Hustle. It’s been talked about at length here on APW, what it means to be a hustler: the drive, the well of pure rage that fuels you. Merriam Webster defines hustle as a transitive verb, meaning to move or work in a quick or energetic way.
That is so not me.
Flipping through the highlights of my life, you would see someone who does not fit the definition of hustle. Growing up, my nickname was Poky, and for good reason. I talked slowly. I walked slowly. Everything I did, I did at a snail’s pace. For awhile, teachers tried to explain my pace as ADHD: I couldn’t help it, I just got so caught up in how many things there are to look at, smell, or touch when walking down the hallway between class and recess that I couldn’t be counted on to pay attention to how quickly lines moved. But that reasoning didn’t mesh well with the fact that I could concentrate just fine on a given task, and was pretty much the opposite of hyper. Still, my sedate pace singled me out as an educational risk: I would not keep up with the class, I would fall behind, and I would fail, eventually, because of my inability to move at the same high speed as my classmates.
And so, at the hands of my mother (if I were the tortoise, she would be the cheetah) and others the work began to mold me into someone who could at least move a little faster than average. I had time limits for nearly everything, and I rarely met them, but over time I did learn to be a little more efficient in weaker subjects. I never ended up falling behind in school—on the contrary, in most subjects I was better than average. Not exemplary, but better. But one thing that has remained constant: I never saw myself as a hustler. I never believed I was all that ambitious. That fast moving, grab opportunity and hold on for dear life kind of person that will jump at a chance and then fight tooth and nail to turn that chance into something? It still isn’t me.
The person that I am is the diligent worker. I have always excelled at the seemingly mundane tasks, and my efficiency with my time makes that excellence notable. In any workplace, I’ve always become the proofreader, or the person that people practices their pitches on. Where people look at a forest and see only the forest, I see the forest and point out all the birds in the trees. I’m an observer, and I’m fucking good at it. I’m good at dotting all the i’s and crossing all the t’s. Not necessarily in a copy editor way, but in a connect the dots of life and make sense of things way. In short, as Meg and Maddie put it, I’m good at being a second banana. Or a third banana!
But being a second or a third banana also meant being singled out, yet again, as someone who wasn’t “ambitious.” I always dreaded being called into a manager’s office to talk about “my future.” In the corporate world, graphic designers have a fairly limited ladder if all they want to do is design work. You can be junior, mid-level, or senior, and that means a different thing based on the size of the company. After that, you go into the field of management, leaving behind some of the design work as you go. I’m fine with managing people, but it gives me no great joy to do it. This pegged me as a non-starter. I can show you reviews from several different managers that all say the same thing. Lucy is diligent. A hard worker, and very amiable. But. She has no ambition. She doesn’t work to make herself a part of the company (I still don’t know what that’s supposed to mean), so she needs to work on that.
For a while, I accepted these reviews. Climbing corporate ladders or running my own company never made it to my life list. The things that did make it: reading 1,000 books (I probably already have, but I want to list them now and see how many I read in my adult lifetime), or creating some ridiculous number of paintings. Iterative goals, that will take me months or years of dedication to a seemingly mundane task like reading or painting.
It wasn’t until watching Jiro Dreams of Sushi that I fully realized not all ambition looks the same. For so long I believed that the drive which shot people forward like they’d exploded out of a cannon was the only one available, and I was just that person who didn’t really want to be shot out of a cannon. I am not a person who scrambles up the mountain as fast as possible, racing against some ticking clock or another person next to me. My drive is a slow burning thing, an ember where others might have a bonfire. What I was lacking, though, was a mentor who looked like me. So I started looking. Not at the people on the thirty under thirty list (or twenty under twenty, and I’m sure one of these days we’re going to get all the way down to ten under ten), but at people who were simply diligent. People who worked like I work:
“I do the same thing over and over, improving bit by bit. There is always a yearning to achieve more. I’ll continue to climb, trying to reach the top, but no one knows where the top is.” — Jiro Ono
I’ll always want to do just a bit more, and that is where my hustle lives: inside that desire to improve myself. It’s a hustle that isn’t fast or flashy, but it’s there.
Photo of Lucy by Leah and Mark, from the APW Book Tour Atlanta stop. In which Lucy tells people she would like to work for APW, approximately a year and a half before she does just that.