FOUR WHOLE YEARS OF THE HUMBLE LION.
What a ride it’s been, and what a ways we still have to go.
Look, I think it’s important to take a moment now and again to reflect on the journey. So, take this imaginary seat belt and buckle up, buttercup! We’re going to stroll down memory lane.
Okay, before you bust my chops, I’m aware that 2015 was five years ago.
I was in my final year of uni. My dad had just gotten home after eight weeks in the Critical Care Unit and two in a rehabilitation center. A word from the wise—don’t get into logging.
After some consideration, my family encouraged me to still go on the two-week intensive study abroad trip to mainland Ecuador and the Galápagos Islands I had signed up for, and already paid for, a few months prior.
Around this time, I had discovered travel blogs like World of Wanderlust by Brooke Saward and was nipping at the bud to travel, live, and work internationally.
Soooo skip forward to me on a speedboat headed for Isla Isabela. There were about twenty others from my university sitting all around me. The heavens blessed this very motion-sick prone gal to the best seat on the boat (back middle) and while some folx were throwing up everything they’d eaten since 2011, I was in a trance for the most beautiful two-hour ride of my life.
It was late afternoon, and my wintery, frozen mid-western heart couldn’t have been more grateful for warm, salty air and late-afternoon sunshine.
On that boat, I had a very vivid…daydream? Foresight? Vision? Any way you spin it, for two hours, I saw myself flying around the world with a camera and notepad in hand, documenting my journey and encouraging other small-town twenty-something femmes to do the same.
For the first time in months, I was overjoyed.
Sweet side note: I was telling one of my professors, Dr. Stone, how much I enjoyed the boat ride a couple of days later. And in the most genuine, endearing, non-creepy way, he said, “I saw you staring out at the coast on the boat. I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone look so at peace.”
I don’t know if that moment stood out to him, but it’s one I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life. It was the moment I knew what I wanted to do with my life. And he witnessed it.
Moments shared are always the sweetest.
Fast forward a few months. I graduated with a degree in public relations and landed the media internship of my dreams at Harlaxton College in the hills of the English countryside.
I made some extraordinary life-long friendships, traveled around Europe on the weekends, and fell in love with a guy I grew up forty miles down the road from back home but had never met.
I share that part of my story because, without it, there isn’t quite enough weight to pack the right punch.
You have to truly believe in yourself to take the first step toward big dreams.
After returning to the US at the end of 2015, I still wanted nothing more to start my own life but felt some pressure to stay close to home to appease my family.
That’s the right thing to do, after all. Right? Right?
Yeah, well, anyways…
I started a blog. I’d been considering it for a while, and since I was back home frantically daydreaming of when I’d set sail again, I thought, what better time than right now?
The previous year I had been sharing my stories of life abroad on social media. People really seemed to enjoy it. For the first time in my life, people were telling me I was a gifted writer.
While I’m sure some intellectuals would disagree, I ran with that wind at my back.
But I wanted to keep it real with people.
Yes, I had just experienced something my little rural Kentucky heart had dreamt of for YEARS and fully anticipated taking off again, but I wanted people to know I was struggling mentally and emotionally.
Between my dad’s accident and a handful of tragic losses in my family, I had also developed intense anxiety and depression rooted in guilt, fear, and nihilism.
It was a weird line to tiptoe. Still is, if I’m being honest.
So, after a few weeks of playing around with different blog names, I texted my boyfriend and best friend saying, “what do you think of The Humble Lion?”
It was a resounding yes.
I wanted to embrace and encourage confidence and humility. If you believe in callings, this felt like mine.
After a few months of writing whatever the hell was on my heart and mind, bartending, preparing for grad school, withdrawing from grad school, drinking too much, and finding it difficult to get out my bedroom floor after hours-long panic attacks, I knew something had to give.
So, I started looking for the next big move. I booked a month-long trip to Australia to visit one of my best friends and try to find some job opportunities as my blog/brand hadn’t exactly “taken off”.
Welp, I found that job in Australia. Fortunately, my boyfriend was (and is) the coolest human on the planet and didn’t hesitate to say he’d join me. He even had a ring waiting for me when I came home.
A week and a half after eloping on a particularly warm winter day in the Appalachian Mountains, we made our 32-hour journey to the Gold Coast in Australia.
Within five days, I was starting my full-time job doing marketing communications and advising Aussie students that were volunteering abroad.
Why am I telling you about my full-time marketing job when this piece is all about celebrating The Humble Lion? Because it’s very important for anyone reading this in hopes of starting a blog to realize it’s probably not going to bring you instant or even relatively quick success. It will, in fact, be a creative (and sometimes expensive) hobby for a while.
While I was working in Australia, I still struggled with anxiety pretty badly for the first six months. But somewhere through that beautiful warm winter on the coast, I started to find my groove and fell in love with my life and community there. Random, unexplainable panic attacks over brunch dates would soon subside (to my and my new husband’s relief).
I kept documenting our life there through my blog and social media. I had even been working with a friend to build a new professional-looking website to host my blog. I spent the next few months trying to get better with my camera, writing in my free time, and obsessively studying the content online entrepreneurs were pushing out.
I even had two blog posts get picked up by bigger media and go viral.
It was lovely and a first step in trying to take the blog and brand a bit more seriously.
Looking back, I’m immensely grateful for my corporate gig in Australia. It shaped me as a young professional in ways university simply couldn’t. I loved my job (albeit it was stressful), and I loved the team I worked with. My boss was lovely. He’s a straight-shooter, a pusher, and couldn’t have been a kinder person to work for.
I learned very quickly, though, that even in the best work conditions with the most legendary work wives a person could ask for, working the 8-5 grind proved to me that my personality type doesn’t thrive in the corporate space. (Even with the AMAZING PAID FIVE WEEKS OF HOLIDAY—a concept most Americans simply know nothing about.)
So, as my time came to an end in my contract, I realized I hadn’t been looking for jobs back in the US. And I didn’t want to. I figured, what better age than 25 to dive straight into the deep end of freelance?!
My husband and I were both debt-free, and his business had absolutely exploded in 2017. I knew this was an ideal time for me to bet on myself.
Shortly after returning to the US, my husband was offered a position with a well-known startup in the fitness industry whose main focus is on education. It moved us to Colorado in May.
This was a great opportunity for my better half, but it threw a wrench in my plans as I didn’t know a soul in Colorado, which makes freelancing a little bit trickier to navigate than in my home state where I have hundreds of solid contacts.
I ended up doing a fair amount of photo work for my husband’s new boss. It was far less than ideal but it allowed me to travel with Austin and any work experience is a good learning lesson if nothing else.
During that time, I was paid to work in the US, Canada, Holland, and England. Not mad at it.
Throughout the year when I’d really need to earn some cash, I’d fly back to Kentucky to visit my family and rack up on photoshoots, earning me enough to live off for a couple of months until I’d return again.
After a year or so, my small community in Colorado started to grow. I attended local creative group meetings and met up with some folx I’d met online.
By keeping an honest voice in my blog and social media posts, I earned trust from people near and far. My ability to relate to others through my writing and photos, along with my natural strength in creating and maintaining genuine relationships, were key in pushing forward as a freelancer.
In all honesty, this has been something I’ve been interested in for a long time. My degree is in PR and I have a genuine interest in storytelling both visually and verbally.
While some may roll their eyes at influencers online promoting products, destinations, and services, I applaud their creativity and grit. What better time in history to be a creative?!
Somehow I’ve been blessed with a friend group full of hustlers and entrepreneurial spirits. And not just the ones taking part in pyramid schemes and calling it entrepreneurship (though there are a few of those who crush it, and ya know what…kudos to them).
These folx are blazing their own damn trails. They’re the ones who will get back up stronger and more agile every time they get knocked down.
Makers. Educators. Creatives. Doers. Dreamers. These are my people. It is truly an honor to help them strategically promote their work and make them feel hella proud along the way.
2019 was also the year I started charging my actual worth for my work. #thisaintahobby #ineedhealthinsurancetoo
I became a multi-million dollar company’s main photographer and briefly stepped in to help with creative direction for a few months. That led to meeting more people, honing my skills, working with more small businesses and finding my own little niche.
I’m writing this and celebrating from isolation in my quarantined 580 sq ft studio apartment I live and work in with my ginger-bearded better half, where we have been hunkered down for almost seven weeks.
Most of us did not see this coming.
A worldwide pandemic. Wowzas.
The beginning of the year looked promising. I had steady recurring brand photo clients and flew out of state twice to work on new projects. I was scheduled to work with clients flying into Denver from places as far away as Alaska.
On the day this post went live, I was supposed to be working a brand shoot in Baltimore.
There were the contracts being negotiated in locations like Chicago and London.
This is the year I was gaining real traction, and you know what? I’m confident it won’t be the last.
My work, while important, is not essential.
I’m learning to pivot just like everyone else.
No, I’m not giving up on what I’ve worked to build and achieve, but in a time like this we all have to stretch new corners in our personal and professional lives.
That means I’m using this time to make necessary updates to my website, write more, figure out new ways to offer my skills remotely, offer a hand to my husband in his business and my friends in theirs, and other stuff like sleep and asking the universe existential questions.
I know this pandemic will come to an end. I know I’ll get back to the work I love most with people who make my heart sing.
*I’d love it if that includes you, sweet reader.*
Whale, I guess this is where I should sign off. I’ve held your hand and walked you through the first FOUR (but really, five?!) years of The Humble Lion. And I’m here to tell ya, no pandemic will be the end of me.
If you’re looking for ways to support ya girl at this time, you can purchase prints from my shop or reach out to book a shoot and pay your retainer fee, even if our shoot date remains in the air for a little while. You could also buy a gift certificate for a photoshoot and give it to someone you think would appreciate it in the coming months!
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Kalu Ndukwe Kalu
The things you do for yourself are gone when you are gone, but the things you do for others remain as your legacy.