I’ve always been a huge fan of mafia movies and shows. I remember accidentally stumbling on an episode of The Sopranos back in 2008. I was hooked immediately. I loved everything about the show. And, Tony Soprano, that towering figure, was a true man’s man (may he rest in piece). This is the guy you’d go to if you needed a problem to be solved. Any problem.
A month ago, while browsing my Netflix library and wondering which new show was worth watching, I stumbled on another mafia series called Gomorrah. Unlike its American counterpart where most, but not every one, of the case is of Italian-American background, this show is as Italian as it gets. It’s set in Naples in Southern Italy, and the entire cast is not only Italian but of Neapolitan background. Even my Italian friend had trouble understanding what they were saying, due to their thick Neapolitan accent.
It’s truly a fantastic show. Although it has its share of gruesome tortures and killings (even more so than The Sopranos), it actually has a pretty solid and interesting plot. I won’t spoil it for you, so you’ll have to see it for yourself. I’m eagerly waiting for the next season.
What drew me to these mafia shows, however, was something else entirely. In many ways, what the mafia represents is an alternative organization of society as compared to the modern system of government in the developed countries. It’s the perfect case study of how things work when there isn’t a functioning government, a government that exists on paper only. After all, in cases where you have a strong and honest government, mafia doesn’t exist (e.g., Denmark, Norway, New Zealand, etc.); but where the government is weak and ineffective, mafia thrives (e.g., Russia, Italy, Mexico, Colombia, etc.).
A good Italian friend who lives in New York (he was born in Sicily where many Italians consider the mafia to be more influential than the Italian government) once told me with a straight face that it’s the Italian government that’s the corrupt one—not the mafia. The reason the Southern Italy functions at all is actually due to the mafia, he added.
The art of the hustle
Mafiosos are also quintessential hustlers. When you have a functioning and stable government and economy, people have something called jobs. When you don’t have a functioning and stable government and economy, people hustle. In a developed society, sandwiched in between the poor and rich is something called “the middle class.” In a non-developed society, out goes the middle class, and other “nice” stuff like the 9-5, the biweekly salaries, the vacations, the retirement accounts, the venture capitalists, the startup accelerator programs, and all the other nice things that people take for granted in the developed world.
Many years ago, when I was struggling trying to build a business, I had a conversation with a self-made man in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I had already been living abroad for a year or so, roaming around Latin America. This guy was making lots of money through various online ventures and loved Argentina and Buenos Aires so much that he decided to move there permanently. He was about ten years older than me and, over time, became sort of a mentor, giving me various pieces of advice here and there covering various topics, topics that I couldn’t have dreamed of ever learning in school. His advice was decidedly unconventional, which was a breath of fresh air.
One advice in particular stood out. The best way to start a business, he told me, was to imagine that the government didn’t exist and that there was no such thing as “the 9-5”. Naturally, he added, I had to make money somehow because if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be able to feed myself, he joked.
This was extremely powerful advice because it forced me to extricate myself from the the society’s straightjacket and its monopoly on my thoughts and morals. After all, if there was no government and a functioning society didn’t exist, I wouldn’t owe anyone anything. I wouldn’t even know what a “normal” job. (Yes, that also meant not taking out a huge mortgage and putting a downpayment on a house with a white picket fence.) The only thing was left to do was focus on making money.
When I was growing up, I had two kinds of friends. The first type were the intelligent and book-smart guys. They did well in school and earned high grades. They got into elite colleges. They went on to obtain cushy jobs and marry nice women.
The second type of friends were guys who didn’t fit into any of the above. They simply sold stuff. I met one of these guys when he was selling random t-shirts in my high school hallway. While he did okay in school, he never got into a great college or landed a great job. But as long as I’ve known him, he’d always made money one way or another. Making money was something he did; something he was. I haven’t spoken to him in a while, but the last thing I heard, he was doing pretty well.
Growing up, almost all of my friends were Eastern Europeans like myself. That partly explained why hustling came so naturally to them. In Eastern Europe, the government is weak and corrupt. The middle class is almost non-existent. As a result, different factions such as the mafia and other organized and non-organized groups fill in the power vacuum.
Because the government has never provided for its people—and instead chose to enrich itself at the people’s expense—people had to come with creative ideas to make money. Hustling was something they did simply because they had no other choice. When I was growing up in Soviet Union, even my own father ran a little underground business in Odessa, Ukraine, kicking back some profits to the corrupt local police.
This is the mentality they’ve developed organically, and the mentality they brought with them wherever they went.
Follow the money
The foundation of the hustler mindset is to immediately throw away your business plans, grandiose ideas, slick ideologies, deep thoughts, dilemmas about what kind of company structure to form, pitches to investors and all the other superfluous fillers. The only focus should be money. Profit should be your religion. Focus on selling something right now and getting crisp dollar bills for it.
When the money comes, everything else nice follows. That’s when you can register a company. That’s when you can get an accountant to count your profits and losses and make you fancy reports. That’s when you can start thinking about new markets, business deals and networking. That’s when you can even think about pitching to investors. That’s when you can get a sharp lawyer so others don’t pry your hard-earned money away from you.
But if you’re not making money, you don’t have a business. What you have is a little hobby. No, you’re not going to make money tomorrow or next month. You have to make money now. Today. Nice try, but projecting yourself onto the future is textbook rationalization. If you haven’t made money today, you didn’t run a business today. What happens tomorrow is unknown.
Money is the business plan. It’s the seed from which everything grows. It’s the proof that what you’re doing actually matters. That your time is so important to others, that they’re willing to trade their time for yours. That’s when the gears will finally start moving.
But to get there, you must abandon your current mindset and environment, an environment of security, stability, the 9-5 straightjacket, and transport yourself to a world where this security doesn’t exist, even if it means being temporarily uncomfortable. Then, you must learn to become comfortable in this new environment because that’s the only place where you’ll be able to truly thrive.
The biggest enemy that’s standing between you and a business that’s making money hand over fist is the belief that it somehow must be done a certain way. But actually there isn’t a “certain” way. There isn’t a set of rules. There isn’t some grand business plan or the “the perfect niche.” What has worked for me is different that will work for you. People’s interests change. Markets adapt with them. The only rule is the money you make. Everything else grows from there.
Of course, that’s easier said than done, which is why it’s of paramount importance to extricate yourself from the environment you’re in and put yourself in a situation where you must make money at all costs. An environment where building and selling products and services, and then getting paid for it feels entirely natural and straightforward.
Becoming nomadic is one such way. It’s no coincidence that it was only when I quit my lucrative 9-5 software engineer job and left the States and moved to Latin America that I began to meet interesting people who ran highly profitable businesses selling all kinds of random things. These guys didn’t have MBAs or other advanced degrees, but what they had was a strong urge to make money instead of doing random case studies or adjusting fonts in their editors while drafting business plans. Above all else, money was their goal.
Traveling forced me to extricate myself from my comfortable and developed country where a job was always available, and put me in situations where I couldn’t get a job even though I was more than qualified for one. My only other alternative was to create businesses and thus operate on an entirely different level from what I was used to. Of course, it was hard at first, but now it feels so natural that I don’t even know how to get a regular job anymore. Heck, I don’t even know what is a regular job anymore.
The other world
The reason it’s so hard to give up all this comfort and attempt to make money on your own terms is because people humans naturally gravitate towards pleasure and do all they can do in order to avoid pain. It’s nice to be sitting on the couch and cycling through 1,000 cable channels. It’s nice to not have to worry about where that next dollar of income will come from in order to cover your rent. It’s nice knowing that every two weeks an invisible hand discretely deposits a nice sum into your bank account.
All of this is an illusion. There’s no free lunch and security has its (high) price too. As part of the middle class, you’re duly subsidizing not only the poor but the rich too, whether it’s done via taxes or the occasional “financial crisis.” Even the “illusion” of stability isn’t free. In the history of mankind, nobody has ever gotten wealthy as a result of working for someone else.
That’s why even a little glimpse into the “other world” where people are forced to make money any way they can is so powerful and enticing, whether it’s by watching mafia movies, living in places like Eastern Europe where hustling is a way of life, or traveling around the world and meeting other digital entrepreneurs who don’t come into an office and don’t work on a fixed schedule. Merely knowing that this world exists and thrives can be enough to get you to switch sides.
But ultimately, as far as the hustler is concerned, there exists only one world. It’s a world where a man, through his ingenuity, knowledge, experience and grit is constantly creating, marketing and selling. It’s the only world he knows.
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