Hi, I’m Pete, and I’m a hustler.
How’d that statement make you feel? I’ll tell you how it made me feel: Proud. Psyched. Honest. Relieved.
I say “relieved” because it isn’t something that is met with applause these days. In fact, dropping a word like “hustle” in a group of people instantly brings up a shift in energy and emotions that can be quite polarizing.
I’ve been at dinner parties where dropping the “h” word earned me a side-eye, an insult, and an awkward topic change. Conversely, I’ve been in situations where the word sparks amazing stories about building companies, meeting business partners, friends, and even future spouses.
As a serial entrepreneur since college, it’s frustrating to me that something that feels so good has come to have so much stigma around it. If you Google “hustle culture,” you will see article after article that makes the word “hustle” synonymous with overwork, workaholism, grind, and burnout. It conjures feelings of guilt and shame for those who don’t have the inspiration, motivation, dedication, or desire to move at a fast pace. And of course, it conjures up age-old definitions, like a pushy, aggressive person who is all about making a quick buck by ripping people off. (Or worse.)
But to me, “hustle” fits the OG meaning you’d find in the dictionary: “to obtain by energetic activity.”
As a design thinker, this natural tension between a positive interpretation of hustle — making dedicated, consistent, purposeful work central to your identity — and those negative connotations are worth exploring. After all, as a founder and entrepreneur, I’ve been to all of the places hustle culture can take you, from incredible success to soul-crushing burnout.
And so, reframing “hustle culture” is clearly a necessity.
Attributes of a Heroic Hustler
The first place that needs a reframe, in my opinion, is the good vs. bad associations with the word “hustler.”
After all, it’s easy to see why Hustle Culture gets a bad rap. There’s no faster path to a toxic environment than a leader who sets unrealistic, unmanageable expectations. Worse, the corporate world has all too many examples of 24/7 managers who expect their people to work as hard, fast, and dedicated as they do — but hoard the perks and financial windfalls for themselves.
There is a flaw in the system that says the more you do, the more valuable you are. Instead, I’d offer this reframing: the more value you create and capture, the more valuable you are. Now, this takes hard work and an investment of time; however, it doesn’t require you to sacrifice your life for the work.
This is where the idea of a heroic hustler comes in: it’s doing what you do for a cause you believe in. Notice this definition isn’t just a billionaire’s territory; thanks to the hustle of frontline workers like doctors and nurses, millions of lives have been saved during a pandemic. Now that’s a rich reward if you ask me.
As Daniel Pink points out in his classic book, Drive, there are two kinds of motivation: extrinsic, like money or rewards (“carrot and stick”), and intrinsic, which is self-motivation that comes from within. The three elements that Pink says that best motivate us are purpose, autonomy, and mastery. In other words, doing better for the world and ourselves.
Sounds pretty heroic to me!
And here’s the thing: hustle is part of that equation. As Elon Musk famously Tweeted:
Now, Musk got a ton of backlash for that as he is known for his extreme and almost inhuman drive. However, put that aside for a minute, and keep in mind that he’s also revolutionized multiple industries in his quest to create opportunities to evolve humanity. His hustle is intrinsically motivated.
Further, your hustle doesn’t have to look like his at all. However, it involves putting in your time. For example, someone replied to Musk’s Tweet to make the case that ground-breaking things happen when people are relaxing, using the example of the discovery of penicillin. The story is this: Alexander Fleming, a Scottish physician-scientist, accidentally left an open petri dish near a window when he went on vacation. From the mold that formed, he realized bacteria near the spores were dying, which led to the revolutionary drug’s development.
That story seems to say successful people take vacations and don’t stress about work. Notice the person had to go back nearly 100 years to find the perfect case to fit her argument. But the truth is Dr. Fleming went to medical school and then served in the Army Medical Corps in World War I. While there, he noticed that many soldiers died not from the wounds inflicted in battle but from the uncontrollable, deadly infections that followed. That became the intrinsic motivation for his mission, and he threw himself into his work experimenting with staphylococcal bacteria — hence the mold/vacation story.
You might call this luck, but the hustler’s definition of luck is the thing that happens when preparation meets opportunity. Dr. Fleming’s work was his passion and his purpose, and achieving mastery paid off: he went on to be awarded the 1945 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine along with Howard Florey and Ernst Chain, the scientists who devised methods for the large-scale isolation and production of penicillin.
Now that’s a heroic hustle.
The Joy of Working It
We’ve all heard a lot about the Great Resignation and how people are leaving jobs that they don’t like or care about to start something new. Research shows that Gen Z is even more purpose-driven than Millennials. However, both groups are known to seek meaning in everything, from the things they purchase to the work they pursue.
In my opinion, this is a great jumping-off point. The desire for agency and autonomy is something I understand well — after all, the seeds of my current work were planted when I launched my business from my dorm room. And in my experience, one of the only ways to grow as a professional is to do the work.
Think about it: you put in the reps if you want to be fit. If you’re going to get certified in a specialized field, from nursing to therapy or construction, you must put in the hours. And even if you’re not meeting legally mandated certification requirements, there’s still a natural progression that’s required to achieve the level of mastery necessary to grow and scale your business at a rate of change that’s greater than the competition.
This is also where corporate culture could use an overhaul. If you reward (or conversely, punish) only with money then you’re not incentivizing people to find their hustle and drive growth for themselves and your company. It’s critical to rethink compensation. Startups tend to be much better at this; they devise equity-based incentive structures so the company can create exponential growth and the people that are generating that growth also benefit. This will be taken to the next level in Web3 with DAOs (Decentralized Autonomous Organizations), which can level the playing field, giving everyone a sense of ownership and agency.
But compensation is more than just financial. It’s critical to devise more structures that enable people to subscribe and unsubscribe from aspects of their work in exchange for different types of benefits, including special experiences, time off, and fluidity in their day-to-day lives, to name a few. This approach can also pave the way for new opportunities that encourage people to unlock their hustle. After all, I believe hustle is about growth, resilience, and resourcefulness. It’s why you often hear grit used in similar circles as people who hustle.
I also think it’s high time the corporate world stops equating value with the number of hours worked and starts endorsing time-saving techniques and tools , which save countless hours spent working for the sake of working. My hustle is all about progress and creating time (the most precious and finite currency) to spend on things that I’m passionate about that move the ball forward (i.e. creative technology consulting). So, I’ve put in the work to learn and memorize shortcuts and am always on the lookout for mundane tasks I can automate. I can do 40 hours of work in less than a day now, but it took me years to learn and hone these skills.
So here’s something crucial to remember: hard doesn’t equal smart, and smart doesn’t have to be hard. With the time you save from, say, using an efficient email manager like SuperHuman (the perfect name for someone who appreciates the hustle :) or other smart platforms, you’ll have a lot more time to focus on higher-level actions with bigger pay-offs.
An important caveat: this is not about skipping rest or time for self-care. If you’re burned out, you’re not helping anyone, and definitely not yourself. Making time to relax and rejuvenate is a core value I hold for myself and everyone who works with me. In fact, I created a framework called “The Four Green Lights,” which puts team satisfaction as the #1 KPI at our company. This means making sure everyone is happy, healthy, and able to prioritize the things that matter most to them. For example, we discourage people from working late nights and weekends. (That is unless something really exciting entices people to work on those off-times, and even then, that’s something we shy away from at the companies I run.)
Much like Dr. Fleming’s petri dish, a little space can go a long way. When we come back with fresh eyes, we’re able to do our best work with what’s grown and changed in our absence.
My Confession: It’s Obsession
I’m going to use another stigma-laden word to sum up the why for my hustling: obsession.
I’ll admit, I’m obsessed with helping people grow their businesses. Not in an unhealthy way but in a very natural way. I can’t help it — this is the secret sauce I bring to my clients. And not only paying customers but out in the world, too. When I strike up a conversation with an ambitious person, like a spiritual esthetician or an aspiring rap star whose day job is a Starbucks barista, I want to know more. I want to help. I want to hustle — in the best sense of the word.
Caring deeply and greatly is a core value of mine, and I believe that it’s at the heart of any driven leader. It’s about being genuinely passionate about your people and purpose, so much so that you don’t mind putting in the extra effort.
Look at any of the world’s best-known hustle practitioners, from Musk to serial entrepreneur GaryVee and Spanx founder Sara Blakely (among scores of others) — they’re obsessed with their visions. And that’s not just about building empires (even though that can happen); it’s about believing strongly, caring deeply, and promoting progress.
All of these people started from scratch with not much beyond a great idea. Their paths included failures, some spectacular. After all, nobody starts off knowing what they need to know or being capable of doing what they need to do.
Hustle is a muscle. And so is mastery. The two build together, and that’s why people who are the most badass at their craft push beyond their comfort zones, practice continuously, and do the work. That’s why when I hear statistics like a third of kids ages eight to 12 want to be vloggers or YouTubers, I want to sit all of them down and ask each one to spend a day with Charli D’Amelio, who’s said to be TikTok’s biggest star (130(+) million followers, billions of “likes”). Look at her lengthy Wikipedia, and you will clearly see she’s all about the hustle. The outside might seem glamorous, but it really is all about hard work.
I love what I do and how I do it, and I’m not going to apologize for it anymore. I used to get made fun of for choosing a night of coding over a bar crawl or canceling a vacation in Cancun to meet a tight deadline to launch a client’s project… which ended up going on to win my company awards and helped me afford the lifestyle I live today.
People trying to take down people who care deeply about achieving a goal and aren’t afraid to work hard for it don’t deserve to be judged. Just like people who choose to work part-time to cover bills and essentials and prioritize other aspects of their life don’t deserve to be judged. If what you do brings you joy, by all means, you do you.
But please, let’s rethink hustle because it isn’t all bad. This is a topic that energizes me, so hit me up in the comments.