You’ve Always Needed to Hustle to Make It in America

Workaholism is in our DNA

Karla Starr
5 min readJul 24, 2022


You’re sick of hustle culture. You’re sick with the American obsession with productivity. You might blame it on a lack of social safety nets, the internet, or rising economic inequality.

Bad news, folks: it’s not an artifact of the internet age, the industrial era, or even remotely new. The idea that you’ve needed to hustle and ruthless to make it in America is simply part of our cultural DNA.

Having a Protestant work ethic was actually written into the law in Massachusetts in 1648: No person shall “spend his time idlely or unprofittably under pain of such punishment as the Court of Assistants or County Court shall think meet to inflict.”

Workaholism was how Pilgrims operated—they believed that God would help those who helped themselves. The Pilgrims came to the new world to propagate religion and build a Christian Utopia based on the Bible’s. Their favored traits were of the “keep your head down and get busy” sort — character, principle, industry, sobriety, and frugality — all of which were based on Christian morals.

Photo by Bench Accounting on Unsplash

Character Building: The Age of Ben Franklin

As parcels of land became divided into increasingly smaller lots and urban areas grew, young men decided that cities offered more potential for making their way in the world than their family’s land. The “success manual” as a genre of American literature began as instruction manuals purchased by rural families, a way of giving their sons survival tips and passing along their values. Pre-Civil War era success manuals doubled as instruction manuals for building character traits like character, principle, industry, sobriety, and frugality.

At one point, the archetypal American ideal was “a young apprentice named Benjamin Franklin [who] awkwardly entered colonial Philadelphia with two large bread rolls tucked under his arms and a third fast disappearing down his throat.”

Early careers looked like Franklin’s, who changed professions based on what he perceived was in demand and what could best help his community. Firmly rooted in Philadelphia, he managed to work jobs as disparate as a “printer, publicist, postmaster, scientist, diplomat…



Karla Starr

Speaker & author x2, inc. Making Numbers Count (w/ Chip Heath). Behavioral science, cultural history, numbers.