Some reflections on outgrowing hustle culture

Adele Barlow
7 min readJul 22, 2021

We were having dinner on a Sunday, or maybe it was during the week. All I remember is being 22 and sitting at a kitchen table in Wellington with my then-boyfriend’s parents, who said:

“Enjoy this decade: your twenties are for fun, travel and doing whatever you want. Your thirties are harder — you have young kids, ageing parents, you’re trying to establish yourself in your career, you’ve got a mortgage — there’s pressure from all angles. Even in your forties, things are calmer… the kids are in school, you’re more established in your career, and financially. But your thirties will test you.”

Although this was over a decade ago, on the other side of the world, it’s still a conversation that I think about. Especially when things are difficult, and I remember: oh yeah, they said it would be hard.

It’s not like I want to believe that life just gets tougher. But back then, I didn’t quite understand what they were talking about. Now, I’m starting to get it, while also wishing that I didn’t.

One reason I moved to London is that I was drawn to the startup world. Like a lot of ambitious and overly impressionable millennials in their early twenties, I was also attracted to the energy and audacity of hustle culture.

So I spent my twenties travelling not just on Ryanair weekend jaunts, but to a new universe during weekdays. I was surrounded by (mostly) men who embraced Bulletproof coffee and life hacks and Tim Ferriss while rejecting golden handcuffs and traditional work setups and pension plans.

“Does it really matter?” I remember asking one founder when we talked about specific wording on a document.

“Every. Detail. Matters,” he insisted. That insistence taught me that the line between productivity and perfectionism is paying attention to the fine print in a way that moves you towards (not away from) the bigger picture.

As I continued to slurp the hustle culture kool-aid, I started to see it as an antidote to anything unpleasant in any area of life. Whatever was broken could be fixed through effort. And what was broken back then could be easily mended: a mismatched housemate, a bad date, an unfortunate haircut.

Then the problems got bigger and harder, and I started to see how ‘rise and grind’ had bled its way into self-help.

If we weren’t happy with an aspect of our lives, it was because we weren’t approaching it intelligently — using the wrong mindset, wrong habits, wrong approach. If only we were more positive, woke up earlier or negotiated better, then maybe we’d manifest our way into a nicer outcome.

Of course, we can choose how to react to what happens in life. Obviously, today’s routines have an impact on tomorrow’s results. And yes, the general gist of the ‘rise and grind’ movement can be… energising? I guess? When you take out the bro-ness and the glorification of overwork and burnout, and you distil it down to the idea that amazing things are possible with huge efforts.

On the other hand, I now see the blatant toxicity of it all and how it’s perpetuated by those positioned to benefit from the idea that success ‘just happens’ (‘if you try hard enough’) — irrespective of gender, race, ethnicity or background. Oh well, if you fail — guess you weren’t trying hard enough!

These days, I’m officially mid-way through my thirties. Looking back, I see that I wanted to believe in ‘the hustle’ because in your twenties, you’re searching for something to believe in. Or at least I was. I wanted to break away from the familiar, not just physically by moving myself across the world but also intellectually and emotionally.

But after enough ups and downs and burnouts and resets and therapy and coaching, I learned that it’s okay to opt-out of things you once wanted so badly to believe in. A few years ago, I started to see ‘hustle culture’ as the hyper-masculine echo chamber that it can be, and I realised I was outgrowing it, the way you stop liking a song you once played on repeat.

I had some health issues, and loved ones started dealing with questions that had no set answers. I began to learn that what can trip anyone up is the desire to project-manage that which is beyond their control. In therapy-speak, I was forced to start practicing ‘the art of surrender’.

Like my ex-boyfriend’s parents had warned — your thirties just hit differently, no matter how much you try to outrun it.

“One day at a time” has become a popular refrain with friends over recent years. It’s the ideal non-solution for certain situations.

There are biopsy results. People ghost. There are fertility challenges, childcare costs, choices over where the kids should go to school. Relationships evolve. Parents get older or pass away. There’s a global pandemic.

Where should we live? The eternal question.

Do I want kids? Do I want to be in this industry? How important are the markers I once believed would define me? People get lost in their responsibilities and forget what it was they wanted in the first place.

“Take things one day at a time” — so soothing, and also, very practical advice.

Lots of what was ‘troubling’ in our twenties could be solved by a great weekend away or night out. Stressed? Go on holiday! Hate your job? Quit! Unhappy in love? Dump them! Got toxic friends? Find new ones!

But in your mid-thirties… you can’t ‘just quit’ as easily. The ties are deeper, as a natural result of lived experience, which is what you think you have when you’re younger, only to realise later that you had no idea what you were talking about.

The truth is, you can’t ‘hack’ your way to the places most worth going to. There are seasons of life, and we can’t fast-forward through the winters, no matter how much we try to out-smart the situation.

In my twenties, I looked up to people who seemed to have it all together. In my thirties, I have the most respect for people who are open about when it all fell apart. I get inspired less by public figures and more by close friends who have used tough situations to refine the connection they have to themselves.

Your twenties are all about validation: do they like me? Am I good at my job? Does he want to be with me? Am I doing it right?

Meanwhile, your thirties are all about consolidation: do I like them? Do I enjoy this work? Do we share the same idea of what a great future looks like? How do I feel?

That connection to yourself is the compass for everything else, including the riddle around who and what deserves your attention. What holds your attention will capture your time, and I think that because of the unrenewable nature of time, it’s undoubtedly the most important resource we have.

Competition for attention arises from all angles, and once kids come along, your lifestyle becomes colonised. Nowadays, I see friends less often than I used to, but when I do, I make more of an effort. I’m at birthday parties with two-year-olds. Things aren’t more boring; they’re just more settled.

Years ago, according to drippy journal entries, I dreamed that by now, I’d be living by the beach with a husband and two kids, doing creative work. Now, I wonder —did I really want that, or what I thought it represented?

We often imagine speaking to our future self when plotting the next step, but our past self holds some clues about the future too. I look at life today and wonder what my younger self would make of it: what would she think of my friends, partner, flat, calendar, Linkedin profile, the stories I tell myself?

The pandemic froze everything in time for awhile, and part of me froze with it. I worked out less, and watched TV more, and went into a shell that I feel like I’m still slowly peeling off. Lately I’ve been realising that in rejecting the toxic elements of overwork, I’ve forgotten how great it feels to be chasing something you really, really believe in.

While my thirties have had challenges that my twenties didn’t, I have to reject the idea that ‘fun and travel and hustle’ are over. Maybe we have to schedule fun more aggressively, and maybe everyone’s not as available as they used to be. But I’m still planning a big trip to America later this year, largely to catch up and just hang out with friends I’ve missed a lot.

What my ex-boyfriend’s parents didn’t say is this: as you get older, you need to proactively remind yourself who you were before the layers became your life.

Since starting Copy & Co six months ago, I’ve seen that you can keep the hustle without buying into hustle culture. You can climb the mountains you set yourself even if you go at a reasonable, chill pace. I always wanted intellectual challenge, I still do, but I know now that I don’t need to burn out to find it.

I notice people who are getting so much shit done, under the radar, concentrating on what matters most. Sometimes they’re getting shit done on a paid work front, and other times they’re accomplishing things like running a hectic household. They are often (but not always) women. They inspire me to stay gentle with myself and to keep pushing towards what I was searching for in the first place.

Adele Barlow is a writer and tech startup marketer based in London and Hong Kong. She is the founder of boutique content studio Copy & Co and the author of multiple books. Read her latest writing here.