Ash Ambirge grew up in a trailer park in rural Pennsylvania.
She never met her biological father. Her father-figure mentor passed away when she was 14. Her disabled mother, who raised her on government assistance, passed away when she was 20.
Her childhood goal was to join the middle class. She dreamed of becoming one of those people who eats poppyseed bagels and lemon pepper chicken. After all, what’s more middle class than that?
Ash’s future changed the moment she received a need-based, full ride scholarship to college. After she graduated, she snagged a marketing assistant job and negotiated a $30,000 salary.
Ash had finally made it; she joined the middle class. To celebrate, she bought a brand-new car, financed a $5,000 mattress, and rented a luxurious apartment. Yet she felt that something was lacking (and it wasn’t the lemon pepper chicken).
Unfulfilled, Ash set out to answer two burning questions:
- “What does it mean to live a good life?”
- “What does it look like to do work that I’m proud of?”
Throughout her childhood, the answers to these questions had been elusive. Her mother hadn’t worked, and Ash had no idea what a “good life” involved. She had no role models.
To find these answers, she quit her job, took on $80,000 of student debt to attend grad school, and launched The Middle Finger Project, a company that teaches entrepreneurs to trust their most dangerous ideas and make a killing from them.
Ash has first-hand experience with trusting ideas. At her lowest point, she found herself in her car, in a Kmart parking lot, with $26 to her name and nothing but her wit and determination.
Twenty-four hours later, Ash had earned $2,000 (thanks to her ‘dangerous’ idea) and had purchased a one-way ticket to Chile.
Want to know how she did it? Ash shares her incredible story in today’s episode. The rest of the juicy details are in her memoir, The Middle Finger Project.
While nothing beats listening to Ash tell her story first-hand (she’s hilarious), here are five nuggets of wisdom that she shared during the interview.
#1: Money is Important, But It Doesn’t Create Meaning
Money brings us security and options, but it doesn’t imbue life with meaning on its own.
Well, duh, you might think. That’s an obvious statement.
Maybe so, but Ash spent the first 20 years of her life striving to join the middle class because she believed money held the answers she so desperately wanted.
When she arrived, she had options galore and more security than she ever knew in her previous life. Yet, she found that more money didn’t equate to a sense of “enough.”
As Ash explains:
“I went to the Sleepy’s mattress store and this guy gave me a $5,000 mattress on credit … I made bad decisions because I – there was a part of me, I think, psychologically, that felt like I deserved it.”
Given that she had worked so hard for her middle-class lifestyle, this makes sense. But the career, the salary, the pricey mattress, the lemon pepper chicken – none of it translated into meaning.
Clearly, money wasn’t the answer to living a “good life.” What was?
#2: There’s a Difference Between Happiness and Meaningfulness
Ash says this took years for her to learn:
“Happiness, as studies show, is about getting what you want … Meaningfulness is about getting what you want, the things you should be grateful for, and also expressing and defining yourself while you do it.”
Another way to differentiate happiness from meaningfulness is pleasure versus purpose.
You may get pleasure from eating a nice meal, but it doesn’t infuse you with a sense of purpose, does it?
You may get pleasure from renting a luxury apartment, with gorgeous hardwood floors and floor-to-ceiling windows, but this space doesn’t give you purpose.
A nice meal or a beautiful residence won’t cure emptiness.
As Ash points out, there’s a difference between expressing gratitude for what you have, and being deeply gratified by what you have.
But … how do you craft a meaningful, gratifying life?
Here’s what most of us do: we listen to and act upon conventional advice.
Everyone tells us to “be grateful” to have a job, even if it’s one that we hate. Everyone tells us to stick it out, and that life isn’t so bad.
We figure that everyone else is right, and that we must be crazy. So we close the door on our dreams. We don’t give voice to our hopes and desires. We become small.
To inject meaning into our lives, we need to do the opposite. We must listen to ourselves. We must rid ourselves of our fear to dream. We must act and experiment and iterate. The alternative is to wither away in a cubicle for the next way-too-many years.
That’s where creativity comes in.
#3: Your Creativity is One of Your Strongest Assets
Ash highlights the importance of creativity:
“I’ve had to get everything that I’ve had my entire life from being creative. It was the only way forward for me.”
Ash said this casually, as if it was the most obvious point in the world. Yet, it’s profound.
Creativity was her path forward.
Many people think of creativity as being at odds with security. Creativity, in Ash’s example, was the enabler of security.
Creativity, and its close cousin, flexibility, are sources of security. They’re tools for upward mobility.
However, Ash’s journey wasn’t linear. It was volatile, to the point where she found herself sleeping in her car in a Kmart parking lot.
#4: Don’t Be Afraid to Hit Rock Bottom
Ash describes how she approached this pivotal moment:
“If you have the privilege and the luxury of hitting rock bottom, it is the best thing that will ever happen to you, because when you have to sink or swim, you will swim every time, and you can’t say the same thing about when you’re just living a comfortable existence day by day.”
You are smart.
You are strong.
If you hit rock bottom, you will find a way back.
If you don’t believe that, Ash has beautiful words of assurance to offer.
#5: Trust Yourself
“Trust yourself more. Trust that you will figure it out as you go … You’re always figuring it out every single day of your life. You are still here, you are still breathing, and I think that’s enough evidence. Trust in the evidence that you have about yourself – of all the hard things you have accomplished and the things you know to be true about yourself. The things people thank you for. That’s real evidence of your own capability and I hope you learn to trust that.”
You can create spreadsheets. You can create contingency plans for every possible scenario. You can think critically about major moves you want to make. And you should, because planning can help you avoid grave mistakes.
But don’t use your spreadsheets or checklists as emotional blankets. Planning is not a substitute for confidence.
Planning plus confidence is a powerful combination and will take you further than you can imagine.
To start, trust in yourself. Lean into your creativity. Embrace flexibility. And follow your most dangerous ideas.
- The Middle Finger Project, by Ash Ambirge
- @the.middle.finger.project – Instagram
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