How I overcame depression, learned to trust myself and grew as a solopreneur
February 7th, 2022

If you can see your path laid out in front of you step by step, you know it's not your path. Your own path you make with every step you take. That's why it's your path.― Joseph Campbell

When I interviewed Pieter Levels on my podcast, we discussed the unbalanced ratio between male and female indie hackers. We understand the importance of having a role model or referencing other people’s stories on our making and building journey. Since there are not many female founders stories, I’d like to take this opportunity to share my journey and lessons learned along the way.

Unlike many tech-savvy IHers, I was trained in marketing and communications. I started my career as a part-time journalist while studying in New Zealand. I got a full-time job offer with a big corporate as a social media specialist and then switched to the finance world to focus on content creation, PR and community management.

Since I was a non-native English speaker living in an English-speaking country, I worked extremely hard (12- 14 hours a day) to prove myself and learned the rules of climbing corporate ladders. I got financial rewards and social proof from friends and colleagues often. So I pushed myself even harder at the workplace to get more recognition.

I had entered a vicious cycle that I wasn’t even aware of. It was like a drug I became addicted to.

Luckily enough, my body warned me after two years of workaholic lifestyle: I had severe eczema. My doctor told me I had to stop working day and night without rest. Otherwise, I could die. Naturally, I was scared and quit my job immediately.

I organised a gap year for myself, toured around the U.S. and China, and used my savings to enjoy material goods. Those leisure times were a temporary cure that didn’t bring me any long-term fulfilment. After a half year of travelling and ‘enjoying’ life without doing any actual work, I ran out of money and fell into depression.

While I was staying at my parents’ home, my former manager contacted me to join her at a bank. I accepted straight away and treated this opportunity as a lifeline in the darkness. Working in a corporate environment again, however, didn’t save me at all. I was grateful for the opportunity, but it eventually pushed me into an abyss. I threw myself into alcohol and parties to find happiness and began to have panic attacks.

Around the same time, I came across Tim Ferriss’ The 4-Hour Workweek and James Altucher’s podcast. They inspired me to start my side hustles and embrace my inner creativity.

Ever since I was a child, I have practised singing, drawing, writing, dancing, and calligraphy. I even published my first novel in primary school. Writing and artistry are embedded in my DNA, but these are not accepted as a typical path in society. So I stopped doing those things I love and dedicated myself to the socially-accepted way of living: attend a good school, find a good job, work hard to get a promotion, get married, have a baby, and raise a good kid to repeat your path… I understand that people have different approaches, and some may enjoy this way of living. But it’s not for me. This is a hard lesson I learned about myself till I was 30.

Once I realised that I needed to embrace my inner creativeness, I started a newsletter and podcast in 2018 to replace partying and drinking. I wrote about my life living abroad as a Chinese international student and offered career tips from my own experiences. When I devoted my working ethics to what I really loved, the results didn’t lie. My follower and subscriber base grew slowly, but steadily.

Reinvigorated by these early successes, I bootstrapped a content consultancy company to work with founders and solopreneurs. Many of my business-owner friends and networks witnessed how I leveraged original content to gain exposure and form an engaged community. They frequently asked me for tips on doing that. So why not make a living from it?

Running a business, however, was way more complicated than I thought. Apart from delivering the actual work, I have to deal with accounting, tax and many other chores. Though I didn’t enjoy the operational aspects as much, I eventually earned enough money to quit my corporate job.

In July 2019, I moved from New Zealand to the U.K. to start a new chapter of my life. My original plan was to find clients in London, work on weekdays, and watch Premier League football games or travel around Europe on weekends. Half a year into this new life, the pandemic demolished my dream.

I was lockdown in a new country, alone, and without a stable income. I didn't have financial or mental support during the pandemic. I was anxious and worried. The only silver lining was seeing my side hustle grow rapidly as more people were stuck at home and had more time to read and listen to my newsletter and podcast.

While lockdown was challenging, it proved to be a gift in disguise. It provided me with solitude and time to reflect on myself. I kept morning journals, walked 10,000 steps every day, learned new skills (coding and design) and published a memoir in Chinese and one novel in English.

One day in 2021, I came across Pieter Levels’ work on Twitter and realised the digital nomad lifestyle would be perfect for someone like me! So I joined Nomadlist and started to work remotely with clients from China, New Zealand, and the U.K.

2022 marks the fifth year of my content creation career. Here are the results at a glance:

  • 150,000+ followers on Weibo (Chinese Twitter)
  • 7,000+ subscribers on WeChat (¥13,000+ RMB in revenue)
  • Almost 1,200 people subscribed to my English newsletter Chiwi Journal after 6 issues.
  • CY Circle with 50 paid customers within 5 months ($14,000+ in revenue ).

Looking back on my journey, I can’t say I’m successful since I haven’t achieved financial goals as other IHers did. But I can say I’m happier and more at peace, and enjoy the process I’m going through.

Here are three crucial lessons I learned along the way.

1. When in doubt, listen to your body. It's smarter than you.

I recommended an interview on Whole-Body Intelligence in my annual letter to readers in 2021. Embodiment expert and author Philip Shepherd says:

"In many cultures, the centre of thinking is experienced in the body, which has a borderless affinity with the world around it. It is attuning to the world in every moment". Thanks to my body's 'friendly' reminder, I realised I had to quit my corporate job and pursue my path as a content creator.

Another famous example is George Soros and his back pain. His back hurt when his portfolio was positioned poorly because "bodily sensation is a key indicator of unconscious dissonance; of when your intellect is missing something important from the outside world".

We usually talk about the importance of mental health among founders but rarely mention the necessity of body intelligence. As builders and makers, we rely on our decision-making process to provide services and products to the world in need. When we are surrounded by noise and overloaded information, it's time for us to listen to our body (or gut feeling) and develop the ability to intellectually interpret body sensations and take action accordingly.

2. Have a self-faith, be laser-focused & persistent

Recently, I interviewed David Senra, the host of one of my favourite podcast shows, Founders. In the interview, he summarised three common traits based on 200+ founders' biographies he read: Self-faith, persistence, and focus.

There is no such thing as smooth sailing in life. For someone who moves countries and changes careers every couple of years, I could speak non-stop about all difficulties and setbacks I've encountered. However, I understand I couldn't become who I am today without everything I experienced and everyone I’ve met. I always have a strong faith in myself because I trust the process. As long as I keep doing what I love — such as writing, involving in creative projects and interacting with people — I will win this lifelong game with a peaceful mind, healthy life, and good relationships with others.

As Naval said, find something that feels like play to you but looks like work to others. I don’t believe using willpower can help you walk too far, but the energy inside you (e.g. motivations and self-drive) will guide you along the way. In Chinese, luck — 运气 (yun qi) — literally means to convey/transport your energy/spirit. I've been studying Eastern philosophy since I was young. I feel like luck will come around when we know how to use our energy/spirit wisely. We have to be laser-focused to generate energy/spirit. Consistent hard work is when we fully use that concentrated energy in dedication to our work.

3. The only journey is the one within. Cultivate your own path

When we trust our intuition or follow our bliss, our left brain often won’t give up the control of providing us with certainties. Modern society gives us a sense of security, telling us that we will have everything if we follow the standard path. But this ‘everything’ is not suitable for everyone. We are trapped in the mimic desire and get distracted by other people’s lifestyles and paths, especially on social media. If we want to feel ‘secure’, we have to give up the life we truly ‘deserved’. Just as Joseph Cambell said, “If you can see your path laid out in front of you step by step, you know it’s not your path. Your own path you make with every step you take. That’s why it’s your path.”

As the number of entrepreneurs and IHers grows, more and more people start to ditch the conventional road and pursue their true callings. The biggest question we need to answer is whether we are brave enough to follow our interests, step into the unknown, and cultivate our own path.

I’m on this road and hope to see you around :)

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