The True Meaning of Hustle

meaning of hustle

By Mark Schaefer

When I was 14 years old I needed a job. I needed a job because I needed money. My family didn’t have the money to buy me a bike and I needed transportation. I wanted to buy a stereo system (records!) … and I had recently discovered girls. So I needed to find some money.

Through my years of prepubescence, I had done everything I could to earn money from the opportunities presented to me through the ads in the back pages of comic books. I sold Christmas cards, stationary, and seeds door-to-door (imagine selling seeds in Pittsburgh!). I mined the neighborhood to find opportunities to cut grass, deliver newspapers, rake leaves. I was a babysitter, I washed cars, I walked dogs. I did anything I could to make a buck.

But I needed a steady income to fulfill my teen dreams.

Near my home, there was a convalescent center at the top of a very steep hill … a small mountain, really. They had advertised for a “dietary aide” (aka dish washer). I interviewed for the job but was told that I was too young. There was some kind of a law that said you had to be 16. Child labor and all that.

I was two years short of employment but undeterred.

“Look at that steep hill out front,” I told the boss during my interview. “I’ll bet you have a hard time getting people to drive up that hill in the winter time. Well, I can walk here. I will walk to work no matter what, and you will always have somebody working in the kitchen because I will always be here.”

The woman’s eyes were wide. I was offering a solution to a huge problem for her. So I got hired. I don’t know how she got around the rules but I was in, and I worked there part-time through junior high and most of my high school years. And I never missed a day of work, even if there was a blizzard and I had to walk in snow over my knees at 4 in the morning.

Today, somebody might say this was “hustle.” Maybe it was, but I don’t even know what that word means any more. “Hustle” on the web is just … loud. The hard work associated with hustle today doesn’t create value, it’s aimed at becoming louder. Hustle doesn’t require talent any more. Hustle is all about you and your dream and making your passion loud.

What I really did back then was solve a problem. Solving this kitchen supervisor’s problem got me hired, provided a paycheck, and changed my life in many big and small ways. Perhaps it highlights a stark contrast between the role of hustle then and now.

The problem with hustle

Most business success throughout all of history comes from solving problems for another person. I think that key idea is missing in a lot of the social media mantras today. The gurus say success starts with passion and following your dream. Suffocate everything else and approach life with a single-minded selfishness.

I disagree. Success comes from suffocating narcissism and instead, elevating other people as the heroes. In my book The Content Code, I have an entire chapter featuring people who have become truly heroic brands. And every person I interviewed mentioned the idea of servant leadership as a key to their success.

This is an eternal business truth that’s getting lost in the fog of digital hustle. If you’re building a brand — either for a company or yourself — it doesn’t start with you. It starts with them.

The path to long-term success is not paved with a presence that shouts “look at me!” It’s forged from a humble mindset of “how can I help you?”

To me that’s the real hustle — solving a problem better than anybody else, faster than anybody else. Serving people in way that elevates you to the status of “family.”

In the context of the current web culture, this advice may seem quaint. But I’m not willing to accept the idea that people can simply shout their way to long-term business success just yet.

SXSW 2016 3Mark Schaefer is the chief blogger for this site, executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions, and the author of several best-selling digital marketing books. He is an acclaimed keynote speaker, college educator, and business consultant.  The Marketing Companion podcast is among the top business podcasts in the world.  Contact Mark to have him speak to your company event or conference soon.

Illustration courtesy Natalie Dee

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