Seeking Out The Way Forward

Note: This is, by far, the most personal (and therefore most difficult) blog post I’ve ever written. There are some ‘professional’ acquaintances who’ve advised me that I really didn’t need to write it, even that it might harm me professionally if I write it. However, whilst I respect their viewpoints, I feel that it is necessary for me personally. Also, to write it is to acknowledge that what I do and what I am is not just some sort of corporate role.
Educators have a very personal relationship with others, be it the students, their parents or the staff and people we mentor along the way. Educators are not cold and unfeeling, but give something of themselves and are very personally invested. Educators are also not superheroes, but men and women with their own vulnerabilities, their own internal dialogues of questions, doubts and introspections That’s one of the reasons why, so often, it’s referred to as more of a calling than a job.
So, for better, or for worse, I’ve written it. Big intake of breath, here goes ……

You know that old saying about other people’s opinions not defining us and how we’re all supposed to pay no heed to what others think of us?

Do I believe it? I want to.

Do I live it? No.

Do any of us, really?

That was a rhetorical question – I don’t have a clue what the answer is. Am I in a camp of one, or are we all just convinced that we’re winging it, one step away from being called out as a fraud at any moment? One step away from being found out as the Emperor strutting down the street in his birthday suit.

Not only have I had to confront and acknowledge that my decisions are very swayed, even driven, by what others think, but also most of the time professionally my assumptions have been that others’ views of me were not very complementary. I don’t know whether or not it became easier to deal with this when I learned that it had a real name – “Imposter Syndrome.”

I really don’t know the extent to which others experience imposter syndrome. There are frequently reports written that suggest it’s far more prevalent than most realise, the hidden bulk of the iceberg below the water that few acknowledge openly and out loud. This is especially the case as, it seems, from the reported evidence that it’s far more prevalent for people in senior roles and that the more people rise in their careers the greater its manifestation. It also becomes obvious that in such circumstances as a person rises in their career, it becomes harder and harder for them to openly admit to this complex to others around them. Certainly, that’s how it’s long felt for me. There’s nothing worse to me than the thought that on telling those around, “I feel inferior and lacking in the skills and competencies of my role,” to be answered with, “Well, now you mention it, here’s the list of all the ways we also think you’re lacking and inadequate.”

To ‘the victim’ it feels like you’re sitting on a fragile pile of cards, that one good gust of wind from the wrong direction can send you tumbling and throwing you in to a very visible and fully justified humiliating heap. Almost anything could bring it all down and reveal you for what you truly were all along.

Like me, I think most closet imposters are able to keep enough of a lid on it, to find escapes for their anxiety and the stress and to get on with their jobs, even to give all the impressions externally of being self-assured, confident and clear in their convictions and what they’re doing. In fact, if you can’t do that you’re unlikely to reach or sustain a high position for any length of time. So, maybe all imposters at high level are practicing effective coping skills. But, this does come with a heavy price – the continual stress, anxiety and the doubts that hold you back from chasing the best opportunities or fulfilling your true, full potential. Just squeaking by isn’t much of a way to go on.

Many years ago, when living in New Delhi and being Director of a Group with over 4,000 pupils, I wrote that my biggest responsibility in managing my own life was balancing the priorities and interests of those 4,000+ children with one child – my own child, my son – Thomas.

Those who know me well know that just over a year ago I lost Thomas, my son, in tragic circumstances. For nearly five years I had lived and strived as a single parent. So, suddenly in a moment my whole world was turned upside down. Thomas was 16 and in so many ways, my life revolved around him. I’m not going to claim I got everything right – parenting is one of those responsibilities where perfection is impossible and the best anyone can say is that they strive to be the best they can each day, to learn and to endeavor to be a bit better the next day.

There is no question this has been the biggest test of my life. Over the last 13 months my emotions and feelings have gone on the most gut-wrenching roller coaster ride you could ever imagine. There have been times of anger, woeful self-pity, optimism that is suddenly overturned and plunged in to the depths of pessimism.

Many times I saw hope in immersing myself in past loves, including writing posts for this blog. However, every time I sat down to write a voice in my head would say things like, “People are going to see you for the fraud you always were. They will denounce you. How can you advise or counsel anyone about anything to do with children when you couldn’t protect your own one single child?”

The result is that whatever sense of imposter syndrome I had before has been magnified massively. It feels like the moment I stick my head above the parapet, I will be there to be shot at. That instead of being able to do some good and bring something of value, I will be the subject of sniggering, derision and even disdain.

As a result, even this post has been written, re-written, deleted and begun again more times than I can count. As I sit here writing now I still don’t have any idea if I’ll have the courage to finally publish and press the button.
In recent weeks, as a result of some reading, things heard in podcasts etc. I have had two significant thoughts that may enable me to finally move on here;

1. The first is that after writing nothing on this blog for well over a year, there’s every possibility that when I finally press the button and publish this post ……….. nobody will even notice. We can all make the mistake of believing that people are paying far more attention to us, our actions (or inactions), our motives etc. than they really are.
So, I might feel like I’m bearing my soul and publicly admitting to my vulnerability and fears about being a fraud and an imposter, and nobody even notices.

2. Maybe the bigger revelation – or at least it was in some way revelatory for me – is best encapsulated by the youngsters’ online saying, “haters gonna hate.”
For anyone who seeks to produce anything in the world, however much they strive to perfect it, there will be those people for whom it doesn’t work. There will be people who either have an issue with the person, the message, the means by which it’s communicated etc.
You really can’t please all the people all the time – and that’s OK. Nobody ever achieved any measure of success in any creative arena if they set out to produce something (or to be someone) to appeal to everyone. The fact is that some of the most highly regarded creative works in the world are rejected, scoffed and sneered at by some.
I went on to the Amazon website and looked up some of the most successful and highly regarded books published. By way of examples, the novel ‘The Da Vinci Code’ has 11% 1-star ratings, The Handmaid’s Tale has 16% 1 and 2-star ratings. The Secret – 12% 1-stars,. Even the Bible, the Koran and the Bhagavad Gita (in no particular order) had between 5 and 18% 1 and 2-star ratings.

So, I need to get some realism. There are surely already those in the world who never needed me to have a dead son to decide they don’t like me, what I stand for, my views and approaches on education or even the colour of the shirts I wear. And that’s Ok. It’s their right. I never wrote for everybody and I never will. And i can’t live my life on the basis that I need to please everybody all the time

The fact is that everything that’s happened has not put out the light or diminished my drive and enthusiasm to bring about some real change in education. Change that can help to ensure that the school and learning experience meets more of the needs of more children more of the time. If I can make even the tiniest scratch, it’s good for every person impacted, even good for the world and good for me along the way.

And if there are some people who want to reject me or my writings, especially because I’m an educator who couldn’t protect his own child and keep him alive in this world, that’s OK.

But, I will write – quite possibly profusely (the dam may be about to break and I’ll discover a flood had built up ready to gush. I will write because it’s the right thing for me to do. I’ll also write because I think it’s what Thomas would want me to do. Will I magically be free of the sense of being an imposter? I doubt it very much. My only hope is that the more I work and write anyway, the less those feelings will be relevant or matter.

Thomas, from now onwards this blog is dedicated to you and your memory. You were a wonderful young man. Sensitive, caring and with a fierce sense of justice, right and wrong and how the world ought to be. Your passing has revealed the frequency with which others looked to you as a person to reach out to, a person who would care, a listener ready to do whatever you could to lighten their burden a little. The quality of a life is more significant than the quantity. You, my son, were a quality human who lived a short quality life. I love you, my son.

22 Responses

  1. Dear Mark,
    I too have lost a child and completely understand your blog. And for the record, your thoughts and musings inspired me to start my blog and I have borrowed from your thinking in my own writings. I can honestly tell you that you have changed the way I communicate. As a former Theatre director who is now a school director, I also understand the imposter syndrome, but perhaps, because I come from a world of pretence, I accept it more! I applaud your courage, your committment and your love for Thomas. I also thank you for your influence on my leadership and my school. There is nothing wrong with being an imposter sometimes, it is part of life. But to me, you are and will always be the real thing.


    • Tim,
      Thank you so much for your kind words and for sharing that we have experienced a common heartbreak (a club where none would wish to join us). I remember our first contact a few years ago when you were taking your first steps in to blogging. I remember you kindly sent me a wonderful book on Stuttgart.. By the way, your blog looks great.
      As i get back to mine, it needs a major overhaul on the look and feel, navigation etc. That’s on the agenda for the next few months, particularly as I’m about to undergo a big transition to more of a consultancy role.
      Thanks again.

  2. Sorry to hear about your son.

    I have known you as an administrator in New Delhi and I have respect for your thoughts and ideas about education. At that time, you were a parent too but I didn’t and I don’t think anyone tried comparing your two roles in life.

    The professional and personal domains of our lives are different and can not be compared. Would an actor by profession be expected to be the best actor to his family?

    Keep writing. There are many readers of your posts like me who love to read the posts without judging you beyond them. All this is a phase and it too shall pass.

  3. The quality of a life is more significant than the quantity. This indeed is what makes us humans sensitive and empathetic, the values and the compassion, the care and the concern all come to add to the ‘quality’, read every line, many thanks.

  4. A beautiful read, inspiring too.

  5. Dear Mark,
    Reading this blog both Sunil and I are in deep shock.
    We are sorry for your loss.
    Please accept our most deepest and sincere condolences. May Thomas’s soul rest in peace.
    Would it be possible for you to share your number?

    Sent from my iPhone

    • Poonam,
      Thank you to you and Sunil for your kind thoughts. Best wishes to you and the family.

  6. Dear Mr. Mark,

    I am a regular follower of your blogs and was wondering why are you not writing from a long time.. I met you a couple of years back in the inaugration ceremony of GD Goenka School in Sharjah. I would like to extend my heartfelt condolense over the demise of your’s the most difficult thing a parent can have in this world..but I am pretty sure that you are a man of covinction and perseverance and you will definitely overcome with this tragedy and find your way forward…
    I would request you to keep writing and enlightining us with your thoughts..belive me it’s of much value to many educators and students around… and I’m one of them…
    May the Almighty makes things easy for you….

  7. A really courageous step to take! I admire your strength and resilience. Take care of yourself.

  8. Dear Mark,

    Writing such an honest piece is sincerely brave. Everyone of us to a point is an imposter or at least feels that way. Thomas however, was not. His loss, more than a year later is deeply felt by all of us at school. He was transparent in all he did, what you got was very genuine, very much real. We all make mistakes, nobody is perfect but his core was rock solid goodness. Nothing I say will take away the absolute pain you feel as a parent but you need to know that Thomas’s goodness grew from the love and respect you had for each other. This in my book makes you less of an imposter than at times you might feel. Thomas would be very proud of how you have opened up and that you are writing again. For my part your words have hit home hard and I thank you.

    • Richard
      Thank you for your generous words. Thomas was indeed a good young man.
      Thanks again

  9. It takes immense courage and integrity to besmirch self and speak the truth. You have gone out of the way to do so, being in a position of power and prestige. Moreover, you are the one who realized and identified this thing called imposter syndrome. Many of us would have lived with this syndrome all through our lives even without realising. I think this is just awesome. Your courage will convince and inspire your pupils and a lot many other people like me. I am sure your son will smile at his father’s audacity!

  10. It is a gut wrenching post to read-so I can only imagine the immense courage and pain it took to pen it down and share it. I am going to read it a few more times to be able to completely understand every word and thought shared. No words can even being to assuage the heartbreaking relentless pain and grief-Thomas, you are so loved forever and remembered by every single one of us. Many of us have shed burning tears when you were taken so suddenly.

    No words or philosophical thoughts can help with the loss of ones child, said to be the most heartbreaking of human losses. Yet, I share this thought below, with a prayer that it may bring some solace
    Rabindranath Tagore — ‘Death is not extinguishing the light; it is only putting out the lamp because the dawn has come.’

    I dont know if there is a GOD, -His ways are very strange. It is said, that a visit to GODs garden will reveal that He takes the most special and the purest and the best. Thomas, your Inner light shines bright and iridescent forever

    Please accept my heartfelt sincere prayers. Strength and blessings always

  11. Dear Mr.Parkinson,
    I don’t know if you remember me but we worked together at TSRS Aravali.
    I read your blog and it brought tears to my eyes. I am so sorry for your loss. Nothing in this world will ever be able to fill this void.
    I interacted with Thomas at school and have fond memories of him. Yes he was always sensitive and caring. He loved sports and any opportunity to go out onto the field was welcome.
    I have learnt a lot from all the people who have touched my life and being an educator is not easy. Specially if you want to make a difference. You have lived your life on your terms and no one can judge you for the choices you make. I have a lot of respect for you and the work you do and it would be incorrect to say that I did not disagree with you on occasions back then but you did what you had to.
    Having been in leadership roles, I today can understand you better and what prompted you to walk the path you did.
    We never really got to know each other back then but I do hope we can. There is so much I can learn from you.
    Once again, my deepest condolences. I hope god gives you the strength to move on and heal your pain. I do wish you well and look forward to reading your blogs. They do inspire me a lot.
    Warmest regards and best wishes.
    Natasha Kalaan

    • Dear Natasha,
      Yes, of course i remember. Thank you for reaching out and for your positive support.

  12. Dear Mark,
    Its great to have you back. Reflecting on your post, we all go through life too, not to worry. Looking forward to your great blog and writing once again. Thank you.

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