The Great Resignation continues with 4.53 million Americans quitting their jobs in November 2021. This never-seen-before phenomenon has been tied to working hours and conditions which were the norm before the COVID-19 pandemic but are no longer acceptable by a workforce which feels empowered to quit en masse. The real reason goes deeper and further back; it stems from the rise of the hustle culture in the previous decade. The Great Resignation, in reality, is symptomatic of the downside of the cult of hustle culture.
After the 2008 financial crisis, the notion of a 9-5 life long stable job disappeared. Millennials entering the workforce found themselves marooned in an economy where job security became a thing of the past. That generation’s coming of age also coincided with the rise of the gig economy and social media. Suddenly, it was (in theory) possible to work multiple gigs, make money and become financially independent sooner than your parents' generation did. It was an enticing promise and the young jumped into it with both feet. In chasing their ambitious goals, they started chasing action, bragging about working long hours on social media. They were encouraged by rising heroes of that decade, such as Elon Musk and Gary Vaynerchuk who routinely tweeted about their own single minded obsession with working. Hustling, glorified and glamourized by a new class of social media celebrities, became a cult phenomenon.
Enter the pandemic of 2020 and an entire population woke up to the fact that a lifestyle of never ending work is not sustainable. How did that happen? Adherents of the hustle culture had long been compensating for lack of sleep and rest with prescription stimulants. In the last decade, people between 20 and 39, students and working professionals, were the fastest growing population segment for stimulant prescriptions. The pandemic became a tipping point to the realization that one can’t last very long with a hustling lifestyle.
The rise of hustle culture is tied to ambition. Ambition is not dead, far from it. If hustling is not sustainable, what is the answer? What most people don’t realize is that working hard and long creates an illusion of progress, but in reality it puts us in a hamster wheel of never ending movement which goes round and round, not forward. Rest and breaks are not only for recuperation but to drive creative progress. Counter intuitively, pauses and breaks are the secret sauce to allowing creative ideas to come through which can lead to forward nonlinear jumps towards results.
As someone with a 20+ year career in ecommerce, telecom and retail, I had long been convinced that success comes from being action-oriented. Like most of us, I grew up on the “Just Do It” mentality. I associated my success with bold actions I took. It wasn’t until the 2020 pandemic that I realized something. Before every single of my bold actions, which propelled me forward in my life and career, I had gone through an apparent slow down or downtime. I noticed there had been a period of reflection and relative ‘under productivity’ (as I thought of it then) where seeds of inspired bold action were being sowed. When the time was right, I made my move. As an example, I took a career break in 2016 and returned to pivot from technology to business strategy taking a step up the corporate ladder. In the writing of my book “IN/ACTION: Rethinking the Path to Results”, I interviewed over 30 successful people across the world who shared stories of how they leveraged the power of strategic inaction, even mind-wandering, laziness and procrastination, usually scorned behaviors, to achieve great results.
In the book, I write the story of two young millennials who pitched an idea for a startup to Wharton professor and author Adam Grant in 2009. Unlike the established image of a Silicon Valley founder who bet every last penny on their startup and slept in the basement of their parents, these two seemed to be taking their own sweet time. Instead of jumping all in after graduation, they had lined up jobs to provide themselves a financial cushion. They didn’t fit into the ‘norm’ of hustling and working hard. Grant declined to invest. The company his students founded is Warby Parker, which went public to a $6.8 billion dollars valuation in 2021.
In a recent podcast interview, I asked my host if he knew the names of the founders of Warby Parker. He took a wild guess “Warby and Parker?” Joking aside, Neil Bluementhal and David Gilboa are not to be found broadcasting their lifestyle on social media. Their story is not that glamorous to tell. During the time they were seemingly disengaged and procrastinating, they were thinking through ways to simplify online purchase of eyeglasses, a category which required touching and feeling before buying. Their apparent delay lost them the first mover advantage, but when they launched, they had a great product as well as shopping experience. They outlasted their competitors and rose to the top of their category.
The idea of leveraging thoughtful pauses and strategic delays isn’t limited to starting a business. For those considering quitting their toxic jobs outright, I recommend stopping long enough to develop clarity on the life you’d like to live. While the temptation to jump on the resignation trend maybe strong here are some ideas to consider before pulling the trigger:
Life is not a hamster wheel, which runs only if we keep running. Something much more than our actions makes our world go around. It is worth stopping long enough to allow creative ideas and solutions to come through, ideas which can carry us further than we could ever go with our own doing alone. Strategic inaction is not about slowing down for the sake of it, but rather to make your move with the right action at the right time, towards great results.
WRITTEN BYJinny Uppal