This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things.
Excuse me, whoever is in charge of mental health and “self care” in the entrepreneurial world?
I’d like to speak to the manager please.
I’m seeing a lot of content lately about the importance of rest. Of destigmatizing the notion of prioritizing one’s health (mental, physical, and otherwise) over productivity and work. Instagram is positively teeming with the stuff, like a freak April snowstorm. 🤨
And on the surface, that’s great. Finally. It’s about time.
Most of us are still working *just as hard* as we were before. We’re just ALSO “being real” and admitting we take Lexapro. (Hi. I take Lexapro.)
Which is, I suppose, a step up from working our asses off and not talking about Lexapro… but something about it always feels false to me. Like… performative self care.
Because, unlike racial equity or smashing the patriarchy, this IS a zero sum equation, a pie with only so many pieces to go around. Lavishing more time and attention on things like rest, fun, and extra sleep means you have to take that time and attention away from somewhere else.
Somewhere like… WORK. 😱
There’s a massive disconnect between the Instagram-ready quotes taking over our feeds, and the working reality that most of us are experiencing.
*At this point, I feel like I need to make a disclaimer. I have a lot of strong feelings and opinions about work, and workplace culture, and what I perceive to be workplace injustice—and these can often bleed into long, impassioned rants on topics I don’t actually have a right to rant about.
The most common example of this? The C-word—corporate. It’s verrry easy for us freewheelin’, leggings-clad entrepreneurs to pick on “corporate” culture, and I am absolutely one of the top offenders.
But it’s not very interesting (or cool) to do that, and I’m really trying to be better about that. (Also, let’s be real—the entire summation of what I actually know about corporate is as follows: the movie Office Space, my sister’s “work voice,” and a Stregthsfinder book I saw on my friend’s coffee table one time. I’ll sit down now.)
My point is, this essay is specifically about entrepreneurial culture, and client-services culture, and the myths & expectations we’ve created around productivity, deliverables, and growth.
Here’s what I’ve observed: brand personalities & “celebrity entrepreneurs” (s/o to my friend Maggie Patterson for coining that phrase) touting “balance” and rest, preaching to their peers and followers about hot baths and time in nature and morning meditation time and working at whatever pace feels right to you…
Yet behind the scenes, those are often the same clients who joke about wanting their copy or design work “yesterday” (THIS IS *NOT* A FUNNY JOKE BY THE WAY, PLEASE STOP DOING IT) or who create insanely ambitious launch goals and then push back when service providers request more time or money.
Not ALL clients, of course. 😇 #notallclients
The thing is, we put this pressure on ourselves, too (and each other). More work = more money, and if you can do the most work in the least amount of time, it feels like a win—even if you end up fried to a crisp.
When I started this piece, I thought it would be about work culture as a whole. How our entire society has this dysfunctional, distorted relationship with the very concept of work, (because, capitalism).
In a capitalist system, our primary objective is to make money—we literally can’t acquire our basic needs without it. This system runs on competition, and scarcity mentality, and the idea that humans must be “productive” (aka earning money) at all times, or they’re of no value.
(I was going to say, “This system runs on Dunkin’,” which made me think of a dystopian future in which humans are literally cogs in a machine, being pumped full of blueberry-flavored “coffee substance” while they punch drill presses and pull levers to make a spaceship for Jeff Bezos. Which is just one example of why I take the aforementioned Lexapro.)
And while I definitely—obviously—have a lot to say about this, I also think the entrepreneurial world has its own special flavor of dysfunction. (Dunkin’ Dysfunktion? I’m gonna be rich!)
Entrepreneurship can be incredibly freeing and beautiful. It’s rooted in independent thinking and innovation and (gag) disruption, and it’s definitely rad to be able to just… create whatever you want. Use your imagination to shape your reality.
But we ALSO have a pretty pervasive culture of conformity and groupthink. And sometimes it feels like we just regurgitated the most insidious parts of capitalism, dressed them up with a killer filter and some bomb lighting, and gobbled them back up again.
Systems like capitalism and its conjoined twin patriarchy come with deeply rooted mechanisms to silence / neutralize dissent, so the oppressed / disenfranchised don’t get hip to what’s going on and rebel. (Yes, I am a radical now. Deal with it.)
In the entrepreneurial world, I see two of these devices intertwining and playing off one another:
By reinforcing the idea that we’re all on our own, every person for themselves, we perpetuate the belief that any unhealthiness, dissatisfaction, or unhappiness you’re experiencing in your business is both your FAULT, and your RESPONSIBILITY—not, say, the result of a grossly imbalanced system that makes it impossible to live safely or comfortably without constantly earning money, aka working, aka being a “productive member of society.”
Entrepreneurs have taken this already-capitalist concept and turned it up a notch—by being our own bosses, having full control over how much we get paid and when we work, etc. We already have strong DIY tendencies, and most of us are (recovering?) overachievers & perfectionists. We’re perfect fodder for toxic individualism.
It’s the bootstraps myth, turned up to eleven.
2. Admit what you can’t deny; deny what you can’t admit:
Here’s some shit I learned from the law school of Law & Order: SVU (it’s very prestigious). If your DNA was found inside another person, then okay, the sex was consensual, see? But if your coworker swears you were out of the office during the time of the murder, then… she’s lying.
For our entrepreneurial “Dunkin’ Dysfunktion” purposes (yes, this is staying forever)—it works like this: Let the people post their memes! Admit that rest is important! Mental health IS HEALTH! Our culture is work-obsessed!
Buuuut when it comes to the bald-faced truth? You know, that we live in a world that does not allow for anything except constant, lifelong work for everyone but the smallest, richest one-percenters, and anyone not willing or able to orient their entire life around said work is labeled a freak (or an entitled prick), and/or doomed to a life of poverty and illness?
Deny, deny, deny.
And that’s how we can SAY all the right things without actually DOING anything different from what we’ve been doing all along.
So… a lot of entrepreneurs are out here trying to outsmart this clever clusterfuck—it’s called hustle culture; perhaps you’ve heard of it. 😉
The underlying message of hustle culture is that, yes! Living your best, most ideal life is absolutely attainable—IF and only IF you hustle now, work to the bone, and sock away as much money as you can, and then you can enjoy that fancy poolside lounge.
(Which by the way, has the added bonus effect of further widening the wealth gap, because it sends the message that the only people who get to live in alignment with their values are those who can afford to do so. And for everyone else? Tough titties.)
Also, if you don’t hustle, because you can’t for whatever reason, or simply prefer not to… then you don’t deserve a five-star life. Nothing good comes easy, enjoying yourself on a regular basis is something that has to be earned, and the freedom to do whatever you want, whenever you want, is a luxury item.
We’ve been snowed by this idea that there is something holy about creative work, about being your own boss. The idea that doing what you love is such a rare privilege—a fanciful pipe dream, for most—that working your ass off without any breaks isn’t even actually work, because you’re “doing what you love.”
(That’s another way entrepreneurs gaslight themselves into overworking, because hustle culture keeps telling us it shouldn’t feel like work.)
The hustle is the expectation, now. It’s been romanticized to within an inch of its life. Dolly even rewrote 9 to 5 about it—for a SuperBowl commercial that cost over $5 million, during a pandemic in which soooo many people lost their jobs / lives… and people wonder why I’m walking the streets wearing a sandwich board proclaiming that the End Times are here. 🤯🤦🏻♀️
Put this all together, and we’ve created a pretty inhospitable environment for anyone who pipes up with: 🙋🏻 “But I don’t want to hustle! Work is not my primary purpose in life!”
One of my clients has a core team of about 10 people, and the company regularly states that it values self care, peace, and balance. However, on team meetings people are constantly praising each other for pulling all-nighters and staying on Slack ‘til 4am.
I often feel like an outsider in this crowd. Like I have to keep my truth a secret (that I’m NEVER staying up all night for this client or any other, that I think that’s a profoundly stupid thing to do). Otherwise, I risk—
a) losing my livelihood
b) being excluded from important meetings & decisions
c) ruining my good rapport with the people on this team
d) all of the above
And that, my friends, is intentional. We are social animals, and the fear of being ostracized is a power tool.
Now, if you LIKE working all night long and Slacking your coworkers at 4am, awesome. Go with god. But when we pat people on the back for this behavior—and not, say, for shutting down at 5:30, cooking some baller food, and watching Nordic crime shows with your husband before going to bed at 10:30—we’re sending a pretty clear message: Work: good. Not work: bad.
Even those of us who rail against hustle culture are still functioning inside its financial ecosystem. We can extol the virtues of rest and self care all we want, but as long as we’re required to produce a certain amount of deliverables in a predetermined time frame, then all we’re really doing is adding “self care” to our to-do lists.
So instead, we take a “teach what you need to learn” approach.
We post inspirational quotes about rest because we desperately need to rest, but we don’t know how. We speechify about destigmatizing mental health issues because we feel stigmatized, but on our next client call we still hide our depression and the fact that this deadline feels impossible. We broadcast our boundaries from the rooftops, because it feels like people are always trampling them. And all the while…
We keep working.
This is such a 21st-Century, American way to “do” self-care. We get all hyped about the IDEA of prioritizing our well-being, but we’re not willing (or able) to sacrifice anything to make it happen. It’s like a toddler with an armful of toys, who keeps trying to pick up more and more toys, but when you point out that she might have to put down one of the toys in order to make room, she flies into a maniacal tantrum and starts quoting The Secret at you.
The hard truth is, as long as we live in a capitalist society, the primary function of 99% of humanity will be to produce. A human that is not producing, is a human of no value.
And for most of us to truly reorient our lives around our own health, happiness, and well-being, we’d have to to do it at the expense of most (if not all) of our income. We have to choose—our health, or our survival.
And we literally cannot afford to choose health.
Not unless—and hear me out here—EVERYTHING. FUCKING. CHANGES.
What if instead of trying to outsmart the system, we burn this motherfucker to the ground and start over?
Adjusted revenue goals. Long, luxurious turnaround times. Paying service providers their goddamn rates.
But of course, all of that would only work if we ALSO were somehow able to lower the cost of living. Universal basic income. Student loan debt cancellation. Healthcare.
(Um, what just happened here? This is like unraveling a giant cable knit sweater that someone just keeps knitting, a-and knitting, a-and knitting…)
Image courtesy of whatever this website is.
Look (and listen 😉). We all know that most of the things that would keep us healthy and make us happy cost money (like travel, or regular acupuncture treatments). Even if you just want to read library books and forage mushrooms all day, you’d still need SOME money just to be safe & dry.
And in order to get that money, we have to trade a significant chunk of our time—so even if your “best life” is filled with free things, you probably wouldn’t have very much time to enjoy them, or at the very least, not as much time as you’d prefer.
I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to live and work in a way that’s more equitable, more human, less corporate-greed-y (see, there I go shitting on corporate again! it just happens, sorry), but I do know that for the time being, we have to figure out what it looks like to do our best with what we’ve got.
For me, that means trying to combine the “work” time with the “makes me happy” time (i.e. getting paid to write), and participating in capitalism in a way that actually feels good, and helps people, and maybe even has a positive environmental impact (being mindful about where I put my money; boycotting Amazon; aligning myself with business owners who talk about humans—and mean it—more than they talk about profits).
Meanwhile, I’m going to keep trying to create a reality in which I am valued for more than my productivity levels. I really hope you’ll join me.
Samantha Pollack writes creative copy (mostly emails) for feminist companies and/or thought leaders who are working to build a fairer, more connected culture. She’s also the founder of The Highly Sensitive Entrepreneur, a 6-week course that helps HSP business owners create healthier, more sustainable systems in their work.
She publishes frequent essays on feminism, privilege, pop culture, entrepreneurship, the creative process, and more on her website, cultofpersonality.co. She currently lives in Asheville, NC, and while she can *technically* work from anywhere, she prefers her adventures laptop-free.
Emails for cult thought leaders.
Want to learn how to craft emails that inspire action and engagement WITHOUT the “tried and true” (cough: patriarchal) norms we’ve all been taught?
I’m doing it, and I can show you how to do it, too.
(But sometimes, I also like to write about the books I’m reading, or the creative process, or the entrepreneurial experience, or why I hate Steve Jobs, or how I met my BFF. I’ll send you emails like that, too.)
*Just kidding. It’s only an email list.
Books. Cats. Rants. Drawrings.
(and every couple months or so, an unexplained absence 🤷🏻)