If there’s one thing I’ve learned in business and life so far, it’s that hustle beats intelligence and raw talent all day long. I was never talented in academics, never tested well and never set my sights on a C-level career. But I knew I was capable of greatness if I just hustled harder than the people around me. This knowledge is what got me off my sister’s couch after a career-ending football injury in my twenties. In this following excerpt from my new book, “The School of Greatness,” I tell the story of how I went from broke and depressed to launching my business:
I wasn’t depressed because my vision was dead. I was depressed because I hadn’t done the work to pick myself up, dust myself off, and figure out what was next. The hustle wasn’t over; it was just different and shifted in a new direction.
Soon after that epiphany, I reached out to a number of people for guidance — my father’s friends, coaches, my brother and even the headmaster of my university, a man named Stuart Jenkins. I admired his wisdom and his moral courage. Stuart was hired to make changes and improve the university, and his decisions to cut underperforming members of the faculty were not popular. But his efforts vastly improved the academic standards of the school, and he proved to be an effective leader. He would often say to me, “Is this serving you?” rather than telling me what was right or wrong.
During that period of uncertainty, Stuart suggested I check out LinkedIn.com, the social media networking website, which back then was just starting to get serious traction among business professionals. I saw all sorts of potential to connect with high-profile business owners and other professionals there, and I began reaching out to people like a madman. I looked specifically for people who worked in the sports business because I had just come from my own experiences playing professional football, and I figured that would be a strong connection point to people I’d barely heard of in some cases and, in each case, never met.
Lucky for me, I was right and saw a high rate of return on my outreach. In the first year, I made 10,000 connections! It was crazy but incredibly exciting. I became what Malcolm Gladwell called in his best-selling book, “The Tipping Point,” a connector. But it didn’t happen overnight — I built these relationships one by one with passion and energy. I would meet people in person, talk to them on the phone and introduce them to others seeking their skills.
It was around this time, with my professional sports career over and my cast off, that I started making a little bit of money by hosting “LinkedIn networking events” around the country. Over the following year, I hosted 20 events in major cities, where 300 to 500 people would attend. They were amazed at how this 24-year-old former pro athlete with no degree was able to get so many people to show up at these professional networking events. What they didn’t know was that I was literally emailing my LinkedIn connections one by one to ask them to come to my events or join one of the groups I’d created to bring everyone together. Emailing everyone individually wasn’t sustainable at the rate I was growing, obviously. But it kick-started everything I’m doing now and taught me valuable lessons about hustle — first and foremost that you have to be willing to do the work that others are unwilling to do if you want to succeed when starting from a position of disadvantage.
I eventually built this presence on LinkedIn into an incredibly lucrative online business. I had no background in building a business, but I pulled myself up by the bootstraps, went with my gut, took advice from mentors and kept pushing myself. There were no days off, no coffee breaks. The end result? Money started flowing in, when only a couple years earlier, I had no clear idea how I would ever make any money.
My inner frustrations and early fears are what drove me to hustle. I didn’t want to be a failure. I didn’t want to remain unseen. I was going to work my butt off and go through as much pain as I needed to bear. This, in part, is what powers me through a bad meeting or a failure even today. I’m driven by my vision to inspire others to reach their greatness, and it’s what keeps my hustle so strong even in my darkest, most difficult days.