Few career perspectives have permeated mainstream culture in the last 20 years more than hustle. The idea that it’s both fashionable and lucrative to pursue multiple income streams, rake in that coin, and project the image that you’re a go-getter. Once a derogatory business term, hustle is now an aspiration, a means to have what you want in life, and a way to reclaim control over your destiny.
In recent years, however, hustle is now being seen as the villain, the toxic origin point of rising levels of burnout. Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian has bemoaned the rise of “hustle porn,” and an essay from Anne Helen Petersen in BuzzFeed News reported how burnout became ubiquitous seemingly overnight.
Burnout can stop ambition dead in its tracks, and a year of stay-at-home directives probably hasn’t helped. The relentless commingling of work and home spaces has continued to blur the lines on boundaries, with some companies planning to implement semi-permanent work-from-home setups.
Burnout is bad. But to say you shouldn’t push yourself is to turn a blind eye to the ambitions of starry-eyed founders and executives. Am I really going to convince Jack Ma that a 9-9-6 workweek is overrated and summer Fridays are where it’s at? A little hustle can be a good thing, and you need more than a little to stay ahead of your competition. So how should you set eye-popping goals and keep your fire burning bright without running yourself into the ground?
The Galatea Effect
Let’s back up a step and level-set on how expectations influence outcomes. In 1968, Harvard professor Robert Rosenthal and school principal Lenore Jacobson published research in which teachers were told certain students in their classrooms had high potential based on an aptitude test. The test was actually fake, and the children had been chosen at random. The study found that, when armed with expectations of higher performance, teachers interacted with these supposedly gifted kids differently.
The research was controversial for both ethics and accuracy reasons, but it also birthed the Rosenthal Effect: which is the idea that our expectations lead to self-fulfilling prophecies. The Rosenthal Effect is usually delineated into three subsets on how expectations influence outcomes:
- The Pygmalion Effect, in which expectations placed on us from others will influence our performance.
- The Galatea Effect, in which the high expectations we place on ourselves lead to high performance.
- The Golem Effect, in which the low expectations we place on ourselves lead to low performance.
As someone who hates being told what to do, I’m especially drawn to the latter two effects for their internal locus of control. These feedback loops take place entirely within your own ecosystem and don’t rely on input from outside forces. The concept is a cornerstone of self-help enthusiasts and achievement-driven executives alike, and you might already be using a version of these success frameworks without even realizing it.
In short, have high standards. But are these high standards the same perspectives responsible for burnout? Why do some goals help us reveal our best selves while others lead to meltdowns?
As it turns out, the way you meet and exceed your expectations matters. A 2019 study published in Frontiers In Psychology found that good psychological capital—the collection of coping skills that includes hope, resilience, optimism, and self-efficacy—reduces burnout at work. That study recommends that enterprises help their employees develop and practice emotional intelligence because it lifts psychological capital over time.
Translation: Motivation tactics grounded in negative behaviors, such as self-shaming, hyper-competitiveness, and self-flagellation don’t work when playing the productivity long game.
Being “on” all the time also doesn’t work. To perform under pressure, your brain needs periodic breaks to decompress cognitive load. And not the kind of break where you scroll Instagram and wonder why you’re not engaged yet. You need to take a real break. Your brain is brilliant, but it isn’t designed to receive information 24/7.
How to shoot for the moon without shooting yourself in the foot
Set expectations: Check. Stop telling yourself that you’re a steaming pile of wasted potential: Check. Here are a few tips to bolster your resilience tool kit in the weeks and months to come.
Most founders have no idea how their outlandish visions will come to fruition, and yet they make it happen anyway. Cast your vision and back it up with an action plan, but expect hiccups and reworks to surface as you go.
Recall past wins to boost confidence
I know that advice is dangerously close to “woo-woo” coaching territory. When you take the time to reflect on what you’ve accomplished, you’re more likely to trust yourself, which means finishing work at a reasonable hour without the terror of falling behind. Emotional intelligence is more than a trend; it’s a proven component of successful organizational leadership.
Budget time, but not too much time
A quick refresher on Parkinson’s Law: a workload expands to fill the time allotted. Instead of wading toward an amorphous goal with no deadlines in sight, lean into constraints that force you to turn the heat up. Then, once you’ve finished the job, turn your brain off—completely. When you’re ambitious, the hardest part of your workflow is being patient enough to let your mind recharge.
Hustle can be a slippery slope if you’re not careful. But from my perspective, telling an aspiring founder or executive to “be less ambitious” is a dead-end. It’s how we work that matters. Look for clean-burning ways to pursue your passions and you’ll be better equipped to go the distance no matter what comes your way.
Nick Wolny is a former classically-trained musician and a current online marketing strategist for small business owners, experts, and entrepreneurs.