Hustle Culture and the Big Lies of Success

One day, Richard Montañez, then a janitor at Frito-Lay, took an unseasoned pack of Cheetos from a broken machine on the assembly line home with him. He experimented with them and came up with the idea for spicy Cheetos. Inspired by a motivational video from the CEO, he then called the assistant of the CEO of Frito-Lay at the time (Roger Enrico) and demanded to pitch his idea to the boardroom, which he did two weeks later to “top executives” at a meeting of over 100 people in Rancho Cucamonga, CA. Montañez’s product, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, would go on to become one of the most successful chips of all time, leading to him become an executive at the company - a beautiful rags to riches story (there’s a little more to his tale, which VICE breaks down). It would lead to national news coverage, become the hustle culture bros’ favorite story and is set to become a movie.

Except it’s a fabrication. An LA Times report doesn’t simply break down the realities that debunk Montañez’s story (Flamin’ Hot Cheetos existed before his time at the company, Roger Enrico wasn’t the CEO, the meeting never happened, he wasn’t involved in the test market at all and so on), it shows that Montañez, like many people who choose to live their lives based on lies, chose to embellish a relatively impressive story to make it a really impressive story:

Montañez did live out a less Hollywood version of his story, ascending from a plant worker to a director focused on marketing. He also pitched new product initiatives, which may have changed the path of his career.

Frito-Lay mostly let the lies slide until the actual creator, Lynne Greenfeld, noticed he was doing it and told the company to look into it. And now the LA Times has blown open a relatively harmless story built on complete bullshit that has been used to “inspire” people with another lie - that you can simply work hard enough as a janitor and become an executive. Hell, even the screenwriter of the movie says it’s “true enough,” which it is not.

The Hustle Myth

It’s impossible to guess the motives that Montañez telling these lies, especially one so large and specific, but it’s one of the more prominent examples of the lies of hustle culture. Hustle culture itself is built on the false ideal that if you simply work hard enough that anything is possible, and that, indeed, the amount of time and energy you put into your business is proportional to the success of said business.

The “just work harder” mantra is the specific core of hustle culture because it is a holistic system - the hustle culture influencer with his fancy cars got here by working hard every second of his life, and you could do it too, if you would only work harder and, of course, take the advice of the influencer in question. They claim to have the secrets to mastering a particular thing to make a large amount of money, and all you need to do is join whatever course or Webinar they’re selling. It’s a perfect system - if you fail following the course (which likely includes very obvious, generic things organized by a guy who’s built their success in an opaque way) then you’re simply not trying hard enough, and if you succeed (using said obvious advice) then you’re grateful to the course and become the influencer’s acolyte.

Tai Lopez is a prime offender - a guy who I cannot, for the life of me, tell you the actual job of beyond “guy who sells courses.” He has fans that will tell you about his rags to riches stories, where Tai went from $47 to somehow calling the CEO of a company from the phonebook and becoming a financial planner (?????), and now he’s a multi-millionaire. A deep dive by social media reporting showed that Lopez’s vast horde of fancy cars and giant mansion are all either leases or rentals, and that he is very much creating a lifestyle in his videos that can play on the desperation and Fear of Missing Out that his followers find. He’s created the aesthetics of the lives that his followers wish to live, and played on the consumption culture of capitalism - that the answer to your failure to succeed is that you have either not bought enough or done enough to “earn” that success. It’s also crucial to add that many of these influencers succeeded in the 80s, 90s, or very early 2000s - a vastly easier time to, well, exist.

Lopez likely gained his wealth by creating a sketchy dating website that ripped off people, then used that income to create this online persona that could give you the secrets to being a big rich guy with a fancy car. Gary Vaynerchuk is a prime offender, despite claiming that “not everybody can become an entrepreneur” - but the reason that they can’t is that “it’s a lot of work.” He is allegedly a self-made millionaire, despite potentially inheriting a $3-million-a-year wine business from his parents (though he disputes this) - which he “grew from $3 million to $60 million.” Whether or not he was given equity or ownership is irrelevant - he carefully doesn’t mention whether he was compensated in any way from that business, and indeed doesn’t discuss how he was able to simply create VaynerMedia out of thin air when he was allegedly given “nothing.”

Most of these hustle culture guys who succeeded in a totally different era speak to an audience of young people experiencing a catastrophically different job and investment market. The lie they tell is that hard work is what got there - which is partially true, but the crucial element they leave out is luck. Saying “oh yeah, I worked hard and then I got lucky, and now I work less, also things were different back then and you could just call someone and get a job” is significantly less inspiring than “you need to work HARD and put your life into it. Gary was undoubtably early on the social media train, and despite spewing very little substantive, meaningful content, he managed to create a persona that people who didn’t understand social media would grow a parasocial relationship with.

These magical guys almost always turn into successful investors, and act as if there’s a big secret behind these investment successes (investing in stuff you like and understand) beyond the obvious secret: that having wealth generally puts you in the room and in conversations with the types of people that will make you more wealth. Furthermore, having wealth allows you to take risks with your money. Success begets success, especially when you were “early” on something, which is usually a situation created by you having the luck to be in the room and the money to potentially lose.

Hustle culture may seem overly positive, but it is inherently guilt-based. The hustle culture’s biggest names frame their own successes as entirely a product of their own work ethic, and naturally play on the hearts and minds of those that want to believe that they’re a product of the same process rather than their own privilege. While there are genuine success stories of people who had nothing who made something, even they have elements of luck - chance encounters, happening upon something first not through your own curiosity but entirely through chance, going to school with the right people, and so on.

Even my own narrative - a dyspraxic ADHD immigrant who somehow runs a successful PR agency - leaves out the fact I grew up in a great home with great parents, and with a father who ran a successful business, and even though he didn’t invest in mine, my college was paid for, my meals were paid for, and crucially I knew that even if I failed, I could rely on going back to live with my parents. Even my big start with my agency mostly came from one client that happened to come along that happened to have a strong network with yCombinator, which then led to an investor that wanted to work with me, who has now been a huge referrer - and all of that came from being able to take the risk of moving to America and try a career (PR) that I would potentially fail at, knowing that if I failed I could go back to a good life in England.

None of this dilutes my actual effort - the hours I put into getting the job, the research I did, and so on - but there is a genuine sensitivity that people have around how much of their success is due to these efforts versus happenstance, and hustle culture plays upon it.

Its target market isn’t necessarily those who are down on their luck - it’s those who may be early in their career, or those who want to have the appearance of success by sharing the thoughts of very successful people. It is a culture of lies leading to lies - people share memes about how the thing between you and success is hard graft to make themselves seem like they abide by these rules, and indeed are successful too.

These are the same people who get upset when the government potentially raises the minimum wage or unemployment, claiming that they got where they did by working hard and see those who “are paid not to work” are an insult to their own honest work. There is a lurid appeal of this school of thought to these people - it makes them feel better about themselves by framing themselves as heroes that just need to keep fighting until they “win,” no matter how non-specific or impossible a victory may be. This is why hustle culture meme types have grown so powerful - there is a lot of money to be made in being able to grant others the aesthetics of success.

The crucial thing they’ve tapped into is the desperation in some to appear as rich and successful to others, combined with an economy that makes the general trappings of success - owning a big house and a car - that much more difficult. Yet despite the difficulty for the average person, there remains a constant feedback loop, marketed by hustle culture, of these rich and successful people telling you that it was just a case of working hard, and for most people, I can imagine this is equal parts demoralizing and entrancing. If this guy worked it out, why can’t I?

The cold hard truth of a lot of success is often messier and more exhausting than many want to communicate. It isn’t just the long hours, it’s the times in which it wasn’t our own intuition or mastery of an industry that made us succeed, but the fact we happened to be in the right place at the right time. When these moments end up defining entire epochs in our lives, we become reticent to give them credit, for fear that it dilutes our hard work and makes us fraudulent in our own success.

And that’s what feeds hustle culture - the big lie about hard work being the primary driver of success.