Self-Employment Ruined Me. This Is What I Learned

Jonas Ressem
Jan 24, 2020 · 8 min read

The rent was due in a few days, and I checked my bank-account. A shiver ran down my spine as I realized I couldn’t pay it. I couldn’t afford to live in my apartment anymore.

In May 2019, I finished my Bachelor’s degree in psychology. After several years of education, I had arrived at a moment of choice: I could either take it to the master’s level or I could try to make it as self-employed.

I knew the choice I made would have to sustain my living; a big enough income to pay for the basics, which were food, electricity and rent.

If I chose the master’s degree, I would have gotten economic support (thanks to Norway). If I chose self-employment, I would have to rely on the money I had saved up from various part-time jobs.

At first, I was a bit unsure. But considering I had dreamed of self-employment ever since I started the degree, I decided to go with this option. Even if it was the riskier one, I felt it was time to bet on my own; time to live my dream.

Photo by me

In the same period as I had worked on my bachelor’s thesis, I had also worked on my first book. And by the time I finished the degree, the book was almost ready for its publication.

Because I had prepared this potential source of income in advance, it made me confident in the choice I had made. It was a reassurance I could succeed.

When I published the book in July, however, my confidence took another turn. It didn’t sell. A few of my friends and family-members bought it, but I couldn’t reach the outer market.

This was tough. It made me doubt my path for a second, but I resolved I wouldn’t let this failure stop me. Even though I couldn’t live on the income from the book, I still had a chunk of my money left.

I wanted to continue, and so I decided to make my income from writing articles through the Medium Partner Program. I was already enrolled, but now it was time to go all in.

In the first month, I managed to make more money through it than I had ever done before. But it still wasn’t enough to sustain me. Living where I did was too expensive; as at the first of every month, the rent made a huge dent in my bank-account.

While my money was bleeding out, anxiety was rushing in. It was a distressing place to be in. When I checked my bank-account in November, I had less than 50 dollars in it. I was broke.

When December arrived, I had to borrow some money from my mom; as it was either that or getting kicked out of the apartment. While being broke was upsetting in itself, the worst part was dragging someone else into the situation. It was painful, and it made my gut wrench. And at that moment, I realized the magnitude of my ruin.

Photo by me

Skip to January 2020, and I’ve made some steps to stabilize my situation. Although I had to borrow some more money for this month’s rent, I’ve started in a part-time job at a nursing home.

It’s not my dream-job, but it’s good to finally have a source of income that’s big enough. And in a couple of months, I’ll be able to pay back all the money I have borrowed.

I know it’s not self-employment, but it doesn’t stop me from working on my dream. I’m back to having a side-hustle, and I’ll have to manage with that. For now.

These past months have been difficult. They have pushed me to the limit, exhausted me, and made me question my ability to succeed. But it hasn’t been for nothing.

As I’ve had the time to reflect on what happened, I’m left with some important lessons. And now I want to share them with you. If you wish to pursue self-employment, expect to be tested by some of these. Because if you do, they won’t affect you as much if they happen.

As self-employed, be prepared to:

1. Separate Between What You Can and Cannot Control

In stoicism, there’s a concept known as the ‘dichotomy of control.’ As Epictetus explained it:

“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control.”

When everything works out, this is more or less an easy practice. But if you’re under pressure, and it feels like you’re drowning, it’s a much harder concept to make use of.

Research shows your perception can narrow under times of distress, making it harder to ‘identify and separate matters.’ And ironically enough, it’s in times like that you need it the most.

However, it is a practice. And that means you can increase your ability to make use of it — no matter how hard it gets.

For me, when the anxiety of not having any money was at its worst, I struggled to practice this concept. For instance, I could only control my writing, and not how it was received. And yet, I was distressed every time an article didn’t perform.

Luckily, I had some foreknowledge of this concept, and began to focus on it when I realized I didn’t handle the externals well. As the months went by, I slowly became better at it — even as my external situation became worse. Towards the end, I had learned to separate between what I could and couldn’t control, and I was happy despite my external situation.

2. Do Things Thoroughly, Even If You’re Short on Time

Photo by Niklas Rhöse on Unsplash

If you’re starting your self-employment journey, don’t rush towards your success. Even if it feels like you’re short on time — and you have to make a buck — I’m guessing you have a better chance of succeeding if you do your work right.

I’m exhibit A. When my money started running out, I became desperate to have my articles succeed. Because if one of them did well, I would make a better profit. And thus, I rushed to get my articles published, because maybe the next one would make it.

This mindset of rushing, however, only worked against me. The articles I published weren’t my best work; and so naturally they didn’t perform as well as I had hoped for.

What I needed was to take my time. To do things thoroughly. Because as John Wooden reminds us:

“If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?”

Again, it’s your perception that’s affected. When you perceive there’s a lack of time, a natural response is to do things faster. But it’s the opposite you should aim for.

Try to take your time, remind yourself of the bigger picture, and make something that matters. If you do your work right, others will find it worthy to pay for.

3. Consider Your Support

First of all, I want to thank my mother for lending me money. Although it made me uneasy at first, I’m now grateful for the support she gave me. But I don’t think I would have come through this period without my girlfriend either. I owe my well-being to both of them.

Although self-employment is a lot about you, it’s good to consider your level of support. There will come times when you’re faced with adversity; and when you are, it’s good to know where you’re at with it.

Research shows that feeling connected to others positively predicts achievement and well-being. You can do a lot by yourself but having the support of others is an advantage. Because if all else is chaos, having support is having a safe place in the middle of it. As Anna Barnes noted:

“Your support network is the solid ground from which you can propel yourself upwards.”

4. Realize That Money Runs out Faster Than You Think

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

If you’re used to having a stable income — whether it’s from your parents, an institution, or a 9–5 job — you probably won’t think of your money too much. You know that money runs out if there’s nothing coming in, but you won’t really experience how fast it does until you get there.

I was certainty not prepared. I thought I had enough to sustain me for a while, but I was wrong. If you’re going to go all in on self-employment, it’s best to have a good chunk of money saved up.

5. Never Give Up

This is the final lesson, and it’s an important one: don’t give up. The world needs you to follow your dream, because if you do, you’ll be able to provide your best value. You’ll be at your happiest, and thus, you’ll provide the most happiness to others.

Yes, there will be doubt, frustration, anxiety and fear. But there will also be gratitude, excitement, and freedom. It might not happen as fast as you want it to, nor exactly how you want it to, but one thing is for sure and that is: if you give up it will never happen.

Having the mindset that your work is an on-going process will help you continue in spite of temporary failure. It allows you to continue through the ups and downs, because you know there will be more to come. There’s no urgency to succeed by tomorrow, but there’s a necessity to keep going. Believe in yourself. Never give up. The results will come.

Even though I got a part-time job, I’m not giving up on my dream. The goal is self-employment — to write words that matter — and if it happens today or tomorrow doesn’t matter. What matters is that I continue. As Marilyn vos Savant said:

“Being defeated is often a temporary condition. Giving up is what makes it permanent.”

Thanks for reading!

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Combining storytelling and science to reveal the greatest…

Thanks to Marthe Bendiksvoll Grønlie

Jonas Ressem

Written by

From Norway. Building Exploring life through psychology, philosophy and entrepreneurship. Come explore with me:



Combining storytelling and science to reveal the greatest things in life.

Jonas Ressem

Written by

From Norway. Building Exploring life through psychology, philosophy and entrepreneurship. Come explore with me:



Combining storytelling and science to reveal the greatest things in life.

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