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I have worked with over a dozen interns over the years, and the vast majority of them—save one or two—are hustlers. And I hired them because they were hustlers. I did not always hire the smartest kids, I did not always hire the kids with the best grades, I hired the kids that were hard-working and ambitious. Poor, smart, and determined, as Ace Greenberg would have said. They have all far outperformed what would have been expected from a graduate of Coastal Carolina University. There are traders and portfolio managers and analysts and investment bankers, and are huge successes outside of finance as well.
But here’s the thing about hustle—you can’t teach it. You either have it, or you don’t.
I’m not kidding. I can pull strings and help them make connections, but whether they get the job or not is ultimately up to them. There is that quote about leading a horse to water. Absolutely true. You have to want it. Some people want to want it, which is not good enough. You have to want it with every cell in your body. You have to ache for success.
I am worried that we, as a country, are losing our capacity for hustle. California contemplated imposing a 32-hour workweek (while getting paid for 40). The UAW is asking for the same thing. Much has been written about Zoomers and Millennials opting for free time instead of pay or perks, working fewer hours in the office. There were quite a few nights I worked late on the trading floor at Lehman, ordering sesame chicken off of Seamless, even though the markets closed at 4pm. There was no reason for me to be there—I loved my job and I was researching trades to put on. The bankers were pulling 20-hour days, either by will or by thrill. They didn’t have to be there—they had the option of quitting and becoming a lunch pail guy at any moment. This sort of thing doesn’t exist anymore—go to a trading floor at 4pm, and you could fire a cannon and not hit anyone. Lots of places are taking off Friday afternoons, or Friday altogether. Some places are taking off Monday and Friday. Sure, this is because of the pandemic, and there was something that happened in our collective psychology where we decided we didn’t give a fuck. Giving a fuck, and working, is a necessary condition for producing wealth.
Not to get all financey on you, but people like to say that the stock market returns 10 percent a year, so you should log onto vanguard.com and buy some index funds and get your 10 percent over the course of your investing career. Why does the market return 10 percent a year, on average? Because it returned 10 percent a year for the last 100 years. I guess past performance is a predictor of future results. But what if the conditions that were present for the last 100 years, aren’t present for the next 100 years? What conditions are those? The rule of law, property rights, and tax collections that have averaged around 20 percent of GDP. All of that could disappear. But there is more. Output is a function of hours worked, productivity, and effort. It is the effort part that I am concerned apart. What are the economic consequences of people simply not trying as hard? What are the economic consequences of a lack of hustle? If you knock one percentage point off of GDP, and we’re growing at 2 percent a year (at best), then it’s hard to see how those 10 percent equity returns will continue in the future, without debt, and we don’t have much capacity to add any more of that. If we want to get richer as a society, we have to work harder, work longer, or work more productively. If we’re not willing to do that, then we will stagnate. Like Europe, whose stocks have returned essentially zero over the last fifteen years. Europe values leisure over productivity. We are going down the same path.
There have been two periods in history where the stock market returned zero for an extended period of time—1929 to 1946, and 1969 to 1982. The first period was a result of a depression after a huge stock market bubble, and the second was as a result of high inflation and interest rates following a smaller stock market bubble. So you can look at it in terms of working off the excesses of overinvestment and malinvestment. But there is another model. What if, during those two time periods, people simply weren’t working as hard? If you go back and read some primary source material about the Depression, it wasn’t simply as if some exogenous economic shitstorm suddenly hit the U.S. and unemployment went to 25%. There are two sides to the story, and the other side of the story is that New Deal economic programs and entitlements destroyed the work ethic of the country and actually contributed to unemployment, and lots of people weren’t super interested in working. The good news is that these things go in cycles, and post-WWII, America started hustling again. The Seventies were also not known for hustling. What I am suggesting is that there are some powerful trends in social psychology that we don’t fully understand, and they have huge implications for economics. I’ll cut to the chase—I think we are at the beginning of one of those decade-long zero return periods for stocks, a decade filled with economic misery.
Get to work, fuckers.
I will say that hustling does not come naturally to me. If you go in my high school yearbook, you will see that my greatest ambition as a senior was to work for the government and cop a retirement check after 20 years. What changed? I read Mariam Naficy’s The Fast Track, and when I got to the page where it showed what kind of money people in banking were making, my jaw about hit the floor. It said I could make $600,000 to $800,000 in 5-7 years. I hadn’t thought of myself as a person who was motivated by money, but at that exact moment, I was. Now, I had an intellectual interest in capital markets anyway, but the prospect of almost a million dollars didn’t hurt. I did an outrageous amount of hustling. I was shameless. Nowadays, the kids like to cold email people—I was cold-calling people. Smiling and dialing. Taking trips out to New York for informational interviews. I was a bulldog. And if you want a job on Wall Street, you have to be a bulldog.
Want to know another instance that requires a lot of hustle? Book publicity. In the old days, publishers would spend a boatload of money to send you on a 96-city book tour to promote your book. Gone forever. They might have one person who will package up and mail out books for reviewers. You have to do it all yourself. You have to be shameless. You have to bulldog it. Again, this does not come naturally to me. With All the Evil of This World, I had 100 galleys printed and sent out. Almost nobody helped. Kept bulldogging. Kept hustling. In spite of all that, the book sold reasonably well, given the subject matter. I am going to have to do the hustle of all hustles for No Worries. I am going to be hustling you. You will get an email from me with a pitch to buy the book. And you had better buy it. Bulldog. Shameless.
Hustling is about doing whatever it takes to get what you want. Which means: you have to put your own interests above those of other people. For those of us who are naturally altruistic, this is an uncomfortable position to be in. There are some jobs out there that require you to hustle. Real estate agents. Interdealer brokers. Strippers. Imagine working in a strip club, asking guys for lap dances, and getting turned down 100 times every night. Imagine what the rejection feels like, the first time. Imagine broking variance swaps and getting hung up on 30 times in a row. Keep pushing, keep fighting. There are plenty of jobs out there where you don’t have to hustle at all. I used to have one of those jobs—it was soul-destroying. I like being in a position where I constantly have to advocate for myself and my own interests.
Like I said, hustling cannot be taught. But it can be part of the culture. Lots of people don’t like the fact that a few million people crossed the southern border into the United States. Guess what—those people are hustlers! They had to hustle through jungles and deserts to get here, dodging alligators and drug runners. They will make fine Americans. I would prefer that there was a mechanism to get these people into the country legally, so it doesn’t make a mockery of our national sovereignty, but that is a separate issue. Anyone who wants to come here and hustle is okay by me. There are a lot of people here who have no interest in hustling who I’d like to put on a raft to Cuba.
In America, there are virtually no limits to your success. It seems as though fewer and fewer people are taking advantage of that. Just don’t be surprised when someone who is smart and ambitious turns out to be smart and ambitious.