What should a life look like? The standard response is that there is no single answer, yet our lives are full of images about the good life. A glaring example caught my attention the other day on twitter. At first glance the main issue is his apparent disingenuity; sharing your regimen is not usually a ‘quick way to get to know people.’ Being uncharitable, we might object to the humble brag wedged between his incantations, green smoothies and Fortune 500 synchronised dreams. However, beyond the easy derision, there is something emblematic about work and life today: Grind culture.
Grind or Hustle culture is a culture of raw achievement where longer and longer hours are not just the norm, they are the metric for success. To quote a recent NYT article, it is a “performative workaholism” that is “obsessed with striving.” It is a culture of relentless and uncompromising personal achievement where the main metric is hours worked. Coming in early, skipping meals, and working weekends are the the new normal, the expected baseline. It is the collective elevation of workaholism and sacrifice to ends in themselves, where no amount of money or success is ever enough.
In many organisations this attitude to work is glamorised and encouraged as the domain of the serious and hardworking. Long hours and self-denial are no longer the exclusive domain of the proletariat. Keynes’ leisure class is dead and grind culture is now the mark of elite status.
Even at enlightened organisations, remedies usually focus on mitigating the damage with free Yoga and the suggestion that employees meditate more (on their own time). In a culture obsessed with output, the input is becoming the barometer of success.
While grind culture is almost comically absurd up close, it exists alongside an attendant culture of optimisation. Grind culture’s unforgiving striving requires constant improvement and fine-tuning. Every moment, every activity, and increasingly every thought must be remorselessly weighed, measured and optimised. This need is being met with technology which can finally replace the intangible with pie charts. The demand for productivity apps, body function tracking, cognitive enhancers, and mindfulness represents both trends. In practice this can erode the barriers between work and life, as every aspect of your life is scrutinised for its input value. In the tweeted schedule above, his optimisation formula has been updated based on the latest research in sleep science, mindfulness, and the antioxidant content in leafy greens. His life resembles a recipe.
There is a fruitful analogy here to the Christian concept of transcendence, where true fulfilment and completion is beyond the material universe and can only be found in God. Transcendence means overcoming our limitations, faults, and achieving our perfect form through the divine. In the Christian tradition this was achieved through prayer and rituals. Since the enlightenment, the desire for transcendence, a desire for perfectibility and immortality, has remained even as societies secularised. In his study of Napoleon, Adam Zamonyski argues the pursuit of gloire for the nation became the newly secular society’s route to transcendence. Today in the West the individual has replaced God or the nation as the prime focus.
This is partly philosophical. The idea that our personal lives are a sovereign domain which we can tinker and improve draws on an individualist tradition. We are all self-contained islands bobbing in a sea of others. Connections lie between these islands, but they remain individually independent. Perhaps grind and optimisation culture are the prayers and rituals of a modern search for transcendence that has the individual as both the vehicle and end.
In the same way that religious institutions limited the development of independent reason or the nation-state minority identities, today’s individualist transcendence has a blind spot around community and society. This may in part be driven by the fact that optimisation requires control, and the zone where control is most absolute is the self. While we can increasingly measure the world around us, our minds are still invisible to others. Relationships or community elude clear metrics and are far harder to measure than a heartbeat — although this has not stopped attempts. This blind spot is most visible when contrasted to the relational view of identity found in other cultures, where the individual (and by association its transcendence) cannot be separated from the web of surrounding connections and duties. Julian Baggini in his survey of Global Philosophy argues: “Westerners transcend themselves through belief in a God; transcendence for the Chinese comes from wider society, the group” (199 — Baggini). While Confucianism stresses the importance of individual wisdom and self-improvement, it is always embedded within sets of bonds and obligations. The notion that one could emerge without the other is inconceivable.
There also seems to be a subtle escapism in this route to transcendence. Preoccupied with superseding the present, it is focused on some expression of immortality, something beyond our current reality. The notion of perfectibility is welcome, there is a lot in the world that needs fixing, but striving and optimisation beyond today risks losing sight of our immediate environment. It seems to me that grind or optimisation culture can strip away much of what exists around us in pursuit of a more efficient level of personal existence. What remains is understood in terms of how it contributes to the final product. Free time becomes an optimisation problem, social encounters become future networks, exercise is reduced to flashes on the heart rate monitor, while reading is a flurry of underlining and post it notes. This then invites an implicitly comparative outlook and explicitly competitive behaviour into our relationships.
This may come across as a neo-romantic reaction against progress, ambition or modernity. In fact, I think regimentation can be a fantastic; Seneca was right saying time is our most valuable resource and we should be loath to let others rob us of it. This article is my own exercise in self-development, which I think is vitally important. Instead, I am trying to think about the consequences of certain ways of living becoming normalised and widespread. This kind of living has not always been the norm, on the contrary, elites used to pride themselves on not working. Returning to the question of what a life should look like. Our current vision is conspicuously neutral. Our primary collective value is not to impinge on each other’s individual bubbles. This seems a rather impoverished collective spirit. I’m not sure what an alternative would look like, but its worth thinking about.