Listen to the episode:
“What theories about myself and my creativity am I willing to test? Am I willing to fail?”
Sarah Firth is an awesome cartoonist and graphic recorder, among many other things.
Sarah takes a bit of a mad scientist approach to her creative life. She embraces experimentation and testing to try to discover new ways to organize her life around her creative interests, always looking to answer the question: “How much value can I bring to something? And then also how much time can I buy back?”
This openness to experimentation has helped Sarah build a more anti-fragile, flexible, stable, sustainable—and enjoyable!—creative life.
Sarah has followed her curiosity to make life-changing pivots in the face of adversity, including the surprisingly positive aftermath of a traumatic car accident that derailed her post-college professional plans, and learning to use her neurodivergence as a filter, and even a sort of superpower.
More from the episode…
- “Identity is utility” – How to embrace your personal identity without pigeonholing yourself.
- We discuss the benefits of being multi-passionate: “Having range as a person is actually really powerful and makes you anti-fragile. It makes you flexible. It makes you come up with creative solutions, mix things in from different industries together to innovate.”
- How can multi-passionate people make the most of their diverse skills on a resume and in the workforce? Hint: “You don’t have to show all your cards.”
- From driving trucks to graphic recorder, Sarah explains what she looks for in a career: “How much value can I bring to something? And then also how much time can I buy back?”
- After a traumatic car accident upended her life, Sarah embraced comics as “graphic medicine.” What happens when life crashes into your intentions?
- Sarah shares her experience of neurodivergence and physical disability, including how she meets challenges in ways that are empowering.
- “People are like houseplants and we all have different needs.” – Why discovering what works for you is so important.
- Why is Sarah cautious of the classic adage ‘trust yourself’?
- Sarah offers tips for preventing social media burn out and dealing with hate online.
More about Sarah Firth
Sarah Firth is one of the foremost practitioners of the art of graphic recording, and that’s not all (or even most): she’s also an Eisner Award-winning nonfiction cartoonist who takes on many of the most important issues of the day, including climate change, Covid, #metoo, and art-making with a disability. Her work has been published by ABRAMS Books, ABC Arts, Frankie Magazine, kuš!, Graphic Mundi, Penn State University Press, Penguin Random House, Picador, Allen & Unwin, The Nib, Black Inc, and Routledge. She’s currently working on her first full-length book of visual essays, supported by a Creators Fund program grant.
Connect with Sarah Firth
Click here to read the transcript
Ep 004 – Why being a multi-passionate creative is your strength, with Sarah Firth
Sarah Firth: When people say, how did you get to where you are? There’s kind of what you intended and then there’s like life crashing into your intentions.
Jessica Abel: What does it take to become a successful writer or artist?
There are some destructive myths out there about what a creative career is supposed to look like.
And we’re kept in our lane by the undermining belief that, as artists, we’re somehow incapable of building autonomous, sustainable careers– if we choose the work that’s closest to our hearts.
So we’re going to tear down those myths and get the truth by going to the source:
Incredible professional creatives who’ve followed every path but the expected one to success on their own terms.
I’m cartoonist, author, and coach for creatives, Jessica Abel.
And this is the Autonomous Creative.
Our guest today is Sarah Firth, an awesome cartoonist and graphic recorder. Not only that, but she’s taken a bit of a mad scientist approach to her creative life. She embraces experimentation and testing to try to discover new ways to organize her life around her creative interests. Sarah is multi passionate, interested in writing, drawing sculpture, plants, powerlifting among many other things.
And life has presented her with challenging constraints including a life altering car accident after college, And an adult diagnosis of neurodiversity, but instead of letting those challenges stop her, she’s used them as an invitation to her creativity to use workarounds as the seeds of ideas and new ways of working.
Always looking to answer the question, how much value can I bring to something? And then also how much time can I buy back?
This openness to experimentation has helped Sarah build a more anti-fragile flexible, stable, sustainable, and enjoyable creative life.
And I’m so excited to bring our conversation to you today.
Just a quick note. When we held this conversation with a live audience, we had some tech issues. So you may hear the audio shift a little bit.
Please bear with us. It’s worth it.
We’ll dive into it with Sarah right after this message.
What does it really take to make it as a creative? This is the burning question that’s driven me for– forever, really. I used to have to try to ferret out the answers one by one, when I got a chance to hang out with a fellow artist or writer. And when I judged it safe enough to ask that delicate question we’re all dying to know the answer to: how do you make it work?
Every guests I’ve interviewed so far has mentioned this. One of the secrets to how they’ve gotten as far as they have is that they’ve asked every creative pro they met, every chance they got asking the question often enough is a game changer.
We learn so much each time. Starting with the fact that, whatever we thought was working for that person? We were probably wrong.
We each imagine the other person has some kind of secret and that they’ve made the leap over the giant chasm between beginner and pro and feel safe on the other side. And inevitably, neither person feels that way at all and as amazed to realize that from the outside, they seem to have it all figured out.
I’m pulling that seemingly taboo conversation out of the shadows on the show. It’s also the conversation we take further every day inside the community of Authentic Visibility.
Authentic Visibility is our group coaching program designed to help dedicated creatives who are very reasonably wary of marketing and promotion into powerful advocates for their vision and their work, setting the stage for huge career growth and a major role in the larger cultural conversation.
Got a major project dropping soon, and you’re determined not to let it founder? Get the support you need to create a reasonable promotion plan that aligns with your goals and fits your life.
Don’t know how to talk about your work without squirming? You’ll practice and refine your messaging in a safe, supportive space inside Authentic Visibility.
Hate or fear social media, and dunno what else to do? There are lots of options, and you can workshop solutions that suit you and your approach with your peers.
You can learn all about Authentic Visibility and get a sense of my teaching philosophy in a free 90 minute class, specifically for creatives called “how to get people wildly obsessed with your work” and in it, you’ll get a headstart on developing clear, compelling language for sharing your work with your audience so that they get it and they want more.
If you want your work to make its mark in the world, check out the free wildly obsessed class and supercharge your ability to connect with new fans in just 90 minutes.
Go to Jessica abel.com/wildly and join the free class now.
That’s Jessica abel.com/wildly.
Okay, let’s start the show.
Sarah Firth: Thank you so much for inviting me on here, Jessica. I’ve been a huge fan of yours for years, and I think what you do is so helpful and important and it’s right up my alley because I’m always trying to figure out how can I make doing this more enjoyable, and perhaps easier and sustainable. And I think it’s really hard. And it’s different for each person. So exciting to, to chat about real life and creativity.
Jessica Abel: Yeah, it absolutely is hard and it is different. And I think that’s one of the things I most wanted to talk to you about because you’ve been, you know, I know that you have really, uh, gone through a process of testing, with open eyes, you know, and really testing, like what’s going to work for you and thinking about, is this going to happen or is this not going to happen?
Um, does this, does this fit with my priorities? Is this fit with what I want out of my life and then tacking and making changes.
So that’s been really interesting to watch that happen and to hear you talk about it. So we’re going talk about that a little bit, but first, I’d really like to find out, first of all, what do you do and a little bit about what your typical week looks like. I’m not going to say day because I’m sure it changes a lot day to day, but over a period of time.
Sarah Firth: Yeah. So what do I do? As I, as I think you said in one of your posts, I’m like this, and this, and this, and this, and this. I guess I would, if I was introducing myself to someone at a party, I would just say I’m an artist and a writer. And then, if people want to know more than I’d kind of dig in.
I tend to try and talk to people where they’re at, in ways that they might understand. So for example, I would also sometimes call myself a cartoonist, but unfortunately, at least in Australia, that has a lot of baggage. We have an amazing comics culture, but for people outside comics, they don’t really know what it is.
And even saying that I’m a graphic recorder, which is kind of live, performative, drawing. Again, most people don’t know what that is. So, you know, I go with artist and writer and kind of go from there.
But yeah. Pictures, words together is my jam. I also animate so things that are kind of narrative– like I’m very flexible with what I do. I don’t have a really specific one thing that I do. I do many things.
As a kid, I always knew I wanted to be an artist.
Actually, before that I wanted to be a mermaid, and I didn’t realize that that wasn’t thing. But actually, it is a thing. There are professional mermaids. So, you know, that could still be on the cards for me.
But, um, yeah, I always knew I wanted to be an artist. And part of that was I realized that it was a world where you had freedom. Where you don’t have to be as boxed in as other things, like you can be celebratorily weird.
It is a context that you can work with that that gives you a bit of freedom there.
Jessica Abel: yeah, Artist, words, pictures. I mean, I totally get it.
I think that saying you’re a cartoonist in this country is a little bit easier, but still people, they want to call me a graphic novelist. They want to call me whatever else.
And of course I’ve done stuff, like you have, that doesn’t involve a lot of pictures. And I do speaking and I do teaching and whatever else. So that multi-passionate life where you just have all these different things.
I think I encounter a lot of people who struggle with this idea of being multi-passionate. Having lots of things they want to do, and they don’t really know how to sort that out.
And my feeling is that you kind of don’t have to. It’s more, you do the activity and whatever people want to call it. I mean, it’s a little bit complicated, but whatever. As long as you figure out the thing you want to do in the moment, you can switch and do all those things.
Sarah Firth: Yeah, exactly. And like, I’m doing an anthropology course at the moment and we had a lecture the other week where the lecturer said, something that really stuck with me, which was that identity is utility. And what, what he meant by that is that we are all incredibly complex, and multifaceted, and your identity presents in different contexts in different ways. And so if you’re multipotentialite, you have this whole toolkit of things you can do and skills you can plug into that will kind of play out in different spaces.
So for example, you might spend five years being primarily a writer because you get some opportunities to do that, and then your priorities and the context changes. And then you go and you know, you’re a professional cellist. And that’s a really inclusive and exciting way to think about not having to pigeonhole yourself.
And there’s more and more books coming out now about how having range as a person is actually really powerful and makes you antifragile. It makes you flexible. It makes you come up with creative solutions. Mix things in from different industries together to innovate. Things like that. And that’s really exciting.
Jessica Abel: Oh, I agree with that. I mean I’ve moved back and forth from doing all the kinds of different things myself and, and there’s a way in which I feel like we’re encouraged to pin ourselves down into one definition, but knowing that you don’t really have to, means you can recover all sorts of skillsets and ideas and idea generation that come out of different directions and out of different fields that you might be involved in. So that a lot of project management stuff that I’ve learned comes out of helping to be on the editorial team of books.
It’s not writing and it’s not creating, right. But it’s like this, there are things that fit together. And together, they make a more, like you say, anti-fragile kind of life. More sustainable, a more resilient kind of life, where you have all these different places you can go for information and ideas.
Sarah Firth: And it gives you, it gives you different frameworks and methodologies for playing, basically. So for example, another thing you said before is like, how do you test, how do you work through what you want to do and what you don’t want to do?
And I actually find that taking a quasi scientific methodology is helpful, which is like, what, what theories about myself and my creativity am I willing to test? Am I willing to fail?
And that’s been my process. If I have an appetite or interest in trying something, I will try it . I’ll take a calculated risk and see if it works.
Because in my experience, I’ll have a fantasy of like, oh, it’d be so awesome to run all these workshops and do this thing. And it’s only when I test it and actually run them that I go, Oh. I don’t have the capacity to work with people every day for eight hours running workshops. I just burn out. And that’s not something I would have known until I tested it.
You know what I mean?
Jessica Abel: Yeah, I absolutely know what you mean. Can you tell us, how do you make a living right now?
Sarah Firth: How do I make a living right now? Oh, you also asked me what’s my day like.
Jessica Abel: Yeah. Sort of related. Yeah.
Sarah Firth: Yeah. So at the moment, I am making a living mainly from graphic recording. That’s my biggest chunk of income.
I’m also working on a grant for my graphic novel, so I’ve applied for grants to get time to work on my graphic novel. Cause that’s a key tension in my life. Doing my client facing work and then doing my own creative work are always in tension, most artists have this going on. And so I’ve really like utilizing grants to get time and space.
So currently how that looks in my in my day, my days are actually more regular at the moment than usual. So, I split my day based on energy levels. So I get up early and I work on my graphic novel for four hours a day. And I do that very routinely, mainly using the power of coffee.
Then after 12, I will switch into client mode where I have meetings or doing graphic recording or whatever.
And then in the afternoon I exercise. Again, I found it sounds a bit boring, but I found exercise is absolutely integral to my creative process and brain health and physical health. So, I try to keep a routine as much as possible.
That said, when I get bookings for events, my day is completely changed. And you know, I’m working all weekend this weekend doing workshops. So, it’s all very flexible and changeable, but as much as possible, I try to keep my routine and prioritize writing my book first up in the day.
So that’s kind of the shape of things and also the money side. I also have been experimenting with sort of passive income. Alternative income streams with stickers, t-shirts, doing like little learning, online training courses, things like that. So I always try and have a play around with what’s helpful for people and also what can help build my income.
Jessica Abel: Yeah. I remember, um, hearing you talk about your path to where you are now that you, I think, as an undergrad, were in sculpture, is that right?
Sarah Firth: Yeah, I used to make kinetic sculptures. So using old car parts and reconfiguring them to make like giant drawing machines. So I was basically outsourcing my drawing to robots.
Jessica Abel: So this is where it, my audio went kablooey when we were doing our live interview just as I was commenting, how funny it is that Sarah basically went from outsourcing her drawing to drawing all the time.
So my audio from here on end, it’s going to be a little bit rough.
Um, and I apologize for that, but I really just felt like this interview was way too interesting and important to hold back just because I kind of sound like crap. Anyway. Stick with us. It’ll be worth it. And thanks for listening.
I wanted to talk about the way that you took a path from your undergrad and then you had a car accident. That caused you to really reassess how you want it to be working. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Sarah Firth: Yeah. When people say, how did you get to where you are? There’s kind of what you intended and then there’s like life crashing into your intentions.
I finished art school as a sculptor, as I mentioned, I was doing kinetic sculpture. I um, was going to go and work in Sydney with a very famous theater and dance institution called Carriage Works. And I was actually going to work as a welder, doing welding for theater and prop stuff. But then as I was moving to Sydney, I had a really bad car accident.
And the biggest challenge with that was firstly, I lost my short-term memory and it took me about a year and a half to re-establish that.
But also I couldn’t walk for about six months, so I was in bed and I’d always taken my physical ability absolutely for granted. And I just had this kind of rude shock of not knowing if I would regain mobility. Would I ever be able to work as a sculptor? You know, because before I was standing 10 hours a day and just moving around. And I was in my early twenties and it was a real shock and I had a lot of trauma and sadness from that experience.
And also it led to a big relationship breakup. So it was a very big crack in my life, so to speak. And I felt really sorry for myself for quite a while, to be honest.
And then I realized, look, this is what’s happening now. I don’t know what will happen in the future. What can I do from bed? I wanted to make art. I wanted to kind of process how I was feeling. And so I started writing more. I started playing around with animations and doing comics mainly as graphic medicine, to be honest, which is just trying to make sense of my sadness and the trauma of the experience.
And interestingly, that’s also when I got onto social media, because I experienced what a lot of disabled people experience, which is social isolation, cause I couldn’t go out anywhere.
And through social media and through making art and sharing my art, I realized that you know, there was this way of connecting online with ideas, with people, with voices.
And it was a bit of a revelation actually. I’ve really fell in love with social media and what it can offer you when you’re isolated and vulnerable.
Jessica Abel: Right. Which led to, I mean, it’s like a couple of different things I want to touch on here. But like the one that, what I thought was interesting is when I heard this interview with you and on starving artists, which is from several years ago, and then your growing up disabled in Australia book came out several years later and you told the story of becoming graphic recorder and doing comics and stuff in two different ways.
One is you’re stuck in bed. And you realize that this was a way, like you were trying to retrain your brain because you couldn’t remember things. And so you’re using post-its and stuff like that, which I thought was really interesting. And I’d love to hear a little bit about that.
But then on the other end you’re like, well, I’m also neuro-diverse.
And so I’ve also had this kind of, um, necessity to use doodling and these other ways of, of handling information. Hmm, all of which feed into visual storytelling of various kinds and like, how do you see those things coming together?
And then the second piece of that is the social media piece, which I want to get back to you, but let’s start there.
Sarah Firth: Yeah, sure. So, the first thing to say is that I actually didn’t get diagnosed as neurodiverse. You don’t get diagnosed as neurodiverse.
Neurodiversity is a kind of big way of saying multiple intersections of neurodivergence. You know, autism, dyslexia, dyscalculia, various things in there.
And so when I was relying on visual tools in the rehabilitation from my car accident, I didn’t know that I was neurodiverse.
So the comic that I have in this book Growing up Disabled in Australia, which is an anthology that was just released, which is really big in Australia. It’s the first book that’s ever been published about collective stories of disability. That was very much about the experience of getting diagnosed in your mid-thirties and looking at the thread that has been in my life and making sense of things. Again, it’s very much graphic medicine.
So to me, that stuff is all messily entangled. And through narratives you create a story that’s true, but it’s like way oversimplified.
The story in that book was very much sort of, specifically looking at neurodiversity and diagnosis as an adult. And not talking about the car accident cause that’s a whole other thing. Yeah.
Jessica Abel: Right. But it seems like probably that the, your lifetime experience of dealing with the variety of neurodiversity that you have led to the tools that you developed and use to get better from your car accident. They’re connected. Right.
I think it’s really interesting. Cause I work with in the creative focus workshop, I work with a lot of people who are neuro-diverse in various ways.
Some of it is, as somebody saying here, Shelly is talking about an acquired brain injury, so there’s that kind of thing. But there’s also a lot of add people, ADHD, some autism, some people with different, you know, just diversity, like just different ways of dealing with things.
And I mean, it’s a spectrum, right? It’s not just a linear spectrum. It’s like a 3d 4D spectrum.
And we all are diverse in various ways. And so part of that, I think the story that’s so interesting to me is that you looks back and realized this neuro-diversity had shaped your life in some ways, but you leveraged it.
You turned it into a power. You took this thing and you said, okay, I can look at this as a disability, or I can look at it as kind of a super power.
And maybe that’s too glib. Works for my social media posts, but maybe not in reality, but to certain extent, I feel like that there’s something to that.
Sarah Firth: Yeah. So, just as a little aside, the context that this book speaks into is talking about disability and using the word disability, but looking at disability, not as a deficit model, but more that disability’s a natural and inevitable and completely normal manifestation in human societies. And what creates the disability is not the disability itself, but the social context.
So there’s a thing called the social model of disability and that’s partly why I am talking more and being more of an advocate now is that, with, learning disabilities and autism spectrum sensitivities, the challenge that I have had is this constant feeling of there’s something really wrong.
Why can’t I do this? There’s something wrong with me and feeling a huge amount of shame. And part of that is from feedback from people saying, “Oh, you’re so stupid.” Or like, “Why don’t you get this?” Or, sort of just mean comments like that, but then realizing my personal way of reclaiming that is going okay. I find this thing hard. What are the workarounds that I can do?
So, for example, when I had short-term memory loss, it was very painful. I would leave the room and not know what I was doing. And then I went, okay, what skills, what tools do I have? Post-it notes! You know, so I wrote lists and I felt like an absolute dork.
And my housemates made fun of me, which was, offensive. Um, but I was like, there was something powerful knowing that I could help myself with the tools that I had available. And, I could use those as, you know, rocks to climb out of where I was.
but yeah, I just feel like celebrating disability and celebrating diversity’s very important. And it creates more permission and space for other people to, talk about where they’re at, what’s going on and figure out ways to make their life better and how to support each other.
so for example, I do Olympic weightlifting, and I’m also someone with dyscalculia. And often the people that I’m weightlifting with, I’ll put the weights on wrong and they’ll be like, “Oh, Sarah, you’re lifting 58 kilos. Whoa.” And I’ll be like, “Oh, I thought it was 48” because I just can’t add up really simple numbers.
And again, it’s been an education process with that community of being like, I’m not a total idiot. I just actually have a problem with very simple calculations, you know. And I can’t use an analog digital watch. I have to use a watch that’s got a circle with the segments because that’s the only thing that my brain can understand.
And, rather than being ashamed of that, just being like, okay, what works for me? What doesn’t work? And how do I articulate that to other people in a way that’s empowering for me, not a deficit.
Jessica Abel: I love that. Yeah, really good. And that’s it. That’s exactly what I was getting at where I feel like you, it has been a font of invention for you, even as it’s been painful. And I think that that’s true for a lot of creative people in the various ways that we invent to make our lives work. Managing the shame that comes along with not going the sort of standard route, meanwhile, figuring out something. Like making something work. And it’s, it’s really like necessity is the mother of invention.
Sarah Firth: Yeah, yeah, yeah, absolutely. I just noticed someone’s comment about, some people complain and some people just get on with it. And again, disability is a huge spectrum. I have a huge amount of privilege. That makes my disability easier. Right? It’s a complex thing to talk about and unpack, and I don’t think that there’s any one approach or any one way that people should or shouldn’t do anything. So I just wanted to say that, it is really complex and intersections of class, race, gender, where you live, all these things, right.
Jessica Abel: Yes. And I think, people are allowed to feel bad, you know, there’s also the sense that. Tow the line, buckle down, do the thing, you can do this, blah, blah, blah. It was like, yes, but you’re also allowed to be angry. You’re also allowed to be sad about this.
And I think that when people try to not allow that, it’s a real problem.
Sarah Firth: Yeah. Yep. Resilience is important, but it’s also important to acknowledge that to have resilience requires certain conditions and characteristics of personality and, you some people are more optimistic. Some people are more depressive naturally, and that that’s another mix in there.
I’ll get very down about things, but then I have this part of me that gets cranky and I’m like, all right, screw them, screw this. Let’s just do it. And that, that is a personality characteristic of frustration and righteous anger or something that helps me. And I have a lot of energy as well.
Jessica Abel: I loved your story Unexpectedly Thriving about disability in lockdown. Like how, and what I liked about it was the contrast that you set up.
So There’s a sort of before and after, where it’s like, I, you know, the work that you do as, and this is something I was curious about, as a graphic recorder. I would think that as somebody, with some extra sensitivity would really trigger that. It’d be really difficult to be in this like really chaotic social environment, paying attention to all these different things.
And you say that. You say like, I I’ve had these ways of dealing with this. I figured out ways of dealing with this. But then during lockdown, you’re like, oh gosh, is this better? Oops. Yeah. This kind of feeling of like, almost feeling bad that it’s better.
Sarah Firth: Yeah. That’s so that’s something that I bring up in the comic and I have a few interviews with other disabled and deaf artists in there. In Australia, COVID has been difficult. Lockdown has been difficult. Nothing like what’s happened in the US, but it’s still been generally a really, really full-on hard time for everybody.
But for disabled people and also socially isolated people and neurodivergent people, many of us have actually found that working remotely has actually made our lives easier. And things are online.
So, instead of not being able to go to a concert, you can attend a concert from home. And you know, deliveries to your house and all these modifications that disabled people have been advocating for for years, suddenly happened.
And my experience of that was that, like you said, when I work on an event, because I have sensory processing sensitivities, people moving around, lots of sound, um, I absolutely max out. And so when I would do a graphic recording job, I would need to rest for a day or two afterwards because I would just be totally burnt out.
Whereas working virtually I didn’t have that. And I was a bit shocked.
And that was just a story of mine and also you other people who’d had similar experiences that I wanted to share.
And I use the analogy of how people are like houseplants. And we all have different needs. And one plant will totally thrive in burning hot sun and other plants thrive in a steamy bathroom in the dark.
And you can’t force or expect certain people to manage in certain contexts. And again, it’s about awareness.
And even when it comes to things like introvertedness, and extrovertedness, that aren’t necessarily neurological divergencies. Some people need people more often than others and you know, it’s figuring out what works for you and what doesn’t work for you is really important.
This episode of the Autonomous Creative is brought to you by Authentic Visibility. I work with a lot of committed mid-career creatives who struggled to get their work seen.
It feels crappy to put so much love and effort into making something, but when you introduce it in the real world, there’s a whole lot of nothing, as far as reaction. It’s truly awful.
And they’re not looking for attention because they’re, egomania. Art and creative work in general, exists to communicate some set of ideas or thoughts or emotions from you from inside your head to inside someone else’s head in as intact form as possible.
When you release your project and it goes up like a brilliant bunch of balloons disappearing into the clear blue sky with no one around to see or care, nevermind to pick their own balloon, to take home and treasure.
But the truth is most creatives in their natural state are frankly pretty terrible at telling anyone why they should care about the work.
Why should someone show up to get a pretty balloon?
It’s not their fault though.
It’s how we teach people to create their best work by digging deep inside ourselves, to come up with wonderful, original new ideas. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.
The problem is that’s where the process typically ends.
Creating, not communicating.
Virtually all the training and practice of making creative work focuses on the first half of the core mission of communication, getting those ideas out of your head and into some actual form that people can see. But that’s missing half the picture.
As a creative, it’s your job to build the whole complete connection. To build a bridge for the audience that they can use to easily cross over and understand the value of your work to them.
And this kind of clarity and audience focused language doesn’t come easy to creatives.
And that’s why I put together a free class specifically for creatives, ridiculously named how to get people wildly obsessed with your work.
And in it, I teach the key technique to flip your perspective 180 degrees, and start to use your audience’s point of view to inform how you share your work so that they’ll get it.
I also introduce our awesome program, Authentic Visibility, the audience growth program designed to turn highly skeptical and frankly marketing sensitive creatives into powerful advocates for their vision and their work, setting the stage for huge career growth and a major role in the larger cultural conversation.
So if you want your work to make its mark in the world, check out the free wildly obsessed class and supercharge your ability to connect with new fans in just 90 minutes. Go to Jessica abel.com/wildly and join the free class now.
That’s J E S S I C A A B E L.com/wildly.
Now let’s get back to the interview.
Jessica Abel: You mentioned that you briefly, fairly briefly, had a corporate day job and then left, right?
So you, after your accident, you’re like, I need stability. I need health insurance. I need whatever, got a job, then left the job.
Can you talk about how that played out for you? Because I know that there was a level of conscious decision making. Like this is not going to be good for me. It’s not going to function. And here’s why.
Sarah Firth: Yeah, after the car accident because I felt quite vulnerable I was like, I really need full-time work. I need you to get back on my feet. And so I worked as an operations assistant at a medical research Institute that’s very famous. And I was working nine to five, doing operations there. So, you know, operations of managing lab materials and processing and centrifuge calibration, stuff like that.
And after about six months, I was there for a year, but after about six months I just went, wow, this is going to destroy me. I can’t do this.
There were also issues with rampant workplace sexual harassment, which I write about in Drawing Power. Cause I worked in a technicians lab with 12 guys and I was the only 20-year-old woman and that wasn’t great.
But yeah, I realized that for the comfort that I got from having a salary, it took away too much of my, what’s the right word? Joie de vivre. Like it robbed me of my like energy and joy of life. And I just went, oh, I’ve got to figure out a different way to do this, or this will destroy my creative juice.
And so after that job, I did a thing called NEIS, which is the New Enterprise Incentive Scheme, which was run by the government, that was basically a really small grant for a year to try and help you set up a business. And also some really basic business training.
So I did that and I actually grew and sold plants. So growing fruit, vegetable plants, pot plants is a hobby, I love nature stuff. So I did that for sort of two years, and then I hit another wall of, wow, growing plants is very slow, and also, I really don’t like sitting at markets for two days a week just sitting. It was too slow. And also doesn’t make very good money.
So, then I was like, uh, what else can I do? Oh, I’m good at driving. I’ll know, I’ll drive trucks. So again, my system has been like, what are my skills? How does that fit into capitalism? What can I leverage? And just trying things.
Jessica Abel: I feel like that you’re like, okay, here’s skills that people will pay for, that I don’t hate or at least I don’t think I hate. Right. Here’s things that can turn into something.
And then here’s, now I’m going to test that. And then I’m like, no, it’s a no on this category, in this category. Do you have like a rubric? Do you have like a, like an actual checklist of some kind?
Sarah Firth: Yeah. I really like playing around with different visual planning tools. So for example, there’s a Japanese, Venn diagram that’s called ikigai, which is, you know, meant to be your kind of life’s purpose. And that’s got contribution, passion, income. So these different dimensions. And so I would use that quite a lot. Trying to see where the overlap was between skills and getting paid.
But I guess the method that I use more now is around impact and time. Because through graphic recording, I’ve realized that the main thing that you’re working with is deep stakeholder management of understanding what problem is there, and what value you can bring to help solve a problem for them.
Which to me is like very values driven.
And when you can help solve problems and help people with something, they are willing to pay for it in my experience.
And so with graphic recording a lot of that is around communication, clarity and distilling what’s being said.
And it’s actually really hard in an event to get everyone on the same page and understanding what was being said, remembering what was said. so the value of that is huge.
And also sharing that on social media and having an asset that can be printed as a poster. So people can continually re-engage with something that’s very important. Or creating transparency around decision-making and process. There’s lots of ways where graphic recording is really flexible as a tool, that can deliver a lot of value for clients.
So for me, it’s like how much value can I bring to something? And then also how much time can I buy back?
For example, I could work five days a week, earning $20 an hour and that’ll give me this amount of money.
Or I could do something that’s very values driven where I can charge more and buy back more of my time because I only have to work two days a week or something. So that’s this equation that’s like, really
Jessica Abel: Yeah, design this model, right? It’s designing the way this is going to work for you. And because your mission really is to make time. I mean, I know that you really care about graphic recording, but your mission is to do your stories, to write your work, put your books and so on.
So tell us a little bit about the book you’re working on.
Sarah Firth: I’m working on a graphic novel at the moment uh. Which is my debut graphic novel that I’ve been working on for six years now that is a philosophical piece looking at how do we make sense of the world today in, you know, in hyper complexity.
And it’s 12 essays that intersect looking at different facets of the world and life today and the sort of challenges and unexpected approaches to thinking about things. So it’s very much like asking questions and thinking.
Jessica Abel: It just seems so aligned with the way you’ve built your life. That you’re constantly questioning, you do things, you test, you, do you question, is this the right way to go? Is this working for me? How can I tweak and adjust this?
One of the things I loved seeing from you a few years ago was your, was your workbook, the untangle your brain and think on the page workbook, which I believe you made available for us, right.
Yeah. That was really great. Cause I do this stuff, like that’s, that’s what I teach. Right.
But then seeing this very different way of coming at it was really, really interesting in that, in that analytical brain that you apply to this, I don’t see that all the time in comics. But it makes perfect sense for the kind of work that you’re doing in comics, but also the kind of work that you’re doing, in graphic recording that you have to live interpret basically. Live analyze and synthesize stuff people are saying.
Cause I mean, you could, you could have an entire day long conference on a page essentially. In some cases.
Sarah Firth: Yeah. Yeah. And again, graphic recording as a practice is very performative, but it is also very strategic. because it’s not stenography. So stenography is, you know, the person in the courtroom taking every word down. Graphic recording is a broad synthesis and so when you listen you need to like, think about context, think about the agenda. And I don’t mean the agenda of the day, but it’s like, who is saying what and why? And what’s going to happen with this asset afterwards.
So you’re always thinking about the lens that you’re uh, that you’re working from and speaking to. And to me that’s a strategic mindset, if that makes sense.
Jessica Abel: Totally makes sense. All right.
So we need to wrap up pretty soon, even though we had that interruption, but thank you again for covering for me. I just feel so cared for.
So the thing I wanted to ask you, it’s a standard question, but it’s one that I always find so interesting is like, what would you tell a younger version of yourself?
What do you wish that you had known at the outset of this, or is the journey that the real mission?
Sarah Firth: I would just say to myself, keep going, you’ll get there. Or keep trying, you’ll figure out what works for you.
Or I would say the stuff that’s not working and the stuff that you think is bullshit or the stuff that you think is not so great, you might be onto something.
Jessica Abel: So trust yourself, trust your instincts.
Sarah Firth: Well, I actually am a bit, I’m a bit cautious with the trust yourself because we’re all masters of self-deception. But I do think that sometimes we go, this doesn’t feel right.
Jessica Abel: So how do we trust ourselves then? Like how can cause that’s, that’s what you’re saying. I think you’re right.
Like when you have that sense, you’re like, no. You have to learn to trust that, but how do you separate that from the self-deception piece?
Sarah Firth: That’s complex and lots of people will say that you can’t, but I also believe that intuition is a thing.
But I think that to me, intuition and gut feels are yet another input and so if you’re, if the decision you’re making really matters, I would look at what’s your gut impulse? What did you feel at the beginning? What have you thought after you’ve thought about it some more? What’s influencing you? You know, look at the big thing and kind of write it out. Think about it, talk about it.
If it’s something that doesn’t matter so much, if you’re sitting on a bus and you sit next to someone and you don’t feel safe, just move. You know what I mean? So there are times where, I feel like trusting your intuition and gut feel can be more spontaneous or not.
But also we’re all biased. We all have prejudices. We all have ways that we deceive ourselves and so I think that for me, the practice of writing every day and actually talking with myself helps me to see where, how I’m feeling doesn’t necessarily line up with what actually happened and kind of really getting real about that. And I do that with the utmost compassion. I’m not trying to make myself wrong or that I’m stupid. It’s more just like self-therapy.
Jessica Abel: Yeah. It’s another data point, right? It’s another piece of information that we need to bring into the mix. And maybe not, it’s not trust in the trust, but verify. Right.
Sarah Firth: again, it’s a, I think it’s a anthropology thing from this guy called Gertz, which is like, if you’re looking at other people, and this is applied to self. Which is like, look at what they say about themselves, look at what they say they do, but then look at what they actually do.
And I think you can do that with yourself. And in order to do that I feel like you, also need to talk to people close to you because often they will pick you up on your bullshit. And that’s really helpful as well. But again, like you need to have a certain level of self-love or confidence to do that without turning it into oh, I’m terrible.
And you know, that stuff is not helpful.
Jessica Abel: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. Um, so, I wanted to make a little time for some questions here. You talked about how social media actually became really useful for you. And I think it’s a thing that for a lot of creatives, like some people, if they don’t feel comfortable with it, they’re often look at it and think, there’s no. I don’t, I can’t do that.
That person’s different from me. They can do it, but I can’t do it. I don’t know how to do that. I don’t know what to do with it. And, Evie asked, did you experience any hate on social media and how did you deal with that?
I think that people fear, social media, fear being visible because that ability can bring, the randomness of other people.
Sarah Firth: So firstly I’ll say, I just enjoy social media, again, as a neurodivergent person it gives me a way to be social in a way that doesn’t completely burn me out. so It’s sort of a big part of my life naturally.
And I’m really interested in what other people are doing. I’m really interested in ideas and conversations. And because I guess my work is often asking questions, I really enjoy posing questions and then people responding.
And with hate online, yeah, it happens. And it’s hard and you just have to grow a thicker skin. And also be open to criticism and open to good dialogue– like I’m really open to good, robust, difficult dialogue, but only when it’s actually generative and useful. If it’s sort of punitive and weaponized or whatever, then I’m always very cautious.
Some people say, oh, don’t listen to any criticism, just do what you want. And I’m like, I don’t agree with that. Like often people will say something that I had not thought of or not considered and that was something that I didn’t know. And so I’m really grateful for, for that, you know.
But yeah, some people you just have to block cause they’re just being horrible and being trolls.
Jessica Abel: I think that like, feeling like it’s legit to block people, like it’s fine to have boundaries. It’s fine to log off and not pay attention. I mean, it, knowing that it is going to hurt a little bit.
I was talking about having kind of a plan, like, so if somebody says something hurtful, what are you going to do? What’s your action plan there? In terms of a blocking if you need to, but also getting support from people and getting emotional reinforcement.
Sarah Firth: Yeah. I mean, the biggest challenge with online dialoguing is that we all have zero idea about each other’s contexts, you know? So we’re missing huge amounts of information about why someone said what they said, where they’re talking from. Are they just really, really upset at the moment and it’s nothing to do with you? You know, so there’s all these like gaps there. And so, I sometimes, yeah, you just have to go, I don’t know why this person is saying this. and sometimes you might call a friend and be like, “Hey, do you know so-and-so and like, do you know where they’re at?” And sometimes just logging off, getting back to real world for a while is good.
Jessica Abel: Yeah. Think You mentioned one of your comments that I read over the last week or something it’s like putting your phone down, putting it away, logging off social media for awhile, and just the way it changes your interaction with the world. It’s worth knowing.
Sarah Firth: Absolutely. Yep. Yep.
Jessica Abel: And it’s the opposite Problem. I find with creatives where they’re just like, ah, it’s too scary. I don’t know what to do with it. I don’t know how to use it. And so, finding a way to not let that take over, I think is really important.
Sarah Firth: Yeah. Yeah. And also everyone uses social media differently. This is the thing, right.
And I get stupid criticism from people because I don’t just post my art. I’ll also post pictures of my cat and also you know, videos of me doing weight lifting. And occasionally people criticize me. It’s like, can you just post just art? Or can you just post like cats instead? And I’m like, look, this is me. This is what I do. If you don’t like it, just unfollow me.
Jessica Abel: And the weightlifting myself. Personally, I’m all over the weightlifting. I’m like, yeah, go Sarah.
Sarah Firth: Yeah. And I’m just like, I’m a real person. I like being a real person online. I mean, you know, that may have to change and shift. And I may decide to go offline. Or who knows? Who knows? But right now I’m trying to advocate for being an actual real person. You know, I’m just trying to resist the whole, like brand yourself, have a managed brand. Mainly because to me that makes it not very fun. So, I don’t wanna do it.
Jessica Abel: So there’s a bunch of questions about becoming a professional graphic recorder, which I’m going to actually just, you have a mini course, that I think would hopefully answer those getting your feet wet questions.
But then I wanted one more question, which is, there are several questions here about being on multi-passionate, which is kind of where we started everything. For me, I feel like I, I am 100% an advocate of picking a thing and pursuing that one thing.
But what I’m trying to say, I guess when I was asking this question earlier is that doesn’t mean you can’t incorporate different threads of your history in different media and whatever into that one thing.
But that pursuing one thing and having a clarity about that, I think is super, super helpful.
But so, one person asks, how can we best represent a multi-passionate quote unquote career on a resume.
Somebody else is asking, How can we avoid running the risk of crossing the line between professionals and hobbyists?
Anyway, the point being, you’ve got a messy history, like you have a history of doing lots of different things.
So how do you stand up and say like, no, this is what I’m doing right now. And all these things mean I do it better instead of, they mean I can’t do it. Do you know what I mean?
Sarah Firth: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’m going to come back to this thing I said at the beginning of the course, which is that identity is utility. And what I mean by that is you don’t have to show all your cards .
You don’t have to tell everyone everything that you do. Because in my experience, particularly in the professional realm, people want to know, are you this? And so I will try to talk to someone’s context of something that they understand and something that they can see the value of.
And again, the value piece is like, if you can demonstrate the value of a thing that you do, people get that, even if they don’t quite understand. Like graphic recording, a lot of people don’t understand what it is and how it works so you just have to build trust with clients and just do it and actually prove and demonstrate the value of it.
With representing yourself on a CV, again CVs are a functional tool. Who are you writing a CV for? What job are you applying for? You don’t need to list everything. You write a selected biography, a selected CV, and so you tailor it appropriately.
So for example, like at the moment, because of the kind of work that I’m doing, I don’t mention that I’m a sculptor. That’s irrelevant in the context that I’m working in. And then when people find out that I did that for eight years, they’re like, “oh what? wow!”
And I’ve also worked as an animator for Comedy Central, and I don’t mention that because it’s not relevant right now. But it doesn’t mean that I don’t have those skills and I didn’t do that. And I might bring that card out again and talk about it, if I’m trying to get more animation work.
Jessica Abel: Yes. Absolutely. Yeah. That’s what I’m trying to get at is like focus on one thing, you know what you’re doing right now, you, you narrow in based on what your goals are for now and take all these, you know, take whatever you need out of your history.
Sarah Firth: and also prioritizing. Even if you have like 10 things that you love doing, there will be priorities at certain times. So for example, if you are really wanting to earn more money, you might prioritize the thing that makes more money and work with that for five years. And then once that sort of thing is done, you might shift back into other stuff.
Jessica Abel: No, I think that’s right. It’s like looking at all of these things as your tool bag, like this is your history, this is what you get to draw, and this is what is going to make sense and then just use it as you want to.
So I think we should wrap things up here. Thank you, Sarah. It’s been a pleasure.
Sarah Firth: Thanks so much for having me and thanks everyone for joining us and for your great questions. And I wish you all the best with your creative work and lives.
Thank you so much for joining us today for the Autonomous Creative.
Our show is produced by Matt Madden. Our production coordinator is Lousine Boyakhandjyan, and our production assistant is Rhiannon Sunday. Music is by Matt Madden. And I’m your host, Jessica Abel.
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