This one is for the Hustlers, for the Dreamers:
What’s involved in the willingness to take a risk? What gives someone the ability to hustle? It’s something I think about a lot, in my (self-employed) line of work.
For me personally, the ability to take a risk seems to boil down to two things. There is personality, which is luck of the draw. And then there is circumstance. No one is born a hustler—hustlers are made. Most hustlers I know are like the eight-year-old kid I once saw on the street corner in San Francisco, pulling on a tie with a look of steely determination, before he picked up his sax. Don’t have money to go to summer camp? A hustler kid knows how to raise that shit.
I grew up in the classic intellectual hippy just-getting-by kind of household. My family life was not what I consider to be abnormal. For much of America, knowing where your next meal is coming from is a blessing, and struggling to be able to buy a first day of school outfit is par for the course. I grew up knowing that. The twist is, I also happened to be born and raised in the city that is now the second most impoverished in the US after Detroit (though we declared bankruptcy a full year before Detroit, thankyouVERYmuch). During my childhood, we had one of the highest murder rates in the country. And while there are more difficult things than I can explain about growing up in a hometown like that, there are advantages to every kind of upbringing. And the true birthright of people who grow up with less is The Hustle.
In my hometown there were two basic choices after high school: you could stay home and (if you were lucky) land a minimum-wage job. Or, you could take a risk and leave. For those of us who grew up outside of the culture of the American upper/middle class, leaving the bubble of everything you know can be the most terrifying thing you’ll ever do. But for many of us, the only thing scarier than going, is staying.
When I moved to New York to go to NYU (thank you, scholarships!), I found myself surrounded by people from backgrounds so different they might as well have spoken a foreign language. Did you know that some women own more than, say, six pairs of shoes? I thought only rich people had six pairs of shoes! Everyone I’d ever known had had everyday shoes, flip-flops, and dress shoes (if they were lucky)! Mind=blown. But what I had that these brand-new friends didn’t have was less to lose. If you know what it’s like to live in a nice apartment, be able to eat at restaurants, and have… six pairs of shoes… there is a pretty good chance you’re not going to want to give that up. Why? Human nature. (I now have those things, and guess what? I don’t want to give them up.) But if your BEST-case scenario is an apartment in a borderline-scary neighborhood and a minimum-wage job, you might as well try to clamber your way up. What’s the worst that’s going to happen? You’re going to end up back home working temporarily at a gas station? You’ve already done that. You can do it again if you have to.
Looking at the roster of my high school class, I find it fascinating that we turned out a disproportionate number of hustlers. I don’t think that’s an accident. What’s luck of the draw is talent and personality. What’s forged through difficulty is hustle.
People often try to over-generalize the experience of having less, in a way that takes agency away from those experiencing it. I’ll never forget sitting in a college seminar room, when the topic of poor, urban, public schools came up. That day was my first experience of being the invisible outsider. After the bad parts of my middle school (barbed wire, locked down, gang violence) were described in detail, the class concluded that going to schools like this didn’t prepare you for the real world; it prepared you for jail. As a burst of rage exploded across my vision, I struggled to explain to them that there were so many good parts of my middle school experience that they were missing. I shouldn’t have bothered. That day I learned an important lesson: to those who have never had to rely on sheer willpower to make it, hustle looks a lot like luck. The assumption was that we’d all landed in that room through the good fortune of nice middle schools, not through grades earned in gifted programs in schools with barbed wire.
APW Managing Editor Maddie has what she calls the “One Shitty Thing,” theory. Her hypothesis is that she tends to get along best with people who seem like they have it all together, but when you get to know them you find out that they’ve survived at least one terrible thing in their lives. This theory is a good reminder that we tend to assume we know all about someone with a limited number of facts, and we don’t. (White kid, sitting at a seminar table at NYU—that tells you everything right? Wrong.) But it also speaks to the fact that those of us who have fought our way out of one tough circumstance or another tend to have unifying qualities. We have hustle, we have drive. We have the ability to pass as someone or something we’re not, if it’s what’s needed for survival. We know how to scan the horizon for any small scrap of luck, and use it to our advantage. We can build something from nothing, because we always have. No risk is worse than staying where we are. We will work harder and longer than you thought possible, if we know that’s what it takes. And while in some ways we have nothing to lose, at our core we know we have everything to lose. We will do anything to avoid returning to our original circumstances. And that is the reason hustlers are a force to be reckoned with. That is why they can be a little terrifying.
So this month is for the hustlers, the risk-takers. This month is for those of you who get out on the ice skating rink without knowing what you’re doing, fall hard over and over, and just keep getting up. This month isn’t about succeeding; it’s just about getting the hell up.
This one is for you.
Photo: Gabriel Harber