How Ashley C. Ford changed her relationship to fear and transformed her life

"For a long time, fear was my ruler. Everything was about fear."
Tyler Essary/TODAY
By Meena Hart Duerson

We are all works in progress; even the successful women you see owning it on Instagram faced stumbling blocks along the way and continue to work hard to stay at the top of their game. In this series, we're sitting down with the people that inspire us to find out: How'd they do it? And what is success really like? This is "Getting There."

Ashley C. Ford, 33, is a writer, podcaster and occasional TV host now living in Brooklyn, New York, by way of Indiana. Now at work on a memoir, she’s written and guest-edited for numerous outlets, from BuzzFeed to the New York Times.

But the road hasn't always been smooth for Ford. Here's how she got to where she is today.

TMRW: What did you imagine yourself doing when you were little and how did you get here?

Ashley C. Ford: I wanted to be a performer because that’s what I saw a lot of people who looked liked me — when they were doing something that made them seem extra special — that’s usually what they were doing. Usually, you could see them on TV, and so I thought I wanted to be on TV. As I got older, I realized that what’s really important to me is just telling stories. Not just the stories we think are the stories we should be telling, but the stories that just are. And there are so many of them because we have as many unique stories as we have people.

How did you get your first start?

I was really, really lucky to be in the creative writing program at Ball State University because I had these amazing professors who were not just teaching writing, they were also working writers. They were people who were submitting work and trying to get published as well.

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I had a professor who really encouraged us to get on the internet and be part of the writing communities that were forming, and I loved it. One of those people I ended up finding in that independent writing arena was Roxane Gay. I loved her work so much and I started reaching out to her, and we eventually became friends, and she became a mentor to me. I met Isaac Fitzgerald before he was the books editor at BuzzFeed and Saeed Jones before he was the LGBT editor at BuzzFeed. AWP, which is a weird little writers’ conference, was the place where I met Cheryl Strayed and ended up being asked to be on a reading with her later on. Being able to be part of that community when I was a college student is really at the root of my writing career.

For more like this, follow TMRW on Instagram at @tmrwxtoday.

What would you say to someone who wants to be successful but doesn’t necessarily know how to start?

If you sit down and you work on your art or your goal or your dream every day, or you even think about it every day and work toward it every other day — every third day is daily enough. If you come back to something every third day, it won't feel like you’re giving up, even though you’re taking a break. If you’re thinking I’m not working the hardest I could have or maybe I’m working too hard, just know that wherever you are right now and whatever you’re feeling, all of that is useful. It’s OK that it’s hard. Let it be hard. If it’s hard, that means you’re going to reap the benefits of it being hard. You have to just know that you’re doing the work.

Ford's whiteboard at home includes a reminder that "Every third day is daily enough." Courtesy of Ashley C. Ford

One theme we’re talking about a lot in March is the idea of fear. What’s been your relationship with fear, anxiety, self-doubt?

For a long time, fear was my ruler. Everything was about fear. My dreams were beautiful and they were inside me, but my dreams lived in a different world from my reality.

I was just so scared of trying and failing. I was like, You just stick to what you’re good at and try to make the most practical decisions possible. Try to get married as soon as you can. Try to be partnered with someone who has a good job and who treats you nice. Get a job where you make $50,000 a year so you can have something nice and stable and so you don’t have to worry. Everything was just about, how do I not worry.

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That was true for a really long time, until I was deeply into college and just had a complete breakdown. I had dealt with some illness, school was not going well, and that was supposed to be my ticket out, to the life I belonged in. I completely broke down and slowly started to build myself up.

The thing I had to do differently this time was to try liking myself. I was 26 when I was like, Hey, what if we tried liking ourselves? And that’s pretty much when everything changed. It was like, what if we considered that the worst-case scenario was as likely as the best-case scenario? It didn’t make sense to just focus on the worst-case scenario when the best-case scenario was just as likely to happen.

What was the turning point for you, that led you to make this shift?

I lost all my jobs. This is so funny, this morning, Facebook memories popped up and there was this photo of me in an old coat and these fingerless gloves, under the hood of a car. And I realized, oh yeah, eight years ago today I was so broke that when my car broke down, I only had enough money to get an alternator and not enough money to get it installed. So I had to get on my phone and Google how to install an alternator, and change my own alternator!

Oh my God.

That was pretty much at the height of this time for me, of everything breaking down. And then that car eventually does break down — it’s not the alternator, actually I did a great job with the alternator — but the engine goes out and I can’t fix an engine. And all three of my jobs had stipulations that I couldn’t work there unless I had reliable transportation. So I got fired from all three.

I was sitting in my room and I was just like, I can’t do this anymore. I walked to the library. I brought a stack of books home, and one was “The Gift of Imperfections,” by Brené Brown. That book taught me almost immediately that I had been, for most of my life, my own worst enemy. Because I did not have a kind word for myself, and couldn’t even handle kind words from other people about me.

Were you able to retrain your brain?

I was, in a certain way. I always think of it as a video game. A game I was obsessed with as a kid was Mrs. Pacman. You go through a level and it’s kind of hard, and then they’re like, Oh actually we’re going into the second phase. And those ghosts speed up and you have less time; everything is harder but you feel better and better every time you beat a phase. When I was a kid me and my brother beat that game and it was the best day of our childhood.

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I feel that way emotionally. The beginning was like, yeah, beat that level, bring on the next level! And it’s like, Oh, there’s not a next level from here. We’re moving into a new phase. Every time you figure something out about yourself, there is this other thing coming — it’s like the Boss. Eventually you’re going to have to fight the Boss.

Your worst nightmares are out there but so are your wildest dreams. And it’s worth it to just keep going, and keep being bounced back and forth, on the spectrum along those things.

How has your relationship with fear changed?

I try to visualize it and bring it into reality and not let it become a scary thing. I told my therapist that, for me, fear is like looking down a really long, dark hallway. At the end of the hallway you see this rectangular outline in the shape of a door, and you see light coming in at the edges of that rectangle. And you know that on the other side of that door is something you really, really want to see. But you also have this inkling that there's a huge monster standing in front of that door. And every step you take toward that light on the other side is also a step toward that monster and the inevitable confrontation that you have to have with that monster.

In reality, how fear shows up is procrastination and self-sabotage. And convincing, negative self-talk: Convincing myself that an opportunity was given to me and not that I earned it. Not taking care of myself in a very foundational way. So when I see those things starting to happen, I know that I’ve put fear in the driver’s seat and we’ve got to make a swap. I’ve got to get back in the driver’s seat; I’ve got to put fear back in the back seat. You’ve gotta have ‘em in the car — but I can’t have them in the driver’s seat. I think I got that from Elizabeth Gilbert; I’m pretty sure that’s who said that, originally.

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Was there a moment where you felt like, oh! I could do this, for my life!

I interviewed Serena Williams for the cover of Allure magazine, and months later, I was doing on-camera interviews at BuzzFeed and I was interviewing Serena again. Not only did she remember me, but she told me about people who had reached out to her about that profile and told her that it was one of the best ones they had ever read about her. And that blew my mind. A few months later I interviewed someone else, a big star, and for this one, I was requested by the artist. That had never happened to me. My editor explained that they said I had a reputation for being compassionate and fair. That was such a massive compliment. It just made me feel like I was accomplishing something not just as a writer, but as a person. That made me feel really powerful, and it made me feel like I’m definitely on the right path.

On that long long road, I’m on the right road, at least.

How do you think your little kid self would feel about seeing where you are and the path you’re on now?

I think she would be really excited for me. I think she is really excited for me. I feel like I’m in conversation with my younger self a lot, not just because I’m writing a memoir but also because she’s got important things to say and to remind me. I do think that she would love our life. I think she would love that we are pretty hopelessly in love with somebody and we have an amazing dog and that we make things for a living. I know that she’s still itching to be more of a performer but we’ll get there in one way or another. And that every day is an opportunity to get a little bit better at something that is important to her. She’ll take as many days as she can get and that will be enough.

Talk to me about body image and confidence. You’ve been featured on a billboard in your underwear (!) and you’re absolutely rocking this pink suit. What’s your secret to feeling comfortable?

Comfort is a big thing to me. I don’t have clothes that make me feel uncomfortable. I like looking like me. And me is really cute! I might not be the most gorgeous chick in the world, but I’m cute. I am so much fun. I feel like that comes through. If I decide to have fun, it looks like I’m having fun. And when I’m having fun, that shit is cute.

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Please tell me more about the pink suit. It’s incredible.

I went to Target, which I love to do. I saw this suit and I was like, there’s no way it’s in my size. And then, there it was in my size. It was like the heavens have opened and smiled specifically down on me, and who am I — who would I think I am?! — to turn down a blessing such as this. I took my blessing right up to the cashier and walked right out of the store.

When I put that suit on, I feel amazing. I have all kinds of outfits, but every once in a while, I put something on and I'm like, This is me. That’s how I felt when I put on that suit. I felt like I was looking at myself, like really looking at myself, and she really did it for me.