How do you build an online community as an introverted expat?

Simple answer: you just gotta put yourself out there, baby!

As part of this month’s #mayonthemove2021 challenge, hosted by the wonderful Catriona from The Frustrated Nester and Margarita from Diverse in the City, I decided to open up the ‘Community’ prompt to my own little community.

I spoke with Simone, from Life Inspiration File, who has become a dear friend thanks to the power of online communities. We talk about career changes, discovering your true life passion and the power of building an online community as an introvert. Check out the interview below!


What led you to start putting yourself out there in an online space?

The very short answer is: I wanted to write. To give you the long answer, I have to explain what led me back to writing in the first place.

Career Pivot

Until recently (Feb 2020, when I had my second baby), I was a cancer researcher. I’d realised over the 5 years I was doing my postdoc (the period of research following a PhD) that I wanted a career change. I much preferred the writing and communication aspects of the job compared to the experimenting itself.

When I became pregnant with my second child and my contract was not renewed, I knew it was time to move away from the lab bench.

In October 2020, I applied for what I thought was my ‘dream job’ as an editor at a scientific journal. I told myself that if I didn’t get this job, I would start a blog. I didn’t get the job. That’s when I decided to start the blog and my freelance writing career.

Renewed passion for writing

Alongside that, in August 2020, I discovered a renewed passion for writing. I actually have a history in writing – I majored in Creative Writing in my BA – but I hadn’t written anything non-scientific in a long time. An event in August caused me to start slowly working on a long-form piece.

Through writing this longer piece, I realised that I have a lot of stories to tell. About being an Australian living in Germany, starting a family here, my career pivot, as well as the intricate web of knowledge and expertise I’ve attained through my mixed background and my love of reading and learning.

So there was my reawakened passion for writing, as well as the loss of my previous identity as a scientist. But I guess these factors still don’t completely explain why I would put myself out there – publicly and online.

The reason for putting myself out there online was that I began to see positive improvements in my life through the act of writing every day, but I knew that I wouldn’t keep up this ‘writing practice’ if it were just for me. 

I also considered that other people reading my stories and advice might get some help and direction from what I’d written, and that having my writing be public would have the added bonus of keeping me honest and keeping me writing.

I’d also arrived at a pretty lonely place – because of my introverted nature, being an expat (and therefore far away from close family and friends), being a new mother, changing careers, and the big one: the pandemic.

So, in some ways, putting myself out there online was a way to feel less lonely.

Why did you choose a blog and an Instagram account over other forms of social media?

Having my own blog means that I get to write about all the things I want to write about, and not be limited by anything really. I have found it rewarding cultivating a little ‘nook in the digital realm’ where I can share my love of the written word and my belief in the power of owning and telling our stories. I also see it as a space where, hopefully in the near future, I’ll be able to showcase some other peoples’ writing and continue to cultivate an interactive space.

I opened this Instagram account (I have a private account as well) in order to make the ideas I’m delving into on the blog accessible to a wider audience compared to who would otherwise just stumble across my blog.

I specifically chose Instagram (and Instagram is my focus) because it is what I know, but also, because it is a lovely platform.

I get to combine taking photos, with writing captions, and then there are a whole lot of additional opportunities to use video. I’ve also found it to be a really interactive space – and a space where you can be as public or private as you so wish.

How do you curate your online space and what sort of boundaries do you have in place?

A lot of the themes I discuss on Instagram and the blog overlap. On the blog I cover the general categories of: improving (better) life, parent life, expat life, science life, and book life. 

These are the things I know and the things I find interesting. 

On the blog you’ll find in-depth articles, and on Instagram, you’ll find photos and little snippets (aka really long captions). 

I also try to incorporate more of my everyday life on Instagram – things that are happening in the here and now, things that I’m currently going through, thoughts that are captivating me, books I’ve been reading and so on. 

In terms of boundaries – I try not to have too many in general.

 My aim with Life Inspiration File is to vulnerably tell my stories so that other people can draw comfort from them. This requires letting down boundaries.

However, I am more careful with other people’s boundaries – you won’t very often see front-on pictures of my husband or of my sons. I rarely use their names.

It’s not so much a privacy thing. More that I’m aware this is a public space and, while I’ve chosen to tell my stories publicly, they haven’t chosen to do this. 

This is why I also try not to cast them in a negative light, because they haven’t chosen for their stories (and all that goes along with it) to be told to the world. 

Of course, I’m alway testing these boundaries – and things might evolve and change in the future. But, for now, I try to keep the focus on myself and my own stories. 

This is not to say that people shouldn’t share their family life publicly – a lot of people do it – this is just my personal preference at this time. 

A factor that also comes into it is that this is my space – I have my private account for all the cute baby pictures. I’m trying to attract people that are interested in discussing the ideas I am presenting. 

I guess this is why I keep this split: the private account is more like a family photo album, whereas this public account is more a peek inside my mind.

You’ve spoken before about pivoting your career after becoming a parent. Has building an online community helped you in making this change?

Absolutely. I mean, it’s not obvious yet exactly how, but I’m starting to be aware of the expansive opportunities out there.

I used to view my career as a straightforward linear trajectory. One that I’ve been shuffling along on since my undergraduate days: science degree leads to PhD, which leads to postdoc…which sometimes (eventually, and with a lot of hard work and luck) leads to professorship. I decided during my postdoc that I didn’t necessarily want to continue on this trajectory.

I spent a lot of time being scared after this realisation: what was I actually going to do?! I started thinking about the things I did like about being a postdoc – I liked the reading, writing, communicative aspects of the job. So I’ve decided that I ultimately want to pursue a job in scientific communications (when we return to Australia at the end of the year, hopefully) – I don’t yet have anything lined up and I don’t know exactly what that will look like.

At the moment, though, knowing that I have this urge, this drive to write other things – from fiction to blog posts – I’m focussing on continuing to build my writing skills through actually writing (you are what you do and all that).

I see Life Inspiration File as an outlet and a practice – I don’t exactly know where it will lead yet, but I do know that now I see a future career full of many aspects.

Science writing, blog writing, other freelance writing, and who knows what else. I now definitely don’t view my career as a linear path but instead, a big web of various things that inform and feed off each other in (perhaps) unexpected ways.

The biggest inspiration in all this has been the Instagram community that I’ve been so warmly welcomed into. Everyday I see people discussing all of the interesting things they are doing, and I keep on thinking: that’s a great idea; perhaps I could do that too! 

I’ve also found people to be extremely generous with information and advice – I’ve been surprised when a simple question through a direct message has led to a huge back and forth conversation. 

There have also been a lot of people who always comment on my posts, and so a lot of discussion gets generated there too. I’ve made so many friends – people who I’ve never met in real life – but who have perhaps had a bigger impact on my life than people I do see in person. 

Then there are the collaboration opportunities that have arisen. I’ve been so lucky to already have been involved in a number of interesting collaborations (this one being no exception).

These experiences have been so rewarding in and of themselves, but they’ve also allowed me to connect with even more people that I might not have otherwise come across.

I also really believe that you just don’t know where one, seemingly small, opportunity will lead.

How important has your online community been to you as an expat, an introvert and a new mother in the middle of a pandemic?

Through a lot of events – the big precipitating one being the pandemic – I got to a really lonely place.

I didn’t realise beforehand how much this loneliness would dissipate through interacting with and becoming part of an online community: I have yet to meet any of these people face to face in real life. 

I once thought that social media was mostly a vapid and scary place, for extroverted people, and full of bullies. I’ve actually found it to be the complete opposite. I have mostly met the most warm, genuine, and supportive people through my blog and Instagram.

I have made real friends – friendships with people all over the world, which never would have had the chance to begin had I not done something that was so terrifying for me at first: opening myself up to the world.

These people I’ve met – they’ll (hopefully) be friends for life, but they’re also my colleagues, my mentors, my inspiration, and my cheer squad. I cannot overstate it enough: I am a different (and better) person than I was last December on that fateful evening when I hit publish on my very first blog post and put up my first photo on Instagram.

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