5 lessons I learned going from employee to entrepreneur while chronically ill
Updated: May 5
The Rotary Club of Hong Kong South invited me to speak yesterday about how I went from performing it audits to making art and books after my autoimmune diseases left me bedridden.
I was wary of giving a talk that romanticised the depression, frustration, and limitations inherent to disability, but I also didn’t want to impose a “woe is me” tirade on my unsuspecting audience. I’m also wary about giving advice in general. my experiences have been shaped by circumstances and privileges that may render my advice useless to other people.
In the end, I pulled together a little something that introduced myself and my art, but culminated in five lessons that I’ve learned from being a disabled employee-turned-entrepreneur.
1. Hobbies get you out of holes
Engage in at least one activity just for the hell of it. Don’t have an end-goal in mind. be intrinsically motivated to do it
Don’t spend too much time or money getting into a hobby. Keep it low-pressure
You don’t need to tell the world about your hobbies
I really didn’t like boarding school when I first joined aged 11. I was a massive dork (see photo on the left for proof) and felt homesick and culture shock.
One thing that yanked me from my homesickness, however, was hobbies. I didn’t start boarding school being particularly good at anything. I had classmates who were national swimmers, champion cellists, and maths olympiad wonder-brains. but, whenever I felt lonely, i’d try to distract myself by keeping busy, and usually that was through extracurriculars.
The hobby that ended up defining my boarding school career was music. I started taking my tuba playing (which I had started as a semi-joke at school in Hong Kong) more seriously, and eventually, by nature of practising everyday as a means to distract myself from how badly I missed my parents, I got pretty good.
There were qualifications and concerts and scholarships that came with the territory, but the key to a hobby is not focusing on accolades or recognition. Do something even if no one knows you’re doing it. Do it because you’re intrinsically motivated to.
Time and time again, hobbies from tuba-playing to drawing Hong Kongers have become the thing to pull me out of dark holes.
2. Suspend judgement and offence
Give yourself and everyone else a break when it comes to expectations
No one’s thinking about you as much as you’re thinking about how people are thinking about you
Be nice to yourself, even if the word “self-care” makes your eyes roll
I spent a lot of last year worrying about what I was allowed to say or do on my growing platform. I understood the enormous privilege I had being able to afford healthcare and being able to live at home rent-free. my situation was unfair on me in the disability department, but highly in favour in the financial security, looking able-bodied, looking white, etcetera etcetera departments.
What made me feel less paranoid wasn’t buying into the “don’t care what people think” mentality. it was realising that no one’s actually thinking that much about me. information cycles so quickly that negative impressions hardly last. and that’s a very liberating feeling because it gave me an excuse to worry less about how royally I was screwing up.
On the flip side, I realised that I should let other people’s foibles slide too. I used to take umbrage at comments about my walking cane. I didn’t think it was appropriate for strangers to say I was too young to need it or ask why I had it in the first place. But, especially because the offending commentators were not malicious in their questioning, I found it a lot more liberating and a lot less exhausting to let certain comments and questions slide. My energy could be channelled into more useful endeavours.
3. Opportunities come back around
Pace yourself and play the long game
Pick three values that will characterise how you work. for example, mine are quality, integrity, and sincerity. (basically, I try to embody these things to every project and interaction.) don’t compromise on those when opportunities come knocking
Don’t beat yourself up for choosing rest over “hustle”
It’s easy to blame yourself for missing out on opportunities because you prioritised health. Sometimes I have to stay in bed and miss out on chances to meet people, secure work, or even just get admin done.
I also worry about missing out when asked to do free or underpaid projects. about half of the requests I get for work do not pay and knowing which opportunities to say yes and no to is a minefield. Obviously, sometimes you end up turning down lucrative opportunities and saying yes to wastes of time.
So what do you do? First, it’s important to recognise that breaks are signs of pragmatism, not laziness. I worked out that if I set myself up only to take on work I enjoyed, I would be able to know that when I took breaks, it was because I needed them, not because I was avoiding work.
In the summer, I decided another way for me to scope opportunities was to centre my work around three tenets. I landed on quality, integrity, and sincerity. In short, I wanted my work to always be great; I wanted people to trust me and know I wasn’t going to rip them off; and I wanted to be candid and kind in how I worked with people. When I feel like opportunities compromise on any of those things, it’s a quicker way for me to turn them down and not feel bad.
At the end of the day, as long as your consistent over a long period of time, opportunities come back around. they may not be the same as missed ones, but they’ll be equivalent.
4. You don’t have to do everything, but everything you do is useful
Focus on goals for set periods of time and avoid distractions
Take time before saying yes or no
The most useless experience or skill from your past is going to one day come into play and help you
When I started out doing art commissions, I did logos, construction hoardings, family portraits, merchandise designs, magazine covers, and whatever else I could get my hands on.
I operated under the assumption that it was good to diversify my skillset. However, I learned quickly that I was actually not delivering high-quality work because I was coming at each project as a novice. Designing a logo is very different from illustrating a children’s book. I realised I needed to streamline my expertise if I wanted to justify my rates.
That being said, a lot of random skills I picked up as a kid have come In handy as an entrepreneur. my four years at my university newspaper came In handy when I had to teach a broadcast journalism course (pictured here). My guitar hobby came in handy when I had to write a song for the charity Playright recently. My background at a crisis comms firm came in handy when I had to do my own pr as an artist.
The takeaway is that everything is useful if you decide to broaden your skill set, but there is a reason not to always be a jack of all trades.
5. Get used to “no” and listen to “no”
Accept limitations when they exist for a reason
Be wary of advice like “don’t let your disability define you” or “you can do anything with the right mindset”
Respect other people’s boundaries and hard “nos”
It feels like the opposite motto: “don’t take no for an answer” is a more appropriate lesson. it’s a philosophy of resilience and go-getting. accepting a “no” is almost synonymous with failure and giving up. so why accept “nos”?
First off, I think the millennial and gen z generations take the word “no” more seriously. while “no” was previously interpreted as “come back with a better offer”, my cohort has been fed (usually in the context of consent seminars) that "no means no” and it’s imperative to respect boundaries.
My body says “no” a lot. It can’t walk. It can’t eat. It can’t sleep. As a teenager and college student, I used to push through its “nos” a lot. And in the beginning that worked, but after years of not listening to my body crying for a break, I landed myself in hospital for a month and ended up not being able to go back to work.
Now, I try to question why “nos” exist in the first place. if my body is saying “no”, it’s because it has a very good reason to: I’m riddled with disease. pushing through that is not going to mollify my illnesses. quite the opposite.
The flip side is that respecting other people’s “no”s achieves two things, especially in negotiations: 1.) that you are candid and don’t play subtext games. what you see if what you get and you’re a straightforward person to work with; 2.) you respect whoever your communicating with and their boundaries. you trust that they’re genuine and are also not playing subtext games. in all, listening to a “no” boosts your integrity and shows that you trust others’ integrity.
There’s opportunity to be had within the parameters of limitations. the playing field delineated by boundaries is still vast, and while I may not be able to hike or eat bread or travel wherever I want on account of my health, I still have a lot to work with in my lane.
Now here's a bonus point
Every dogma has a contradictory dogma that’s just as true — don’t be black and white about beliefs
The things about sharing advice is that any platitude I offer up has a counter platitude that is just as correct depending on your situation. So what to do if everything is Opposite Day as well as not-opposite day?
Learn to think in greyscale. Don’t split things into black and white. Stay open-minded and don’t subscribe to a single dogma or mantra. it won’t apply to everything or everyone.
Hobbies get you out of holes but also be intentional about what you’re doing
Suspend judgement and offence but also don’t let people walk all over you
Opportunities come back around but also carpe diem / YOLO
You don’t have to do everything but also diversify your portfolio and skillset
Get used to “no” and listen to “no” but also don’t take “no” for an answer
My name is Sophia Hotung and I am a Eurasian writer and illustrator from Hong Kong with seven chronic illnesses. You can read more about me here.