All profit from website purchases will be donated to the ACLU to help fight racial injustice

Stacked and Suffocating—The Dark Side of Hustle and Grind in a Creative Life

I've been running the Liquidrum e-commence store for close to a year now. And I've been running the Liquidrum social media platforms for about 2.5 years. So like most mindful practitioners of online content development, I've delved deeply into studying this particular niche of, dare I say the word, entrepreneurship. 

Part of this research involves exposure to the "it" entrepreneurs in the world today, or at least in the US. If you've been a part of this platform at all you know at least some of the names. Tony Robbins and Gary Vaynerchuk are two standouts, at least with regard to their high-adrenaline take on entrepreneurship. But there are many others. They motivate, they mesmerize, they make millions. And we can't get enough.

Communication is paramount to these folks and catch-all, mantra-like terms have been coined as an effective means of persuading large groups of followers. Two of the more pervasive buzzwords that inhabit this space are hustle and his little brother grind.

Hustle and grind are really great. They wake up at 5AM every morning, they do 700 push ups before getting out of bed, then transition into a very specific 20-minute sesh of transcendental meditation, then fire off 300 emails before 6AM, then SUPER DELIBERATELY spend quality time with their spouses, partners, or kids. . . . all before heading off to work to spin deals, inspire the masses, and generally win at life.

Man, I love #hustle and #grind. 

It's hard not to get swept up in this businessy romanticism. I mean, it sounds pretty amazing. And who doesn't want to be amazing?

But several years into this process I'm realizing something rather profound about this lifestyle — it doesn't work for me. Like, at all. Or at least it doesn't work for the creative side of me that craves space, time, and a decidedly anti-hustle orientation to my day.

The world of entrepreneurship loves to talk about morning routines. I just gave a typical example of a #winning morning routine above. But when discussing successful entrepreneurs, here's a morning routine you never hear:

  • 7AM — wake up to the sound of chirping birds, listen to them for longer than I should, debate if I should get out of bed 
  • 7:30AM — quietly make coffee whilst not talking to anyone or thinking about anything specifically, perhaps just listening curiously to the sounds of the kitchen, of the coffee maker, of mundane life
  • 7:45AM — drink said coffee whilst staring at the wall, or out the window, or at anything, or at nothing—again, for longer than I should
  • 8:30AM — lament my coffee growing slightly cold but keep drinking it, have a random thought, then another, and then another, then maybe nothing at all
  • 9AM — saunter outside for a brief moment, or longer, grow interested in a butterfly, or a bird, or a car passing by, or not, watch those things or don't watch them....

This wouldn't exactly get me a feature article in Inc. magazine. I don't think I could write a book called "Morning Routine of the Gods: Just Let it Happen to You". Because this morning routine is suspiciously absent of hustle and grind.

But yet this routine, or spans of time filled with similarly unremarkable events, is exactly what I need to cultivate ideas, to ponder possibilities, and to ultimately engage something (anything, really) creatively.

I write this near the tail end of a particularly merciless two-month period in which I've felt more like a punching bag than the meandering butterfly I so wish to be. You know the drill of late spring. For me it's been a dangerous concoction of the following: audition day for prospective students, judging a high school competition, faculty search activities, orchestra cycle, masterclass trip to Michigan, judging another competition, hosting a Symposium, another orchestra cycle, (squeeze in my taxes), and more faculty search activities, all with seven student recitals sporadically sprinkled on top (one of which I wasn't even in town for), and oh, by the way, you have a family that is unwillingly being dragged through this muck in the process. 

Sigh...

Here's the deal. Every single one of the above-mentioned activities is wonderful on its own. And a year ago when I was looking at my spring 2018 calendar, this perfect storm of creative nullification hadn't yet manifested itself. I had one thing on the calendar — the Symposium I was hosting. But as time ticks on other things are added, and then stacked, and then stacked once more. And the 21st century musician's mind, the one filled with mantras of hustle and grind, says "Yes, yes I can do all those things. I should do all those things. And I can knock them out of the park. Just watch me."

I've come to the realization that there is no greater danger to creative pursuits than what is listed above. There is nothing that kills creativity quite like the Molotov cocktail, or similar versions of it, that I've been mixing for the past six weeks. And the unfortunate thing is that we seldom realize it's happening until we're chest deep within it. By then it's too late. We have a romanticized idea of this insanely busy life and we wear it as a badge of honor. It's used to convey success.

I'm done. At the end of this semester I'm creatively dead. I've put unnecessary and undo stress on my family. And I see so many of the students I work with in the same boat. Barely holding on, the thread dangerously close to breaking, all of us hoping we make it to shore before the ship goes under completely. 

But summer is coming and that offers the necessary respite from this insanity, right?

Wrong. 

Yes, for many of us working in academia or whose schedules are convergent with the academic year, the summer is a saving grace. A time to breathe and rejuvenate. But inevitably the fall semester comes roaring back and the cycle starts all over again. Rinse and repeat.

This is what abuse looks like. Periods of obvious, undeniable hell followed by periods of normalcy where everything is ok. And most of us are a hopeful bunch so we bask in the glow of this normalcy and justify all the bad we just lived through. But then it starts again. Rinse and repeat. 

This is the world we live in as musicians and it isn't healthy. It's stifling, it's harmful, it's too much. And those of us who teach perpetuate the cycle with our students. We manage to be both a victim of our own professional existence while at the same time a culprit, or at the very least an accomplice, in the abuses waged against those studying with us.

And here's the scary thing — we've gotten really good at it. The product we put out as musicians nowadays is oftentimes staggeringly polished and precise. Damn near perfect. But at what cost? And is it worth it? Is it worth leaving your creative spirit tattered, torn, and broken in a ditch by the side of the road? 

What we do is art, not war. Let's redefine what it means to live a creative life. It might just mean changing everything.

Todd Meehan is the founder of Liquidrum. He currently serves as the Associate Professor of Percussion and Division Director of Instrumental Studies at the Baylor University School of Music. Todd has performed as one half of the Meehan/ Perkins Duo since 2006 and was a founding member of So Percussion.