Do the Hustle: The Importance of Trying

For the first couple of decades of my life, I didn’t have to try very hard. (Wait–don’t leave. This was actually a bad thing.) Success in school and my two main interests, art and writing, came pretty easily. Schoolwork was easy. Tests were easy. Everyone who read my writing loved it. Everyone who saw my drawings said I was soo talented.

But there’s a ceiling to succeeding without trying. That ceiling came somewhere between tenth grade and this morning. 

When I started to sometimes not get the things I wanted, I was bitter. In college, a series of “failures” (not really failures, but fairly mild rejections) shook my confidence pretty deeply. I wasn’t selected to be a section editor on my college paper. I didn’t win any of the college writing awards. I didn’t get on the staff of the literary magazine. And, finally, and perhaps hurting most, I wasn’t selected for English department “honors,” despite entering an ambitious novel as my honors project. I was devastated. If I “couldn’t even make it” at my small liberal arts college, what chance did I have in the real world? (Hopefully I didn’t say things like this too much out loud. If so, sorry, college friends!)

Somewhere in there, things had gotten mixed up in my mind. I thought that success was a benchmark of how smart I was or how much talent I had, instead of how hard I tried. Because I wasn’t trying, but I was succeeding, at least by my tiny, childlike markers of success.

I didn’t get it.

I thought filling out an application meant I was trying. But really trying, really pursuing what you want, is so much more than asking a small group of people to judge you based on a few pages of writing or how you filled out one application. Really trying means doing the hustle.


I guess hustling usually means making money in a shady way. I’m okay with that–whatever their (many!) other faults, drug dealers and criminals definitely have great hustle. Some of us polite, reserved, always-smile-at-everybody people could learn something from them.

Hustling to me means putting yourself out there. Following opportunities, seeking out opportunities, making your own opportunities. Emailing/calling/tweeting people you don’t know because you think they’re doing cool things. Going to events where you don’t know anyone. Letting people know what you want, what you’re looking for, and asking them if they can help you get it. 

If I wanted to win poetry awards (and I didn’t, really, I mostly just wanted the validation that I was a “good writer), I shouldn’t have stopped with the one at my college and then sat around feeling sorry for myself. I should have applied for other poetry awards, submitted my stuff to every place that accepted poetry in Writer’s Market (and I DID know about Writer’s Market). Or I could have started my own literary magazine, or my own literary website, or just freaking posted my stuff on writers’ forums and gotten it out to the world that way. That’s how the world grows and develops, people doing stuff like that and not just accepting what’s on offer.

I am not an expert at hustling. If, at 14, my hustling power was at 0%, it is now at 20 or 30%. But I know that most of the good things in my life wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t hustle, if I didn’t plant a bunch of seeds and hope that a few of them would grow. 

Hustling doesn’t always work out. Rejection is a fact of life. The less you let it beat you down and the sooner you learn to endure it, the better. Rejection should be a spur to further action.  

If you want to succeed in a competitive field—or, probably, in any field—you can’t just send out your resume a few times and say you tried. You’ve got to seek out opportunities and try for those, and then try to sniff out opportunities that aren’t being advertised, and let people know you’re interested, and then if you don’t see what you want or you aren’t getting it you’ve got make your own opportunities. Even if you want something pretty conventional this makes sense. The New York Times is probably going to be more impressed with someone who started her own underground newspaper than someone who wasn’t named editor of her college paper and so accepted the advertising position she didn’t want and dealt with it.

“Dealing with it” is for things like your best friend getting cancer or having to whatever the hell you can to support your family. Dealing with it is not for your dreams. Yes, you need to start at the bottom, but there is no point in starting at the bottom of a ladder that you already know you’re not interested in. If you think you need to put in your time, put in your time and ALSO do you own independent thing.

And if you’re not that ambitious or don’t care that much that’s cool. Ambition is kind of a sickness, one that’s pretty specific to our culture. The world needs people who are content with doing their nine to five, or loving their friends and family, or daydreaming. I’m serious about that. The world needs lots of those people, and if that is the kind of person you are, don’t apologize for it. You will probably be happier in the long run than seriously ambitious people. 

What the world doesn’t need is people who really, really wanted to be engineers but when they got rejected from Cal Tech resigned themselves to being accounting clerks because a friend knew about a place that was hiring accounting clerks. And who are then resentful, or spend vast amounts of time talking/thinking about how they could have been so much more.

What the world doesn’t need is people who try kind of half-assedly to become video game designers for a couple of months and then complain about how unfair the video game design industry is. Maybe it is. But be honest with yourself about how hard you tried to make that dream come true before you blame someone else for it. Once you’ve pursued your dream of being a video game designer as hard as you freakin’ can for five years then let’s talk about a biased industry.

This goes for things besides careers, too. If you want to learn to cook or type really fast, hustle. If you want to go to Ireland, hustle. If you want more friends, hustle. I’m not sure this 100% applies to love, but even with love there is a numbers game going on: if you meet 100 new people a year versus 10 you are probably more likely to find someone you really connect with.

Try to save regret and “dealing with it,” as much as possible, for things you can’t control: infertility when you always dreamed of having kids, the company you loved working for that went under. There will be enough regret of that type in life without adding on things you could have tried harder for.

Hustling doesn’t mean you’ll succeed. The world is all kinds of unfair, and nothing is guaranteed. What is guaranteed is that if you don’t try, you can’t succeed. And wouldn’t you rather be the person who really pursued their dreams and didn’t make it than the person who’s always been on the sidelines complaining? I guarantee you the first person is more fun to hang out with and has better stories to tell. 

NB. There are a few people are successful but who, like me at 14, don’t seem to have to hustle. Try to ignore them. First, there’s a chance they are hustling hard, in a way that isn’t obvious to you. There’s also a chance that their “success” is something they fell into but don’t really love. At any rate, you are not them. You are one of the hustlers. (I’m speaking mostly to myself here. :))

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