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Hustle Harder, Harvard

Thousands of students fill Harvard Yard during the annual September activities fair, where campus organizations set up booths to recruit new members.
Thousands of students fill Harvard Yard during the annual September activities fair, where campus organizations set up booths to recruit new members. By Julian J. Giordano
By Zoe Yu, Contributing Opinion Writer
Zoe Yu ’27, a Crimson Editorial comper, lives in Wigglesworth Hall.

Midterms might be winding down, but the hustle is year round. On social media, Elon Musk declares that “nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week.” On YouTube, motivational speakers pace the stage and tell us that we shouldn’t stop when we’re tired, we should stop when we’re done. On Instagram, self-help accounts splice together pictures of hustlers on jet skis next to non-hustlers in office cubicles (you, too, can become a jet ski guy, if you grind the right way and wake up at 5 a.m. every day!)

It’s not just an internet quirk: The hustle has made its way into the real world, where unpaid overtime seems to be a new company norm and phrases like “workplace burnout” have devolved into little more than tired truisms.

To these hustlers, there’s nothing more romantic than sacrificing it all for success. They tell us: If you’re not relentless, fierce, and exhausted, you’re doing it all wrong.

But there’s a slight problem. This way of fetishizing work, this idea that you can’t be successful without struggling like crazy, has become a masochistic obsession so deeply lodged into Harvard culture that we’re starting to believe that it might actually be true.

At Harvard, we compete to see who can take on the most, hold up the longest, and hang by the thinnest thread. Because when the hustle is religion and we’ve become its devoted converts, the only proof of our faith is constant exhaustion. We’ve been programmed to take a twisted joy in saying that we got insert-psychotically-low-number hours of sleep. We skip meals to pset, and we smile at the dozen overlapping events on our calendars. We push ourselves to the breaking point. We actually relish it.

Hard work is hard. That’s never been a question. But because of the hustle, we take it one step further and think that struggle is an absolute, non-negotiable, undisputed indicator for success — and that if we’re not struggling, there’s something deeply wrong with us. But when we think like this, we’re maintaining a thorny image of control when the working reality is much grimmer — because, before “rise and grind” was ever a mantra, it was a coping mechanism.

At Harvard, it’s not an option to just chill — that was part of the fine print of what we signed up for. As former Yale English professor William Deresiewicz put it in his 2014 essay, “The prospect of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them.” (Them being us, unfortunately.) According to him, we are simultaneously smart and anxious, talented and timid, driven and lost. We have a “violent aversion to risk.” We have “no margin for error.”

After all, the very nature of admissions at institutions like Harvard, Deresiewicz writes damningly, is to select for a whole class of kids who don’t know anything but success and will stop at nothing to get it. The hustle knows this, and that’s why it keeps us running on treadmills in the highest gear, declaring that struggling will take us to the very top.

And we sacrifice a lot to be there. A 2018 report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a philanthropic public health organization, cited one of six major environmental conditions harming adolescent wellness as an “excessive pressure to excel.” Other studies have found that students in high-achieving schools can experience anxiety and depression at rates double or triple the national average. It’s all around us — we take on so many clubs, classes, and commitments that we leave nothing for ourselves.

Hustle culture demands struggle. It’s entitled to it. So when we’re conditioned to think that sleep deprivation and burnout just come with what it means to be successful, we romanticize our overwork. We indulge the very toxic idea that there’s no alternative to success, that success and struggle are impossible to disentangle, and that to cope with this inevitable struggle, we have to love it. Even if — especially if — it consumes us.

Zoe Yu ’27, a Crimson Editorial comper, lives in Wigglesworth Hall.

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