The Solopreneur’s Toolkit: Creative Global Health Professional

The go-to resources that make life and work better

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Anna Smith lives between the worlds of global health and creative writing, supporting Peruvian communities in improving their health in Iquitos, Peru (in the Peruvian Amazon near the Colombian and Brazilian borders). Passionate about serving vulnerable and high risk communities in the US and Peru, Anna loves doing deep dives into linchpin healthcare work, often in tough topics like maternal and child health, cancer prevention and infectious disease. Outside of work, she gets her energy from immersive and explorative experiences like riding her bike in a new place, meeting people and going to events. She writes creatively on her blog and paints or watercolors daily.

Daily toolkit:

The go-to resources that make life and work better.

Favorite tools for…

Connecting:

Definitely Groove. I love sharing ‘dailiness’ with people.

I feel like Groove brings out the parts of me that are becoming a better person and actually being social. It’s an amazing mixture.

You wouldn’t think of necessarily making certain activities social. You expect to feel lonely, but with Groove, you just don’t, which is kind of revolutionary.

Finances:

Really detailed personal finance stuff never worked for me. Mint never worked for me. So I actually use Avraham (a fellow Groover)’s magic number system.

It’s really fast, not complicated, and I actually do it every day. It’s the first thing I’ve consistently used. Basically, you figure out what your daily spending amount is and you keep track of it. It’s really straightforward. I don’t have to categorize or be really anal about it. This is a simplified system.

I just started it maybe a month and a half ago, but I’ve actually done it every day. Like it’s easy enough and I’m not kidding, I’ve had a subscription to Mint for 15 years and never really used it. So I had to be more honest about a better system and how much energy I really wanted to spend on it.

It’s a really great resource for people who don’t want to spend a bunch of time and who aren’t that anal retentive about their finances. Like, to have to categorize and get into it every day is not for me.

Creating:

I love to write and I am a passionate blogger. I’ve been blogging for five years, but I also like having a dual medium. I like watercolors — specifically something called Faber-Castell Gelatos that are chalky watercolors that you can paint with water. Sort of a mixture of chalk and watercolor paint, so I get the mixture of color and texture and medium that’s completely color-based and not word-centric, which is how my usual creative self comes out.

One other quick recommendation is Homework for Life by Matthew Dicks, which is about finding little tiny stories in the every day. It’s one of my favorite things and super helpful and life-giving. Basically you comb your day for tiny stories and you document them, and it becomes practice — you start looking everywhere for tiny stories.

So I recommend for creation the pairing of some kind of paper-based drawing or painting. And then story procurement.

Blogging:

I don’t care about the website part of blogging. I want to spend zero minutes on that part. So I use Squarespace. I’ve used it for five years, the whole time I’ve had my blog, and I love it.

It really is great if you just want to focus on creation and you don’t want to focus on anything else, and you want to let some more people who are good at programming just deal with it for you.

Reading:

I love regular paper books. I love highlighting and underlining, and I like opening them up again and feeling how I felt when I opened them the last time physically, but because of where I live I can’t, so I use the Libby app and my Kindle a lot. That’s a really wonderful combination.

Planning:

I actually created my own system, a form where I keep track of my daily habits, and includes what the highlight of my day is going to be.

I use it to document how much I’m spending, whatever new thing I’ve tried or learned… I used to use something called the Momentum Planner by Productive Flourishing, which is a great tool, but ended up being again, a little too detailed for me and I need more flexibility.

So my favorite tool for planning, I actually made myself, which I recommend people do if you don’t like a specific method. You might need to make your own! It sounds so nerdy.

If you do Matthew Dick’s Homework for Life, you can actually include a space on a homemade form or any planner of your day of your story of the day. So your little tiny nugget you found in the day, you can actually document it to put it into your broader thinking. That’s really helped me remember to do it consistently.

Learning and Inspiration:

Where do you look for work inspiration?

Living and working in Peru, like I do, has offered me this immediate sense of living and working in duality — living in more than one culture and more than one language at a time. And so I find inspiration in constantly being at that crux between different languages, different countries, and really two completely different cultures and even subcultures.

One of the things that I’ve used to find work inspiration has been looking at people around me who have really beautifully navigated walking between these two different realities, even people who walked between two different opinions. People who tackle this with care and nuance is pretty uncommon and something I found more in a bi-cultural situation.

The more that I look for that, the more I find it.

The other thing that I’m constantly subconsciously looking for is courage in people around me, in my work and in myself, probably because it offers me some level of inspiration.

Was inspiration one of the reasons why you moved to Peru originally, or was that something you found once you got there?

I think it was part of why I moved to Peru to begin with, as I had this vision of this, frankly it’s kind of cheesy sounding, destiny, like something I just really had to do during my time on this planet. There was inspiration and there was actually doing it and following through with it.

The part that’s been so lovely is how my ongoing learning, for example the story skills workshop at AKIMBO, have helped me uncover stories in the everyday here, which is an ongoing source of inspiration as well.

The books that have changed how you’ve approached your work and opened your eyes to something new:

I’m embarrassed to say for a really long time, I just collected books. I wanted to be a passionate reader. I had them at hand, but I just didn’t get to them in the way that I wanted to. That was more about how much space I had left in my brain for reading, which I recently changed.

The last three books I read were Atomic Habits by James Clear, which of course is really popular for excellent reasons; Deep Work by Cal Newport and Essentialism by Greg McKeown.

A lot of these books are about filtering through your life in a really slow and conscientious way to actually drill down to what is the most important thing.

Then I would say extrapolating that and breaking that into pieces that you can actually chew and swallow every day. That’s the part that I have struggled with for years. I want to put the whole whale in my mouth at once. I haven’t wanted to actually eat it slowly

That’s been some of my biggest learning: Essentialism to identify what is important, and then Atomic Habits to break it into something that you can actually do and live a life that’s still has a level of balance while you maintain it. What is the most important? And then how can I actually get to that thing?

Otherwise you do a bunch of habits that could or could not be meaningful. Or, you don’t get to them at all. For so long, I struggled with this idea. I’m ambitious and I have all these things I care about, and I really had no good structure for placing them in my life, so I’m a very new student to that concept at this point. I feel humbled by it because if it actually has a place to go in your life, it takes up less space in your brain.

Know-How

Your best method or tactic for getting a new client or job:

I’ll share briefly about what I’m currently doing and how that happened. I live and work in Iquitos, Peru in the Peruvian Amazon, which is really remote. People say it’s the biggest city in the world not accessible by car. I do work in infectious disease prevention and cancer prevention.

I run and manage projects here. You could easily ask, how did I even begin this work? It’s so remote. It’s so weird. I know very few people willing to do it. I know very few foreigners in particular who are willing to do it. So my answer to that question would really be a willingness to take a pretty deep dive into a new pool, or going into a new terrain.

I never lived in Iquitos before I moved here. I didn’t even know much about Peru before I moved to Peru. And so I think that willingness basically opened up an entirely new field in my life. And I think that’s probably more about risk taking, more about vulnerability.

The other thing that’s so critical is that inner discourse that we can have with ourselves about what we have to do in this life. And what’s the most important thing that we get to do while we’re here.I think being willing to do that is probably my best tactic for getting new clients, because ultimately, without any of that, I wouldn’t be here.

I switched languages, countries, professions, social circles, everything. It opened up an entirely new world of clients, I guess you could say, because of it. But it’s not for everybody. One of my favorite comments from James Clear is that you should do what is less painful for you than for other people.

With living where I live and doing what I do, I know very few people who would be willing to do it really, and so I think it’s being honest about those terms.

The part of your job that takes longer than people think:

I work in global health and it’s a really tricky profession. Historically, it’s a very colonial profession — people going into other cultures they don’t know anything about imposing something, which unfortunately is still very much how my field in larger structures can be. So if I really want to be good at my job, I actually have to take the time to do two things.

I need to learn the local culture, spending time out in the field, connecting with people where I live. Being here, but it means actually leaving my house.

And then more than even that is developing empathy for people, which is a separate skill. If you actually want to be effective in my profession, you would get out and develop the empathy. And that is not an easy thing to do. I had several years of being kind of freaked out and not getting out enough and not meeting people enough.

It’s what’s going to make me better at what I do than a lot of people, that willingness. But it takes a while. It’s taken me years to get to that point.

How much time/energy do you spend on promotion for your business/career? What’s been your most effective channel?

When I first heard this question, I thought, I don’t know if this is going to apply to me. I don’t know if I do promotion at all. I’m interested in thinking about it deeper though.

I think so often this is over complicated. My best way of promoting my work is simply to do a good job at what I do here.

If people know about the work I do and the quality of it, in working in a developing country context or probably in many contexts, that’s all the promotion that would probably be necessary, at the risk of over-simplifying. This might be something I have a lot to learn about, and I don’t really feel like I know enough about it, but I think when you work within traditional contexts, the idea of promoting yourself outside of an in-person experience or in-person job well done is sort of a different way of conceptualizing something, so I’m still kind of wrapping my head around that.

I often have bad internet. It’s just not good technological infrastructure here. So the in person, IRL version of me is still what counts the most. Perhaps that’s always true in any context. I don’t know.

But in this one in particular, it’s the only one people are really getting and so that’s true across the world, in many parts of the world.

Reflection

If you could give yourself a piece of advice on the day you started, what would it be?

Lean into the natural timing of things. I tend to have this sort of ‘life in fast forward’ desire — I just want to constantly hit the fast forward button on every point of my life. I want to see things move faster and quicker, but there’s a reason why things take the time that they actually do, outside of any kind of projection I might have. If you think about it, trust takes a long time to develop connection; it takes a long time to develop good work. It takes a lot of reflection and marination time.

So my advice to myself would be, accept that now. That’s hard for you and you don’t like that, but just go ahead and decide that it’s okay. It will actually improve quality when you slow down. Sometimes I do forced waiting periods where I’m not allowed to work on things more than a couple of times a week, otherwise I’ll overdo it and I won’t get some of the natural timing.

What’s something you want to intentionally make more time for?

I want to make time for the parts of myself that are non-productive, that don’t produce anything. I have a photo on my desk of myself as one-year-old kid playing. It’s a reminder that I have that I want to see that part of myself come forward more, that doesn’t produce. That just plays. That has fun. That doesn’t have any kind of productive outcome.

I find that to be something that might’ve gotten a little bit lost in the past couple of years of my life and I think I’m recovering it. Time that you spend being a person without having anything else happen.

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