You Can’t Be One Thing Forever, My Darling
May 4, 2021
Things I've learned to be wary of in life:
- Normal people.
- People who say, “you like fish, you just haven't tried it cooked THIS WAY!” (Oh yeah, Satan? Did you want to cut up my chicken for me, too?)
- Self-important narcissists who just like to hear themselves talk, and talk, and talk. (One time, in Dublin, I literally got up and took my drink into the bathroom—FOR AN HOUR.)
- People you can't get off the phone (see number 4).
- Nutella. I just can't get into it?
- Sociopaths (there are a lot of these???)
- Lazy, clichéd writing (this always seems to be the result of lazy thinking and/or a complete lack of respect for other people's time)
- People who are nice to me because they want something from me—then try to manipulate me into doing what they want, without making it SEEM like they want something. Who taught you things?!
- And perhaps one of the things I'm the wariest of? Traditional success.
I'm wary of success.
Most people go chasing after it their entire lives, but I've found that success inevitably comes with one, very large trade-off:
There's no escape hatch.
Exhibit A: you're a doctor. You've worked hard to be a doctor. Years in the making. Years of long days, long nights, and exactly zero steamy sex sessions inside the emergency room closet. But alas, finally, you've made it! You're a doctor, and you can afford 1960's style tables from Chairish! What do you think you're going to do the month, the year, the entire decade when you realize you're dreadfully unhappy? Will you give up the success you worked so hard for? Or, will success keep you trapped in its naked mole rat claws?
Exhibit B: you're an entrepreneur. You've spent years building your brand, building your clientele, building your reputation. You've become THE go-to person for X. (If only “X” were”Zero Calorie Wine.”) You've invested money in websites, money in photos, money in ads. You've invested time, and love, and tears. And you've been successful, hooray! So now what do you do when you outgrow it? When you crave a new challenge? Do you give up the success you worked so hard for? Or do you stay because of the sunk costs?
Most. People. Stay. Because. Of. The. Sunk. Costs. Not because it's an investment they want to continue to make in their future.
And isn't that a terrifying thought? That the very thing you thought would bring you freedom, has actually brought you imprisonment. How can you leave this “successful” life you've built?
That's my biggie beef sandwich with most success: the sunk costs corrode your perspective. They're constantly there, like anchors, pulling you back to status quo. They whisper in your ear that “giving it up now would be a waste,” that “you worked hard to get where you're at,” that “this is who you are.”
Sunk costs might be a prerequisite of success, but I can guarantee you this: with enough time, they also become the enemy of growth.
I've been thinking of this a lot lately with The Middle Finger Project—the brand I built, the book I wrote, the success I've had. It has been wonderful, but there's also a point at which even something called “The Middle Finger Project” can be limiting.
This is the problem with successful brands: they are, by necessity, focused. They're a container that represent a set of ideas. And those ideas become who you are.
Until you grow.
Until you want to express yourself differently, speak to different ideas, explore new topics. That's when your old container starts to feel a bit claustrophobic. Confining. Small.
Not because you couldn't just write what you want at any time under any name—surely, you can—but because brands, like people, have baggage. Who you were as “The Middle Finger Project” in your twenties is not who you are as “The Middle Finger Project” in your thirties, and as I approach my forties soon—I mean, I'm fucking 37 this year!—I know that surely who I'll be as “The Middle Finger Project” will be much different as well.
Because I'm expanding.
And that means that I must also necessarily expand beyond the confines of a brand as well.
I do not wish to be permanently trapped in an identity, a label. (“That middle finger girl,” as the internet is wont to address me—though soon it'll be “that middle finger hag.”) Sometimes, reinvention is necessary. Sometimes, new containers are necessary. This one isn't going anywhere—I'll keep encouraging you to find unconventional ways to live a better life—but a necessary part of that is continuing to practice what I preach. So I'm excited to lean into new ideas that I love, in new places, so I can continue to grow.
So I'm working on a series of paid newsletters. (I'm even calling them newsletters, something I would have NEVER done.) Each one explores a different topic in depth: writing, travel, and freelance. Yet each is tied together by the one common through-line: irreverence to the rules.
They will be branded under Ash Ambirge, not The Middle Finger Project.
They will be executed weekly, like a proper newspaper column.
I hope you know enough about me by now to know that this is because (a) it'll be so much fun, and (b) this is how modern creators turn their passions into bonafide businesses: by eliminating the middle man—in this case, the actual newspaper, or a magazine—and giving themselves the job. Newspapers and magazines survive because of advertisers, and then use writers to get eyeballs to their publication, not so they can read the writing, but so they can see the advertisements. I don't want to work this way. I'd prefer to work with the consumer directly and provide value in exchange for compensation—a 1:1 model that benefits both parties equally, rather than bait and switch humans like a monopoly chip.
I'm also working on a new writing center for women and marginalized communities—Unintimidated HQ—where you'll be able to go and get help with everything from writing an application essay for program admission, to writing a proposal for a client, to writing a poem, to writing a letter to a judge for child support, to writing a query letter, to writing your family's story in book form—and so much more. The idea is to amplify voices through strong, effective, HEAR ME ROAR kind of words, and that includes not only women, but people of color, indigenous populations, immigrants whose first language is not English, the LGBTQ community, anyone with limited educational opportunities, and anyone who historically has been at a disadvantage in having their voice heard. I'm really, really excited about this. More on this soon, too.
And one final thing I'm working on with my own writing is using it to additionally support the travel and tourism industry as it recovers from the pandemic. As you know, I'm a permanent nomad, and travel is one of the things I'm most passionate about. Throughout my travels, I've developed an obsession with independent hotels and hospitality design, in particular, and enjoy nothing more than finding that authentic hidden gem tucked into the cutest neighborhood that makes an entire trip. And yet, in my discussions with hotel owners here in Costa Rica, where we have a home, I've been shocked to learn just how dependent they are upon big online travel agencies such as Expedia, Booking.com, Trip Advisor, etc., often relying on them for 90% of their business. 90%! Which means that the average small hotel has to pay out over $300,000+ a year in commissions to these companies, eating up the majority of their profit margin. Which is bad enough as it is, but right now, after a financially devastating year? It's going to make it almost impossible to recover.
So I started researching. And learning. And I've even enrolled myself in a course at Cornell's hospitality school so I can better understand the inner workings of the industry, and then apply my writing skills to it. One of the things I learned is that a hotel property needs a minimum 40/60 direct revenue ratio to even start to be profitable—that is, 40% of their business being booked directly through their website. (Not 10% direct, like is often the current reality.) And that's something I KNOW I can help with—I know I can absolutely move those numbers. Turns out, 97% of travelers actually visit a hotel's website BEFORE booking on Expedia, or Booking.com, or any other OTA—but then they leave, and book offsite. But I KNOW I can convert more of those travelers into direct bookers. And I know I can help small boutique properties revive their profits and keep the money they've earned. So, I'm a woman on a mission. Which is to say: if you own a hotel property, know someone who owns a hotel property, or know someone who could use my help in this industry, please definitely reach out to me at Proper Tease & Co. I'm just going to throw myself into it with the goal of helping as much as I can. Looking forward to having a ball and being useful while I do it!
The truth is, as I sit here on my back deck, looking across the Costa Rican sea toward the silhouette of a mountain, all I want to do is race over there and climb up it. I want to swim in that sea, and sprint on its shores, and sweat my way to the very top—and probably swear my ass off half the time—not because I want to see some grand view, but rather, because I want to see myself a little bit more clearly in the process. That's what travel does for me, and that's what writing does for me, and that's what business does for me, too: all of these are lenses through which I can more clearly see myself, and test myself, and grow myself. Because you can't see yourself in a vacuum—not truly, anyway. You can't sit in your living room your entire life and know who you really are. It's only when you put yourself in a new context, under new conditions, that you have enough contrast to see your own silhouette: where you stand, what you think, what defines you. This is how you begin to shape a life: by throwing yourself to the wolves and seeing what you're actually made of. Too many people are scared to do this; scared that they'll be eaten alive. But if there's one thing I can promise you, it's that you can never be eaten alive if you make friends with the wolves. Don't fear the unknown—race toward it. Don't assume you'll be a disaster—assume you'll be a fucking star. Let the wolves take their lead from you, instead.
Sure, there will be sunk costs.
Let 'em sink!
That's better than living a life you can barely remember.