Tue, Feb 10, 2009 12:00 PM EST

Do you remember that time last October when we were all bombarded with images of downward-pointing line graphs and the sounds of Jim Cramer yelling “Crash! Crash! Crash!” as the engines of capitalism came to a halt? Like many of you, I wanted to understand why we were losing billions every day.

It was during this time that I came across the book How to Hustle and Win: A Survival Guide for the Ghetto by Supreme Understanding Allah (yes, that’s his real name). In it, I found this nugget of wisdom: “We hustle like pimps and rocksellers. We get easy money and spend it like it will always be there. Then we learn that easy money is risky money. But we learn that the hard way.”

Now, I’m no expert hustler. If I were, I wouldn’t have student loans or a crappy apartment. But I do have the wisdom of Supreme at my fingertips—a man who wants his brothers to learn how to hustle and win without landing in prison or sending the Dow down 900 points.

You may be wondering what hustling has to do with our dire financial situation. Well, to be honest, everything. Banks, lenders and investors hustled us to get a few points more in returns on their investments. We let them hustle us because we’ve been in pursuit of a perverse version of the American Dream that we can charge on a credit card. And now, the hustle blew up in our faces like a coke deal gone wrong.

The reason for this happening is simple: we broke the key rules of the hustle. This rookie mistake was particularly pervasive in the housing sector, which led to the financial crisis, which led to all those pictures of sad guys on Wall Street.

Reading over Supreme’s chapter titled “Check Yourself,” it’s hard to ignore the obvious rules we broke.

First, we used (and abused) credit.
A home is not a credit card. Credit is for educations and wars; not for quinceñeras and flat screens. But apparently everyone overlooked that fact, including the investment bankers who used their credit to buy our credit. Had we not broken this cardinal rule of the hustle, we’d all be able to buy stuff with style—you know, in cash. Remember how good that felt? I’m telling you, cash is the new Black.

Second, we didn’t invest our earnings.
The country as a whole seems to have forgotten the basic economic fact that in order to make money, you need to invest it in things that make money. So while real hustlers like Supreme were out there guaranteeing their returns by investing in a Dunkin’ Donuts franchise (the #1 retailer of coffee-by-the-cup in America), people of color were spending money on things that have zero return, like spinning rims and surround sound. Now, we’re left with no money to buy donuts and coffee.

And finally, we didn’t diversify.

There’s much more to diversity than boring corporate seminars on minority recruitment. A skilled hustler would have known that an investment firm that has billions of dollars riding on people’s ability to pay back variable-rate home mortgages is dangerous. If you’re going to do that, you might as well go to Vegas and bet it against the house—that way, you’ll at least get some free booze.

For those of you who broke the rules and need some good business ideas to get yourself out of a hole, Supreme suggests you buy “a lot” of vending machines. According to him, they’re cheap to buy, cheap to stock and have decent profit margins. After all, “it’s not about where [or how] you start, it’s about where you end up.”
After absorbing the wisdom of Supreme, it’s clear to me that hustling and winning are possible as long as we use our common sense and follow some simple rules. If we do that, we’ll pull through this crisis. We’ll have to, since we’ve got to pay the bills, and we’re not getting bailed out.