WHEN YOU WORK FOR OTHERS, YOU ARE AT THEIR MERCY. THEY OWN YOUR WORK; THEY OWN YOU. YOUR CREATIVE SPIRIT IS SQUASHED. WHAT KEEPS YOU IN SUCH POSITIONS IS A FEAR OF HAVING TO SINK OR SWIM ON YOUR OWN. INSTEAD YOU SHOULD HAVE A GREATER FEAR OF WHAT WILL HAPPEN TO YOU IF YOU REMAIN DEPENDENT ON OTHERS FOR POWER. YOUR GOAL IN EVERY MANEUVER IN LIFE MUST BE OWNERSHIP, WORKING THE CORNER FOR YOURSELF. WHEN IT IS YOURS, IT IS YOURS TO LOSE—YOU ARE MORE MOTIVATED, MORE CREATIVE, MORE ALIVE. THE ULTIMATE POWER IN LIFE IS TO BE COMPLETELY SELF-RELIANT, COMPLETELY YOURSELF.
THE HUSTLER’S EMPIRE
HUMAN NATURE IS SO CONSTITUTED, THAT IT CANNOT HONOR A HELPLESS MAN, ALTHOUGH IT CAN PITY HIM; AND EVEN THIS IT CANNOT DO LONG, IF THE SIGNS OF POWER DO NOT ARISE.
– Frederick Douglass
After serving a short sentence in a Brooklyn rehabilitation program for his first offense as a drug dealer, Curtis Jackson returned to the streets virtually back at square one. The money he had earned the previous few years as a corner hustler was all gone, and his once loyal customers had all found other dealers to buy from.
A friend, now running a fairly large crack-cocaine operation, offered Curtis a job bagging up drugs. He would be paid a daily wage, and not a bad one. Curtis desperately needed the money, so he accepted the offer. Perhaps further down the road his friend would cut him in on some of the action and he could reestablish his own business. But from the first day on the job, he realized that this was all a mistake. He was working with a group of other baggers, all former dealers. They were now hired help; they had to show up at a certain time and bow down to the authority of their employers. Curtis had lost not only his money but also his freedom. This new position went against all of the survival lessons he had learned up till then in his short life.
Curtis had never known his father, and his mother had been murdered when he was eight years old. His grandparents had essentially raised him; they were loving and kind, but they had a lot of children to look after and not much time to give individual attention. If he wanted any kind of guidance or advice, there was nobody in his life to turn to. At the same time, if he wanted anything new, such as clothes, he did not feel comfortable asking his grandparents—they did not have much money. What all of this meant was that he was essentially alone in this world. He could not rely on anyone to give him anything. He would have to fend for himself.
Then crack cocaine exploded on the streets in the mid-1980s and everything changed in neighborhoods like his. In the past, large gangs controlled the drug business, and to be involved you had to fit into their structure and spend years moving up the ladder. But crack was so easy to manufacture and the demand was so high, that anyone—no matter how young—could get in on the game without any startup capital. You could work on your own and make good money. For those like Curtis who grew up with little parental supervision and a disdain for authority, being a corner dealer was the perfect fit—no political games, no bosses above you. And so he quickly joined the growing pool of hustlers dealing crack on the streets of Southside Queens.
As he got further into the game, he learned a fundamental lesson. There were endless problems and dangers confronting the street hustler—undercover cops, fiends, and rival dealers scheming to rob you. If you were weak, you looked for others to help you or for some crutch to lean on, such as drugs or alcohol. This was the path of doom. Eventually your friend would not show up as promised or your mind would be too clouded by drugs to see someone’s treachery. The only way to survive was to admit you were on your own, learn to make your own decisions, and trust your judgment. Do not ask for what you need but take it. Depend only on your wits.
It was as if a hustler, born amid squalor and cramped quarters, possessed an empire. This was not something physical—the corner that he worked or the neighborhood he wanted to take over. It was his time, his energy, his creative schemes, his freedom to move where he wanted to. If he kept command of that empire, he would make money and thrive. If he looked for help, if he got caught up in other people’s political games, he gave all of that away. In such a case, the negative conditions of the hood would be magnified and he would end up a beggar, a pawn in someone else’s game.
As he sat there bagging drugs that first day, Curtis realized that this went far beyond a momentary lull in his life in which he needed some quick money. This was a turning point. He looked at the other baggers. They all had suffered downturns in fortune—violence, prison time, etc. They had become scared and tired of the grind. They wanted the comfort and security of a paycheck. And this would become the pattern for the rest of their lives—afraid of life’s challenges, they would come to depend on other people to help them. Perhaps they could go on like this for several years, but the day of reckoning would come when there were no more jobs and they had forgotten how to fend for themselves.
It was ludicrous for Curtis to imagine that the man now employing him to bag would some day help him set up shop. Bosses don’t do things like that, even if they’re your friends. They think of themselves and they use you. He had to get out now, before that empire slipped from his hands and he became yet another former hustler dependent on favors.
He quickly went into full hustling mode and figured his way out of the trap. At the end of the first day, he made a deal with the baggers. He would dole out the daily cash he had been paid for the job to all of them. In return, he would teach them how to put less crack in each capsule but make it look full (he had been doing this on the street for years). They were then to give Curtis the extra crack that was left over from each capsule. Within a week, he had accumulated enough drugs to return to hustling on the streets, on his terms. After that, he swore to himself he’d never work for another person ever again. He would rather die.
Years later, Curtis (now known as 50 Cent) had managed to segue into a music career, and after a fierce mix-tape campaign on the streets of New York in which he became a local celebrity, he gained the attention of Eminem, who helped sign him to a lucrative deal on his own label within Interscope Records.
For the launch of his debut album, Get Rich or Die Tryin’, there was a lot of work to do—a marketing campaign, videos, artwork—and so he went to Los Angeles to work with Inter-scope on these projects. But the more time he spent in their cushy offices, the more he had the feeling that he was at yet another turning point in his life.
The game these music executives were playing was simple: They owned your music and a lot more. They wanted to package the artist in their way, and this dictated all of the key decisions on the music videos and publicity. In return, they lavished you with money and perks. They created a feeling of dependence—without their massive machine behind you, you were helpless in the face of a viciously competitive business. In essence, you were exchanging money for freedom. And once you internally succumbed to their logic and their money, you were finished. You were a high-paid bagger doing a job.
And so, as before, Fifty went into full hustling mode to reclaim his empire. In the short term, he schemed to shoot his own videos, with his own money, and come up with his own marketing schemes. To Interscope it seemed like he was saving them time and resources, but to Fifty it was a subtle way to regain control over his image. He set up a record label for his own stable of artists from within Interscope and he used this label to teach himself all aspects of production. He created his own website where he could experiment with new ways to market his music. He turned the dependence dynamic around, using Interscope as a school for teaching him how to run things on his own.
All of this was part of the endgame he had in mind—he would run out his contract with Interscope, and instead of renegotiating a new one, he would proclaim his independence and be the first artist to set up his own freestanding record label. From such a position of power, he would have no more executives to please and he could expand his empire on his own terms. It would be just like the freedom he had experienced on the streets, but on a global scale.
THE FEARLESS APPROACH
I WAS BORN ALONE AND I WILL DIE ALONE. I’VE GOT TO DO WHAT’S RIGHT FOR ME AND NOT LIVE MY LIFE THE WAY ANYBODY ELSE WANTS IT.
– 50 Cent
You came into this life with the only real possessions that ever matter—your body, the time that you have to live, your energy, the thoughts and ideas unique to you, and your autonomy. But over the years you tend to give all of this away. You spend years working for others—they own you during that period. You get needlessly caught up in people’s games and battles, wasting energy and time that you will never get back. You come to respect your own ideas less and less, listening to experts, conforming to conventional opinions. Without realizing it you squander your independence, everything that makes you a creative individual.
Before it is too late, you must reassess your entire concept of ownership. It is not about possessing things or money or titles. You can have all of that in abundance but if you are someone who still looks to others for help and guidance, if you depend on your money or resources, then you will eventually lose what you have when people let you down, adversity strikes, or you reach for some foolish scheme out of impatience. True ownership can come only from within. It comes from a disdain for anything or anybody that impinges upon your mobility, from a confidence in your own decisions, and from the use of your time in constant pursuit of education and improvement.
Only from this inner position of strength and self-reliance will you be able to truly work for yourself and never turn back. If situations arise in which you must take in partners or fit within another organization, you are mentally preparing yourself for the moment when you will move beyond these momentary entanglements. If you do not own yourself first, you will continually be at the mercy of people and circumstance, looking outward instead of relying on yourself and your wits.
Understand: we are living through an entrepreneurial revolution, comparable to the one that swept through Fifty’s neighborhood in the 1980s, but on a global scale. The old power centers are breaking up. Individuals everywhere want more control over their destiny and have much less respect for an authority that is not based on merit but on mere power. We have all naturally come to question why someone should rule over us, why our source of information should depend on the mainstream media, and on and on. We do not accept what we accepted in the past.
Where we are naturally headed with all of this is the right and capacity to run our own enterprise, in whatever shape or form, to experience that freedom. We are all corner hustlers in a new economic environment and to thrive in it we must cultivate the kind of self-reliance that helped push Fifty past all of the dangerous dependencies that threatened him along the way.
For Fifty it was very clear—he was alone in the house he grew up in and on the streets. He lacked the usual supports and so he was forced to become self-sufficient. The consequences of being dependent on people were so much more severe in his case—it would mean constant disappointment and urgent needs that went unmet. It is harder for us to realize that we are essentially alone in this world and in need of the skills that Fifty had to develop for himself on the streets. We have layers of support that seem to prop us up. But these supports are illusions in the end.
Everyone in the world is governed by self-interest. People naturally think first of themselves and their agendas. An occasional affectionate or helpful gesture from people you know tends to cloud this reality and make you expect more of this support—until you are disappointed, again and again. You are more alone than you imagine. This should not be a source of fear but of freedom. When you prove to yourself that you can get things on your own, then you experience a sense of liberation. You are no longer waiting for people to do this or that for you (a frustrating and infuriating experience). You have confidence that you can manage any adverse situation on your own.
Look at a man like Rubin “Hurricane” Carter—a successful middleweight boxer who found himself arrested in 1966 at the height of his career and charged with a triple murder. The following year he was convicted and sentenced to three consecutive life terms. Through it all Carter vehemently maintained his innocence, and in 1986 he was finally exonerated of the crimes and set free. But for those nineteen years, he had to endure one of the most brutal environments known to man, one designed to break down every last vestige of autonomy.
Carter knew he would be freed at some point. But on the day of his release, would he walk the streets with a spirit crushed by years in prison? Would he be the kind of former prisoner who keeps coming back into the system because he can no longer do anything for himself?
He decided that he would defeat the system—he would use the years in prison to develop his self-reliance so that when he was freed it would mean something. For this purpose he devised the following strategy: He would act like a free man while surrounded by walls. He would not wear their uniform or carry an ID badge. He was an individual, not a number. He would not eat with the other prisoners, do the assigned tasks, or go to his parole hearings. He was placed in solitary confinement for these transgressions but he was not afraid of the punishments, nor of being alone. He was afraid only of losing his dignity and sense of ownership.
As part of this strategy, he refused to have the usual entertainments in his cell—television, radio, pornographic magazines. He knew he would grow dependent on these weak pleasures and this would give the wardens something to take away from him. Also, such diversions were merely attempts to kill time. Instead he became a voracious reader of books that would help toughen his mind. He wrote an autobiography that gained sympathy for his cause. He taught himself law, determined to get his conviction overturned by himself. He tutored other prisoners in the ideas that he had learned through his reading. In this way, he reclaimed the dead time of prison for his own purposes.
When he was eventually freed, he refused to take civil action against the state—that would acknowledge he had been in prison and needed compensation. He needed nothing. He was now a free man with the essential skills to get power in the world. After prison he became a successful advocate for prisoners’ rights and was awarded several honorary law degrees.
Think of it this way: dependency is a habit that is so easy to acquire. We live in a culture that offers you all kinds of crutches—experts to turn to, drugs to cure any psychological unease, mild pleasures to help pass or kill time, jobs to keep you just above water. It is hard to resist. But once you give in, it is like a prison you enter that you cannot ever leave. You continually look outward for help and this severely limits your options and maneuverability. When the time comes, as it inevitably does, when you must make an important decision, you have nothing inside of yourself to depend on.
Before it is too late, you must move in the opposite direction. You cannot get this requisite inner strength from books or a guru or pills of any kind. It can come only from you. It is a kind of exercise you must practice on a daily basis—weaning yourself from dependencies, listening less to others’ voices and more to your own, cultivating new skills. As happened with Carter and with Fifty, you will find that self-reliance becomes the habit and that anything that smacks of depending on others will horrify you.
KEYS TO FEARLESSNESS
I AM OWNER OF MY MIGHT, AND I AM SO WHEN I KNOW MYSELF AS UNIQUE.
– Max Stirner
As children we all faced a similar dilemma. We began life as willful creatures who had yet to be tamed. We wanted and demanded things for ourselves, and we knew how to get them from the adults around us. And yet at the same time, we were completely dependent on our parents for so many important things—comfort, protection, love, guidance. And so from deep inside, we developed an ambivalence. We wanted the freedom and power to move on our own, but we also craved the comfort and security only others could give us.
In adolescence we rebelled against the dependent part of our character. We wanted to differentiate ourselves from our parents and show that we could fend for ourselves. We struggled to form our own identity and not simply conform to our parents’ values. But as we get older, that childhood ambivalence tends to return to the surface. In the face of so many difficulties and competition in the adult world, a part of us yearns to return to that childish position of dependence. We maintain an adult face and work to gain power for ourselves, but deep inside we secretly wish that our spouses, partners, friends, or bosses could take care of us and solve our problems.
We must wage a ferocious war against this deeply embedded ambivalence, with a clear understanding of what is at stake. Our task as an adult is to take full possession of that autonomy and individuality we were born with. It is to finally overcome the dependent phase in childhood and stand on our own. We must see the desire for a return to that phase as regressive and dangerous. It comes from fear—of being responsible for our success and failure, of having to act on our own and make the hard decisions. We will often package this as the opposite—that by working for others, being dutiful, fitting in, or subsuming our personality to the group, we are being a good person. But that is our fear speaking and deluding us. If we give in to this fear, then we will spend our lives looking outward for salvation and never find it. We will merely move from one dependency to another.
For most of us, the critical terrain in this war is the work world. Most of us enter adult life with great ambitions for how we will start our own ventures, but the harshness of life wears us down. We settle into some job and slowly give in to the illusion that our bosses care about us and our future, that they spend time thinking of our welfare. We forget the essential truth that all humans are governed by self-interest. Our bosses keep us around out of need, not affection. They will get rid of us the moment that need is less acute or they find someone younger and less expensive to replace us. If we succumb to the illusion and the comfort of a paycheck, we then neglect to build up self-reliant skills and merely postpone the day of reckoning when we are forced to fend for ourselves.
Your life must be a progression towards ownership—first mentally of your independence, and then physically of your work, owning what you produce. Think of the following steps as a kind of blueprint for how to move in this direction.
STEP ONE: RECLAIM DEAD TIME
When Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794–1877) was twelve years old he was forced to work for his father in his small shipping business. It was drudge work and he hated it. Cornelius was a willful, ambitious child, and so in his mind he made the following determination: within a couple of years he was going to start his own shipping enterprise. This simple decision altered everything. Now this job was an urgent apprenticeship. He had to keep his eyes open, learn everything he could about his father’s business, including how he could do things better. Instead of dull labor, it was now an exciting challenge.
At the age of sixteen he borrowed $100 from his mother. He used the money to buy a boat and began ferrying passengers between Manhattan and Staten Island. Within a year he paid back the loan. By the time he was twenty-one he had made a small fortune and was on his way to becoming the wealthiest man of his time. From this experience he established his lifelong motto: “Never be a minion, always be an owner.”
Time is the critical factor in our lives, our most precious resource. The problem when we work for others is that so much of this becomes dead time that we want to pass as quickly as possible, time that is not our own. Almost all of us must begin our careers working for others, but it is always within our power to transform this time from something dead to something alive. If we make the same determination as Vanderbilt—to be an owner and not a minion—then that time is used to learn as much as we can about what is going on around us—the political games, the nuts and bolts of this particular venture, the larger game going on in the business world, how we could do things better. We have to pay attention and absorb as much information as possible. This helps us endure work that does not seem so rewarding. In this way, we own our time and our ideas before owning a business.
Remember: your bosses prefer to keep you in dependent positions. It is in their interest that you do not become self-reliant, and so they will tend to hoard information. You must secretly work against this and seize this information for yourself.
STEP TWO: CREATE LITTLE EMPIRES
While still working for others, your goal at some point must be to carve out little areas that you can operate on your own, cultivating entrepreneurial skills. This could mean offering to take over projects that others have left undone or proposing to put into action some new idea of your own, but nothing too grandiose to raise suspicion. What you are doing is cultivating a taste for doing things yourself—making your own decisions, learning from your own mistakes. If your bosses do not allow you to make such a move on any scale, then you are not in the right place. If you fail in this venture, then you have gained a valuable education. But generally taking on such things on your own initiative forces you to work harder and better. You are more creative and motivated because there is more at stake; you rise to the challenge.
Keep in mind the following: what you really value in life is ownership, not money. If ever there is a choice—more money or more responsibility—you must always opt for the latter. A lower-paying position that offers more room to make decisions and carve out little empires is infinitely preferable to something that pays well but constricts your movements.
STEP THREE: MOVE HIGHER UP THE FOOD CHAIN
In 1499, Pope Alexander VI managed to carve out a principality for his son, Cesare Borgia, in the Romagna district of Italy. This was not easy. All kinds of rival powers were competing for control of the country—families that dominated the political scene, foreign kings scheming to take over certain regions, city-states with spheres of influence, and finally the church itself. To secure Romagna for his son, the pope had to win over one of the two most powerful families in Italy, make an alliance with King Louis XII of France, and hire a mercenary army.
Cesare Borgia was a shrewd young man. His goal was to expand beyond Romagna and eventually unify all of Italy, making it a great power. But his position now depended on various outside forces that controlled his destiny, each one above the other—the army beholden to the powerful families and king of France, then the pope himself who could die any day and be replaced by someone antagonistic to Borgia. These alliances could shift and turn against him. He had to eliminate these dependencies, one by one, until he could stand on his own, with nobody above him.
Using bribery, he put himself at the head of the family faction his father had allied him with, then moved to eliminate its main rival. He worked to get rid of the mercenary army and establish his own. He schemed to make alliances that would secure him against the French king who now saw him as a threat. He gobbled up more and more regions. He was on the verge of expanding his base to a point of no return when he suddenly fell gravely ill in 1504. Shortly thereafter, his father died and was soon replaced by a pope determined to stop Cesare Borgia. Who knows how far he could have gotten if his plans had not become unraveled by such unforeseen circumstances.
Borgia was a kind of self-reliant entrepreneur before his time. He understood that people are political creatures, continually scheming to secure their own interests. If you form partnerships with them or depend upon them for your advancement and protection, you are asking for trouble. They will either turn against you at some point or use you as a cat’s-paw to get what they want. Your goal in life must be to always move higher and higher up the food chain, where you alone control the direction of your enterprise and depend on no one. Since this goal is a future ideal, in the present you must strive to keep yourself free of unnecessary entanglements and alliances. And if you cannot avoid having partners, make sure that you are clear as to what function they serve for you and how you will free yourself of them at the right moment
You must remember that when people give you things or do you favors it is always with strings attached. They want something from you in return—assistance, unquestioned loyalty, and so forth. You want to keep yourself free of as many of these obligations as possible, so get in the habit of taking what you need for yourself instead of expecting others to give it to you.
STEP FOUR: MAKE YOUR ENTERPRISE A REFLECTION OF YOUR INDIVIDUALITY
Your whole life has been an education in developing the skills and self-reliance necessary for creating your own venture, being your own boss. But there is one last impediment to making this work. Your tendency will be to look at what other people have done in your field, how you could possibly repeat or emulate their success. You can gain some power with such a strategy, but it won’t go far and it won’t last.
Understand: you are one of a kind. Your character traits are a kind of chemical mix that will never be repeated in history. There are ideas unique to you, a specific rhythm and perspective that are your strengths, not your weaknesses. You must not be afraid of your uniqueness and you must care less and less what people think of you.
This has been the path of the most powerful people in history. Throughout his life the great jazz musician Miles Davis was always being pushed into making his sound fit the particular rage of the time. Instead he kept insisting on putting his own stamp on anything he played. As he got older this became more and more extreme until he revolutionized the jazz world with his constant innovations in sound. At a certain point he simply stopped listening to others. John F. Kennedy refused to run a campaign like Franklin Delano Roosevelt or any other American politician in the past. He created his own inimitable style, based on the times he lived in and his own personality. By going his own way, he forever altered the course of political campaigning.
This uniqueness that you express is not anything wild or too strange. That is an affectation in itself. People are rarely that different. Rather you are being yourself, as far as you can take that. The world cannot help but respond to such authenticity.
REVERSAL OF PERSPECTIVE
We might think of people who are independent and used to being alone as reclusive, prickly, and hard to be around. In our culture we tend to elevate those who are smooth talkers, seem more gregarious, and fit in better, conforming to certain norms. They smile and seem happier. This is a superficial appraisal of character; if we reverse our perspective and look at this from the fearless point of view we come to the opposite conclusion.
People who are self-sufficient are generally types who are more comfortable with themselves. They do not look for things that they need from other people. Paradoxically this makes them more attractive and seductive. We wish we could be more like that and want to be around them, hoping that some of their independence might rub off on us. The needy, clingy types—often the most sociable—unconsciously push us away. We feel their need for comfort and validation and secretly we want to say to them: “Get it for yourself—stop being so weak and dependent.”
Those who are self-reliant turn to people out of strength—a desire for pleasant company or an exchange of ideas. If people do not do what they want or expect, they are not hurt or let down. Their happiness comes from within and is all the more profound for that reason.
Finally, do not be taken in by the culture of ease. Self-help books and experts will try to convince you that you can have what you want by following a few simple steps. Things that come easy and fast will leave you just as fast. The only way to gain self-reliance or any power is through great effort and practice. And this effort should not be seen as something ugly or dull; it is the process of gaining power over yourself that is the most satisfying of all, knowing that step-by-step you are elevating yourself above the dependent masses.
THERE IS A TIME IN EVERY MAN’S EDUCATION WHEN HE ARRIVES AT THE CONVICTION THAT ... IMITATION IS SUICIDE ... THAT THOUGH THE WIDE UNIVERSE IS FULL OF GOOD, NO KERNEL OF NOURISHING CORN CAN COME TO HIM BUT THROUGH HIS TOIL BESTOWED ON THAT PLOT OF GROUND WHICH IS GIVEN TO HIM TO TILL. THE POWER WHICH RESIDES IN HIM IS NEW IN NATURE, AND NONE BUT HE KNOWS WHAT THAT IS WHICH HE CAN DO, NOR DOES HE KNOW UNTIL HE HAS TRIED.
– Ralph Maldo Emerson
Edit news description to add:
- Historical context: how the event or text affects the world and history
- An explanation of the work's overall story (example: "Here, President Obama confirms the legality of drone strikes...")
- The work's impact on current issues