I have placed two letters in this exhibition so far – a note of thanks to my younger self and a reflection on leadership. I would now like to place a third and final letter in the exhibition, and this one is the most important of the three. It is for all the people it has been my privilege to mentor, but I would also like it to be read as a gentle encouragement for anyone who might need a little support and care.
Before I place the letter in the exhibition however, I would like to take you back a few years to a connection I made with two other members of my wonderful LBCambridge Faculty. I first “met” Martin Shovel on Twitter, noticing his political cartoons and how they were an outlet for his grumpy frustrations (and mine too). I dug a little deeper and found his Guardian articles on rhetoric and then I saw how with Martha Leyton they were speechwriters for some extraordinary people in public life.
I sat with the thought for a long time that their work and wisdom might play a part in my work too, but I didn’t really know how. In my world there aren’t that many makers of formal speeches and even fewer cartoonists. However, I knew there would be something special to find and I felt compelled to meet them. Without a plan or a proposal to share, I didn’t want to waste their time, so noticing from Martin’s Twitter feed that he was also a vocal Arsenal fan, I invited them both to a match. I hoped this would mean they would have a good afternoon even if we might not have an idea to discuss!
Meeting anyone in real life for the first time, when the only connection before has been online, is always odd, but thankfully they were reassuringly the embodiment of their Twitter timelines. Martha is the kind, gentle and measured guiding influence. Her wisdom is soft, principled and generous. It is offered unconditionally and with a quiet grace and care. Martin zigzags between ranty philosopher, music hall gag-man and a word-chef relishing every letter and sound a sentence can make. He has the tone of Alan Rickman, the acerbic observations of Woody Allen and the pathos of an old labrador.
Martin is the chilli heat, Martha is the cooling yogurt, and the combination is perfect.
We met and I loved them, but I still wasn’t sure how we could work together. Sometimes an idea will come in an instant; other times, while we know there is something precious to find, we just have to give it time to be revealed. Then slowly but surely, and having tried a couple of things, we found the key to unlocking something wonderful. It feels obvious and natural now, but it needed to be found in its own way and in its own time. We all have a story to tell, a story that is ours and for the world. Martha and Martin help us to find our stories and then help us to tell them well.
And so, to the last letter in the exhibition.
My dear friend,
Thank you for the opportunity to be a mentor for you, to spend time with your thoughts and to sit quietly with your hopes.
I have learnt over the years that we all have our long list of ongoing and unmet needs, and we all have our hopes and fears that are the ever-present motorcycle outriders to escort our needs wherever we go. We live in strange times when it is possible to feel disconnected in a world of connection, and unnoticed in a world where everyone can see everything. It is so important therefore that we use the gifts we bring into this world to make our difference, so we may feel connected and seen. I hope that mentoring will always be part of how we do this.
Mentoring starts by understanding that being an adult is no more than the armour we place around the child within us.
Our armour is necessary and important protection, but we must try not to hide the child completely, because it is the child within who is always the best of us. This child is alive with creativity and possibility, hope and kindness. This child is generous and open, and will always want to shine. This child will never be uncomfortable to share feelings, seeking care and shelter when sad or alone, and able to bounce back from disappointment if supported, encouraged and loved. These are not adult skills, but what we learn from listening to our child within.
If we wear too much armour however, we stifle the child and we become just a grown-up shell of our potential and a speaking avatar of our synthesised needs. If we let the armour become too heavy to wear, the world will never see the difference we might make or the joy we might share. We must try to wear only the armour we need.
It has been a privilege to mentor you, to hear your stories, sometimes said out loud for the first time, and it has been an honour to hold the hand of your child within. I have learnt so much from you and I continue to draw on the grace and kindness you have shown to me. You have enriched my world and I am forever grateful.
Mentoring however doesn’t stop when the conversation ends. When we learn to notice the child within, we can be guided forever by our true and authentic selves.
As grown-ups we learn to treat our vulnerability as weakness which we then try to hide behind our adult armour. But the child within wants the story to be told; and when it is, our vulnerability is no longer a weakness and becomes a new facet of what makes us real and special. It is like having extra colours in our palette of life experiences that we can use to create even more vivid pictures of our potential and contribution.
In case you think I might have gargled on some hippy-shit liqueur, I do not live in a world where if we think nice thoughts, nice things always happen. On the contrary, life can make it challenging and uncomfortable to be us, but pretending we can hide our vulnerabilities, means we carry them as extra weight and they hold us back.
Children love stories. They will sit enraptured by characters and storylines of implausible adventures; and no matter how often they are repeated, they will always find an unfiltered joy and inspiration in the tales they are told. When we tell our stories, we speak to the child in every one of us. When we listen to the stories others tell us, we become more invested in their triumphs and their struggles; we want them to overcome their problems and concerns, and we want them to celebrate their wins. Even more than this, their stories allow us to see ourselves and situations more clearly, more kindly and more hopefully, and they offer us encouragement to deal with our worries too.
To tell our story therefore is not a self-indulgent or self-regarding act. It is the way humans have always passed on their wisdom and made their struggle real. At one level, it is how we help others understand us better, to support us more and to value what we bring. But even more important than this, it is how we can help others find comfort and inspiration in their worlds too. It is our duty to tell our story, speaking from the child within us, to the child within everyone else.
Mentoring is a drop of kindness that will pay forward forever. We never forget the people who helped us, who listened when we felt unheard, and who saw when we felt unseen. We never forget how mentoring helped us to move on and to trust in ourselves again. And because we never forget, we are attuned to the struggle in others. Mentoring is always paid forward, passing on our forever stories so that they can find the need in others too.
Mentoring is a thread that connects so many people. It is a thread that starts with listening to our child within, to then encouraging our stories to be told, and to making those stories a gift of kindness for others to reflect on, learn from and grow.
Thank you for all you have given to me. Thank you for all you will give to others too.
Take care. Paul xx
To be continued…