Two years ago, Slate published the headline, “He’s the Most Successful Stand-Up Comic in America: So Why Isn’t Kevin Hart More Famous?” On the heels of sellout comedy tours across the country and even overseas, he was still considered, by some standards, “so popular that it’s surprising that more people don’t know who he is.”

Now? Well, you probably don’t need a headline to know what the state of Kevin’s career is, but if you’d like one, Grantland provided this: “Career Breakdown: Kevin Hart’s Long, Complicated, Hit-and-Miss-and-Hit-Again Path to Stardom.”

What’s the difference? Is it the time period? Nah, Hart has hustled in a variety of roles for over ten years now. Is it the “time” for his comedy to shine? Maybe, but his comedy has evolved over time as he’s grown and hit different stages in his life. He didn’t have a highly publicized rant leaked on TMZ, and he didn’t marry a Kardashian. So what gives?

The difference? He’s doing more. Yup, more.

Wal-Mart commercials. A BET mockumentary show. Standup tours. Numerous movie roles. Hart is hustling. And yet, if you were to ask him, he’s just at work. Is he busy? Yes. Kevin Hart is a busy person. But he doesn’t really seem to see it that way.

Another one of my favorite busy people, Mindy Kaling, provided one of the best perspectives on busy I could ever imagine. With writing, producing, and starring in a TV show, no one could ever argue that she isn’t swamped at any given moment. But she’ll never tell you she’s stressed out as a result of it. Why?

No one ever wants to hear how stressed out anyone else is, because most of the time everyone is stressed out. Going on and on in detail about how stressed out I am isn’t conversation. It’ll never lead anywhere. No one is going to say, “Wow, Mindy, you really have it especially bad. I have heard some stories of stress, but this just takes the cake.”

Her mindset is an admirable one. Mindy doesn’t compete in the Oppression Olympics when it comes to talking busy (though she could easily win gold in most events). She simply treats being busy or being stressed out as a neutral state.

IMAGE CREDIT: The Guardian

That is to say, if someone asks how you are, and you say “busy” or “stressed,” those aren’t responses that should generally elicit an “I’m so sorry,” or a “My, that’s terrible!” The fact of the matter is, no matter how much we’d love to deny it when we’re in the weeds, everyone is in these states. To respond to “How are you?” with “Busy” is tantamount to responding with “Human” or “Dressed.”

A Chronicle Vitae article that I found yesterday while rooting around on Liana Silva Ford’s blog has a brilliant takeaway that speaks to the reason why “busy” feels so all-consuming to some:

One problem with academia is that you’re encouraged to create your sense of self around your work. I still have some issues with that.

Any device with its battery left running will slow down, and eventually shuts down. To behave in a matter contrary to this basic truth is…well…not to minimize it, but silly. Left to work, work, and do nothing but work, busy stops being neutral and starts to feel badAnd this is where some of the trouble lies. Socially and professionally, we’re using “busy” as a stand-in for more descriptive words. Busy, to someone enjoying or energized by what they’re doing, can be synonymous with “stimulating” or “fulfilling.” But to those who are drained or beaten down by what they’re doing, busy can be synonymous with “overwhelmed” or “drowning.” If I’m being completely honest with myself, I have used the word busy when I actually meant something else in both capacities over the last month. 

Maybe we don’t have a glorification of busy problem. Maybe we have a minimization of struggle problem. I know for a fact that I’m guilty of it. We all are. There’s no way that everyone in our offices, on the street, and at our local bars is “fine” every single time we ask. But we find it unseemly to talk about what’s bothering us, so we minimize. We hide. And we use nondescript language, hoping that people will read between the lines and jump in to help. I don’t know what the secret is to finding the line between occupied and overwhelmed. I don’t even know where it lies for me personally! If I had to guess, I’d say variety plays a role. That is, if you are busy because of work AND outside pursuits, you get to switch gears and recharge enough that the crash takes a little longer to arrive, if at all.

But even this strategy isn’t foolproof. Donald Glover, the comedian and actor who also has a successful and separate rap career under the name Childish Gambino, had a highly publicized “breakdown” on Instagram late last year written on a series of hotel notepad pages and posted to the picture sharing platform. His online display, combined with the tragic passing of women’s empowerment activist Karyn Washington, is glaring evidence of how serious problems can affect even those who appear to have it all together. This pair of examples speaks to far bigger issues than I can address here, but is a concern that we need to keep in mind when we’re dealing with the frenetic and full pace of our lives: how much is too much, and how can we tell when that critical mass has been reached or surpassed?

So to go back to the start of this post: busy isn’t a four letter word. It isn’t. Kevin Hart and Mindy Kaling are two wonderful examples of what hustling in any number of ways can earn you, and appear to be relatively well-adjusted to boot. Busy is normal, and can even be healthy. Busy can bring us a lot of things we want in life: connection, success, fulfillment, and much more. But if busy ever takes a turn into overwhelming, scary, punishing, or even life-threatening, then “busy” needs to be called something else. To overcome the glorification of busy, we need to take it out of the rotation and replace it with words that are truly indicative of our current state. If you’re overwhelmed, challenge yourself to say so. If you’re speaking to someone who’s not quite themselves or you’re concerned, challenge yourself to notice and do what you can to help.

One thought on “Respect for Kevin Hart’s Hustle

  1. Your take on busy vs. overwhelmed reads to me a lot like “stressed” vs. “distressed”, and I think it’s a very apt parallel.

    With regards to Kevin Hart’s come-up, it seems not to dissimilar from at least what I perceive of Blake Shelton’s. I saw him on numerous occasions opening for Rascal Flatts and thought for sure he was relegated to the perennial opener role. I was pleased to see his career develop into what it is today.

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