About The Middle Finger Project & Ash Ambirge
Ash Ambirge, Founder
Hi, I'm Ash!
I'm a Frank's Hot Sauce devotee (leading with obvious priorities), travel writer, author, and creative entrepreneur. I recently published a book with Penguin Random House on beating the shit out of imposter syndrome, I've won a Webby Award for my irreverent voice in the self-empowerment category, I've keynoted speeches everywhere from London to the Caribbean, I teach creative writing as a tool for self-reinvention, and there is literally not a grilled cheese I will not burn.
YET, MY BIO USED TO BE MUCH DIFFERENT. (NOT THE GRILLED CHEESE. ALWAYS BEEN BAD AT THAT.)
Trailer park girl. Mom with debilitating social anxiety. Scranton, Pennsylvania. Food stamps. Medicaid. Writing checks to buy a roll of toilet paper. (So not cool when you're 15 years old going through the supermarket line, and your crush happens to be the cashier. )
I grew up in Susquehanna County, right on the border with upstate New York, and it's one of the most beautiful places on earth—and also a place with limited opportunity. I was terrified of being stuck in the same cycle of poverty I had watched my mom endure, so I became determined to do everything perfectly: straight A's, captain of the volleyball team, played in tournaments year-round, AP Calculus and English, editorial for the yearbook, represented my high school at the Hugh O'Brien Youth Leadership Conference, worked an after-school job serving pizza and ice cream at a local joint in town.
So when senior year came along and the billionaire magnate and chairman of Monster.com, Andy McKelvey, showed up at my high school to offer a fully-paid scholarship to college? I freaked.
In order to qualify, I had to demonstrate financial need (check!), and also needed to exemplify something else:
This thing called “entrepreneurial spirit.”
I didn't even know what the word “entrepreneurial” meant back then. I remember going to Google it! Nevertheless, I put together a case for myself and applied.
As part of the interview process, we were instructed to bring a tangible object that demonstrated our so-called entrepreneurial spirit—because clearly they wanted to torture us. In the waiting room, there were kids with saxophones, kids with chicken coops, kids with youth group projects. I had thought long and hard about what I could bring—how could I put my mind into an object?—but finally, I had come up with something. I didn't know if it would work, but I had no choice. And so there I sat, my hexagon-shaped box in my lap.
When my name was called, I went into the room and closed the door behind me, and when it was time to showcase “my object,” I began. Each side was decorated with a small, scaled down version of something I was proud of achieving: I had scanned awards, newspaper articles, volleyball accolades, clips from the stone wall I had built in front of the high school in memory of our dear friend, Jill. I went through each accomplishment, opening one hexagon-shaped box to reveal another, smaller hexagon shaped box, talking about the things I thought qualified me as a leader—the only “entrepreneurial spirit” I had at that age. I went through this process three times, and then finally looked up at Andy McKelvey, who was seated in a dark corner in the back, and said:
“But none of that is what makes me a future entrepreneur.”
And then I reached for the final, smallest box in the center. I removed it and placed it on the desk. Then, I lifted the lid.
Inside was a small, red heart. The tangible object that no one could see, but was very, very real.
Thanks to that scholarship, I attended a $40,000/year private school outside of the Poconos (#WILKES #REPRESENT), and it was the beginning of an all-new life. Andy McKelvey offered his mentorship and resources, and I did everything I could to learn. I spent my 18th birthday at a McKelvey camp in Western Pennsylvania, learning success principles that would help us succeed. A part of the bargain was that we would go back to our hometowns, someday, and give back to the local community. I went every summer, faithfully, and volunteered.
My mom and I couldn't believe our luck.
Yet, a mere few months before I'd walk across the stage at Wilkes University, I got a phone call:
“Your mother is unresponsive,” they said.
She had passed away, suddenly, from a blood clot that hit her lung, and my final semester in college was full of coroners, funeral homes, and learning about the intricacies of what really happens when you get cremated. I remember yelling at a man from the phone company, who refused to turn off service without an original copy of the death certificate in hand. I remember trying to finish my senior thesis. I remember getting frustrated by a Freshman English class that I somehow missed Freshman year, as my AP credits hadn't transferred properly. I remember completely forgetting, one day, to show up to a class—which was actually unusual, since I was the one teaching it.
And in May, I graduated without a home to return to: not in Susquehanna County, and not at Wilkes University.
I had to reinvent myself again.
I started my corporate career in Philadelphia—and suddenly I had to figure out all sorts of things I never had to know in my small town: how to speak with Fortune 500 clients, how to order a martini, how to navigate traffic, how to show that I wasn't just some country bumpkin, but a real player who had something to bring to the table. I hadn't even been to a Starbucks, ever, let alone know how to make coffee for the office. (My mom had always just used two scoops of instant.)
There was a lot I had to learn, and not just superficial things, but also life skills things—things my mother hadn't been able to teach me: How to speak with authority, how to have my ideas taken seriously, how to stand up for myself, how to have confidence when doing scary things, how to network, how to deliver an elevator pitch, how to handle a dispute, how to be convincing.
Fortunately, I had spent a lifetime camouflaging my shortcomings: I became a very good salesperson for myself, emphasizing the product benefits—my brain, my work ethic, my ideas—and learning how to minimize the less desirable product benefits. So, I did what I always had:
I reinvented myself forward.
The more I reinvented myself, the more second-nature it became.
I received quick promotions, started working in advertising for a magazine, won an award for the most number of deals closed on first meeting. At the same time, I had enrolled myself in grad school, deciding I wanted to pursue my writing career. I studied Linguistics, and began writing every night.
Eventually I'd reinvent myself again: I started my own freelance marketing company and began working with tech start-ups around the world, known for my personality-driven brand work.
At the same time, I became a digital nomad who learned how to reinvent myself with every new country I visited. I spent several years in Santiago, Chile, right when they were one of the first countries to offer a seed accelerator for foreigners who wanted to come to Chile, traveled to Europe, lived in Spain, became obsessed with London, spoke at conferences around the world, and kept traveling, learning, discovering, building my arsenal of cultural capital:
Refining my social skills, mastering the art of self-presentation, learning how to communicate with power and grace, making connections, stretching my mind, up-leveling my business skills, learning how to do things in new ways, and layering in new habits and ideas from a variety of different cultures.
Along the way, I also began documenting what I was learning about self-reinvention, and how we can seek meaningful work and live lives we're proud to live, no matter where we're starting. I fired up WordPress and decided that “The Middle Finger Project” seemed like the perfect name: a homage to the Dream Zappers, to the armchair critics, to the outdated ideas that keep so many people small, unchanged, “safe.” Because the truth is, life is just one big, long personal reinvention.
IF YOU'RE NOT REINVENTING YOURSELF, YOU'RE NOT ALIVE.
Most recently, I reinvented myself once again when I became an author with Penguin Random House, having published a book on overcoming imposter syndrome. This brought me to exciting new meetings in Manhattan with publishers, editors, marketers, publicists, designers, copyeditors—and even people who were tasked with bringing me coffee. #SURREAL
We got the call from The Today Show when I was standing in Penguin's offices with my agent, and then I just kept shitting myself when I found myself as a guest on BBC Radio London, getting phone calls from Jenny McCarthy for her show, having my opinion published in The New York Times, being featured in magazines and in airport bookstores and getting to walk in and sign stacks of copies, like I weren't just a shy, small-town girl growing up in a trailer park a minute ago.
Penguin Random House UK bought the rights to the book, too, so I flew to London to meet with them in their offices, and then found myself schmoozing at high-falutin places like The Arts Club (thanks, Parm!), brunching at Chiltern (helloooo, David Beckham), brunching with my editor on The Bloomsbury Hotel terrace, hosting a business retreat in a swanky boutique hotel in the Cotswolds, flying women in from all around the world to do personal brand makeovers in a gorgeous Georgian townhouse in London. (When you get me, a NYC photographer, a Norwegian wardrobe stylist, a British makeup artist, and a California brand designer all in the same room…lookout!!!).
And through it all, I felt SO NORMAL. I wasn't scared, I wasn't intimidated, I wasn't nervous: I was overjoyed to be living my life and saying “YES” to big opportunities.
And that's what I want for you. The confidence to say YES to anything you damn well want. To pursue it with a dagger in your hand. To not shrink or make yourself small. To feel like you are unstoppable.
Because when you feel like you don't belong in a room, you stop entering them.
And that's what The Middle Finger Project is about: having enough nerve to enter any damn room you want.
So, come hang with me! 👋 Let's reinvent the hell out of your life and your work, and leverage the creator economy so you can become a radically self-reliant badass, too.
Start by subscribing to my new weekly column, brand new for 2022!
I'll see you there,
Founder and Author
The Middle Finger Project
Suspicious of Fish Since 1984
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