The Mentor Chapter Sixteen – A note of thanks

May 7, 2023

We are familiar with the idea of exhibitions as places filled mostly with pictures and objects, but sometimes a curator will also place correspondence at the heart of things. The next thing I would like to share with you therefore is a simple note of thanks. I have written this as if it were a letter to my younger self, but it is definitely a letter of thanks and not of advice. Sometimes we are a little too quick to assume we must advise younger people with less experience than ourselves, when in reality we have so much to learn from them too.

Dear Paul,

I am a little sad that you didn’t have this letter when you needed it most, when doubt overwhelmed you and when your confidence poured away. I wish I had been around to sit with you and to tell you that it would be ok. I am sorry I was not there. But you did indeed do ok my friend, and I am proud of how you coped. I see now that you had everything you needed, even then.

You are still with me every day. That feeling of wanting to step away from the crowd, of having a constant anxiety about fitting in, and of believing you have nothing important to say – none of this has changed or got easier. I may have thirty-plus years more experience than you, but the person I am now is still recognisably you. The one certainty of aging is that while we grow older on the outside, we still feel the same on the inside. Some things just don’t change however old and gnarly and apparently wise we become. I will always be you – and grateful for this too.

Whatever insecurities and weaknesses we have, they are ours for a reason; each is a gift and they are all uniquely ours. When we are young our weaknesses and insecurities are something to hide and deny, but if our life is like a canvass, then using all the colours we have been given is essential if we are to create the most meaningful, important and cherished painting, and one that tells our whole story.

You hid your insecurities far too well, but what you were feeling was never something to hide and has become a deep and precious well of empathy and insight to draw on. Our weaknesses and insecurities help us to know how others might feel who are hiding part of themselves too. When we bring that understanding of ourselves out of hiding for others to see, the little miracle that happens is how much easier it is to help friends and colleagues who have not yet learned to value their own insecurities. Perhaps the reality is that there is no such thing as “imposter syndrome”, but perhaps there is such a thing as “pretending-we-don’t-have-imposter-syndrome syndrome”.

However, I do not want this to be one of those letters that simply tells my younger self what I know now that I wish I had known back then. Instead, I want this to be a letter thanks for what you, my younger self, have taught me and still teach me every day.

The first thing, and something I reflect on often, is that you taught me not to stay too long in any role. You moved when it felt right for you to move even when others cautioned you to stay. You moved to learn, to explore and to trust the adventure. A career is a privilege that will be full of gifts and opportunities, and if travel broadens the mind, so a career of changing roles and trying different things, encourages us to learn and grow. Our purpose is to make our difference in our way, and not to unconsciously follow the well-worn path, or worse to dwell in what might become comfortable complacency.

Moving on also helps us to realise how imperative it is that we hold our identity and values distinctly from the places we work. We should align with our work, but not embody it. You have shown me that we should never feel so valuable that we cannot be replaced, or feel so insecure that our gifts will not be welcome elsewhere. Confidence can be a fickle friend, but we will always have the opportunity to learn, grow and to make our mark wherever we are and whatever our role. Remember we always have our beautiful bag of gifts and talents, and we take it with us wherever we go.

I also want to thank you for your quiet contribution in groups and meetings, even when you knew that some people assumed you had little to say, and others did not even notice you were there. You knew that only saying what needed to be said was far more important than just saying something to fill a gap or to speak over others. You also knew that you had to be true to your introvert self and to find your way to make your contribution. Thanks to you, I realise how much more important it is to be someone who people want to listen to, rather than someone known for having a lot to say. You were the one who showed me how to influence quietly. It is something I see in others too, and thanks to you I can encourage those who do not wish to talk loudly or occupy the centre stage, to value what they offer and to help them find their way to be heard.

I see how you noticed that the first person to speak was often the first person to stop listening. As I have got older, the importance of listening has become even more obvious and precious. We live in a broadcast world where our loud truth can be used to silence others. To listen well however undermines nothing we believe in; indeed to listen well is to be confident about our own thoughts and feelings, and makes listening a generous gift for others who may not feel heard. It is also the best way to learn how and why other people feel what they do, and to realise how everything becomes a little easier when we are noticed and heard.

You showed me that to be a great follower is an act of kindness, and that to lead or manage someone is a precious act of followership if the leader is dedicated to the needs of others. You were also clear however that following well is different to being an unthinking cheerleader. Standing slightly apart, but nevertheless supporting, means we can be a critical friend and be true to ourselves. We must not let our organisations groom us to become compliant observers of their expediency. If the desire to fit in and to be accepted means we also lose sight of who we are and what we stand for, we diminish the opportunity for us to make our difference and we risk trading our values for status and money.

You have given me everything I needed to get me this far and I will always be grateful for the first steps you took that got me to here. This reflection is one I think may apply to everyone, because each day as I get older I see how we have far more to learn from those more junior and less experienced than ourselves. We rightly value experience, but there is such wisdom, courage, determination and creativity in everyone.

Grades, titles and hierarchies should never stop us listening and learning from anyone placed temporarily below us or make us unthinking and unchallenging about anyone placed temporarily above us.

Thank you. Take care. Paul xx

To be continued…

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