I am somewhere in the middle of a journey from being an enthusiastic to skeptical participant in Grind Culture. This system measures worth and success based on the “grind” of work. Along the way, I've realized that the trick of relating work and play in the first place is deceptive. Hard work cannot be balanced by hard(er) leisure. And the grind comes from trying.
How much is one hour of leisure worth to you? Your economics 101 professor may argue that it's worth exactly your wage because taking that hour of leisure means giving up the opportunity to work another hour. According to this logic, the average American's leisure time is valued at just under $30 per hour.
Your professor - of course - is wrong. I doubt anyone making $55K per year would trade an hour of partying, attending a concert, or having dinner with their grandma for thirty bucks. (And yes, there are more complex economic theories that can assign higher values to an hour of leisure, but they all fall short in capturing the true value of leisure in the first place.)
In America, especially in work environments affected by Grind Culture, the value of labor is not accurately reflected by the amount you're paid for it. For many people, there is an implicit expectation of future value associated with each hour of work. I like to call it the "American Dream". In this perspective, every hour you invest in your job is an investment in your future self – someone with enhanced skills, a stronger work ethic, and valuable professional connections. This is in addition to the 30 dollars you bring home.
This concept of the American Dream may be most founders and small business owners who very literally have a vested financial interest in their work beyond their salary. For early-stage founders, a few extra hours of work now could potentially be worth millions of dollars in the future. Given the high stakes, it's hard to justify not working the extra hour or two.
There is one thing your econ 101 professor wasn’t simplifying, though: Unless we’re careful, as the value of work inflates, the value of leisure rises to match it. More specifically, the value required of leisure rises to match it. If working a few extra hours could potentially result in million-dollar gains, how can one justify taking a vacation or even spending an afternoon peacefully binge-watching a show on Netflix?
By operating within this framework, you're essentially gambling with your free time. Sacrificing leisure for work that may or may not bring significant value is a risky bet. It may not pay off, but it will definitely deprive you of those “leisure” moments to relax, find joy, be present with loved ones, or grow as a person. Sound harsh? Perhaps this isn’t the right framework to consider work and leisure in the first place.
At one point, I thought I merely had the causality wrong. Maybe it's not that the value of work determines the price of leisure, but rather the value of leisure determines how much an hour of work is worth (or worth giving up). But even this perspective feels off. The value of leisure is different from the value of work, and both have real worth that cannot be quantified in dollars (regardless of how complex the economic formulae get).
Grind Culture’s greatest trick is that it puts work and leisure in the same equation to begin with. As if they’re directly related. As if the value of leisure and work doesn’t change day to day depending on how you feel and what you need. As if doing more of one necessitates doing less of the other. We shouldn’t discuss work and leisure in the same sentence except to acknowledge that there’s leisure in work and work in leisure. Sometimes playing hard is hard work, and working hard is a lot of fun. “Work/Life” balance is a false dichotomy that reads as if we’re balancing two things on a teeter totter; more of one, less of the other. “Work Hard Play Hard” goes a step further to imply that more work necessitates more leisure. Neither is true.
The antidote? Work hard - or don’t. Play hard - or don’t. Balance hard work with easy work; un-fun work with fun work; play with leisure (they’re different); relaxation with growth. Be very wary of sacrificing “low-value” leisure for “high-value” work. Like doubling down on a bet when the odds are stacked against you, it’s a decision (and time) you can’t get back.