The Competitive Advantage of Nothingness (and What the Cult of Hustle Has Wrong)

Last year, a group of four researchers from the University of Waterloo was presented with the IG Nobel Prize for validating something we had all already known but were too polite to say: that people who resonate with “pseudo-profound bullshit” on social media tend to have lower levels of intelligence, too.

I mean, it’s a hell of a lot easier to appreciate an idea that’s been etched above a photo of a majestic mountain than one that requires a 52-page dissertation to parse. One search of the tag #entrepreneurquotes brought the following:

“Hustle beats talent when talent doesn’t hustle.”
“Discipline is the bridge between goals and accomplishments.”
“No one cares. Work harder.”

They all sound so good, don’t they? (Even that last one, for some odd reason.) And they all seem to point to the following message:

“Hard work is the only variable of success you can control. So the harder you work, the more likely you are to succeed.”

—What a pile of pseudo-profound bullshit.

The Cult of Hustle

“Hustle” is a word used by millennials and Gary Vaynerchuk to refer to the act of working ferociously towards the goal of building an income stream of sorts. In the Cult of Hustle, practitioners strive to maximize their productivity to bridge the gap between order and chaos. In this case, “order” is the finitude of life and “chaos” is the infinitude of potential.

I used to hustle all the time. In my early days, I lived in a dingy basement suite, worked every weekend, and subsisted on cereal more times than I would have liked… all in the name of “The Hustle.” Sometimes I imagine what I would’ve done differently had I had a little more leeway.

I would have liked to take a break, but not for the reasons you might think.

Imagine a wheelbarrow. There are a number of things you can do to make it go faster. Perhaps you could tilt the axis or grease the axle… but no matter how many adjustments you make, you will always reach a limit. That wheelbarrow will never go faster than the speed at which you can push it.

"Work" works much the same way. Perhaps you could play less and work more… but no matter how much effort you put in, you will always reach a limit. Time is that limit, as there will never be more than 24 hours in a day.

Fortunately, we’re not machines. Unlike machines, we have the ability to create new machines.

If there’s one thing the Cult of Hustle has wrong, it’s our ability as humans to be more than just “productive.” Sure, we might be bound to the same measure of time, but that measure is not a measure of the things we can achieve. As human beings, we have the capacity to innovate; but by operating the way you would a machine, it might never occur to you to build a new truck.

When we think of creativity, we tend to think of art, originality, and uniqueness for the sake of uniqueness. Technically speaking, “creative” describes a process, not a product, and it’s essential to make the distinction.

The Anti-Parable of the Potato Chip

Take, for example, the invention of the potato chip. Legend (i.e., Wikipedia) has it that the potato chip stems back to a nineteenth-century cook by the name of George Crum. Crum had been dealing with a disgruntled customer, who had repeatedly sent his potatoes back —complaining each time that they were “too bland, soggy, and thick.” To spite the customer, Crum decided to make the potatoes extra thin, extra crispy, and extra salty. To his surprise, the customer loved the dish.

As novel as the potato chip once was, its invention was hardly inventive.

Instead, let’s picture Janet from accounting. Last Friday, while eating a cobb salad, Janet came up with the idea of installing a second monitor to her workstation. So far, she has found that having two screens increases her efficiency by upwards of three percent. Imagine what that would mean over the course of a year. Now, imagine if the entire department were to follow suit. Well done, Janet. Very creative.

How to Have More "Janet Moments"

If creativity is the process of bringing a golden idea to fruition, insight is a small but indispensable step along the way. In an article written for Psychology Today, David Rock, Director of the NeuroLeadership Institute, purports to have asked thousands of people how they solve complex, “non-linear” problems.

“The answers,” he says, “are highly consistent.”

It would appear that no one solves complex problems through conscious effort, as insights seem to present themselves without warning. Does this mean we have little to learn from Janet's scenario? Quite the contrary.

Just because you can't control when to have an insight, doesn't mean you can't control your likelihood of having one. 

1. Insights are likelier to happen in quieter environments.

Insights are quiet signals between small numbers of neurons. Often, these signals are long-forgotten memories that don’t require many neurons to hold together. The problem is, you can only notice the signals above your baseline level of noise. If your baseline level of noise is high, you are less likely to have insights.

The takeaway: eliminate variables that might otherwise compete for your attention. Step away from “go mode” and find some peace and solitude.

2. Insights are likelier to happen when you allow your mind to wander.

Not all quiet time is created equal. At any given time, our attention is either externally focused or internally focused. When you look outward, your focus is on the stimuli around you: the shape of these words, the temperature of your seat, the sound of Bob from next door peacocking over the phone (ugh, Bob, not again).

But when you look inward, all that stimuli falls by the wayside, and you begin to notice your inner thoughts. Now would be a good time to tell you about Thomas Edison’s daydreaming habit, but I used my one historical anecdote for the guy who invented the potato chip. Sorry.

3. Insights are likelier to happen for the less anxious.

There are times when anxiety can induce eustress, which is the beneficial type of stress you need to “get sh*t done.” However, feeling anxious can severely hamper your ability to have insights. Anxiety involves a high level of neural activity, which can cause “tunnel vision” and drown out space for quiet signals. One study shows that feeling even slightly happy (as opposed to concerned) is conducive to creative problem-solving.

Fun fact: the inspiration behind The Incubator Marketing came when I was eating pasta at an airport bar on my way back from a vacation.

4. Insights are likelier to happen when you stop trying to solve a problem.

Research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that stepping away from the decision-making process actually improves the quality of the decision being made. As it turns out, conscious thought has a rather low processing capacity; our working memory can only go so far. The opposite is true for unconscious thought, suggesting that taking a break from “active thinking” is key to making insight-driven decisions.

Now, this doesn’t mean that if you weren’t already neck deep in theoretical physics, that you could magically come up with the theory of dark gravity while staring at the texture of your bedroom ceiling. To harness the power of your unconscious mind, you must first feed it information.

What This Means for Those Who Hustle

Self-care, meditation, and “pressing pause” aren’t just for hippy-dippy "feeler" types. These practices are key to creative problem-solving. Recall our earlier analogy: hustling is like pushing a wheelbarrow as fast as you possibly can. Gaining insight is like finding the inspiration to build a truck. Creative problem-solving is the act of building that truck, and hustling again is the act of driving.

The process repeats itself with trains, ships, and planes... Until you die.

The end.

(But hey, maybe the hyperloop will have been invented by then, too.)