would argue that for people of color like myself, this grind culture is born out of an idea to please the white boss, the white man or woman who leads the company, the organization, at the detriment of the brown and Black person’s health. I am not sure I agree with this perspective entirely, but I can see how one would get to this conclusion. As Black people specifically, we’ve been taught practically from birth that the only way to get ahead is to work hard. The only way to prove yourself in the workplace is to stay later than your colleagues, to forego your lunch, or worse, not take your vacation.
This about sums it up: “When the hustle culture drives you, you unwittingly relinquish your power and become a slave to internal and external pressures such as deadlines, work demands, or pleasing friends and loved ones. You grow so accustomed to being on autopilot that you’re not attuned to your surroundings or yourself,” Bryan E. Robinson, Ph.D. shares in his article called “The ‘Rise and Grind’ of Hustle Culture.”
I know I should be resting. As I replay my day, from start to finish, I am mentally exhausted simply thinking about it. The voice in my head tells me so, yet my fingers refuse to stop doing; my mind is thinking about tomorrow, and the clothes piled up next to me will be folded as soon as I am finished speaking to you. This has been the way I’ve functioned my entire life, finding relief in finishing a task, finding contentment in having a clean home, finding achievement in everything, not just at work.
There are many hours in the day, and yet never enough.
The pandemic has forced us all to slow down and reevaluate how we work, which may be a blessing in disguise, because doing so can (and will) benefit our overall well-being. As Dr. Robinson reminds us, “There are 1,440 minutes in one day. Five daily minutes in which you still your busy mind and center on the quiet places inside sets the compass of your heart so you can be more drawn, even in times of upheaval. And science shows it’s worth it. When you’re drawn, your heart and respiratory rates slow down. Muscles loosen. Your mind is calm, open, and clear. Decisions and actions are reflective, even, and balanced. You have better sleep, increased immunity, lower blood pressure, improved digestion, and a sense of well-being.”
When we’re calm, happy, and focused on the task at hand instead of thinking anxiously forward to the next, we’re more productive – and isn’t productivity the goal of “grind culture” to begin with?
I will always do my best and show up for my colleagues to do the work I love, but I also need to balance that with my own self-care. So, like Senator Maxine Waters, I am reclaiming my time to focus on my family and my well-being. Because I never hesitate to make commitments to my work, yet I struggle to make time for my personal welfare — and that’s not healthy. When the grind is grinding us down, nobody benefits.
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