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The following is excerpted from “The Middle Finger Project: Trash Your Imposter Syndrome and Live the Unf*ckwithable Life You Deserve” by Ash Ambirge, in agreement with Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Ash Ambirge, 2020.
I never dreamed of starting my own business. (Because… business?). I never dreamed of running my own show. I never dreamed of being entirely responsible for not only my salary, but the salary of others. And I certainly never dreamed of ALL THE TAXES.
Time and time again, I have realized just how much doing so has enhanced my quality of life. This isn’t intended to be about business, but rather the lessons I have learned about confidence and choice and strength and independence from doing business as an unconventional businesswoman in this world. It’s the single most useful personal development tool I’ve ever come across—even when it kicks my ass.
Especially when it kicks my ass.
But what I love and admire and appreciate about entrepreneurship so much is that it has given me the freedom to be me on a whole other level.
Not just when it comes to work, but when it comes to life as a whole. It’s one thing to be at the mercy of your employer, trying to fit your life into the tiny sliver of time left over from your day job. But it’s another thing to be able to have access to all 24 hours, every single day, and decide with conviction and deliberation as to how you want to spend that time and what you want to make with it.
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Working for yourself is a decision to live for yourself.
A major theme in this book is creating your own version of success. Sure, we give the middle finger to many tried-and-true constructs, but it’s not because I’m trying to be adversarial: it’s because living a good life requires you to decide what living a bad one means to you.
For me? A bad life has meant doing work that doesn’t matter to me, solving problems that do not matter to me, in a place that doesn’t matter to me, with people who do not matter to me.
Becoming an entrepreneur happened to be the best way I have found to consistently do work that does give me all of those things. We are all selling something, even if it’s the skills on our résumé, or an idea to a boss, or convincing your lover to run away with you to Italy. And that means we all must learn how to do it in a way that gets us where we want to go—to fulfill our own definitions of success.
One of the most important things I’ve learned when it comes to selling your ideas is that you must actually BELIEVE IN THEM. You can’t sell something you don’t have real confidence in. This is the number one challenge I see every single day when I speak with women who are trying hard to do something unconventional that supports the type of lifestyle they want to be living: they’ve taken a step in the right direction in trying, but too often they find themselves on a perpetual “break glass in case of emergency” hamster wheel—constantly doing whatever kind of work comes their way without ever being deliberate about their long-term career and passions and desires. They keep pushing through the hustle but they’re not intentional about it. They’re not in love with it. They never get around to making a real plan. They become too busy to stop and think and reflect and become inundated just with “keeping up.”
It’s no wonder you feel like an imposter: when you’re doing work that doesn’t belong in your life, it feels wrong. Of course you’re entirely turned off from wanting to sell yourself. Of course you don’t want to talk about your ideas and get people excited about them. It’s not because you are bad at this—it’s because this idea is bad for you.
I’ve seen this happen with plenty of women who are selling, for example, multilevel marketing products. Who are we kidding here? Most people aren’t passionate about that. They’ve found a way to make money from home—or at least they’re trying. That’s what they’re passionate about. They want to stay home with their kids or travel the world or do ANYTHING that does not involve becoming an Excel power user at the pinnacle of their career. That’s what’s driving them. AND THAT’S OKAY: right now, they’re using these products as a means to an end. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. That’s what you do in a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency situation. You pick something, and you sell it.
But if it’s actual purpose we’re talking about? And passion? And doing something over the long term that makes you feel like you’ve finally found YOUR CALLING, that you feel as if you have really done something you’re proud to be doing? That’s a different conversation. And it requires a different strategy.
It’s not about the work. It’s about how the work makes you feel.
Like, yes, girl, I can sit here and sell these shower curtain liners ALL DAY LONG if you want me to. Whatever you want me to sell, I can do that. Ex-Lax, race cars, Junior Mints, vacations to the Caribbean. On some level, that’s what all of us are doing. Your role within any organization is to help it sell more, period. It doesn’t matter if you’re in PR, graphic design, legal, or if you’re the gosh darn custodian scraping gum off the table. All of those roles can be boiled down to one purpose: money. You exist to help an organization make MUH-ney. And in exchange, they give you a teeny little percentage—which is called a “salary.” And that’s all fine and dandy until you realize that you don’t give a crap about shower curtain liners. Or Ex-Lax. Or race cars. Or Junior Mints. You are doing this work day in and day out, but… to what end?
That, right there? Those three little words? Those are the most important three. We all just sort of… begin working, and very generally so, hoping it will all work out for the best. That you’ll “figure it out” and “find your way” and eventually skip off down a daffodil-lined street wearing a pair of Vineyard Vines Bermudas, saying things like, “Buffy, take my bags.” But hoping it’ll just sort of “work out” is like being plopped in the center of Hong Kong and just starting to walk, hoping you’ll eventually make it—and yet, that’s exactly how most of us have been forced to pick our careers. Pin the tail on the donkey, then be stuck with where it lands.
This is your chance to do it differently. To start again, but more strategically. Now you know yourself better than you did before. You can start with the end goal and then engineer a career around that. And that end goal is a feeling.
Not a job. Not a role. Not a title. A feeling.
The work itself matters less than how it makes you feel when you do it.
For me, for example, I really love the act of creating. I love big visions. I love writing and making and doing. And I love launching things out into the world. What I do not like, however, are the logistics: monitoring, organizing, managing inventory. I’m an ideas person, not an operations person. It took me years of trial and error to get to learn that about myself, but now I know that, with any new business or project I design, I need to carefully consider my role.
How can I make my most meaningful contribution? By applying creativity to places that are traditionally lacking—and then hiring other people to help me execute.
Which is why it’s critical to learn what actually makes you happy. You’ve got to start with the end goal and then work your way backward. Heck, I know plenty of people who LOVE organizing things, and they legitimately get turned on by it. They are the crust to my apple pie, those folks. But make no mistake: we need to pursue very different lines of work in order to do our best work.
Here’s the real trick. Instead of trying to be the greatest at everything (and then sucking 50 percent of the time), I’ve learned to take what I’m best at and declare it as my edge. I specialize in this half of the equation. Here’s where I can help you make a mark. The rest? Not my wheelhouse. But this piece? This piece over here? I am better at this than anyone else in the world. And that’s why you hire me.
This is a much different approach than trying to be “a copywriter” or “a web designer” or “a bookkeeper.” Those are a dime a dozen. I want to know what makes you fantastic. And the only way anything can be fantastic is by deliberately being ordinary in other areas.
Be the photographer who KILLS black-and-white.
Be the illustrator who mocks pop culture.
Be the landscape designer who specializes in English gardens.
Be the writer who only writes damn good bios.
Be the tour guide who teaches you about a city through its booze.
Be the cross-stitcher who uses the F-word in every design.
Be the realtor who specializes in historic architecture.
Be the food truck that only does buffalo sauce everything. (Then again, I may just be hungry…)
Have the courage to do it weird—because therein lies the opportunity. By focusing in on one particular element of your work that you really enjoy, it gives you the opportunity to be able to say, “I am better at this than anyone in the world.”
The generalist can never claim that. It’s the person who has the courage to go deep, rather than broad, who has the ability to make a mark.
“The Middle Finger Project” is available now wherever books are sold and can be purchased via StartupNation.com.