Wikimedia Commons

In 1978, Gary Vaynerchuck migrated from Belarus to a studio apartment in Queens. Soon after, the 7-year-old “entrepreneur at heart” opened a lemonade stand before moving on to make thousands of dollars selling baseball cards. 

Now, Vaynerchuck is the chairman of VaynerX, a communications company that parents several media-based properties. Most notably, he’s a social media mogul in the startup space, where he’s known as “GaryVee”: you might’ve seen a video of Vaynerchuck on your LinkedIn feed dissecting the lucrative NFT market or a clip on Instagram of him divulging the secrets of starting a business. In fact, if you haven’t heard of him or his buzzword-infested rhetoric, I envy you. Vaynerchuck hosts a Q&A show, a daily video diary, a podcast and even owns a signature sneaker — and this doesn’t include the full schedule of events he books. For someone who rejects the label of motivational speaker — claiming he doesn’t want to be anyone’s Tony Robbins — Vaynerchuck acts the part exceptionally well.

Vaynerchuck preaches the “hustle,” a broad philosophy on work that encourages a gutsy expression of free will, chronic productivity and a self-starting mindset. Hustle culture oversees the startup phenomenon that draws young, steadfast pre-entrepreneurs to the Silicon Valley area code, each with an idea that will make them the next Mark Zuckerberg. It rings of meritocracy with more festive catchphrases — “the grind doesn’t stop,” “work smarter not harder” and anything else you would expect to hear from a business major powered by Ritalin. 

However, it’s all pretty disingenuous because Vaynerchuck already succeeded — he gets to look back at his journey and tell people how it happened, and how they can do the same. In a piece he wrote for Medium, “The Day I Decided to Become GaryVee,” Vaynerchuck credits brute force for his success. He writes, “So you know why I’m sitting here right now? At the top of one of the fastest growing creative agencies of all time … At a 150M dollar annual revenue business? At a company that has ambitions to become worth billions and billions of dollars? Not because I got lucky but because I outworked you. I went for it. Think about it. I outworked you.”

Okay, Gary. You did outwork me. Unfortunately, I don’t plan my days down to the minute, depriving myself of any and all moments of relief, no matter how infinitesimal. I don’t book meetings from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. just to wake up at 5 a.m. the next morning and do it all over again. If Vaynerchuck is setting a standard for a lifestyle that guarantees success, it’s physically impossible to accomplish doing anything less than a 19-hour work day. In Vaynerchuck’s school of thought, that’s why I’m unsuccessful.

Vaynerchuck is an excellent orator, addressing his audience with the tone of a mean high school coach — a little hostile, yet claims what he’s saying is in everyone’s best interest. His sentences are short; they hit you like slam poetry. Each carries tangible passion, sprinkled with expletives and vocal inflections. In this way, Vaynerchuck is an evangelist, and productivity adopts a spiritual quality. If you are listening to or watching Vaynerchuck, you must feel inadequate — he addresses the plebian, the chronic wannabe, and tells them that their problems don’t matter, that they should simply choose optimism. Socioeconomic status, gender, race, sexual orientation — these things aren’t barriers to success. 

The single mother who relies on child support to feed her children, the ambitious kid plagued by generations of poverty, the ex-con who is denied employment from McDonald’s: These people just aren’t working hard enough. Because to Vaynerchuck, circumstances that are out of one’s control might not stop them from trying to do the impossible. To Vaynerchuck, you are the driving force, not the woes of capitalism or the social binaries that alienate marginalized communities, or the company you inherited from your parents in order to bypass the latter.

But Vaynerchuck is not a normal person — regular people don’t say things like “I’d rip both my legs off, and arms, to be 25 years old” or “I would suffocate and die if I worked 9:00–5:00. I wouldn’t be happy. I want to work.” The average GaryVee listener might try to be just like him, because that’s what he’s telling them to do. What if the average GaryVee listener or average worker in general does not derive happiness from workaholism? Turning something you don’t enjoy into a lifestyle, especially when that lifestyle requires an 80-hour work week, almost guarantees burnout. Go and live like Vaynerchuck for a week, and try to come back with a brain that hasn’t been reduced to gray sludge.

I can understand why hustle culture is so seductive — it evokes our survivalist nature: work harder than everyone else and you will reach the top. The strongest deserve to triumph and the weak eat their dust. Hard work, excessive work, makes you a valuable member of society.

But American work culture is already riddled with toxicity — 83% of American workers report stress and burnout negatively impacting their personal relationships, and 91% report a reduced work performance due to these same factors. Absolute commitment to productivity requires sacrifices in other aspects of life, including mental health. There is no getting around the fact that well-being and success at work are not mutually exclusive.

With Vaynerchuck as the high priest of workplace productivity, what happens if everyone who listens to him actually puts his advice into practice? Will these people ever figure out that brute force alone can’t make you a millionaire? To me, the Gary Vaynerchuck story creates a sort of paradox: He must attribute his success to something in order to market himself as a motivational speaker, but that something isn’t going to work for everyone. It isn’t going to work for most people. Corporate America doesn’t want you in the club unless you’re already a part of it. The grindstone of capitalism is not meant to be an accessible venue; it’s evil and devoid of empathy, it pulverizes the disenfranchised and garnishes the CEOs and GaryVees with more money. What we’re looking at, in the long term, is a generation of people who completely run out of gas before they turn 25, chasing the 1% chance of breaking through. That’s why his popularity feels like a bad omen.

In a perfect world, America runs on the 4 day week — we’d be more productive, less stressed, and wouldn’t have to take a cold shower at the crack of dawn just to wake ourselves up. And we certainly wouldn’t have to listen to GaryVee to be successful.

Daily Arts Writer Laine Brotherton can be reached at