This blogpost takes a different turn from the usual watch industry rants I make – I’ve been holding off on writing this as I wasn’t sure if I’d be drawing the wrong kind of attention to my platform – but given the sombre genre of daily content we’re seeing at the moment, I thought it would be a nice change of pace to share a positive experience, raise awareness on a topic that is widely misunderstood, and also show that there is more to the online watch community than sipping Negronis, Private Jets and Leica cameras. This platform has always been about sharing my experiences and journey in the world of watches.
Before I head right into this, I’d like to clarify that this post only represents my own experiences; I am not speaking on behalf of others – as every autistic person has individual experiences and traits. I haven’t publicly disclosed this before, and only a very few select people are aware that I’m autistic. My inspiration for writing this was from a piece on BBC news, highlighting the experiences of Eloise Stark– a psychiatry Doctorate at Oxford University.
When I was 14 years old, I was diagnosed with a high-functioning form of autism which was then called Asperger’s. In more recent years, the diagnosis for Asperger’s has fallen under what is now understood as the Autism Spectrum. The reason for this is because there isn’t a single ‘catch-all’ definition for those diagnosed with autism as there is a broad variation of the traits exhibited by an autistic person. A quick google search will explain that it’s a developmental disorder characterised by difficulties in social interaction and nonverbal communication, along with restrictive/repetitive patterns of behaviour and interests. I’m not a fan of adding the word “disorder” because it instantly has negative connotations or suggests that something is wrong with someone – this was a belief that I held when I was first diagnosed and it had a heavy presence in my early life and didn’t really subside until I got into my later teenage years and I became more educated on the subject. Though most of these terms are used in medical terminology so it’s a bit difficult to avoid.
It’s a tricky topic to cover around as everyone has a unique trait or method of expressing themselves. Some people might struggle with eye contact, loud noises or physical interactions – these are just a few basic examples amongst a very long list of traits.
A common autistic trait is developing something known as a ‘special interest’. This is where an individual become especially transfixed on one or a few subjects. In my case, the special interest I’ve developed is the topic of watches. I’d like to think that it’s the pursuit of this special interest over the last few years that has helped my personal development and helped me overcome a lot of challenges I’ve faced. I use my interest of watches to provide context to unfamiliar scenarios.
During my childhood, I would only talk about niche topics that were interesting to me – a rather polarising concept when trying to have discussions in the playground since the boundaries of “fitting in” are very narrow to the average teenager. I didn’t care for sports or music and I would hole myself up in the school library during breaks and that’s where I spent most of my free time. It came to the point where I broke the school’s record for reading the most books – something I don’t think has been beaten since I’ve left (a very weird brag)
My classroom behaviour would have also been considered disruptive since I had my own way of doing things or I would get visibly flustered if something didn’t go my way – I was probably a bit of a pain to my teachers.
I would win one of these bad boys every year and I would cringe from the embarrassment of standing in front of the whole school when receiving them
I think a pivotal moment of my life was meeting my mentor – who incidentally was the person who introduced me to horology. I had a quiet demeanour in general, but whenever I sat with my mentor, I would be a lot more energetic and expressive. I would always share my latest projects and crazy ideas, and he would encourage me to open up and share my achievements with others.
If you take a look at my work, you’ll notice that I focus in the area of high-end independent horology. As a school student in the East-End of London, that’s not something that is particularly accessible in general. I was obsessed with watches and I wanted to figure out a way to get closer to that world. It’s this obsession that helped me overcome the stigmas that applied to me in most other aspects of life.
The first instance of doing this was when I cold-emailed the head of a British watchmaking company called Richard Hoptroff at the age of 15. I would never have thought of reaching out to anyone randomly, but I was really fascinated by his work on atomic clock wristwatches. I naively reached out asking for a summer work placement so I could learn more about his work – disregarding the fact that his area of expertise was quantum physics and advanced engineering. Richard got back and politely explained that there were no positions he could offer, but he suggested to stay in touch – which I gladly did.
I think a ‘prototypical’ person would have realised that I had absolutely no qualifications to send such an email, but my eagerness to learn more about horology meant that the thought never crossed my mind. This has proven to be a strength of mine as I’ve been willing to take bold actions without overthinking the outcome. Whilst this can also be interpreted as ‘act before you think’ – I can say that I’ve since hundreds of such interactions with people and through extensive trial and error (mostly error) I’ve learned how to carefully word requests and be a bit more self-aware when reaching out. I think what has helped me is that every time I reach out to a new person, it’s done with sincerity and I demonstrate that I’ve genuinely done my research and that I have interest in someone’s work. I think people can see that I have an amateur platform, but I also put a lot of care and effort into the work I do, which makes me come across as more approachable. I suppose it’s a change of pace from other platforms in the watch industry who are seem unapologetically driven by exposure, hype and balance sheets. I don’t need an ulterior motive simply because I really don’t have an interest in anything else – this transparency has helped me build genuine relationships with people in the watch industry.
I find myself having to work extra hard to interact with people in an ‘organic’ way. Whilst it’s perfectly normal to be shy, I find myself calculating every aspect of an ordinary interaction so that I can come across as normal. I’ll often run a simulation of conversations in my mind beforehand and pay extra attention to my body language. I struggle with eye-contact and fidgeting and so I have a mental metronome that reminds me to glance at someone’s eyes and clench my fists so that so that I’m not flapping my hands around or cross my legs so I’m not shaking them. It’s this process of over-calculating that leads to a lot of anxiety and uses lots energy. So I feel exhausted by having a relatively simple conversation.
When at watch events or conventions, I can overcome these traits because I’m interacting with like-minded individuals and I’m focused on a single subject area. I learned very quickly that in order to get access to the watches I was interested in, I needed to interact with the people behind them.
This doesn’t quite work outside of horology based scenarios and sometimes when I’m sitting down with someone, I often go on a tangent about watches and the person I’m with becomes visibly irritated. I remember one such instance during a final interview for a very competitive internship. I passed all the aptitude tests and team exercise rounds and when I was finally sitting down with a junior partner of the firm and a member of HR, I accidentally went on a ramble about watches. When I received feedback from my recruitment advisor, I was told that whilst I came across as a strong candidate overall, I used up the valuable interview time talking about watches which meant that the interviewers didn’t get the chance to know me as a person and it was distracting. This was a valuable experience as it meant I had to be extra self-aware of how I come across during such a scenario, but also use my passion as something to set me apart.
An example of how I overcame this was when I had a business school interview with the Dean of the school. I left high school with terrible grades – something that most reputable institutions won’t even look at. I submitted an application under extenuating circumstances which eventually resulted an interview with the Dean (it was a small, but respected school). When I came to talk about myself, I used watches as context. But instead of going on a ramble, I talked about how an Alumni of the school was actually the CEO of a watch brand who I was friends with– which is what got me interested in the school’s bachelor’s curriculum and set a precedence to my application. I was also wearing the Vertex M100 at the time, which I was reviewing. I used that watch as a distinct business case study to the Vertex brand and their unique marketing strategy to stand out in a very saturated field. Instead of viewing my special interest as a weakness in this scenario, I applied it as a strength, and it helped me be more genuine instead of trying to fit the generic template of an ideal candidate. My unique way of thinking is an asset as I have a more creative way of approaching problems and offering solutions. I ended up with an unconditional offer as well as a partial scholarship as a result – though I ultimately skipped university and went straight into work.
In the workplace
It’s hard for me to focus on non-horology related subjects. I came across this when I first started working in a professional workplace. The transition to being in school all my life and then to a work environment was a deep culture shock – something that took me a while to grasp. However, I was very fortunate to be part of a team that was accepting of my autism and even supportive of my interests. I slowly learned to utilise the energy I was willing to invest pursuing horology into my daily job. If I was willing to travel to Switzerland and sit through 36 meetings, interacting with over a hundred people over three days at Baselworld, then I can also figure out how to transfer that energy into my work. The skillsets I’ve developed to weave through with the international watch industry are definitely transferable to my job.
I think the open dialogue also improved team dynamics quite a bit. You spend more time with your work colleagues than any other group of people in your life – and there will inevitably be ups and downs. The communication side becomes more seamless and helps develop interpersonal and professional relationships – almost like a workplace family. (And yes, that sounds like corporate jargon, but team dynamics make a massive positive impact to how I approach tasks). Ultimately, when facing challenging situations, I’m proud to face those challenges with a team who has supported me so much.
Taking time out to focus on my hobby was something I appreciated even more, and I use my holidays at work to travel to international watch events – such as my trip to Singapore for the Patek Philippe anniversary exhibition. I see these holidays as treats that help me release a bit of steam.
I often come across as blunt with the way I say things – sometimes described as snarky and inconsiderate. It’s always been difficult for me to gauge how to interact with someone, sometimes I just need a bit more time and understanding to process casual conversations. If I’m in a group setting and someone says something to make everyone laugh, I’ll join the laughter and quietly repeat the joke under my breath so that I understand the context. Sometimes I’ll say something brazen without properly thinking about the consequences. As a result, I find myself apologising dozens of times on a daily basis. I’m not going to get my comments right every single time – as is the case with virtually everyone. But the friends I’ve made in my time exploring the world of watches have helped me be more reflective of my comments. I recently made public statements that were incorrect – those statements were fuelled by emotion instead of logic and reasoning. The feedback I received form those around me was to take a step back and breathe before I go on a tantrum.
Interacting with people
That leads me to talk about interacting with people. I’m somebody who will generally struggle with the idea of meeting new people. But the world of horology is immensely diverse and international. Whilst I might have difficulties meeting like-minded people in East London, there is a global network of watch enthusiasts that I can interact with, which more than compensates. Over the years of meeting hundreds of people in the watch world, I’ve built a network of individuals whom I can call my friends. I can be in any major international city, from Hong Kong and Singapore to New York and LA, and I will know a handful of people to hang out with and just relax. Likewise, London is an international city and every month loads of people pass through, which means that I can catch up over a coffee or lunch. It’s during these interactions that I’m able to loosen up and veer away from just talking about watches. Everyone has their own unique experiences to talk about and I can learn about new things and explore other areas of interest or just talk a whole load of nonsense (which is incredibly fun). I’ve slowly learnt to apply this when meeting people who don’t have any interest in watches.
Another note is that I’m really awkward when it comes to physical interaction. I’m fine with handshakes, but whenever someone I’ve just met tries to hug me I awkwardly pat them on the back as a response. I remember spending an enjoyable weekend with someone I had just met and as we were parting they reached out for a hug, to which I swerved them and shook their hands instead (I registered a look of confusion on their face). There’s this particular way of greeting which involves a light kiss on the cheeks – common in Europe. I’ve always found this a bit odd and whenever someone greets me like that, I find myself wincing every time. I think I’ve gotten better at hugs, but the cheek thing is going to be a long-term work in progress.
That leads me to the media portrayal of high functioning autism. The type you’ll likely be familiar with Savant syndrome. The savants you’ll have seen are portrayed in films such as Rain Man and Ben Affleck’s The Accountant – these tend to give a romanticised portrayal that autistic people happen to be some sort of genius mathematicians or have immensely high IQ. Savants represent a small fraction of the autistic population and the reality is that there is so much more individualism and diversity than a lot of people think. I’d like to state that I’m terrible with maths.
I grew up with an overall portrayal that having autism meant there was an inherent flaw with a person; so much to the point where calling someone autistic was thrown as an insult – something that would make my gut wrench every time I would hear or see it. This stigma is what kept me quiet about disclosing my autism to others. Even to this day, it’s something that I’m grasping and my coping mechanism has been to be more honest and transparent with myself and to those around me.
I quoted Eloise Stark at the beginning of this post because she summarised her experiences with something that I found inspiring: “learning to be authentic and just be me”. Being able to have people acknowledge who you are without going out of their way to make you feel different is a liberating feeling. I’ve come a long way in personal development from when I was first diagnosed. I remember getting into a heated interaction with someone who said “You’re not autistic because my brother is autistic and you’re not like him” and the frustration came from trying to explain that everyone is different. I firmly believe that the more conversation that is had, the more understanding people will have. I will still continue to be that oddball that many of you have come to known and I will continue to use my quirks as my strengths. I want to thank everyone who has helped me come this far.