The Hustle™ - A Defense In Kind

Kyle Bragger, a friend and probably my earliest mentor in startupland wrote an article calling out the "hustle" as a false idol for entrepreneurs, builders, and people in general:

"The Hustle™ is bullshit, and a poor way to accomplish anything of lasting value.
There’s a pervasive and toxic way of thinking ‘round these parts that you’ve gotta out-hustle your competitors; that you have to pull all-nighters and throw away weekends to ship that new feature; that, by working double- or triple-time, you’ll execute better and pull ahead of the pack.


What did The Hustle™ accomplish? I gained weight. I wasn’t spending enough time with my (now) wife. I felt like shit. I began to resent my work, and the work I was producing clearly wasn’t my best. I started cutting corners. I went from a mindset of shipping with quality and integrity to “when is this going to be over?”

I can't find any flaw in what Kyle wrote. And Kyle is definitely a dude who's put in his shifts "hustling" so he knows what he's talking about. Dude does not bullshit. 

Recently there's been a lot of discussion and mounting criticism about the "hustle" life. Most of the talking points focus on working long hours, taking on too much stress at once, and the stupid belief that going "110%" will guarantee riches. Real tragedies both public and private abound in no small part to these beliefs especially now as seed startups are biting the dust from the boom of 2011. 

But why all this criticism focused on the hustle?

There are plenty of real problems in startupland - the herd mentality, the general dilution of talent and unique perspectives, the misogyny bro-culture, the disconnect from the 99% etc. But hustling is not one of these problems. If anything, there's not enough of it in startups. For me, the hustle has never been about working long hours or working harder than anyone else. I think in no small part, there is a misinterpretation of exactly what the hustle is. 

Here are some commonly accepted definitions of "hustle:"

  • To make money by any means necessary, legal or otherwise.
  • To feign a lack of skill while bets are made before a game of skill starts.
  • To move energetically or dynamically in a competitive activity.

Hustling in hip hop is a deeply American cultural construct. Money is everything. Do anything to get money. Hustling in skill competitions is a celebration of cunning, guile, and hacking the rules of the game.Hustling in sports is the 110% effort giving-it-your-all for the  whole match.

In each of these cases, the hustle represents the act of doing whatever is necessary to achieve a singular goal: Win. Hustling epitomizes a very focused (even myopic) obsession with winning. No matter what happens, the hustler will try any and everything to succeed. 

Hustling is never explicitly the act of working insanely hard, working insanely smart, lying, cheating, stealing, coercing, finagling, or scamming even if we associate these things with the term. In the hustler's mind, the "hustle" occurs when you win. The means are merely different methods to the madness. 

Some hustlers do work hard, and some work smart. They can be morally ambiguous at best, greedy at worst, but above all self-serving. In startupland, VCs love them because they represent the type of ego-driven power and cash hungry personas that map well to histories of exits and profit. It's not a guarantee of success, but it's certainly a good sign. 

And as Kyle and others have noted, the life of a hustler is a bunch of bullshit. The chances of it paying out are slim, and, for hundreds of millions of Americans, not even possible given the appetite for risk required. Instead you lose your health, your personal life, and your perspective on what it means to be a living breathing human being. Above all you focus entirely on winning… a ridiculously arbitrary notion of merit, and yet a very persistent one. 

So why defend the hustle? 

Hustling is a big fuck-you to everything that stands in the hustler's way. It is an irrational insistence about how the world should be. Hustlers actively perpetuate the Horatio Alger myth of rags to riches, a blatant lie about what is possible in America (statistically speaking). Occasionally, outside the bounds of the system, some of them succeed and things are forever changed for better and worse. 

The hustle is when you spend all your Paypal exit money on absurd dreams of the stars and electric cars. It's when you burn the park benches to keep the fire alive in your studio. Cook down leather boots for food in the winter. Hustling is defending yourself with the frying pan, Odysseus outsmarting the cyclops. Stealing the wrestling captain's girl while you're giving her math lessons.  Nothing celebrates the potential impact of a single human being quite like the hustle. 

The hustle is also when you sacrifice everything and nothing works out. It's Escobar in jail, Enron, the financial industry over the past twenty years, Color for iPhone. It's a yellow brick road littered with suicides, alcoholism, abuse, fraud and frighteningly reckless abandon. 

We love hustlers, especially in America. We recite Steve Jobs' famous quote "Good artists copy, great artists steal," rewatch the Larry Bird diving-out-of-bounds-behind-his-head assist, listen to the Jay-Z mythologies of getting out of the ghetto. It should be noted that none of these people come off as kind-hearted empathetic individuals. They only care about wining. We appreciate their singular driven goals clearly. We know that they wear not hearts but dreams on their sleeves. We admire their gumption. Their necessity is clear. And their invention is always genuine. Inside of every hustle is the soul of a determined individual filled with irrational belief.

Hustlers are rule benders and breakers. They push the boundaries of what we think is acceptable and possible. They are often the ones pushing the human condition forward AND backwards. When they're good, they're great. When they're bad, they're asshole lobbyists tanking our country. 

Above all, to hustle is to cause change. 

Bending and breaking rules to achieve something in spite of the odds. You could argue that hustlers are the only real agents of change. Tesla may have invented a bunch of cool stuff, but Edison was the jerk who brought it to millions of people. 

When we admire hustlers, something clicks inside of each of us. We are compelled to appreciate ingenuity and persistence in the pursuit of singular goals. Forces greater than our individual will are constantly at work against us, and so we cheer on the Stampers to make their log run. We believe in miracles on ice, buzzer beaters, muses for playwrights, angels for startups because we want all those people to win. Why? Probably some primeval animal instinct tied to resource acquisition and reproduction, I dunno, come back to me in 50 years. I do know that in America everyone loves the kid with the lemonade stand in the summer and the sweet smiling troublemakers in high school who sell lunch tickets for booze money (sorry mom!). 

But, if the hustle is basically some antiquated primal element of our psyche, shouldn't we, in our comfortable sophisticated society work to abolish it? They're trying this in Europe so the jury is still out on that one. 

Consider the creation of an individual human and all the processes and events required for this new person to exist. On the top level there is a tremendous amount of hustle from two individuals. But even before this, you must factor in six billion people, multiply by time and geography, then add a bunch of circumstance, and there's still so much work to do! There's that one egg that's got to make that trip (unscathed no less!), and then there's that one sperm who will need to triumph over so many peers (among other obstacles). After all this, there's still the mother's own will to persevere, and then the child's first moments in the world - kicking, struggling, and finally crying out to announce her presence in the world. And then they will need to get through middle school.

Human conception, conscious life as we know it, is just a culmination of a bunch of random separate entities that got what they wanted. So while you certainly can kick back and enjoy the life, please recognize that you can't knock the hustle.