In Taoism, wu wei (\ˈwüˈwā \) refers to inaction. The literal Chinese-to-English translation is “not to act”. This is about as at odds as it gets with modern culture where everything is about grit and grind. No wonder we live in a capitalist and not a Taoist society.
Good Things Happen to Those Who Hustle
117 years ago, in 1904, sociologist Max Weber coined a term whose grandchild – hustle culture – explains the day (generic) you, typical citizen of the modern, industrialised world, are likely to have today.
Why, this morning, you had to get up early and jogged to the park to catch a worm colony. Those kettlebells you got on Amazon won’t roll themselves over there, and you’re too busy listening to a productivity podcast to be bogged down by the responsibility of helping them cross the street safely.
Since you’re a master optimiser and life hacks are your jam, you figured that the combined weight of all those daily catch-and-release worms you get as a prize for being up and at it early, are the perfect exercise tool to help you maintain your thigh gap.
Then came seizing the day. All of it, every inch. Including email after email that demanded immediate attention. Your sleeves threatening to tear at the seams from all that tugging by people asking for you to give them the shit you’re getting done.
Sure, now and then you’d sneak a peek at (infinity scroll) social media posts of others living their best lives. For brief seconds, you’d feel a pang at seeing what you’re missing.
But then the success coach in your head kicks into action, reminding you that your hard work will pay off. Someday soon. As long as you work hard enough. After all, hustle now, relax later. Plus, since you’re doing what you love – or trying hard to get to that magical place of ikigai (cue Venn diagram) – it doesn’t actually count as working. You’ve got passion, you’ve got purpose, and you’re going places, baby!
You Can Go to Work or You Can Be the Boss
Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism might have been more puritan-oriented (hard work is how you praise God) than your hustle goals (hard work gets you money, success, and fame), but both of you are all about action.
The Protestant work ethic helped define Western society. If you thought subsistence farming was hard, wait till you meet the Industrial Revolution. All those mechanical wonders required an army of diligent human cogs in the well-oiled machines that made the Industrialists (and their bankers) very happy campers. And camp (out) they did. After all, unlike the salaried brawn bros, they were the brains behind the operation. They needed the leisure and the rest. Thinking is an expensive business.
Hustle and Heart Will Set You Apart
“You who are servants who are owned by someone, obey your owners. Work hard for them all the time, not just when they are watching you. Work for them as you would for the Lord because you honor God.”
– Colossians 3:22
Thankfully, with the dawn of the Information Age, computers inherited the tedious tasks that used to take up so much of our time, and ours got freed up. Thanks to the smarts of those 19th-century Industrialists, technology has developed to where we, too, get to leisure at last, for we’ve since become thinkers, too, and as knowledge workers, we get to claim our prize.
Right. Except that we’re knowledge workers. We work, therefore we are. Capitalism reminds us that stuff doesn’t sell itself. It’s our job to sell it. And if we can’t do our jobs, we won’t be rewarded with being able to buy stuff. So no, no rest and relax yet. It’s coming, we just have to work a little bit harder for a little while longer. Once we level up our hustle enough, our efforts will pay off. We’ll become an exclusive member of a club that demands sacrifice as an entrance fee. Only when we’ve traded enough of our time, energy, health, relationships, and priorities, will it be crystal clear to the gatekeepers of success that we’ve got what it takes, that we’re deserving enough. That we’re worthy of being able to chill for a bit. (Or party till we drop; whatever Big Time vision lights our fire.)
A Dream More Worthy Than Sleep
Capitalist culture is killing us. Literally. But that’s ok; it’s only in Japan, where karoshi (death by overwork) is a thing. Here we have grit, we hustle and grind, and (eventually) we’ll make it big. Until then, we make sure our bills get paid and we’re climbing the success ladder, however slowly, to remind us we’re going places.
Toxic productivity tells us it’s ok to be money-rich, time-poor. Unlike alcoholism or excessive drug use, workaholism isn’t seen as an addiction. It’s rewarded, celebrated, admired. At the bare minimum, it’s expected.
Across organisations, presenteeism runs rife. “I don’t feel great.” (That’s newspeak for I’m sick and I should definitely be in bed). “I’ll go to bed as soon as I eke out that presentation at home that my boss is going to ask me to do five minutes before I leave the office.”
Hustle Until Your Haters Ask If You’re Hiring
This is not our fault. It’s systemic. And our very livelihood depends on going along with this agreement. If we don’t work, we don’t get paid, and then we don’t eat. The math is simple. To live is to work, cos what else are you going to do: Say screw it all and go live in the woods?
Internalised capitalism is the devil on our shoulder, whispering that work means worth. The more you accomplish, the better you get to feel about yourself and the more others like and admire you. Your accolades document your intelligence, your talent, your popularity, and yes (I won’t tell anyone you think that), your superiority.
Envy is a measure of ‘making it’. The number of people out there who are jealous of who you are and what you’ve got is a direct correlation to how big you are. After all, not everyone’s cut out to make the same sacrifices you did to get there (some people just don’t have enough ambition – they rest before they cross the finish line), so no wonder folks feel resentful towards you.
And consumerism is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Living in the woods will mean no fast food or fast fashion. And you need fast, cos the more time you save, the more hours you can spend hustling so that you can earn enough to afford “slow” food (cooked by Michelin chefs) and “slow” fashion (haute couture is handcrafted, you know). So until then, to keep you motivated and self-care your way through these heroic efforts you get up to daily, you reward yourself with the best fast products your hard-earned money can buy.
If Your Ship Doesn’t Come In, Swim Out to Get It
The faster you run around the rat race-track, the more energy you use up. Which is fine, cos that’s what adrenaline, coffee, and heck, cocaine is for. (Or, if you’re the new-kid-cool kind, nootropics.)
But extremes are high-ticket items. They charge a hefty commission, and unlike the leg-breakers loan sharks send to your house if you haven’t paid up, like clockwork, three hours after the end of the month, overwork doesn’t keep to a schedule. Rumpelstiltskin is all too happy to spin your straw into gold for you, but don’t expect him to send a calendar invite before he comes to claim your baby. So you might go on like this for years. Decades. Thinking you came away scot-free, that you’re in the kitchen baking your cake and will soon get to eat it, too.
…or Drown Trying
The reality (whether you want to face it, or are even capable of acknowledging it), is that said pot of gold is a shifting goal post. You’re more likely to reach the end of the tether your deal with the work-devil is tied to, than to “make it” to where you’ve been trying so hard to go.
Because life likes a game of irony, it’s when you hit burnout, hit a physical or mental health crisis, or hit rock bottom, that you finally (finally) come to a standstill. You, the (former) thinker, can now rest. Only, it’s not anything as leisurely as those erstwhile Industrialists. In fact, it’s more of a very Dark Night of the Soul you might have forgotten you had.
Willingly, or Kicking and Screaming
And then, by force and at a cost far greater than you were ever willing to pay, you experience wu wei.
“Sometimes the serpent is represented as a circle eating its own tail. That’s an image of life. Life sheds one generation after another, to be born again. The serpent represents immortal energy and consciousness engaged in the field of time, constantly throwing off death and being born again. There is something tremendously terrifying about life when you look at it that way. And so the serpent carries in itself the sense of both the fascination and the terror of life.”
– Joseph Campbell