How I Do It: Presenter and multidisciplinary creative Lydia Tesema on building a career from your passions

image via @lydiatesema_/instagram


A crash course in finding what you love and how to get paid for it.

Impressive job titles are one thing, but what about people who have carved out their own niche and created a job specifically for them? Rather than landing that covetable LinkedIn byline, working for yourself presents a whole new way to choose your own adventure.

That said, it’s not always about exploring the road less travelled – sometimes it can mean forging your own entirely untrodden path. It’s a tough slog, but if being your own boss is your own personal dream, How I Do It is the column for you.

We round up the best career advice weekly. Keep up to date with our Life vertical.

We’ll talk to established freelancers and friends of FJ who’ve been at this long enough to have the benefit of hindsight, and they might be able to help you figure out how exactly they ‘do’ what they do.

Money, agents, timelines and tight turnarounds – this is how to hack the creative hustle. This week, we hear from Melbourne-based radio host, presenter, writer, social justice ambassador and all-around multidisciplinary creative, Lydia Tesema. She’s also the founder of Below The Surface, a creative, entrepreneurial platform that exists to explore the nuances of Australia’s socio-political world.

It combines the power of storytelling with art in an effort to advocate and celebrate the diversity of people’s experiences and perspectives. Her work with Below The Surface sees her creating online magazines and hosting panels and networking events, among many other activities. Here’s how she does it.

Run me through the last, say, five years of your life. What’s been happening for you?

The last five years have been hectic, to say the least. Definitely enriching and beautiful, but hectic. The years have been jam-packed with casual work in different industries, travel, suffering a spinal injury overseas, having a change of heart followed by changing degrees, learning what truly makes me tick and mustering the courage to go for it, falling in love for the first time and committing to what was a life-changing and rewarding relationship, meeting people from all walks of life, and the list goes on.

In a nutshell, the last five years capture all of my life-changing moments and the decisions that have really contributed to who I am today. I’ve questioned the most in the past five years and I’ve triumphed over some difficult hardships that have really tested my character, grit and energy for life. Often when I reflect, it feels like life has flooded me with experiences and challenges in a concentrated period of time. However, I always tend to conclude that reflection with the cliché that I wouldn’t have it any other way.

How do you explain to extended family members what exactly you ‘do’ for work?

This one made me giggle. I actually struggle to effectively convey this message to my extended family. For one, they all knew me as this ‘to-be lawyer’ prior to – and when I was studying – Arts/Law. And so when I made drastic changes to my direction in life, they kind of got confused. For context, my extended family is more familiar with traditional career pathways.

When the question of “what are you doing now, Lydia?” comes up, I usually start by mentioning an example of one thing I do (like hosting) and then explain a recent example of a paid project or event that I was a part of. The key here is to allow them to ask me follow-up questions because there are always follow-up questions. Eventually, I simply try to convey that I combine my deep commitment for community and making sense of the world with my passion for hosting, presenting and multi-disciplinary creating.

How do you explain to them how you pay the bills?

By getting paid rewarding rates with an undeniable catch: in an unpredictable and at times irregular manner. Frankly, I don’t find myself having this conversation a lot as they seem to think that I’ve got it under control. I’ve been contracted on a 12-month project that fortunately pays me enough to cover the fundamentals, such as my bills and daily expenses. I usually explain this contracted role to my extended family members in the context of this conversation.


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A post shared by Lydia Tesema 🇪🇹 (@lydiatesema_)

What do you wish people knew about what you do and why you do it?

I wish people knew that I do what I do in the name of “do what gives you that true sense of fulfilment!” I wish they knew that I actively and regularly strategise new and exciting ways to get paid for what I love to do. I wish people knew that I go this hard because I almost committed to a career that I can confidently say would have made me miserable (that is, becoming a lawyer). Hence, I do what I do because I felt that (horrible) feeling of almost settling into something that, in the end, didn’t excite or impassion me.

Another reason I do what I do is because I acknowledge my fortunate position in society. I’ve been well-educated, adequately supported and blessed with opportunities that have allowed me to progress into certain spaces. I do it because I recognised from an early age what I’m truly capable of doing in a country like Australia if I just believe in myself, work hard and remain resilient. There are those undeniable challenges and barriers that I face along the way, however, I’m always up for the good fight.

Take me back to age 18, when you left school. Did you have any sense of what you wanted to do, and if so, what steps did you first take?

When I left school, I envisioned myself as a lawyer who would boldly defend and advocate for the weak and oppressed in society. From an early age, I understood the necessary steps to getting into law because it was frequently discussed in high school during career-related discourse. I established I wanted to study at Monash, a university that required a 98 ATAR for entry into the course, so I had to devise a plan in the case that I didn’t rank in the top two per cent of the state.

Safe to say that I didn’t, although I did have a good enough score to get into the Arts degree there. I was made aware from early on that if I earned a distinction average in my first year of arts, I could apply to transfer into a double degree with law. I did exactly that. Throughout this process, I was fixated on the hustle to get into law and didn’t really stop to consider whether I was suppressing deeper (and more unorthodox) desires for my career. 

Take me back to your early twenties, when you were just finding your feet. Did you have any sense of where you were going, and if so, how did you get there?

When I think ‘early twenties’ I think ‘back injury’. In 2018, when I was just 21 years old, I seriously injured my back and was hospitalised in Thailand for 10 days before coming home. Without exaggeration, this put a complete spanner in the works for my life. My reality quickly changed and I found myself forced into a quiet place during my three-month, home-ridden recovery in Melbourne. At the time, I was on a gap year from university because I was already beginning to question my passion for law.

When the injury happened, I was given a unique chance to stop and reflect deeply, and this encouraged a reconfiguration of my direction in life. Being completely sunk in that situation forced me to think creatively about how I could create a fulfilling life around a new circumstance. It also encouraged me to confront and interrogate what it was that I truly loved to do. While I could acknowledge that my passion for people and social justice was still just as strong, I could no longer deny how desperate I was to incorporate creating and entrepreneurship into my life. 


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A post shared by Lydia Tesema 🇪🇹 (@lydiatesema_)

How did you learn to set your own rates? 

This took time. I still remember the first time I had to negotiate my hourly rate for a contracted podcast series that I was invited to host. I didn’t want to undersell myself but I was also conscious of the fact that I was in new territory. My advice is to pick up the phone and chat to someone who you trust and who is more experienced than you. I did this with my mentor who guided me on effective thought processes that would eventually equip me to rationalise (and set) a reasonable rate.

What advice would you give to someone who is thinking of leaving school and freelancing for a while in their chosen creative field?

My advice is that you’re thinking about this for a reason, so take the necessary time to interrogate that reason. Find your ‘why’. If you’re considering freelancing because your chosen creative field is what makes you excited about life, then you’re already taking meaningful steps to becoming your most fulfilled self. Frankly, the stakes aren’t high at your age because committing to this decision now doesn’t mean you can’t change it later. You can make appropriate adjustments along the way. Just remember to reflect and be self-aware throughout the journey so that 1) your adjustments are strategic to where you ultimately want to find yourself and 2) your every new move and decision honours yourself.

Finally, embrace the uncertainty! You reside in a country that is supportive of your professional growth and while there are undeniable systematic challenges faced by many, there is a lot of support in different places. You’ll learn valuable things about yourself, and what you want from life, in this uncomfortable territory. Don’t be half-hearted about it, instead, be intentional and energetic and just go for it!


Check out the other How I Do It interviews here and our non-freelancer focused career series How I Got Here here.

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