Chronic Illness And Self-Employment – An Honest Reflection On My First Year

Pippa sat at desk working on laptop, hands on keyboard and looking down at screen. Pippa has hair down and is wearing a burgandy woollen jumper, piles of paperback books in background

In December 2019, I made one of the scariest decisions of my life. I resigned from a working environment that was wrecking my physical and mental health and decided that 2020 would be my test year: 12 months to see whether complete self-employment could work for me. Before we go any further, you can read about my line of work and employment experiences up to this point in this piece about becoming a chronically ill freelancer.

I’m writing this post at the end of 2020 (though you won’t see it until 2021!) after doing some serious number crunching, to help me process my thoughts and give me something to look back on. However, I made the decision to share this online having been motivated by Shona Louise’s brave and brilliant blog post about being self-employed, and being a huge fan of Hannah Witton’s chatty videos about money and revenue streams on YouTube.

Though I’m not comfortable enough sharing my exact earnings myself, my reasoning for putting this post out there is that there must be other people as nosey as I am about the behind-the-scenes of people’s careers… especially when chronic illness is a huge factor in somebody’s working life.

Does Self-Employment Work For Me?

The question I asked myself this time last year was whether I could make self-employment work for me. And to my immense relief, the simple answer to that question is, in fact, yes. I can make this work. My goal as a self-employed worker is to try and match the highest salary I was earning in traditional employment, and having met that goal four months out of twelve this first year, I feel like I’m on the right track.

However, my freelance life today looks vastly different to how I initially imagined it.

Back then I assumed that I’d find a ‘day job’ that paid the bills, so that I could dedicate the rest of my time to writing. In my head, I thought my priority would be pitching timely stories and articles to publications and hopefully landing freelance commissions, whilst working on another book or range of eBooks in the background.

Fast forward 12 months, and I’ve had two pretty major revelations.

The first is that the ‘day job’ I was lucky enough to secure is pretty much my ideal role in the charity sector. Every job has pros and cons, but I’m part of a team championing a cause very close to my heart, and my place there has come to mean far more than something simply to pay the bills. I knew from the moment I secured the job this would likely be the case, but I couldn’t have anticipated just how committed I would feel to this line of work.

The second is that the rest of my time outside of my ‘day job’ isn’t just dedicated to writing. I’ve somehow ended up wearing multiple hats and managing different revenue streams, and of everything I find myself doing today, landing new freelance writing projects is not at all the priority. I honestly thought that pitching articles was going to be my main passion and my main ‘thing’… when in reality, it turned out to be the thing I enjoyed the least.

My U-Turn On Freelance Writing

Let me try and explain. I live with a chronic illness that necessitates planning and pacing as much as your waking life as humanly possible. I’m also quite a neurotic human being who low-key panics at the very notion of not being in complete control of what I’m doing. As you can imagine, neither of these elements bode particularly well with a fully freelance lifestyle.

Before, I’d put time and energy into pitching articles and opinion pieces to editors and then 1) fret about whether I’d be well enough to actually write the piece should it get commissioned, or 2) beat myself up for ‘wasting’ the time and energy put into the pitch if it didn’t get accepted or prove useful in some other way. A few select examples aside, I found it really difficult to deal with the physical and emotional uncertainty that came with focussing on sporadic freelance writing as a primary income stream.

I did, however, find quite a nice workaround for this issue. I pursued a ‘columnist’ role with a mobility organisation who I’ve worked with as a blogger in the past, and I developed a few other connections into longer-term partnerships too. This means that I still have regular opportunities to write, and enough notice about the deadlines I need to meet to plan and pace myself accordingly, but still have relative freedom in writing about topical and timely issues that are close to my heart.

I’m taking on a couple of other ‘regular’ projects like this in the New Year, since I know now that having this consistency and agreed expectations from both parties works better for me. I’m still very much open to topical writing opportunities and I do still pitch when I feel the urge, but I’ve found that taking the pressure off myself and seeing this as an optional commitment rather than a central one was definitely the right call. I’ve learned that freelance writing is an umbrella term for so much more than simply pitching articles, as you’ll come to see in the rest of my projects too…

Discovering Multiple Revenue Streams

As for other revenue streams, my number-crunching revealed some consistencies as well as some surprises. Will you humor me whilst I present my pie-chart to you? I was FAR too excited about making the pie-chart.

pie chart showing Pippa's different revenue streams as follows: charity sector work = 57.4%, blog and social media collaborations = 18%, freelance writing and articles = 11.2%, speaking and events = 5.6%, affiliate marketing = 4%, research and consultancy = 3.9%

As you can see, next to my ‘day job’, blogging and social media collaborations was the second-biggest piece of the pie: something I was glad to see, given that working with brands I love is one of my favourite things in the world. My social media audience has continued to grow over the last year, and the beauty of having more opportunities come my way is that I can be even more selective in who I choose to work with and how I work with them. It’s finally clicked that I’m ‘allowed’ to go back-and-forth with brands and negotiate a collaboration that’s the best fit for me and my audience, rather than simply giving a yes or no response. And the fact that people enjoy my sponsored posts as much as my non-sponsored ones means more than I can express.

That leaves us with three final elements of my working life that have all pretty much taken me by surprise. Similarly to blogging and social media shenanigans, affiliate marketing has become more fruitful this year, showing me that you lovely lot appreciate the brands I choose to work with and their products and services resonate with you. Some of my affiliate partnerships earn literally no more than pennies and quite frankly aren’t worth the time of day, but some prove much more mutually beneficial for myself and the brand.

Next up is something completely different. This time last year I was preparing for my TEDx talk, one of the most nerve-wracking things I’ve ever done. When it was over, I basked in the fact that I’d done it and would probably never end up public speaking ever again. Little did I know that 1) the opportunities would start cropping up more and more and 2) I’d actually enjoy it. This squeaky, brainfoggy person who sounds like a Yorkshire born-and-bred hamster actually enjoys public speaking. I don’t even know who I am anymore. I’d say that roughly 50% of the ‘talky’ things I do are currently unpaid, but I’m building up my experience and getting more confident each and every time. This hamster is improving.

Finally, we have one more revenue stream that I had no idea would be part of the picture this time last year. ‘Research and consultancy’ is a bit of a catch-all term for the stuff that doesn’t fit elsewhere, where I get to contribute to other people’s projects and enterprises as a freelancer. I share my thoughts or lived experiences to enhance their work, typically focussing on inclusive education and employment, ME/CFS, invisible illnesses, or similar areas. A few recent examples involve influencer marketing research in the disability sector, writing submissions for reports and campaigns, and consulting on industry guidance with various charities and organisations. My final project of the year involved going back to the original charity where I started as a flailing little intern and collaborating on content as a subject expert: that one was hands-down one of the proudest moments of my year.

Now, I’ve read back what I’ve written so far and it all sounds a bit too congratulatory and highlights reel-ish for my liking… so let’s move on to talk about all the things I got horribly wrong this year as well.

All The Things I Got Horribly Wrong

I’ve had to cancel Zoom meetings because I’d booked too many in too short a space of time and made myself poorly. I’ve had to cancel paid work because of not cancelling the aforementioned Zoom meetings and wrecking my health for the rest of the week. I’ve cried because I couldn’t figure out where to fit a tactical hair wash with essential rest time between the Zoom meetings. I’ve silently raged at spending too much of my time in unnecessary Zoom meetings when I know the time and energy could have been so much better spent elsewhere.

There were times I agreed to work for free on projects I initially didn’t think would be all that time-consuming, only for them to turn into a whole big thing that ate up all my usable hours. I didn’t ask for payment for a high-profile opportunity, because I was scared it would be taken away if I initiated that conversation. I still (apparently) undercharge for social media collaborations. I still internally panic every time I reply to an email asking for my rates.

I’m not assertive enough. I let people interrupt me and talk over me and question my lived experiences. I make myself ill to accommodate other people instead of setting my own boundaries and sticking to them. Sometimes I catch myself ‘over-compensating’ when talking to others, trying to appear bubblier and way more outgoing than I really am so they don’t catch on to how poorly I’m feeling. Brain fog means there are missed opportunities, because I know the thought I need is there but I just can’t access it in time.

My debut non-fiction book about university was released just before a global pandemic. One of my dream mainstream publishers who I originally pitched to released a direct competitor title with a huge influencer a few months later. My biggest wholesale book distributor went into administration due to the pandemic, meaning I lost sales income from books sold through their channels. Even though I’ve sold hundreds of copies, I still haven’t earned back what I invested in that book. I expect it to be at least another year before I can even produce more accessible formats of it, which I didn’t realise I’d have to fund myself. I only learned key information that would have hugely influenced my decision about the publishing process I was pursuing once I was too far down the process to change my mind, and to be completely honest with you, that’s something I still haven’t forgiven myself for.

I started writing a new book and was so horrified at how inadequately the first chapters reflected what was in my head that I scrapped it altogether. I started writing another book and quickly realised it was a narrative I wouldn’t be able to tell with sincerity for at least another five years. I started planning a lockdown charity book, only to realise I was doing it because I thought it would be a nice thing to do rather than it being something I actually wanted or needed to write. I’ve observed the massive surge of people writing and submitting books over lockdown and decided to put the pen down altogether until the time feels right again.

There were about six weeks where for unfathomable reasons I believed I could and should release an ethical pyjama line. Who even knows?

Yet Again, The Work-Life Balance Predicament

And finally, the big one. Besides when I’m resting in bed, it’s still very rare that I’m not working. All of the different revenue streams I’ve described here intersect with each other in so many different ways, as well as with my personal life, and it becomes difficult to draw them apart. I’m usually contributing to these things well outside of my contracted hours… because I can’t not.

I have people trying to get hold of me at all hours of the day on various different platforms, and the only way to get away from that is to switch my phone completely off and therefore (as I live alone) cut off all of my social life and relationships too. I still haven’t set the boundaries I need, because I constantly feel this internal pressure of needing to prove myself, to be available at the drop of a hat, to not give anybody else an ounce of difficulty that could in any way be used against me.

However, let me conclude this section by saying how acutely aware I am of my privilege of even being in this situation, this year more than any other. To be able to work at all, let alone pursue my interests and enjoy a career out of them, is something I appreciate more and more each day. To say that this time last year I was terrified of not having enough work come in to be able to continue being self-employed, this is pretty much the best kind of problem to have.

The real challenge now is to think about how I can modify things even further, to try and remove some of the oppressive mental and physical strain that’s all too common among chronically ill workers.

Which Direction Next?

In all honesty, I’ve felt the pull of the work I’m doing now and how seemingly easy it would be to let go of my personal projects and give everything to my existing ‘professional’ commitments. So many people in my life whose opinions I value have encouraged me to go where the money is and where I can add the most positive influence, and I know as well as they do that these opportunities are all on the ‘work-y’ side of my life: the charity sector profession, the research, the consultancy. However, I know deep in my gut that I cannot and will not let go of my blog and the things I do in a personal capacity… and the things I hope to try and do in the future. I just can’t walk away from them.

And that brings me to my final, final note to self for the upcoming year, which is straight-up scary to share but needs to be done for accountability purposes…

In the midst of all of this, I will find time to be creative. I will think and write for myself, the way I used to. I’ll write for the sake of writing, with no particular goal or end-destination in sight. I’ll do so in the knowledge that what I’m writing is in no way, shape or form productive or contributing to something else.

There is so much in me that needs to be expressed somehow. It feels as though I’m only just tapping back into it.

So, To Conclude…

Lately I’ve felt some (mostly self-inflicted) pressure to decide which one of these paths I want to follow: the more professional, or the more personal. Even I can see that it makes sense to slim down my commitments so I can give more time to the ones I choose to keep, and I’ve agonisingly cut down on as much as I can… including my beloved fundraising enterprise Spoonie Survival Kits, which will be coming to an end in 2021.

As of right now, however, I’m simply not prepared to let anything else go. It wasn’t really what I planned, but I like having the different revenue streams. I want to do it all. I want to find a way of making it work for me, in a safe and fulfilling way. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I didn’t try.

So, future Pippa reading this post at the end of 2021, here’s my question to you. Are you finding a way to do it all? Is it even possible to do it all and still genuinely find the balance and stability you need?

Thanks for reading, gang! Here’s to a much better and brighter 2021 for us all, hey? If you’d like to keep up to date with my shenanigans, do consider subscribing to my newsletter or saying hello on Instagram. Catch you next time!

Where To Next?

1 thought on “Chronic Illness And Self-Employment – An Honest Reflection On My First Year”

  1. I’m tired just reading all you’re doing/ have done. I have the luxury of talking from retirement after 32 years of teaching. I let my work and family be everything, leaving now I time for myself. Now, due to Fibromyalgia, I’m being forced to totally flip that around. As a young, intelligent, creative, ambitious woman, you can do anything. I’m glad that you are consciously thinking of balance. So hard to do, though.

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