Acclaimed Novelist Philipp Meyer on the Meaning of Hustle

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An Essay.
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It's what makes me walk out of parties, away from girls I would have cut my wrists to screw 10 years ago, because I know I need to wake up early and work. Even now, making the money I do. Even now, when most people would kill to get what I’ve got. There is no such thing as luck. There is only work. There is also staying out of your own way. For most people, this is the hardest. At 16 I dropped out of high school. At 22 I got into Cornell. At 25 I got a job on Wall Street. At 28 I quit the job because I was the Great American Novelist. Wrote one book, then another; couldn’t even get an agent, let alone a publisher. At 30 I was broke and living in my parents’ basement, working to what other people say about you. One job in construction, a second job driving an ambulance, taking Ritalin to stay up writing after 24-hour shifts. Most of my friends thought I’d lost it, had a nervous breakdown, or, to put it mildly, overestimated my abilities.

As Leonard Cohen pointed out, one of the most important qualities in a young poet is arrogance. You need a bulletproof ego. That ego allows you to be harder on yourself, harder on your work, than anyone else will ever be. It allows you to take risks that other people think are insane. Resolve, inner strength—whatever you want to call it—is a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it gets. Most people let it wither to nothing. I use it every fucking day. To quote Miyamoto Musashi, a 16th-century samurai: To know ten thousand things, master one. Musashi had over 60 confirmed kills with a sword. Read the Kaufman translation; the others are worthless.

Musashi was right. You only learn by mastering things. First it will become a habit; then it will become your nature. Exception: If you need to win every game of pool, cards, or checkers, you have a serious problem. You have to know when losing is good. Am I the most talented guy? One of them. But at a certain level, talent stops mattering. You have to be willing to call bullshit on yourself and your ideas. In fact, if some of your ideas aren’t bullshit, you aren’t trying. Certain people will go out of their way to screw you. A third-string player hates nothing more than the guy who is headed for the majors. Early in your career, some of these people will be your friends.

Always be pushing yourself. When I was 38, right as my novel The Son was coming out, I tried to join the Special Forces. I maxed all the tests, but at the last minute, the Army decided not to take me. In hindsight, this was probably a good thing. It was also the first time i saw I wasn't going to get everything I wanted. This was a good lesson, but I am trying to forget it. Thinking that way is pointless. To paraphrase Cohen: The world is conspiring to silence everyone. Including you. Don't be helping it along. Hustle is staying ahead of your karma. Helping people who don't deserve it. Forgiving your enemies. Your only real fear should be that one day you will start to listen to what other people say about you. It's easy when most of it is bad. Harder when most of it is good. But still. You ignore it. It’s poison.

This has been said a million times, but you have to take the hardest path. You have to set the highest goal. Why? Because you will always fall short. I have never gotten exactly what I wanted. I wanted Harvard, ended up at Cornell. I wanted Goldman Sachs, ended up at UBS. I wanted the first book I wrote to get published—it was unreadable. I wanted the second book I wrote to be a best-seller—it didn’t get published. The third book I wrote came out in several languages but didn’t sell. The fourth book was a best-seller in seven countries, but I wanted to win the Pulitzer. Ended up a finalist. I know this will never stop. I keep hustling.

Photos by Photo by Ulf Andersen/Getty Images