Musings on the Importance of Hustle (and How Lack of it Kills)

This blog post is not about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, but she does provide the perfect example of what I’ll be talking about.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently pulled off a shocking political primary election win in a district that was believed to heavily favor her opponent, established and well-financed 10-term incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley. Just to provide some context Crowley was believed to be a potential candidate to replace Nancy Pelosi as the highest ranking House Democrat. As a result Ocasio-Cortez swiftly found herself thrust into the national spotlight as a result.

Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign was characterized by the candidate herself getting into the trenches and doing the work. I live in the New York metro area and it wasn’t difficult to find photos that emerged of Ocasio-Cortez knocking on doors, talking to voters and registering people to vote. These were natural settings and not heavily staged and touched up photo-ops that communicated that Ocasio-Cortez – however you may feel about her politically – had her boots on the ground.

Part of the conversation following Ocasio-Cortez’s victory included allegations that she had won for “demographic” reasons. She responded to this on Twitter by sharing a photo that I don’t think I’ll ever forget:

In case you can’t read the above tweet, that’s a photo of Ocasio-Cortez’s first pair of shoes that she’d worn on the campaign trail — a pair of & Other Stories zip-up sneakers — which are so worn out that they’re discolored and cracked at the soles.

As an aside, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that I’ve lived without a car in two urban centers and you need to do a massive amount of walking to wear down shoes this much.

“Here’s my 1st pair of campaign shoes,” Ocasio-Cortez explained in her post. “I knocked doors until rainwater came through my soles.”

“Respect the hustle. We won bc we out-worked the competition. Period,” she added.

“Hustle” is a term thrown around a lot these days in an age where barriers to entry to starting businesses have never been lower. Like many words on the Internet it has literally lost some of its meaning. Even a lot of commentary responding to this tweet just focused on “hustle” just referring to doing work.

Hustle, at least to me, is the idea of actually getting your hands dirty and doing the type of work associated with people “in the trenches.” Marketer Mark W. Schaefer coined a term back in 2011 to refer to marketers who found themselves above grunt work or hands on work: “Ivory tower generals.” He compared this to the “foxhole marketers” who filled a role more comparable to Ocasio-Cortez’ role in her own campaign.

I’ve raised the issue how tired it is to hear about what we can learn from marketing from celebrities or fictional characters but this is an example far more grounded in reality. Additionally this is about more than just learning about SEO or content marketing.

The thing about becoming an ivory tower general, as I borrow the term, is that you lose motivation and drive. The drive for money can only take you so far, especially when you’ve achieved a comfortable quality of living. It’s no secret that your brain regulates pleasure so that the euphoria of hitting financial landmarks goes downward.

This has probably been written about thousands of times in different contexts, but my own experience is not dissimilar to the shock Joe Crowley probably felt when he was out-hustled this way.

At the beginning of 2011, when I started my consulting business I was hungry for clients and eager to make money. I had graduated a year prior and considering the abysmal state of the job market I was incredibly enthusiastic at the prospect of making my own job.’

I still remember parking five minutes away from the storefront of one of my first clients and dashing over in pouring rain at the prospect of signing the owner since he said he might be at the store. I arranged meetings. I E-mailed, I called, I texted, I did anything and everything possible to reach people to sell my services and close. Alec Baldwin’s character from Glengarry Glen Ross would have been ecstatic.

This drive wound up giving me about 15 retainer-based clients – a massive number for a recent graduate working solo on his first business endeavor, in hindsight – but then the inevitable happened to someone without prior business experience: I got comfortable.

This was just one issue among a litany of them with my prior business but my complacency led me to do less hands on work, arrange less meetings, and take less stock than I otherwise would have about the other problems in my business. I sat atop my small fiefdom of clients letting the money come in, occasionally taking meetings with them and doing very little else.

I had basically turned from Ocasio-Cortez to Crowley. This also wasn’t helped when I signed a much larger client that I became increasingly unhappy with. This in turn caused a knock-on effect where I started losing cohesion and vision as I started focusing on the immediately income I was getting rather than planning ahead.

This also had a much more direct income: When I became less active among my own customers they didn’t think of me as often when it came to referrals. Additionally, I wasn’t pounding the pavement like I used to and getting fewer leads based on that.

This is the horrible feedback loop of turning into an ivory tower general: You hustle less, see fewer rewards, so you might reasonably come to the conclusion that hustle isn’t worth the effort. In the end it’s what caused me to burn out at the beginning of 2015, which coincided with being let go from the larger client. They beat me to the punch, but either way I finished that E-mail feeling 100 pounds lighter.

Often, the worst thing is the discovery that you’ve become a complacent Orcus on His Throne. It can manifest in messy ways. For Joe Crowley it was losing a political primary that he and many of his allies considered a slam dunk. For me it was the discovery that my business had practically caved in from underneath me without my even realizing it.

Being “in the trenches” keeps you real. It keeps you active, busy, and it keeps you in touch with the people you work with assuming you have subordinates. More importantly, it keeps the drive to constantly push yourself to be better strong. Most importantly, you don’t get lazy or complacent. That complacency doesn’t have any short term problems but leads to long term repercussions.

So remember: Respect the hustle.

Note: As you hopefully noticed, this is not a political post. Please do not send me your articles “exposing” Ocasio-Cortez.