This week I came across a phrase that I very much enjoy. ‘Performative workaholism’. You know when the house is a tip and your other half has become engrossed in some urgent business on their phone and you head into the kitchen the clatter, crash, and slam every available pot, plate and cupboard door to convey just HOW MUCH GODDAM CLEANING you’re doing and that perhaps said partner might want to get off their backside and join in? Performative workaholism is a bit like that… but with work. And maybe a tad (just a tad) less passive aggressive.
In her much-shared article ‘Why Are Young People Pretending to Love Work’
, journalist Erin Griffith takes aim at ‘hustle culture’. It’s that infectious cult of busy-ness by which we seek to salve our own inexplicably guilty conscience by signalling loudly just how productive and keen and Elon Musk-y we’re being. And it’s toxic – as people compete to outdo each other with just how important and busy they are, it breeds insecurity and the idea that relaxing, tuning out, engaging with your family, following broader interests, supporting your community are the pursuits of slackers. And that
creates a culture that encourages people to race towards burnout. It’s fine to lean in, lean forward… but perhaps not so much that you fall over?
Of course, with shifting models, flakier client relationships, redundancies, economic uncertainties and here in the UK, where I’m based, Brexit, things are pretty stressful. Perhaps it’s a psychological defence mechanism, to put a positive spin on things. I’m not skint, I’m minimalist! I’m not overworked, I’m seizing every opportunity! I’m not terrified I’m going to lose my job and therefore trying to build an escape route… it’s a side hustle! In an era of uncertainty, I wonder if this ‘performative workaholism’ is form of fight, flight or freeze.
I’m just as much a vector for this disease as everyone else. ‘How have you been?’ ‘Super busy! So busy! Like... wow!’ And, yeah, I have had full-on start to the year - it's buzzy, I'm excited and I pride myself on working hard. But… if I’m honest with myself, that game of Red Dead Redemption 2 didn’t get to 70% complete without a more than a few hours sunk in front of the TV.
This week I headed to the NABS Presidents Breakfast (the National Advertising Benevolent Society is a UK charity that’s all about supporting the wellbeing of people who work in the industry – and as a side not, I’d love to hear from you about what initiatives exist or don’t exist in your local industry). Hearing about all of the progress that NABS has made over the past year and its various initiatives from helplines to workshops to BAME speed mentoring and the provision of therapies like CBT I was struck by the amount of work that passionate individuals put in to provide a support network for the whole industry. And while there is much that businesses can and should do to support the physical and mental wellness of their employees, it also made me think about what we as individuals can do to foster a healthier environment for everyone.
A similar discussion cropped up at M&C Saatchi London on Thursday, at the launch of their Visual Diet project
. The brainchild of M&C Saatchi’s Head of Visual Content Mimi Gray and Marine Tanguy at MTArt Agency, the project is about encouraging us to think about the impact of the visual content we consume and propagate, particularly online. As part of Visual Diet, Rankin has created an art project in which he takes portraits of models and then gives them access to the software used by teens to ‘perfect’ their selfies. It’s clear that even these extremely beautiful young people have had their self confidence eroded by the visual environment created by brands, platforms and their peers. The onstage debate (and yeah, I might have shared one or two opinions from the floor – sorry everyone) took in the tension between our individual responsibilities to educate ourselves and curate the content we consume and share, and the collective responsibility to create a healthier, more edifying environment (whether through consensus or regulation).
There’s an old Calvin and Hobbes strip that ends on the punchline ‘nothing helps a bad mood like spreading it’. And I wonder if, during times of great stress and uncertainty, the very worse impulses within us lead us to believe that nothing helps our insecurity like spreading it around too – whether via ‘performative workaholism’ or the faux perfect imagery shared personally or through work? Only... it doesn't help, does it?
Of course, great work often comes from an obsession and an aching hunger – I recall a conversation I had with Nils Leonard last year where he said that getting people to leave the office at a reasonable time was harder than he’d realised because of that ‘something’ gnawing away inside ambitious creative people. There is, I think, a difference between true obsession and the performance of it – but even then, it’s hard to tell where that blurry line is. But we owe it to ourselves and each other to learn the difference between the two, the difference between the extra hours that take you from great to transcendent and pointless, grinding, masochism that dulls the spirit and deadens passion. What really matters – making something amazing or just looking like you’re putting the hours in and mouthing along with some phoney, peppy positivity?
I've always figured you can tell the agencies that really keep their creatives chained to the desk - they produce advertising about advertising. The year has got off to a heartening start when it comes to fantastic feats of creativity - ITV
, IKEA Sleep
and.... whatever the hell that 2 Chainz Expensify music video
is - and while I don't work on the inside of any of those agencies or production companies, the work at least speaks to cultures grounded and grown up enough to know when to dig in, fight and sweat and when to head out into the world.
Curiously, then, I suspect that there’s a connection between a culture of social pressure and self-flagellation and a poor visual diet. For creatives trundling along on an endless treadmill, urged to pump out low quality, high quantity work, there can be little time for thought or consideration over the effect of the content they’re putting out in the world – and likely little energy to fight for better. And then, when you do eventually get home, time and energy martyred to presenteeism, what mental strength is left for anything more challenging than scrolling through you Instagram feed?
It should be ok to have down time. And, equally, it should be ok to admit that you’re struggling to cope to keep up. I’m all for a positive, can-do attitude but we’re not robots... yet. Life happens. And life is what fuels great creative work. So, let’s live it.
P.S. Can we please consign the word ‘hustle’ to the bin? It’s as disingenuous as a job title containing the word ‘evangelist’.