I recently came across a TikTok by a primary school teacher. She responds to the weeks of summer vacation that teachers get and how some complain that this makes the profession easier. “I didn’t choose your career for you. Sub for my class one day – just one day! See what I do for 180 days.” One user commented, “I can do your job for a day. You talk to first graders on a computer… I’m a psych nurse dealing with serial killers. Do my job for a day.” Others responded similarly. The comment section was a battle of professions – people sitting at home, behind their screens, competing to prove how difficult their work was. The video creator, Miss Franklin, later responded with the following: “What everyone should learn from this trend – EVERYONE’s job is difficult and has their own advantages/disadvantages. Respect one another’s profession.” The whole argument seemed so silly to me. Why was this teacher associating “respect” for a profession with how much others acknowledged its difficulty?
In our introductory lecture this semester, my Psychology lecturer mentioned that the subject could arguably be considered more difficult than some natural or life sciences. This is because it studies human beings who change their behaviour following new research they read, speculations, and predictions. I learned from my Economics lecturer that famous physicist Max Planck supposedly told John Maynard Keynes that Economics was too difficult for him for similar reasons.
Why are we so fascinated with proving the difficulty of our work? Is it because we need to show that we can do work that is harder than what the ‘average’ person can do, if such a measure even exists? Is this how we channel our yearning to reach our full potential, leave a mark that transcends us, and ‘be special’? After noticing this trend, I began to suspect that the need to prove the difficulty of our work is rooted in toxic hustle culture.
“I am so burned out. I barely slept this week.”
“I’m such a typical stressed college student. I had to drink a bunch of coffee to cram for my finals.”
“Who says an Arts degree is easy. I’ve been studying all day.”
Let’s stop looking at stress and burn-out as badges of honour. Let’s stop the “I’m so overworked, it’s terrible” while secretly feeling hints of satisfaction at the thought that we have “done enough” or done things that are “hard enough” to feel worthy. Let’s stop trying to validate the amount of time or money we have spent on honing our craft by convincing others of its difficulty.
I feel very privileged to have been brought up knowing that my parents will support me regardless of the subject or career I choose. I know not everyone can afford that freedom. We often hear from relatives and family friends who think differently. Some question or look down on my decision to pursue the social sciences instead of a STEM subject. Others assume it is because I didn’t have the skills to do anything ‘better’. In the past, we have gotten caught up in defending our choices and agreeing that difficulty is subjective. All professions and subjects are difficult, and difficulty depends on each person’s skill set.
Recently, I’ve started realising that by feeding into this discussion, I may subconsciously be contributing to the idea that difficulty matters. Even if there were one objective measure of the difficulty of subjects and professions, would it indicate value? If being a first-grade teacher was ’easy’, would it be any less important? By protesting against the idea that STEM subjects are more difficult, more valid, or more respectable career choices, I may end up feeding into a culture that assumes that difficulty is equivalent to value or worth. That acknowledging difficulty is somehow equivalent to respect. It is not hard to understand why. Many of us have been conditioned to work harder, put in more hours, and push ourselves to reach our full potential. We sometimes fall into the trap of assuming that competing in fields that are traditionally considered difficult is the best way to achieve, fulfil, and realise our potential.
The value of a profession and the worth of the human who pursues it does not depend on how little vacation they get or how many hours they have worked overtime. By associating pride with difficulty, we blind ourselves to the fact that our lives are being swallowed by a culture that rewards placing work above all else. Instead of trying to one-up others and glorifying exhaustion, we should start shifting the conversation.
We should redirect our focus to the satisfaction we get after our work has made its desired impact or the fulfilment we feel at the end of the day. We should stop comparing how ‘difficult’ our jobs are and appreciate that teachers are just as crucial as electricians. We should understand the joy that actors bring to our movie nights and thank humanities students for studying the storytellers who have enriched our past. We should thank psychologists and doctors for their contribution to health and still recognize the importance of journalists, homemakers, and museum curators. Hustle culture, toxic productivity – whatever you want to call it – has dug its roots deep into our conversations, language, and behaviour. By recognising why we say and do things, we could start freeing ourselves from it.