A sideways look at the side hustle: Reflections from the MIRROR WATER community

A sideways look at the side hustle: Reflections from the MIRROR WATER community

05 11 21 By: MIRROR WATER

I just want to do something I love. Variations on this phrase underpin our approach to work. The logic makes sense; if we’re going to spend upwards of 40 hours per week on one particular job, we might as well do something we enjoy. But for those who can’t secure their ideal job—for any reason in a constellation of factors including class, health, caring responsibilities, and access to education—turning to a side hustle to make the dream happen outside working hours might hold a strong appeal. But there lies the problem: to what extent does a side hustle exist outside working hours before it becomes even more working hours?

"Photography was the most popular side hustle among the MIRROR WATER followers who responded to our questions "

On the MIRROR WATER Instagram, we asked you about your reasons for taking on a side hustle, and your answers also provide a good definition of the side hustle. Several people framed their hustles as additional income, including some who said they couldn’t afford to quit their main job. The pandemic also featured heavily in your responses; you described lockdown hobbies that took off into small businesses, and two people shared the experience of losing their jobs during the pandemic, which prompted them to go full time with their hustle work.

We noticed some common words that recurred in your answers: fulfilment, stimulated, creative outlet, fun. Photography was the most popular side hustle among the MIRROR WATER followers who responded to our questions, followed by other forms of handmade art, with writing and pursuits related to clothing in joint third place. We loved seeing photos of the pets you run daycare for, as well as the jewellery, weavings, and paintings you create, and we also enjoyed hearing the insights of two florists and a doula.

The discussion with our community made it clear that there are several benefits to a side hustle, mostly in relation to developing creative work before pursuing it full-time. Financially speaking, a side hustle is a safer way to lay a foundation for a ‘dream career’ further down the line. It’s a way to test something out before committing fully, a means to earn money from a hobby, and a chance to dabble in the prospect of self-employment.

However, when we asked you if side hustles promote overwork, the negatives poured in. Many spoke from direct personal experience, saying that they had spread themselves too thinly, while others shared general concerns about a hustle culture that ‘perpetuates’ and ‘glorifies’ burnout. Common words and phrases were ‘toxic’, ‘unhealthy’, ‘too much’, and ‘always on’. Several people referenced the influence of social media, saying that the proliferation of small business content on TikTok and Instagram feeds populated with hustle successes creates the impression that everyone has a side hustle, which for some generates unrealistic perceptions and pressure.

"I work way way way too much but my side gig is my passion. "

So—what do we do with all of this? The above perspectives exist at the same time, making it impossible to deal in absolutes when it comes to the side hustle. Your comments were also keen to embrace both sides; one person said ‘I work way way way too much but my side gig is my passion’. Another commenter acknowledged that ‘It’s so important to take time for yourself, but periods of hustling can boost your career’. One possible response to the problem posed by the side hustle is to interrogate the wider culture that led us to this point, and we can also think about what this means for us as individuals. Let’s begin with an important question: who gets to explore a side hustle, and who has no choice but to take on a second job? There is a significant connotative and real-world difference between having a side hustle and working two or more jobs. There will certainly be overlap between these two areas, but we need to reflect on the nuances of these positions.

It’s up to you what you do with your spare time, right? Unless you don’t have a choice but to take on extra work. Unless you have caring responsibilities. A single mum who fits work around raising her children, and also picks up more hours by working in the school canteen—is that a side hustle? Arguably not. Does it become a side hustle if she is passionate about cooking or nutrition? We need to exercise caution with regard to normalising adding work on top of work. There are implications of class, race, gender, health, among other intersections, that cannot be overlooked. As one person commented, ‘Why can’t we just have jobs that pay enough so we don’t have to hustle on our time off?’.

Cultural theorist Mark Fisher wrote: ‘The nature of labour now is such that almost anyone, no matter how menial their position, is required to be seen (over)investing in their work.’ We cannot wholly extract ourselves from the late stages of capitalism and its culture of exploitation, but we can talk openly with our friends, join unions, organise within our communities, and always, always question the language we use to describe work and material conditions. In the spirit of this last point, perhaps we should also maintain a narrow definition of a side hustle, so that when it comes to other types of work that might be exploitative or underpaid, we can call them out for what they are. It might help to position the side hustle as something that is temporary in order not to normalise work upon work in the long term.

Does debate about the side hustle relate to the possible decline of a historically significant pastime: the hobby? A hobby might seem like a humble or even an old-fashioned thing, but it in fact is a useful marker to understand what we derive joy from and why. Why not ask yourself: Is it possible that I enjoy my hobby precisely because it is not attached to notions of ‘career’? Do I find this activity fulfilling because I do not depend on it as a source of income? If at all possible, hold on to that part of yourself that exists outside of your need to support yourself financially, separate from any expectations placed on you by others, and think carefully about where a hobby ends and where another job begins.


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