The Art of the Hustle

by sarahgrand

In the About section of sarahgrand.com, I claim that “anything is possible with enough passion and ambition.” Well, ladies and gentlemen, it’s true. If you learn the Art of the Hustle, the world will be at your fingertips.

I first discovered the Art of the Hustle the summer after my junior year of college.

Junior year of college was a rough time. I am perhaps a bit too gritty, and for the first 20.5 years of my life, I put my head down and worked ferociously without question. In elementary school, I worked hard so I could get into the Gifted & Talented program in middle school. In middle school, I worked hard so I could get into honors classes in high school. In high school, I worked hard so I could score well on my AP tests and get into a good college. In college, I worked hard to…wait, what was I working hard for again? During my junior year of college, I came to the painful realization that there was no next step lined up for me. I was killing myself, losing sleep to study for exams like a freaking lunatic, without even the slightest idea of what all this effort was for.

It was not until my classmates started to gain focus and develop specific interests in the field of civil engineering that I finally stopped what I was doing and took a moment to think about what actually excited me. Then, ALL HELL BROKE LOOSE: the things that excited me (i.e. design, writing, and entrepreneurship) had almost nothing to do with what I was studying. Whoops!

Isn’t it crazy that someone so “smart” on paper could lack so much common sense? I continually scored at the top of my class on exams, was a major asset on group projects, and could write papers like no one’s business. But, I didn’t know how to think.

Still, I don’t blame myself. In a future post, I will discuss exactly why I don’t blame myself, and what I think we can do as a society to help teenagers think for themselves and discover their passions at an earlier age, to avoid cases like mine.

Going back to the story, during the height of “all hell breaking loose,” I began applying for civil engineering internships because, clearly, interning in the very field I just discovered I wasn’t actually interested in was going to solve all my problems. I got an interview at a transportation firm and cried. I didn’t want to go. That’s when my parents intervened. My dad said, “You’re not going on the interview. You’re taking the summer off.”

Taking the summer off? That sounded like a terrible idea! Didn’t my dad realize that if I took the summer after junior year off I would never get a job after college, and hence never amount to anything?! I am actually cringing while writing this. But this is truthfully how warped my judgment was at the time. I seriously thought that taking one summer off (as a 20-year-old nonetheless) would negatively impact the rest of my life.

As scared as I was of “falling behind,” I followed my dad’s advice and went home to New Jersey that summer. Without schoolwork or employment to drown myself in, I was forced to spend some time thinking about what I actually wanted to do once college was over. Because Cooper Union is a very small and focused school, I hadn’t taken any classes outside of engineering, and thus hadn’t really been exposed to other industries. So, I wasn’t exactly sure where to start. I decided to start broad with location. If I was going to work anywhere after college, it was going to be in my favorite city of the world, New York! I searched “Companies in NYC.” At least it was a start.

Believe me, there are a lot of companies in New York City. I went through all of the big ones, and wrote down any that sparked my interest, completely disregarding if they had anything to do with my field of study. As I wrote down one company name, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, it struck me that I actually knew someone who worked there! Months earlier, I had been taking a walk in New Jersey when I ran into one of my friend’s moms, who mentioned she had recently taken a job there. Suddenly, things started looking up. I had a contact. Maybe I could get my foot in the door! To make a long story short, I did end up getting an internship at Martha Stewart for the fall of my senior year (and yes, I did get a respectable job straight out of college, though I didn’t intern anywhere the summer before graduating).

Getting an internship at Martha Stewart didn’t require too much hustling, because I had a contact there, and a pretty decent portfolio of cakes and crafts at the time. That being said, even if I didn’t have a willing and helpful contact, I know that I would have gotten a creative internship at least somewhere the upcoming semester, because that summer, I hustled.

The word “hustle” has some interesting connotations. I started using it after watching a documentary about Jay-Z’s drug-dealing period. In one scene, Jay-Z says something like, “I was the best drug dealer in town because I knew how to hustle.” So maybe it has some illicit connotations. To “hustle” also means to be a prostitute. Again, not the best undertones. But I like the word. So let’s just agree that by “hustle” I simply mean, “to work rapidly and aggressively.”

As I mentioned earlier, up until this point, I had put my head down and worked, without exactly taking initiative in matters or thinking for myself. But suddenly, my personal happiness, and the “successful” reputation I had worked so hard to cultivate all these years, were on the line. I didn’t want to be unemployed, or worse yet, at a job I absolutely hated after college. I needed to figure out a way to make it work. And putting my head down and doing what I was told wasn’t going to cut it anymore, because there was no plan ahead. (And I wasn’t going to grad school for the sake of having something lined up).

I started doing things I wasn’t exactly comfortable with – networking with people I had never met before, applying to positions online like a maniac, persistently following up with my contacts, even when I felt annoying. The same week I applied to the Martha Stewart internship (which happened to be in product design), I heard, totally by chance, of a product design summer course being offered at Cooper. Unfortunately, by the time I heard of the course, it had already started. But with my newfound gusto, I sent the professor a long email and a link to my website, and I weaseled my way right into that class. At the same time as all of this, I got a position as a summer cashier at the A.C. Moore craft store near my hometown. I had applied to a number of retail stores while applying to fall internships at creative companies, hoping to make some money on the side for the summer.

Suddenly, my summer “off” became very busy. I had a job in retail, a class in product design, and an internship at a company of my dreams lined up for the fall. Was I lucky? Maybe a little. But I don’t believe in luck so much.

In most cases, I think we create our own luck. I see luck as a choice, much as I see success as a choice and happiness as a choice. We are in control of our destinies. I could have come home that summer and moped around, wallowing in my own confusion. And to be honest, I did do that for a few days. But then I picked myself up, dusted myself off, and took action. I didn’t know where to start, so I started broad: location. Then I refined. I talked to people. A lot of people. I talked to someone who told me about the product design class at Cooper. I talked to my mom, who encouraged me to apply to A.C. Moore, along with a bunch of other retail stores (My mom has always believed kids should make some money on the side at all times…she’s the one who made me get off my butt and work at Dunkin Donuts once I turned 16. Love her.)

Yes, I’ve had certain privileges in my life. I have a supportive family and network, good health, and good looks (if I do say so myself). I’m sure these things didn’t hurt along the way. But they didn’t do the work for me either. I didn’t have an internship that summer, but I treated sorting things out like a full time job. Maybe all those years of putting my head down and getting gritty at school weren’t all for nothing. They taught me some skills associated with hustling, but not all the skills I needed to master the art.

You see, hustling isn’t just about working hard and doing your due diligence. You could put your head down and apply to thousands of jobs online and never hear back from any of them (though I’m sure eventually, if applying in the correct realm, something would come up). A lot of hustling is about taking initiative and going out of your comfort zone– cold calling people, meeting up with strangers who may be able to help, putting yourself out there, and not being afraid. Up until that summer, I had never really taken initiative in life simply because I never had to. The “next step” was always lined up for me. Once my path was disrupted, I was forced to get more aggressive, and through it all, I realized I actually kind of like taking control.

I get that in today’s market, it’s tough to get a job. But I truly believe that if you really want a job, you can get a job. It might not be your dream job, but it will be something—perhaps a stepping stone. If you want to switch industries, you can switch industries. If there’s a will, there’s a way. And if you want to work for yourself, with enough planning and hustle, you can work for yourself. With enough passion and ambition, I truly believe you can get anything you want out of life. One day, I hope to start my own business. I’m not ready for it yet. But I know that when the time does come, I will be able to do it. Again, anything is possible with enough passion and ambition.

Now that I am out of school and in the workforce, I take the lessons of that summer with me. Hustling doesn’t have to end once you get a job—it should continue once you are working too! No matter what industry you’re in, or even if you work for yourself, hustling combined with genuine passion should undoubtedly lead to success. That being said, success isn’t instant. You’ll still have to pay your dues, and in my opinion, any job that’s paying you, even a miserable one, is not above you (But I could go on about that in a whole other post. I hate entitlement, especially from young people).

I have only been out of college for two years, so I’m by no means a career expert, but my tips for hustling at work are listed below. Some of these are just general work advice points, and don’t have to do with hustling per se, but I included them anyways:

  1. See slow periods as opportunities: I don’t know about you, but slow periods at work drive me nuts! When I first started working, if I had nothing to do, I did, well…nothing. But I quickly realized that this would not only drive me crazy, but also make me look content. And I’m certainly not a content person. I began seeing slow periods as opportunities—opportunities to help out the department in areas they didn’t even know they needed help in. I made a tutorial for a notoriously inconvenient program and gave a presentation on it. I attempted to start a database of our contacts. Though that effort eventually fell through, it showed that I was capable of, and interested in, taking on work outside of my assigned duties. When new opportunities came up, my superiors often let me know first.
  1. Speak Up! Speaking up is really hard to do. I love to talk (I mean, look how much I’m writing in this post), but I get really shy at times, and I never want to come across as too aggressive or entitled. But, unless you work and live in Utopia, there are going to be times when you need to suck it up and say something. If something is frustrating you at work, and you keep your anger bottled up, you’ll probably either become totally miserable or rage quit one day. As long as you are calm and respectful when you speak up, realistically, the worst thing that can happen is things stay the same. And if that’s the case and nothing changes, then you can hustle for a new job, and leave that one. Simple as that. The best thing that can happen if you speak up is the problem gets fixed, and you get respect for taking action. Maybe I’m naïve, but I truly believe that most companies, and people, are good at the core. If your company or superiors don’t know the problem at hand, how can you expect them to help? I haven’t had to speak up too much at work, but anytime I did, I went to my direct manager. If you have issues with your direct manager, I would suggest going to HR, or really any superiors in the company you trust to take appropriate action.
  1. Figure out a way to become indispensable: This is kind of similar to my first point (see slow periods as opportunities). Whether you have slow periods or not, figure out needs in the company that the company doesn’t even know exist. And address those needs. Create your own role in the company. Don’t wait around for a promotion or new position to find you, because it generally won’t.
  1. Don’t take things too personally: If you become a hustler, you’ll have to develop a thick skin. Any time I’ve looked for new jobs or opportunities and I’ve cold-emailed strangers or acquaintances for advice, a good percentage of those efforts resulted in no response. That’s just the way it is. It’s not personal. People get busy. People might think you’re weird for reaching out to them, but that’s probably not the case. Even if it is, who cares? If you’re formally reaching out to a person, then you most likely don’t know them too well in the first place, and will probably never even see them in person. And, even if you do run into them in person after the fact, again, who cares? Also, don’t be afraid to follow up with a person if they don’t respond to your first email. Persistence is attractive. The same thing goes about not taking things personally if you’re already working at a job. People get in bad moods. People get busy. People have lives outside of work that might be more complicated than you think. For your own sanity, don’t take things to heart, and don’t let anyone you don’t respect get you down.
  1. Being genuine goes a long way: This is a major one. I am definitely NOT a perfect person. Like any other person, I have my flaws. But the one thing I’m most proud of about myself, and the single thing I’m most complimented on, both inside and outside of work, is my genuineness. I’m an open book. I don’t get embarrassed by too much stuff, and I don’t take myself too seriously. I’ve found these to be positive things at all my jobs, even in relatively traditional and corporate offices. Again, maybe I’m naïve, but I truly believe most people like to be around people that are human. If I worked alongside someone that never got nervous, stressed, angry, happy, excited, or sad, I’d get a little freaked out…wait, is that a robot? Keep it real, but don’t go overboard. Of course I don’t suggest having major emotional outbursts at work! Know your boundaries. And know when to be professional.
  1. Sit at the Table: I’m stealing this one from Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg. Take ownership of your accomplishments. At meetings, if you’re part of the team, sit at the table, not on the sidelines! I know from firsthand experience this can be hard to do, especially if you’re the youngest on the team, or the only female. If you’re a woman, understand that men are more aggressive by nature. They are naturally more comfortable asking for raises, inquiring about new opportunities, taking credit for work, and negotiating contracts. It’s not their fault. The brains of men and women are wired differently. To keep up with your male coworkers, you’ll have to get more comfortable making these moves as well. You’ll also have to get comfortable with taking pride and ownership in your work. I have a habit of downplaying my contributions and brushing off my achievements, and it’s something that I’m working on. While I encourage initiative, I don’t believe that anyone (male or female) should have to exert excessive amounts of power or authority to prove their worth; work should generally speak for itself. Most competent people can see through bullshit sooner or later.
  1. Dress for Success: I can’t even believe I’m writing this one. Dressing nice and looking presentable are  NO-BRAINERS. It’s literally psychologically proven that well-dressed people are taken more seriously and deemed smarter, not only in the workplace, but also in LIFE. Get a routine. Wake up 15 minutes earlier and get presentable!
  1. Be Grateful: I briefly hinted at this point earlier in the post, and I won’t get too into it here, but any job that’s paying you, whether it’s at a local coffee shop or a Fortune 500 company, is worth being grateful for, at least in my opinion. I think that as humans, we often get greedy and lose sight of what is truly meaningful and important. Showing appreciation to a company, and the opportunities that company affords you, goes a long way. Also, be polite and respectable. I know that in today’s society there is a trend to question authority and existing ways, and I think that is a generally a good thing. But there is a way to question and challenge people and systems while still showing respect.

I think that is all I have for now! Hope you are all enjoying these articles! My next article will be about “the benefits of being single.” Have a nice Memorial Day Weekend!