Episode Ten: Making Sense of your goal: the need for more contextJun 16, 2022
alright, today, I want to talk about something that I think is part of our experience that presents itself as overwhelm, which is experienced as overwhelm, but is a very specific form of it. That is not sensory overwhelm, and not burnout. But it's to do with not having enough context to make decisions. And so feeling overwhelmed, ahead of time, and then freezing and then not taking action. And staying in this kind of anguish, of not having context.
In The SOLA System I teach making decisions is how you move forward is what gets you where you want to be. It's deciding based on what you think, you know, and then that leads to more lived experience more information. But it's hard to make a decision about something, when you lack the context to know even what decision to make, and how to make it. So to explain what I mean, I'm going to tell some stories to kind of give you an example.
So I'm going to talk a bit about my experience of starting out as an artist,
and also of working in the film and advertising industry.
And I'm going to put those two next to each other and make a comparison.
So I'm going to backtrack a bit and go right back to after the first year of going to art school. And I was not in a good place. And so I'd moved to London to study. And at the end of the first year, I had this whole world of film and advertising industry open up to me, after a moment of boldness after a decision that I wasn't going to settle for the experience of my life that I was having at that moment that I wasn't willing to carry on with what I was experiencing. So where was I? So I was studying in London. And after that first year, so how that first year went was that I was trying to study during the day. And then in order to afford to live in London. Even though I had a student loan, I still needed to work a lot of hours in order to afford to live. So I worked in bar jobs.
And I would work after hours and three nights a week and I was doing eight hour shifts working late into the night. And then catching a bus home. The night bus home and ending up arriving at home around three in the morning. And feeling so tired and then getting on the bus again in the morning and then going back to art school for another hour.
And this cycle just led me to feel completely exhausted, so tired, all my clothes stunk of cigarettes. That was the day when it was still legal to smoke inside. So even though I didn't smoke, I was in the smoking environments. And I was serving up cocktails. And I always chose bars that were about the music because I preferred that to the noise of chatter. And it meant I didn't have to talk to anyone. And I could just make cocktails, bring them to tables, and I could just get on with it and they were sweaty and yes, smoke filled. I'd be on my feet for hours. And then at the end of the shift, you'd wait around for tips to be shared out and then you'd head home on a night bath, completely exhausted.
And then the next day trying to make art in my tiny bedroom. And then yeah, catch a bus to a lecture. And yeah, so you get the idea. I was just exhausted and none of it was working and I was having just a rough time. And I kind of look back on him with affection now because of how I responded to all of this. Because at the end of that first year when it came to the summer holiday the two month break I decided, I made a decision, that I was going to use that summer to make some changes.
I decided that I was living in one of the biggest cities in the world, there must be a way for me to not have to live this way. And so I made that decision. And I didn't know how.
And then coincidentally, someone at my bar job, let me know that everyone else was on a different pay. And honestly, I think it was my obvious naivety being taken advantage of. And it definitely wasn't anything to do with how well I did the job. And then when I plucked up the courage to talk to the manager, I told them that they needed to back down my pay too much everyone else's, with my heart beating on my chest. And they looked sheepish. And they made it seem like they'd had no idea. And they agreed.
And suddenly, I had this influx of cash, this extra amount, that was the equivalent of over two months pay. And it was the start of the summer. So no art school to go to. So the second I receive that extra pay. And I think it took about four days to learn in my account, I remember going to the cash machine everyday to check. This is before banking apps on phones. And yeah, when it landed, when that cash landed in my account, I immediately quit the job. And then I took a whole month off from literally everything, and everyone. And in that month, I lay in bed, or lay in the park in the sun, and I consciously allowed myself to rest I rested, like my life depended on it.
And I even developed a breathing technique where I would hold my breath for a few seconds after the out breath, try and access that state of non reactivity. And then when I breathe in, again, of deep belly breath, and out again, in the outbreath, I felt like I was breathing out all of the exhaustion, all of the reactivity of answering to this customer, or this coursework or this expectation, I was returning to myself.
After that month of answering to no one and to nothing. I still had one month's pay left and one month of summer holidays. So I knew I had to find work again. But I didn't want to get back in the same work. And I wanted more pay. And I had energy. And at the time, I was really interested in video as an art medium. So I looked online, I went to an internet cafe, and I looked online for how I could maybe get some work related to video and film. And I learned about all of the roles and who is on set and how you begin to work in that industry. And so I decided to look for work as a runner. So a runner, if you don't know is someone who on a film set is basically it's an entry level freelance job, and you're basically the dog's body.
So someone needs something, you go and do it. So everyone needs a coffee, you go and get coffees, for the crew, someone needs a bit of kit, you go and fetch it. And essentially, it's where you get to enter the industry. Observe how everything works, learn on the job, and then just help out wherever as needed. So I found this website where people who were making low budget short films would post unpaid roles. And I applied to a whole bunch and one of them responded.
And I got my first job as a runner on a low budget film, like a really, really low budget film, working for free for two weeks. And I thought, okay, it's a stock, I can put it on my CV. And meanwhile, I went and got another bar job. But this time, only one night a week. Now, I think this is something that happens when you have a big intention of make a big decision. And you start doing what you think you know, towards it. Even if it's scattergun, even it's even if it's the wrong things, even if it's full of mistakes and failures. Somehow, it's like a signal out to the universe like ah, this person is serious. Let's send them some stuff to be serious about. So it just so happened that while I was on this job, someone at my art school knew about this TV identity it was being filmed. So this is like an ad for branding ad for a TV channel. and this one was for Channel Four, if you live in the UK and know the channels, and it was going to have Ray Winston in it, and they wanted art student types in the background as extras.
So I got onto that job as an extra. And it was paid 50 quid. And most of the day, all of the extras were kept in this separate studio. And occasionally food would arrive. And we just had to wait around for this one tiny scene to be shot with all of us in the background pretending to be Ray Winston fans. So most of those extras in the room, were jobbing actors, and were sitting around complaining and being dramatic.
And the whole time I was thinking, if I can just get into that room where things are being filmed, I can ask the assistant director for work. So this isn't director the first AD, that's the person who does all the shouting on set, and essentially organises everyone. So because I've done that free job for two weeks, I kind of had learned who was important to speak to to get more work.
And I knew that if I could just speak to them, then maybe possibly, there was a tiny chance that they might give me some advice. So I chickened out during the filming bit. And I felt really bad about it. But then at the end of the shoot, when the crew were packing up on the extras were walking home, I approached him I hung back and I approached him I'd worked up who was when we were filming, it was the guy who was shouting a lot. And he said yes. And he gave me his number. And he said, phoned me every week, and I'll get you on whatever sheets I'm on. And he meant it. And he kept me in work for the next four years. I was so nervous that first time I rang him, it took me several hours of trying to quiet the butterflies in my stomach, and work up the courage and the nerve to just call and do what he'd instructed.
But I did it. And then I did it every week. And so a couple of days a week, I was on a shoot some advert or corporate training video, once I even did a shopping channel, and lots of music videos. And I was being paid. And the adverts paid triple what the bar Job did. And I loved it. And it made my life make sense. And I could actually study and work that job as a freelancer. And yep, sometimes I had to skip a lecture, but I didn't mind because I wasn't exhausted or anxious.
And the reason I tell this story is because of the difference between what happened on set and how it felt. And then comparing that to the experience of the art world that I had a couple of years later and how that felt. And just to let you know, ahead of telling that story, the difference for me was context. So the amount of context available to be in the film and advertising industry, to know how to do it and what to do, versus the amount of context available to be an artist in the art world. So I want to offer context, as something for you to think about and identify as a need the need for more context in order to map out and make sense of your life direction and make decisions. So to explain a bit more.
If you work on us on a shoot, if you've worked on set, there's an amazing thing that happens, which is that there are really defined roles. So you can turn up on set and not know anyone will only know one or two people. And once you've worked out who is who, which is obvious because there's literally a printed sheet of paper called a call sheet which lists everyone's names and their roles. So you can go around and ask everyone's names say hello, you've got their name, you can look at your list and work out who they are. And it's normalised to just ask. Then you know who is doing what. And then everyone begins to work together like a team at the highest level of collaboration that I've ever experienced.
It makes every other workplace have ever been in or looked at just look like total chaos. A group of people come together like a well oiled machine, create something very quickly, because the roles are so defined, and everyone has the same expectations and clarity on who does what and how. And each role is ultra specific. And being a runner, and then working my way up and trying on different roles after that. But in the beginning, being a runner meant I got to help out. And because every other single person on set also began as a runner, also learned on the job. You can learn publicly it's normalised to ask questions, it's okay to not know everything, someone important and busy, like the director of photography, could ask you to go and get some bit of kit, or hold this thing. And you'd run off and you'd say yes, and then you'd have no idea what they're talking about. But then you could go and ask someone else who was less busy, what's an apple cart, and it wasn't a problem. And that was how you learned.
And some of the old school crew would sometimes trick me by asking me to go and get the tartan paint. And you had already run off before it dawned on me. But in general, all of the context was available for me to pick up and understand. And everything was clearly defined and laid out. And I wanted to use that as an example of having had enough context. Think of a goal that you have, think of something that you're trying to do, or a problem that you're trying to solve? And where do you have a sense of overwhelm from not having enough context, enough clarity, we need that context. This is not just about being wired differently.
And so the usual information doesn't work. This is also about the way that we perceive as absorbing and processing more experience. So we need more details, we need more time to process it, we need a deeper level a level of questioning to make sense of all the parts, sometimes more time. This is how we make sense of our experience as a whole. we glean meaning through systemising, or through identifying and sensing the relationships between things between sensory details in order to map out the hole in the big picture. And through mapping out the big picture.
That is how we can then zoom in and be in the experience of the details and the minutia. We don't work well with jests, with assumptions with unspoken things with generalisations, we need the so called obvious and basic stuff available and made clear, we need all of the context to make sense of what we're trying to understand and therefore how to relate to our own experiences. So my experience of being on set was that I had all of the context, there was a system for how everyone worked together that was industry wide, clearly defined roles that were industry wide. The acceptance of asking all the questions, because how you do your job well as a runner, is to ask questions, and because they'd all been there, too.
So what this did is it removed all of the workplace drama, a whole lot of the social drama, because the hierarchy of decision making power is also transparent and laid out so everyone knows what's what. And the job also required of everyone, an intensity of focus, a shared focus, quiet onset, a streamlined approach, and collaboration without any negotiation of power required. It all made sense. So I loved it. I knew it wasn't long term, or I wanted to do but as a job getting me through studying living in London, feeling like I was growing, gaining the skills being useful, and having no confusion about what I was supposed to do or how it was a dream.
And all because I've taken some leaps of faith, and decided that I was no longer willing to settle. So a few years after graduating, I ended up quitting that because I knew that I wanted to focus on art. And I did a few other random jobs before then making art workshops, my main income, and then spending years trying to get opportunities as an artist. And here's where I want to make a comparison between the amount of contexts I experienced on set and the lack of context I experienced in the art world and not just in the public funded galleries, but also the commercial galleries which I never really pursued or gained any ground in.
So I had no idea how to start my art school training had taught me that I needed to get a show in a gallery. But I didn't know how I had this artist statement. For honestly, no one wanted to read it. I'd heard that it was about who you know. But I didn't know how to know who to know, and how to know them. My guess was that going to private these was how this is something I'd heard, go to private views and network, because I tried emailing. And that led to literally nothing. And I also didn't know what to write in an email that would be persuasive, or enticing, or even get a reply. So going to private views, was what I knew to do as my next step. But private views were also a kind, a special kind of social and sensory hell, that honestly, looking back, I would say, was almost completely unnecessary. A private view is like the opposite of a film set.
Everything is about hierarchy, but nothing is transparent. Even your friends at weird at private views, they don't want to talk to you, if they're artists, they want to angle for an introduction with so and so over there. And I found myself constantly second guessing all of the agendas, and often in echoey rooms full of conversations in small groups of people who are trying to work out their advantage. I imagine it works for some people, but for me, it really didn't. So the lack of context in visual art for how to get a show how to gain entry, gave me a kind of overwhelm, and anguish, because of that lack of context. And it made it feel impossible, it made it feel like it was my failure, that I should just know already how to do this, because it seemed like everyone else just knew, and asking how would be embarrassing. So my response to this was to pretend to know, to act like I knew, which of course made it feel even more overwhelming.
The art world, for various reasons, intentionally encourages and kind of cultivates a mystique and that lack of transparency is reduced. Now, I think there are so many opportunities to go to talks or trainings if you're an artist to ask the questions. But back then it really wasn't back then. Opacity and mystique was how you did it. That was a kind of legitimacy, you have a show in a tiny room in the back of a barber shop.
And you only know about it, if you know about it. And making it accessible was not the rigour and the meaning behind it requires you to have read dealers, et cetera. And at the time, the commercial art market, it also started to replicate how these artists led spaces, were doing things. So they would set up in a tiny room in East London. And it would be just a buzzer, no sign, no name, no nothing. And you just had to figure it out. Or you'd see other people going in on a Saturday morning. And you'd walk up to any buzz and you'd be let in. And then the atmosphere was so intimidating. And there was like one art student in the corner manning the gallery pretending to have status, and definitely no way of talking to anyone who might give you a show.
So this is how it was for a few years, applying to things not getting anywhere, no replies, going to private views, finding them exhausting trying to get my foot in the door, feeling this anxiety about how is this going to work. Meanwhile, finding it really hard to make art because I couldn't relax enough because of how I hadn't solved how it's going to work. I didn't have context for how and context is how it shifted.
So I started to ask artists who were a bit further along, one artists that I asked how do you do it said that they had put on their own show. And that that had been one of the best decisions they've made, even though it cost them a tonne of money. And they were in debt afterwards. because it allowed them to have something to invite people to, to document and to show people afterwards and to demonstrate seriousness. So that gave me a bit of context.
So I put it to work. I applied what I thought I knew, and I put on my own show and I decided not to spend a tonne of money on it to learn from that example, an experience that someone else had had. And I put on a to patients person show with a friend in a squatted warehouse in the middle of nowhere, that a friend of a friend lived in and they had let us use the space between shows that it wouldn't be part of their official art programme, that we'd have it for three days.
And we're like, yep, we want it. And 17 people came over the three days, all of whom we already knew, and most of whom are outside the art world. But we did it. And we photograph the work. And then I hired a gallery for one day, and I put on a solo performance event. And I invited everyone I thought I could think of, and I filmed it. And then I made a website. And I put the documentation of these two shows on it in the required opaque way with minimal info. And a lot of framing and making it look like art is supposed to look. And I felt like I'm an artist. And that was enough to apply to open calls with and finally begin to get somewhere.
But those years of anguish of not knowing is something that I think is really familiar for all of us, right, I probably didn't need to pretend that I didn't know. But pretending and feeling bad about not knowing had already been a learned skill that I had used to deal with other social contexts in which I felt like I didn't know how to be.
So I applied that here. And that anguish is a specific kind of anguish, I think is common to the autistic experience of feeling like something is cognitively impenetrable. Like, it literally isn't enough context for your mind to enter into it. And make it make sense. So what I want to say is that if you are experiencing any kind of anguish, any kind of overwhelm, that stops you from starting, that is meaning that you are in this kind of frozen state of inaction. Notice it, allow it as a sign that you just need more context, context is solvable.
Some of that context, is solvable by experience. So some of that context is experiential, you just need the sensory information of how it's going to feel when I was on set. I could for many hours, when there wasn't something that was required of me just stand and watch. Just being in the room, watching other people, hearing the language used, watching how different people behaved according to their roles. I could take the time needed to get used to that sensory environment, I could ask the questions, all of them, any of them.
I never once had the feeling that I can't. Or I don't know how in art, I constantly felt like I can't, like I'm not meant to be here. I'm stuck. I'm bad at this. I being rejected. And I don't want to keep trying. And I would sit at home in those early years before I'd had any shows, and literally not know what to do. And that feeling of not knowing. And the anguish of not enough context was such a strong emotion that it got in the way of more helpful emotions, like resourcefulness and curiosity, and determination, and courage.
And so, instead of doing something about the lack of context, I would just freeze, I would not do anything. Or I would try and get out of that emotion by distracting myself by planning my art career out on paper, trying to believe it would be possible. And thinking that that was productive, or watching stuff online, or making a bit of art and then wondering what the point was, because would anyone ever see it? Or was it the right kind of art or recovering from private views and feeling bad about myself? Because that private view hasn't led to any new connection or contact or introduction or show. The inner workings of how to be an artist in the art world was not something I could just be around and watch and ask questions about from people who were making it work and then Start taking part in. I watched a lot of artists interviews online, I was trying to glean their process. And I found that visual artists would mostly talk about their ideas. Whereas music artists would talk about their experience in the industry, and their process of making music and what was hard.
Bjork talked about having 50% creative head, and 50% business head, and I'd never heard anyone else say that. She talks about buying herself flowers before a new project, and how if you make art to please people, you end up pleasing no one. But if you make it to please yourself, you have a tiny bit of chance in pleasing someone. She talked about moving to London and strategically reaching out to all the cultural outliers who were making music, who were so different to what was happening in London. In music at the time, people from around the world, a mix of cultures and heritages, she gathered them up, and that's what made them stand out.
And then how she made that album, but then only toward a little bit, because she was pregnant. context, the anguish of that overwhelm of not seeing the bigger picture is not something you have to normalise, there is a way to do it, you want to make a decision or have an experience or make a goal happen. But it has to be your way.
And your way might be needing more context, needing a more detailed experiential, and sensory and mental model, needing the big picture mapped out, allowing time for processing, asking all the questions, having someone explain things that seem obvious to others, allowing for that extra sensory cognition and the depth of specificity that you need in order to make sense to fit things together. And to systemise taking action, so that you're not in this anguish, and trying to figure out every moment what decision to make and not making any decisions or doing anything. finding mentors, was a big thing that helped with context. So an early tip I got for Arts Council funding, was to always put an amount in the budget for mentors. And when you email an artist or a curator with money for an hour and a half of their time for advice, they often say yes, and I would credit those mentoring sessions with almost all of the art success that I then had. Because nearly all of those people then introduce me to someone else. And because they knew people, I they knew people. So knowing that overwhelm, and anguish just means you need more context means you can give yourself permission to learn in your way to need that context.
And make provisions for it. This is unlearning the casual ableism that says that, asking more questions, or learning out loud is a problem that says that you're already supposed to know that to ask for help is wrong, that basic or simple is easy. Or that a lack of transparency is a healthy work environment. Or that you need to pretend to know or that you are less than for not knowing how to start or needing more context. It's okay. It's allowed. It means nothing about what you're able to do in this life. And this is about finding your own way.
So how can you create context for the thing that you want to do?
How can you identify where the context is missing?
What are the questions that you have?
What are the decisions that you need to make?
How can you find someone who already has the results that you want?
And then be in a position to ask them? How can you get a mentor, get a coach, get someone whose strategy looks like one that will work for you. I will never not have at least one mentor or coach. Because of how I value the shortcuts. It gives me the context it provides my brain for how to know where I'm at, how to know where to go, and how to get from where I am to where I want to be.
That first AD - that first assistant director - got me so many jobs on set. One day we had a job on the south coast, and me and another runner ended up getting the train together with him. And I think it was about my third effort. Oh, I was still very nervous. And he said to us, do you know how to invoice properly? And we didn't. And he took the entire time of that train journey to write out how to invoice. To explain the call sheet to answer all the questions that we had to tell us how to get jobs with other people how to register with a diary service, he willingly gave context.
So if you need that context, and you don't have it, it's very easy to feel like I can't, or I'm not meant to do this, or this is unavailable. So, notice, where are you lacking context? Where can you create or increase the amount of context? Where can you allow yourself to learn in the way that you need to learn? Knowing that your need for more context is not a failure, but it's actually how you thrive and succeed. Context means you can come unstuck. Context means it can not be frozen by not knowing what to do, and instead can start asking questions. Knowing that you need more context means you can slow down now, in order to speed up later, when I first started podcasting, it used to take me four days. So four days to write the thing.
Or to come up with the idea to persuade myself to sit down to get familiar and comfortable with the recording equipment, to work out how I like to do it, to figure out where in my house I want to sit, to edit, to listen to my own voice and feel okay with it. To not want to urgently re-record it over and over and over. Doing a podcast now only takes four hours, four days to four hours. If I had judged that four days in the beginning, thinking that that was how it was always going to be, I wouldn't be doing this right now. So knowing that up, it's just sometimes a learning curve of getting familiar with the context and the sensory experience of it.
And that you can master one thing at a time. That may be how you begin is just setting up the equipment, and then putting it away again, and going through how that feels. And getting familiar with that. Maybe it's just trying on that outfit that is new, ahead of that big event that's coming up and getting familiar with that sensory experience.
Maybe it's identifying where you have a bunch of questions that you haven't allowed yourself to need to ask. And allow yourself to ask them or at least work out what they are. So let me know your experience with this idea of needing more context. Come and share your thoughts in the discord. Where do you want more context? Where are you recognising this emotion of anguish and overwhelm? And what have you made it mean?
And can you now forgive yourself for how you learn and knowing that it's not a barrier, it's just a different way to get to where you want to go. All right. That's it for today. And I will talk to you very soon. Bye.
The UNMASKING UNSCHOOL Podcast
is for #autistic-status visionaries, creatives and change-makers, who are seeking a more empowering way to see, know and be yourself.