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How Chronic Illness Lead Me to Entrepreneurship

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“You’re brave, starting a business and all that…”

I nod and smile, cringing inside. I never really know whether to challenge that, or just accept they are well-meaning and forget about it. My inbox is full of newsletters whose headlines are praising this or that person for their achievements. We’re a society that rewards ambition. We’re a society that idolizes freedom and choice. We glamorize business owners because they break the mold: they are few and far between, even though it really isn’t that rare and it’s a necessity for everyone else who needs a job. (Someone needs to be there to employ them, right?) The narrative is one of positivity – working for yourself sets you apart, you are somehow better than those who are in employment. And I hate that. Because, deep down, I want to be employed by someone else. I just can’t.

I like the peace of mind that comes with having a job. Someone else makes the decisions and is ultimately responsible for what you have to do. You can ask someone for advice on what to do. You don’t need to feel like you know what you are doing and have your act together at all times, unless you are surrounded by really bad office politics. While some mistakes can be big enough to cost you your job, it’s usually a lot safer than that. You grow under someone else’s eyes and learn how to do something specific really well. You never need to become a Jack-of-all-trades in all the many other things that are needed when you’re doing that thing you do really well for yourself, rather than in someone else’s business. Sadly, I have come to realize that employment is a dream that won’t happen for me, because I have a chronic condition in a competitive market.

I left a job when I was first diagnosed because I was physically unable to work. As soon as I started my treatment I started another job. My employer hired me knowing I had a condition, and still berated me for not working 14 hours a day like everyone else with a junior job in finance, when eight hours in an office and a two hour commute were already demanding enough. I could have brought my dismissal to court, but was advised against it as it was too stressful for a job that only lasted a couple of months, for someone in my condition. It happened again. During the period of unemployment that followed, I was advised to join a program to start my own business.

Being my own boss would mean I can control my hours and my tasks, and not feel like any time off I need will be held against me and I’ll be fired. Also, no daily commute, which is tiring and, at rush hour, can easily mean over one hour standing on a packed fast-moving train, which in turn means I can’t bend my knees for the following two hours because the inflammation has just gone wild due to the impact of balancing myself on a moving train. I know I could ask for a seat, but I have been shouted at for sitting in a disabled person’s seat before, because the problem with invisible illnesses is that you need to present your whole medical history for anyone to take you seriously. For this reason, I try to only travel with enough time to skip trains or buses, and when I know they will be empty. It’s a lot of additional stress.

Client-business owner relationships are so different from employer-employee ones. They are built on trust: we agree objectives and a time-scale and there is wiggle room because people are upfront. I only promise what I can achieve, and I’m not in a position where I must achieve the standard that someone else promised. There is no competition with people at the same level as me, which can be held over my head to show just what a bad employee I am. If a client signs a contract, they want to work with me, so that means I am good enough. Chronic illnesses are something out of my control, but working for myself gives me some room to be in control of my career in a way that the expectations set for me in employment didn’t.

I don’t feel brave for taking that advice and starting my own business. I was between a rock and a hard place. Not disabled enough not to work, but not healthy enough for people to want to hire me when they have a huge choice of equally good candidates who come with no strings attached.

I don’t feel I’m brave for doing something I perceive as equivalent to a fox running away from a hunt approaching. It wasn’t a free choice, it was a matter of necessity. Does necessity make me better than those who didn’t make the same choice because they didn’t need to? I find this rhetoric around entrepreneurship and self-employment really frustrating. I had nothing to lose in starting a business because I had nothing full stop. I hit rock bottom and could only climb my way up. Nobody came with a rope, so I decided to start climbing by myself. If someone comes along with a helping hand I’m going to take it, no doubt. I value comfort and security more than I value the social recognition of being self-employed. The rhetoric of the brave business owner taking a decision that makes them better than anyone else who is content with being employed by someone else makes me feel like a fraud. Yet, I shouldn’t feel like a fraud, because nobody should be implying the self-employed are better in the first place.

Chronic illnesses and disabilities don’t look the same for every person, so this puts me in a somewhat awkward position with both those whose employers are happy to accommodate their needs, and those whose needs are so great self-employment can’t accommodate them either. Too often being well enough to work is used to invalidate the experience of those who aren’t. If someone else is doing it with your condition, then surely you are able to? Well, not quite. People in employment make me look like I chose to work for myself, but just because they were “lucky enough” it doesn’t mean that I had a choice. In return, just because I’m well enough to run my own business it doesn’t mean that others are just being lazy. I am aware that, in that respect, it was a choice I had, between working and not working. That’s the extent of what I could control, though. Once I chose to work because I was able to, starting my own business became the only viable course of action in front of me.

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Thinkstock Image By: Poike

Originally published: July 13, 2017
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