Letter From The Editor: Risk

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

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  • Stephanie

    “This month isn’t about succeeding, it’s just about getting the hell up.”

    Thank you so much, Meg. My company was sold recently, and my last day of work was 2 months before our wedding. Between the final stages of wedding planning, job hunting, and the not-so-little voice in the back of my head that says I am completely unemployable and will be a deadbeat drain on my soon-to-be husband, I am a roiling ball of stress and insomnia.

    But you know what? I have two options: give up, or get the hell back up. And I don’t like option #1.

    Things won’t be easy, but the only way to move forward is to just keep getting the hell up. I really needed this reminder right now. Thank you.

  • Anonymous Friend

    “No one is born a hustler—hustlers are made. ”

    Why oh why can’t the theme of this month be “hustling”?? I can’t wait to see what’s coming next!!

  • Margi

    “This month isn’t about succeeding, it’s just about getting the hell up.”

    THIS. I feel as though this is a lesson I haven’t learned. I’ve never had anything TERRIBLE happen to me, just a series of semi bad things one after another…for example, starting to get back in shape and then pulling my back…having a a horrible job. ..having depression and anxiety that isn’t getting better after so many years of therapy…I feel stuck and helpless. I need to learn how to get the hell up. How can one build up resilience?

    • Caroline

      Can we please discuss this? Because resilience is not really a thing I have. It’s something I’d like/need to have, but don’t. I’m learning it slowly, sort of, but I don’t feel like it’s something I’m good at.

      • grace b

        Agreed. When things get hard I just want to go in the closet and never get out.

        I feel like I’ve been facing this a lot lately because while I grew up pretty middle class (and was able to have nice things but never anything over the top) my boyfriend grew up middle class with VERY wealthy grandparents who have basically been bankrolling his whole family for his whole life. So they like to send us money. And not just a $20 in the mail, but large sums of money. I’m so embarassed by it because I know that I myself and more self-sufficient and so is my boyfriend. But it is just SO NICE to have that “security” money in the bank….

        Whew, just venting a bit.

        I bet this is going to be a great topic this month.

    • My new mantra, picked up from my post-natal-depression support group: “Everyone has their own Everest. Some of us just need more base camps along the way”.
      Keeping on going, getting up every day, even though its sh!t. Taking pity on yourself for those ocassional bad days. The only way out is through, and sometimes it will take a while. One goal at a time. Build team YOU.
      Hope you feel better soon!

  • Carolyn

    I’m in love forever with Maddie for the “One Shitty Thing” hypothesis.

    • Kirstin

      Agreed! This just put into words for me something that I think I have been doing for a long time, as I evaluate with whom I choose to invest my time.

      It’s not that I expect any new friend to be able to “check that box” or that it’s an open conversation – honestly I think it’s something that I am just drawn to in another person. We are part of a shared club and somehow you know it’s there.

  • Gina

    I love everything about this. I love how you took an upbringing others may see as a weakness and view it as a strength. Because it IS a strength. You know you can live without a lot of things that other people view as essential. There is a freedom in that kind of perspective that allows risk.

    Also, I had no idea you grew up in San Berdoo! I grew up in Lake Arrowhead! I know, less impoverished and crime-ridden than San B, by like, a million. But every bit as little job opportunity. Maybe for different reasons than yours, but this line rang so true for me: “But for many of us, the only thing scarier than going, is staying.”

  • moe

    If I want to send in a submission, should I just use the wedding graduate form on the website? Or is there an email address it sould be sent to?

  • I’m going to need this month, I know it. And my sister — going through a tough time now, and getting married in less than two months — is going to need it, too. Looking forward to the inspiration and fab stories, as always!

  • anon

    Oh no – and just when my husband is in that classic dilemma of having an offer from a good job, but waiting for an offer from an even better job (not money wise – career wise). Timeline does not seem to work out on this and we dont know what to do!! Im thinking its probably better not to take the risk and take the job hes been offered. But then it became risk taking month on APW???!!!!!!

    • Rosie

      I don’t want to take the discussion off topic, but perhaps the risk you need to take is asking one company if you can have a few more days to decide (without telling them you’re waiting on another offer obviously) and/or asking the other company about the likelihood of getting a decision soon. Things like this are tough so I hope it works out!

      • anon

        Well he only got three days to think about it from the offer. And the other place knows he has an offer and when he asked for the timeline said it would be two weeks. They didnt seem inclined to speed it up for him. Not sure what to do next….

        • MDBethann

          That unwillingness to speed up the process for a potential hire might mean the answer won’t go your way. If he doesn’t currently have a job, maybe going with the definite offer is the way to go. If the longer timeline company knows they might lose a good hire if they don’t act faster and then don’t act faster, I’d question whether that’s a company I would want to work for (if I was in the position anyway).

          Good luck!


    Oooh, love it. Now I really want to write something for this month. Is there still room for new submissions?

  • kathleenicanrah

    I love the idea of luck vs. hustle, and how they can be confused.
    I too ascribe to the “one shitty thing” theory, though as I’ve gotten older I found I often assume that EVERYONE has one (and sometimes two or three) shitty things, and that starting in that place makes me a kinder gentler person.

    • Yes! I think people can benefit greatly from the ‘one shitty thing’ assumption.

      Also, I so needed this right now.

    • KC

      Yes. Seriously. I honestly wonder, does *anyone* make it to, say, 25 without something kind of horrific (or a huge ball of stress of some kind) happening to them somewhere along the line?

      I’m really curious about this right now, as I saw a specialist who said “interestingly, we find that almost all of our patients with X have had a traumatic experience of some kind”, which leads to theories about stress and the immune system and all that, which also seem reasonable. But part of me wonders if this is 100% confirmation bias – if you got real answers from everyone in this age bracket, not just those who have Condition X, would anyone *not* have something actually-fairly-big in there somewhere, if they thought about it?

      • LK

        Your question seemed somewhat rhetorical, but I figured I’d chime in anyway.

        I’m 25 and can’t think of what my “one shitty thing” would be. I grew up in a comfortable middle-class household in a reasonably happy family, am generally very healthy, haven’t experienced periods of unemployment, haven’t had close family members with major illnesses, etc.

        I’m incredibly blessed and frequently think about how strange it is that I haven’t had that shitty thing happen to me. And sometimes I freak out a bit, knowing that it’s going to come eventually and what if I can’t handle it and what if it’s the worst and what if it just breaks me? But we can’t change our life experiences. I figure the best I can do is to recognize how fortunate I’ve been, recognize that most people do have very shitty things happen to them, and try to be as sensitive to that as possible.

        On a sadder note, now Maddie won’t be my friend :( Ha!

        • KC

          Actually, it totally wasn’t rhetorical, so thank you for noting your existence!

          (just, the stats on how likely it is to have a close relative with a major illness or to have a major illness yourself, plus the stats on how likely it is for women to experience “unwanted sexual contact” by age whatever, plus the stats on divorce, plus the stats on mental illness, plus all the other things that can go wrong, like bankruptcy or abuse or food/housing insecurity or massively toxic friendships/relationships… I wasn’t sure if anyone existed, and I couldn’t think of anyone I know who had gotten through college without at least one gasp-inducing Big Thing.)

        • jashshea

          So. Me, too, LK. I’m 35. My parents are alive and wonderful (and married to one another). My brother is alive and wonderful. My husband is one of my favorite people. I have hilarious, wonderful, engaging friends all over the country/world that I would take a bullet for and they for me. Nothing terrible has ever happened to ME.

          But lots and lots of very sad and terrible things have happened to my brood (their parents getting very sick, dying slowly, or dying suddenly. Miscarriages, divorces, mental illnesses). Experiencing that pain as a spectator is obviously not the same as actually going through the pain in the first person, not by an order of magnitude. But it does give you pause and help you evaluate what’s actually important (and make you more sensitive, like you said).

          I have no idea how I will react when one of my parents dies (which is my go-to terrible event), but I do know that I’ve done my very best to let them know that I think they’re wonderful and very loved (and that they should make sure their wills and POAs are updated).

      • Alison

        I think one reason it’s hard to quantify this is that we all have different standards for something being shitty. My mom has schizophrenia and it was profoundly shitty during the (thankfully few) episodes when the meds weren’t working… but it took me a full 5 minutes sitting here thinking about your comment to realize that was my shitty thing.

        • KC

          That’s true. We also are sometimes “used to” our own things (or have, um, shoved them to the back of the memory storage unit). And it’s probably more of a continuum than an obvious fence, with minorly-lousy things over on one side (I got laid off, but then got my job back a month later) and enormously-hideous things on the other (Batman-origin-story) and a bunch of stuff all over the middle (but seriously, there’s a lot of stuff there, and having your mother have schizophrenic episodes sounds frankly pretty horrible even though it sounds like it’s resolved now).

          I think my best stab at quantifying what I would mean by that would be “a thing which was bad to experience and which significantly affected our lives or who we are”, probably with the addition of a “gasp” factor of some kind, wherein a massive portion of age peers would probably be internally somewhat horrified at your experience (whether or not they’re aiming to be “cool” and hence treat it as no big deal). But even that is pretty vague, and others would no doubt define it differently.

        • mira

          SO MUCH THIS!

        • Sierra

          Yup. My one thing immediately came to mind, but then I kept reading the comments and saw KC’s list of stats, and I realized some of those applied to me too. I don’t think of my divorce as something shitty that happened to me though, hah!

      • Reader47

        Nothing bad here either. I think the statistics can be a bit misleading. For example, I once had a stranger expose himself to me in public. Technically/statistically that was unwanted sexual attention or something similar, but it really does not rate as a horrific thing for me.

        I’m lucky, and grateful, and hoping it stays this way.

  • Karen

    I will never forget my college freshman sociology class when the prof said we are all middle class because we were sitting in that room. I was offended. My family was, and for the most part still is, on the very low end of the socioeconomic spectrum. It is only now, almost 20 years later, that I feel that I am in the middle class. And I have discovered that middle class can be just as scary as dirt poor. It’s just the other side of the same coin. I, too, thought people who had multiple pairs of shoes were rich. I thought people who owned their own homes were rich and had it all together. Man was I naïve! Everybody’s wearing a façade, I just didn’t know it.

    I knew a long time ago that if I wanted to survive I had to get out. I went to a private college several states away on really great scholarships. And eventually went on to get a graduate degree, all the while not really knowing what I wanted to be “when I grew up.” All I knew for sure was what I didn’t want.

    It’s been a long time coming but I finally have the life I want doing work I love, on my own terms. My mother recently had a health scare and I was thrust back in her world and among people she associates with. At first I felt guilty for all the time I spent away, but then as she recovered I did what I always do: I left. To save myself I had to leave and let her continue to make her own choices. It is one of the hardest lessons in life; knowing what belongs to you and what belongs to others, but it will set you free.

    And yes, I remember stepping foot on my first college campus and being both scared and excited. I now had the power to make my own decisions and create the life I wanted. It was worth everything. I would make the same decision again.

    • Yeah, I think people go ‘well you weren’t in a ghetto or a council home, so you are privileged’. It just idn’t that cut and dried.

      • Karen

        Very true. Assumptions are dangerous things.

    • Claire

      “It is one of the hardest lessons in life; knowing what belongs to you and what belongs to others, but it will set you free.” Hard, but so important.

    • Angry Feminist Bitch

      I identify with this 1000000%.

  • Rae

    I completely relate to this. I’m in a fancy-pants grad school right now surrounded by a lot of people who definitely did not grow up depending on public benefits and hand-me-downs. Sometimes the assumptions about our backgrounds — by professors, by students, by colleagues — make me feel really out of place. This piece was a great reminder that my experiences gave me the guts to be where I am now. I am a hustler.

  • Rasheeda

    I have a lot of things to say to this post but most of them are so far behind this thought: OMG I Needed to hear this today. To know I’m not crazy for being a hustler, I’m bred to be a hustler. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  • Eff yeah for the hustlers. My boyfriend has taught me the value of the hustle, because this kid (points at self) did grow up lucky. More lucky than I ever understood. But as adults, we’re poor as hell and hustling anyway, making it happen.

    The biggest risk I ever took in life was getting divorced at 23 and going on to, several years and learning experiences later, strike up a relationship with a single dad I’d been not-so-secretly in love with since I was 19. (Time to write a submission? Heh.) Everything that has happened since has made my life richer and broader and more difficult and beautiful than I knew it could be, and it’s all been worth the risk.

    • Emma

      I’d love to read that post!

  • Abbi

    I identify with this so strongly. I come from an upper middle class background where my parents scrimped and saved behind the scenes so that my brother and I could live the life many immigrants dream of for their children. My partner came from a rural, single parent home – or should I say 16 homes because that’s how many times she remembers moving before graduating from high school. She comes from a world of “end of the month casserole” and figuring it out as it comes along. Sometimes we just struggle to get each other because she didn’t grow up with a vision of savings accounts and life insurance and eating out and lots of food… and I didn’t grow up with the idea that it’s okay to not know exactly how something is going to be paid for.

    I’m really excited for this month!

    • KM

      I’m really excited for your guest post! (you’re going to write about all that, right?)

  • Paranoid Libra

    I kind of feel like we need a Wendy Davis highlight with this month. A woman that grew up in a trailer park and became a teenage mother that managed to graduate from Harvard Law and become a state senator! That lady is a hustler and risk taker.

  • Class of 1980

    “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.”

    Well, STATISTICALLY speaking, it does prepare you for jail.

    Let me elaborate … from all the reading I’ve done, it seems that kids from disadvantaged backgrounds who succeed have one thing in common … some adult mentored them … even if it was limited to helping them fill out college applications.

    There are families where no one has a clue how to actually get into college; where no one tells the kid to get good grades so they can get a scholarship … because college is something you only read about in a book. It’s a mythical place.

    Your parents were intellectuals – just their daily conversations gave you some hints that there were important things to do in the world. They were interested in lots of subjects and communicated them to you. I assume they explained how scholarships worked too.

    For a kid who never hears an intelligent debate or discussion at home because their parents are uneducated (whether formal or self-taught), that kid needs at least one adult to give them some hints. I knew a couple of kids who literally had genius IQs, but ended up in minimum wage jobs because there was no one at home or school who knew how to help them. I remember thinking at a young age that those two kids demonstrated what a difference parents make.

    Academics who study socioeconomics will tell you that if you want to know a child’s future, first look to their parent’s socioeconomic status. That status is not only determined by how much money you have … it’s also how much education you have.

    This is why when you have upper class parents who cultivate their kid’s learning and know how to navigate them through college, even an utterly average kid from that background is statistically more likely to be successful. It’s not an even playing field.

    Meg, you’ve mentioned how many people from your school did fall through the cracks. I bet they were the ones whose parents knew the least, and who never had any mentor whatsoever.

    You mention the good parts of growing up there. Yes, no doubt the experience gave you a lot of patience and determination. It probably makes you delight in everything you’ve worked for in a way that those upper-middle class kids can’t. And that’s a blessing.

    I am NOT in any way downplaying your own hustle and efforts, because your success would NEVER EVER have happened without those. Yes, you were walking a tightrope without a net. I hear you on that!

    But kids need the key that unlocks the door and that’s at least one mentor who shows them the possibilities.

    • Claire

      AMEN! And a shout out to those folks who take the time to be those mentors, formally or informally.

      • KC

        And ditto for “relationship” mentors or models, who helped prove to those who were dubious that yes, it is possible to crawl up from where you are to somewhere better and have a healthy relationship. :-)

    • Katey

      I agree that a mentor most often makes the difference for kids from low-income backgrounds. This is why I now volunteer as a mentor to future first-generation college students.

      However, I think some people have an additional something that drives them to *get out* at all costs. While I had teachers and parents who were supportive of me academically, I didn’t have anyone at school or at home to help me apply to college or for scholarships, or talk me down when I was ready to drop out because I was going into debt and had no clear direction. But you figure it out. I don’t know what kids did before the Internet, but I researched everything I needed to know online. And still do. It is difficult to ask for help once you’ve learned to be self-reliant.

      I see kids in the program I volunteer for who do not succeed in spite of one-on-one mentoring they receive and additional support with schoolwork, applications, etc. while my latest student spends more than double the time after school and during the summer to make sure his grades and test scores give him the best chance at taking the financial burden for school off of his parents.

      So, yes, mentors are invaluable, but ‘hustle’ is its own element that drives these statistical exceptions. And once you figure out the former, the latter helps you find those mentors. :-)

      • Kirstin

        I work in higher education and there are a lot of folks actually studying this right now. They are looking at the factors that influenced someone who on paper was “less likely to succeed” but did succeed. They are referring to this resilience as “grit.”

        If you are interested:

        Angela Duckworth’s TED Talk on Grit: http://www.ted.com/talks/angela_lee_duckworth_the_key_to_success_grit.html

        Researchers are trying to figure out how to help students to “be more gritty.” Cool stuff.

  • Katelyn

    I haven’t had that “one shitty thing” event…and I’m terrified of what it will be.

    • KC

      I don’t think “one shitty thing” events are distributed evenly and then hang over your head until applied. If you’ve skipped cancer, abuse, family implosions, getting mugged, etc. until now, your odds of “one shitty thing” happening are not in general greater than if you’d had one happen already.

      There are a few exceptions here, of course, like if your parents have already passed away, then they can’t do it again, and hence the probabilities on that particular thing are, um, lower. But generally, you get the idea. And also, horrible things sometimes have a domino effect, due to stress affecting relationships and bodies, so you may actually be at lower odds of some horrible things by not having one already going on, yay! Plus, as you get older, you develop more resources for coping with situations and problems, so that helps with making things clobber you less, potentially, than if they’d happened earlier in life.

      • “I don’t think “one shitty thing” events are distributed evenly and then hang over your head until applied”

        So true. Life doesn’t care whether you’ve had one shitty thing or ten shitty things happen to you when whatever comes next happens. It doesn’t mean that there are lots of crummy things coming just because you haven’t had any yet, and it doesn’t mean that because you have there aren’t going to be many more.

    • Natalie

      Thank you for saying this. I am in the exact same camp. I call it “waiting for the other shoe to drop.” I KNOW that this is not how the world works, but I have been so ridiculously blessed/privileged/lucky that I feel like it’s not possible for this to just continue in perpetuity. So I’m always wondering what my “thing” will be. It’s a good problem to have, of course, but it’s…weird.

  • Leslie

    My biggest risk was to move TO San Bernardino…the post is brewing…

  • kate

    I am officially excited for this month. I don’t consider myself a risk taker but more of a “lucky one.” Thank you for sharing your letter even though you worried it was too personal.

    My fiance (72 days and less than 2 hours til our day) told me a few weeks ago that he’s really interested in pursuing his own restaurant. He hasn’t ever worked in food services and so would be starting from the beginning – part time line cook job to learn some ropes, building a business plan, saving a lot of money, asking for lots of money, a lot of hustle and a lot of risk. The thing is, although this is against my nature (and his too) I’m ready to take these risks with him because I think he will do awesome at it and even if it doesn’t work out we’re going to shoot the moon. It’s going to take a lot of risk and I’m excited to read about all of yours. You inspire me.

  • Sam

    This difference, between the way you grow up versus the way your partner grew up, is the stake in the heart of my marriage right now.
    My husband grew up in a family where to quote ABBI they “scrimped and saved behind the scenes” so that their children could have private school and University educations.
    I come from a family where my mom, who worked her ass -off as an executive at a big brandname company, had to eat “end of the month casserole” because my Dad bankrupt them both. She spent 16 years paying off his debt (long story). We looked pretty on the outside, meeting our upper-middle class social obligations while living with the fallout behind the scenes. I could go on about the fact that this isn’t even the “one shitty thing” I would say that informs my life.
    My husband and I recently had a reckoning about the fact that he doesn’t trust me to raise our children to the standard he expects. That he won’t bring children into this world unless they can have all the privilege he had. Which I think is admirable, but unrealistic, and unnecessary.
    We are certainly upper middle class and we are on a nice course to continue to be. We own our house (well the bank does) and we have savings (something I too, never thought I would have), our children will be safe and loved and have RESPs (we don’t have any children by the way, in case you were wondering but we do have money set aside for them if we end up having children).
    He has no idea what RISK means, about what it means to have to think about money. He worries about how much we have saved and how much will won’t be able to afford. All I can think about is how much we already have to offer our children …. I didn’t really realize how far apart our prespectives were until we had this argument.
    But Meg’s comment about upper middle class kids having more to lose and making risk scarier rang true. But what really rang home was the end.
    Thank you for giving me a jumping-off point in the continued discussion of my marriage ….

    • Good luck with that conversation! It was one of the hardest around here too – DHs family were comfortably off, his Mum was able to stay at home till all the kids were in school then work part time. Mine was dirt poor, and I dont want to go back there. Which is why I put off the decision to have kids for so long – I wanted to be stable enough to have HIS family lifestyle, not mine…

    • I really appreciate you sharing this, as my husband and I have a similar disparity. Although in our case, I’m the one who grew up in enough comfort for private school education, etc, while he comes from a family that was middle class and relatively comfortable but where he still had to work his ass off to put himself through school. As a result, he’s much more comfortable with the idea of struggle – and with a lack of significant financial cushion – than I am.

      We’re comfortable now, but not to a point where we can afford to buy a house (at least not in LA) and I realize that if we have kids, at least at the point we are now, they would not have access to the same ease and privileges I did. Which scares me (and makes me feel bad for not having picked a higher earning field). Honestly, it does cause me some hesitation when I think about having kids – but also, I know this hesitation is all based around fear. Which in the end is not a good motivator for any important decision, and I can see that there is so much more that we – or any parents – can give their kids than a lack of worry about financial aid. Still, it’s a conversation I know my husband and I will continue to have as we negotiate what we do feel is necessary for our family financially – and the fact that we come from different backgrounds does make the conversation more charged.

      So even though I have more of your husband’s experience, I hope it helps to know that I relate too. Hopefully it’s something that you guys will get to a good place on through discussion and with time. I feel like discussion + time is the equation for pretty much all of our marital decisions really. :)

      • Sam

        Oh no it’s so nice to know that there are other people having these conversations, relating to the struggle.
        I also totally understand the twinge about your career choice …

      • KC

        This is solely anecdotal, but I had rich friends and not-rich friends and very poor [like, government-assistance-poor] friends when I was growing up. My rich friends (pool in backyard, giant house with a view, apparently unlimited toys and craft supplies) were definitely not happier than my very poor friends. Incidentally, the not-rich friends were also a whole lot more fun to visit (making stuff up beats re-enacting TV show episodes with your extensive Barbie collection, sorry).

        I think having parents who are present, loving, and fulfilled/content/I-don’t-even-know-what-to-call-it is a far greater predictor of child happiness than piano lessons, the latest electronics, and trips to Europe. If you want your kid to fit in perfectly at Harvard or whatever, that is probably a somewhat different story, but… I’d personally take a parent whose work is less remunerative and more fulfilling over one whose job sucks but where I get more toys/soccer-camp/etc. So, I guess what I’m saying is that maybe the less-remunerative job is better and not something to feel guilty about. :-)

        If it’s a “not sure we can keep the electricity on”, “not sure where next meal is coming from”, or “housing may be unstable” financial difference, that does have more of a negative effect on kids, though. My friends had good community and super-budgeting parents, so they experienced monotonous diet and never-new clothing, but no instability, if that makes sense; they were also pretty healthy kids on the whole, which makes a difference in terms of cost, too. And their parents valued education and however you could get your hands on it, so that also helps.

        But I’d “price out” a lower standard of living and look at it from a kid’s point of view if you can and see how/whether that works out. (not that they won’t whine about everything they see on commercials; but what is really going to affect their life) It might be reassuring – it might not – but anyway, more data is good? :-)

        • Thank you! That’s great advice and really good for me to remember because I agree with you that being present and loving and content matters way more than lessons and gadgets and camp. (I actually hated going to camp.) And we’re definitely middle class, so *hopefully* it wouldn’t be a worry about keeping the lights on or food on the table ever – which is also good to remember: as long as the basics are there, there rest is just gravy. And the best gravy is the kind we make ourselves – is that stretching the metaphor too far?! :)

          • Kristen

            Ditto what KC said. For all the problems with my childhood (and none of those were money based), being raised with less made me who I am and I wouldn’t change it for the world. I’m GLAD neither my husband nor I make so much money I’d have to worry about spoiling my kid. We make enough to keep our kid fed, housed and clothed. Everything else we’ll give our child, comes free from within us.

            My husband never worked a job until college, and even in college (which was paid for through mostly financial aid but made up the rest by his parents) he only worked during the summers. Its great he had that luxury, but I question what good it did his work ethic to be handed money as an adult instead of being told to work for it. I’m the person I am because I had to work and I kind of want my kids to have that same ideal. I want it to be hard for them, life is hard and learning how to maneuver it on your own is so important a skill.

            Of course conversely, I wonder if I’m too tough minded and have told my husband I want him to help balance my strictness while I help balance his permissiveness. Hopefully between the two of us we’ll help our kids when they need it and ask them to walk on their own when they should.

  • Rachel

    Meg, you are a fantastic writer. As a loyal lurker for years, I must tell you, having you back writing regularly (at least once a month) is the main reason I keep coming, even after being married. Your perspective and the way you express it is truly extraordinary, and I really thank you for sharing it. Also, watching you hustle (I remember when you had a day job!) to make this blog succeed has been amazing–much credit and congratulations to you. You’re an inspiration.

  • I missed most of July because of vacation & I am so excited to tune in for August!

  • Meg, thank you for this phrase in particular: “…it’s just about getting the hell up.”

    Just…thank you…

  • “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. ”

    This. So much this. It’s a hard thing to stop. I hustled to get to where I am now and while suppose I *could* stop (and do take the occasional holiday to lounge and enjoy what I have achieved), I find I don’t want to. There are more and better things out there, bigger dreams to capture, and life is short. It was surprising how nervous I got when I looked up and realized I had achieved the majority of what I set out to do: set myself up in stable and enjoyable housing, educational, and social circumstances with financial security. What do I do with myself now?? It was an amazing to dream even bigger and know, deep down, I could get there if I hustled. While it is this –“We will do anything to avoid returning to our original circumstances”– that ultimately drives me, calculates my risks, and makes me nervous to tone back the hustle, I suddenly find the thrill of the chase in hustling lures me onward. It throws me for a bit of a loop considering the hustle originated from survival and fear of stagnation, not chasing thrills.

  • Sal

    I think the danger of believing that “we can all get out/up/more” if we just have the right balance of “hustle” and chutzpah (personality?) is dangerously close to the good ol American bootstraps theory. It puts the burden on the individual to leave her community behind, rather than addressing real inequalities. Not all of us can, or want, leave our communities for fancier pastures. But all of us (and it’s always a problem to make a universalism, but here I go) do want strong, healthy communities where the health and education of our children and the safety of our streets are not dependent on our race, class, or gender/sex.

    I get that I am simplifying the argument a bit – we can stay home, and also be a hustler, and many of us do hustle (nonstop) for our communities. But I think this theory of hustle needs to pay equal attention to the other side of the coin – rather than just being on the look-out for ourselves (I got out! I am a survivor!) we need to be asking why the conditions of “getting out” ever need to exist, and what it means to perpetrate that system by leaving “the bad and old” behind in search for something that is called “survival” but basically looks a lot like bourgeois existence. And, lest we all forget our Marx, the bourgeois require their working class. So when we get out, we just keep someone else down. Is that really what we want?

    • KC

      I agree that fixing the situations that people want *out* from is also an important thing to focus on, and I think it is important to avoid saying “people get what they deserve in life” (which I don’t think this is doing).

      However, I don’t think getting out necessitates pushing others down. For instance, Meg has actually gotten out and created jobs (!). And has supported other small businesses in the process.

      Obviously, if we’re aiming for or achieving a lifestyle where we’re eating stewed lark’s tongue off of gold plates that we then chuck into the river, that is indeed swiping more resources than are on the planet for an individual person. But if you’re getting out by starting a subsistence farm that then gradually has enough to share with others, or if you get out into a creative or business profession and then offer a leg up on the ladder by creating jobs or providing education or whatever, that seems like a pretty good thing. Maybe not perfect-world socialism (which ain’t going to happen with a world full of imperfect people), but a pretty good thing.

    • I agree with this. We just bought a house in Baltimore City, and I don’t want my kids to feel like because they grew up around great poverty, they need to get the hell out. I struggle a lot with raising children here, because we have such better circumstances than so many people in this city, and the poor are getting poorer and have so few opportunities, and the rich are getting richer and anyone in the middle is “getting the hell out”.

      This is an interesting perspective for anyone taking a risk with their residency or children. How do we raise hustlers while still owning more than six pairs of shoes?

      • Sarah S

        I just want to tell you that I was raised in Baltimore and am forever grateful to my parents for raising me there (though it wasn’t a conscious choice on child rearing, but rather job opportunities that led them there, and I’m sure that as two rural North Carolinians they were very anxious about how Baltimore would be for raising kids). My family started out pretty poor and worked their way up to middle class. I went to Baltimore City Public Schools, which I think was really important in my developing friends of all classes and races and family situations. And in general, I think that raising your kids in a place where they are exposed to so much diversity, if you actually allow them exposure to it and you talk about it and engage with all kinds of people, it won’t matter that you have more than six pairs of shoes. They’ll already understand (even if it’s not because they’ve personally needed to) the importance of hustling for so many people out there. They won’t be the kids in Meg’s seminar denying it.

        I certainly wouldn’t be the same had I grown up in NC, where we moved halfway through high school. (Not to “get the hell out” in your meaning, but because my parents always intended to return “home.”)

        I was just in Baltimore and drove by my old house, and it was for sale! I seriously considered buying it before I realized that I’m about to move to a different city and I in no way am in a position to own a home right now.

        Anyway….I hope you you see this and it gives you some hope for raising your kids in Baltimore!

  • Nicole

    Thanks for this post. It made me:
    1) appreciate my boyfriend more and the way he hustles. Sometimes he frustrates me because he doesn’t have a plan for things (I love a plan) or says things like, “I’ll take care of it,” which give me anxiety because how? How will he take care of it without a plan? While I didn’t grow up rich by any means, my dad had a good job and I’m an only child versus my boyfriend’s family of six where sometimes there was a lot of money and sometimes there wasn’t any.

    2) appreciate my own hustle. Sometimes I play down the fact I’ve put myself through college and now grad school while working full-time (anyone who said that was a good idea…oh wait, no one thinks that’s a good plan). Last fall I had a full courseload, was teaching, tutoring, and still working my 9-5. Don’t know how I managed to keep getting up every morning. I don’t consider myself much of a risk taker, but I guess going back to school and preparing to leave a somewhat stable, soul-sucking job for the world of teaching might be a risk….and a dream and worth all the late nights, early mornings, hours of reading Derrida, and tears.

    To all my fellow hustlers, keep up the good job.

    • Kacey

      Hours of reading Derrida… It brought me to tears.

  • There is a version of this amongst the privileged. It’s called, “One Must Always Do A Very Good Job.” Not quite the same, I get it. But a driver to risk nonetheless.

    Odd but true.

  • ” 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.”


    I’m looking forward to reading all posts- and maybe I’ll gather courage and submit one myself.

  • Molly P

    Oh lawd. Tearing up over my coffee! Thank you for this Meg. Sometimes posts like this come RIGHT when you need them. I’ve had “hungry like the wolf” playing in my head the past few days to pump myself up for some tricky things I’ve got to do at my recently started small business. Here’s to the hustlers and risk takers!

  • Jade

    Thank you. Just thank you. Great, now I’m crying. *sigh*

  • Lea

    Thank you for this. As an English teacher in an impoverished inner-city high school, this rings so true. It fills me with so much rage when people pity my students or pigeon-hole them, because they are hustlers and they are amazing and they inspire me.

  • Us cautious ones need hustler friends to kick us up the arse every so often. It helps us get over ourselves and Get Shit Done.

  • Erica Vega

    Great post! It really made me take on a whole new appreciation for where my husband has come from and how his own inner strength and determination has made him who he is today. He is also a graduate of the San Bernardino public school system. It took him 7 years to graduate from college because he had to work to pay his way through, but he did it. And he recently took the risk of leaving his job to follow his dream of being self-employed – and his sheer hustle is making his dream a sustainable reality.

    I grew up in a small town in New England with good schools that were safe. When I look at what most of my high school friends have gone on to do as compared to what my husband and his high school friends have gone on to do, most people would never guess that his friends were the San Bernardino kids and mine were the products of good schools. That’s the difference hustle makes.

  • omgphd

    Thanks for posting this, Meg. I had similar experiences growing up and putting myself through college, except I was rural poor. I remember sitting in a education policy class in college and learning that Head Start was for impoverished children… then realizing that my entire town was in Head Start with me. I was so proud when I worked a consulting gig during grad school and was able to tell some Head Start workers that I was a Head Start success story. Hooray for hustlers, and for resources to improve communities!