📚 The Notes 📚
As I mentioned in the last letter, I’ve been working on this set of notes for a while now, and I’ve finally got to the point where I’ve decided just to hit publish and be damned. Before you read on (or rather, get worried), I want you to know that I’m fine. I’m more happy and content than I’ve been for a long time. This is not a call for help, but instead me trying to share my experience and be more open about some of the feelings I’ve felt and the thoughts that I’ve thought.
For most of these letters you get the outward facing me. The public facing version. The happy, exuberant, and chipper me. Today, I’m showing you beyond that, and taking you a bit deeper (which is matched by the mood and story of this weeks mixtape). This week you’re getting my insecurities, my overthinking thoughts, and to be honest you’re getting a lot of stuff that I hadn’t really dealt with myself until very recently. I suppose in many ways, this is an essay about my journey to understanding who I am, finding ways to weaponise my imposter syndrome, and hopefully turning my experiences into something positive for others who might be on a similar path.
In the words of the great Chris Amoo; “So now you’ve got the best of me, come on and take the rest of me”.
Over Christmas my grandfather sadly passed away. He was a wonderful, kind, and very happy man. I never spent enough time with him, but if he could read me typing that now, he’d tell me to stop being so daft and get on with things. I’ll miss him a lot. In him I saw my dad, and I saw bits of myself too, and if I can get even a tiny speck of who he was, then I’ll be happy. One bittersweet positive from his death was the fact that it bought that whole side of my family together again. I saw people I hadn’t seen in years. In two cases, more than twenty years. Spending time where I grew up, with family I’ve not seen for a long time, and being reminded of my own mortality put me in a very reflective mood.
I was born in an ex-mining village in the Midlands. Over my childhood, I moved to a number of different nearby villages, but all that changed was the name of the village. The people, the history, and the culture remained largely the same. At school I was an average student, I had hardly any friends, and I was pretty shy. I was not sporty, smart, good-looking, or funny. Looking back now, I’d say I was a pretty camouflaged human. I didn’t really fit in, but it didn’t matter, because no one could see me anyway.
I did, however, have a pretty wild imagination, and an almost unhealthy obsession with music (thanks Dad, that’s your fault). As I got older, I sank deeper and deeper into music, and around 1997 I found myself spending more and more time on music forums learning about new cultures and making digital friends. It opened my eyes to what was possible, and my wild imagination took over. As all this was going on outside of school, inside of school things started to change too. Unfortunately, I was still not sporty, smart, good-looking, or funny, but as I started to send faint signals of my interest in electronic music, a couple of people picked up on those signals, and I made a couple of new friends. They also had some old belt-drive turntables and a cranky old mixer, and it turned out that we’d been going to Derby to visit the same record shops, just at different times. I’d carved out a little space for me, and started to find where I fit. Although having never had this space before, I was achingly (often embarrassingly) desperate to impress. I’d wanted to belong for so long that once I started to, I was terrified of losing it. Ironically that increased the chance of losing it.
Ten years later (and after ten months of pretty brutal unemployment – I graduated in 2007 at the beginning of the recession), I got my first job. I will be forever grateful to the founders (Stuart and Tim) for taking such a huge risk on me. I was armed with nothing but enthusiasm and my wild imagination, and they created a little space for me. I felt incredibly lucky to have a job, and in the three years I worked there I took that little space I was given and started to find what I was interested in, and what I thought I could be good at. I was terrified of losing this job, and the desperation to impress that I’d developed at school came back – only this time instead of it costing me friendships, it pushed me along. I used that fear as fire in my belly to get involved in everything that I could, and while I never really fit in (I never had a proper job title), I felt like I was valued.
The same happened when I moved to London and joined VCCP. The fear, combined with what Orson Welles (via Andrew Weatherall) would describe as “the confidence of ignorance” drove me forwards. I never shook that feeling of not fitting in, though. I loved my time at VCCP, and again was incredibly fortunate to have met Amelia Torode through Twitter, who took a big chance on me (in her words, she was always looking for ‘odd-shaped people’, and I was definitely one of those). But I was always an outsider. I was kind of a planner, but every planner told me I wasn’t a planner. I was kind of in advertising, but everyone I met told me I was in digital. I was kind of in the adland culture, but everyone I met was different to me.
I started to realise I didn’t fit in, and it wasn’t just because I an ‘odd-shaped person’.
I was with a friend last year, and we’re from a very similar background. North of the Watford gap, working class, and we share lots of the same sorts of values. We were talking about class in the advertising industry, and how, despite the talk of diversity, it’s still an enormous problem. We were discussing what I’m sure many non-Londoners have discussed before – when you’re in London, people treat you like you’re a Northerner, and when you’re outside London people treat you like a Londoner. It’s like a sort of weird geo-cultural purgatory. Except I think it has more to do with class than location. I feel stuck between two broad cultures; I’m now too middle class to be working class, and yet still too working class to be middle class. Which creates a sort of identity crisis, which is then exacerbated by the advertising industry, where the middle classes are still an enormous majority.
So for most of my career to date, I’ve felt like an imposter. What compounds this is my fear of losing what little sense of belonging and security I was starting to feel. But being an outsider – or an imposter – just means that you’re different from the dominant archetype. For a long time imposter syndrome has been seen as a typically female trait, but I think it’s much more intersectional than that. In advertising, if you’re not a middle-aged, middle-class, white man with an Oxbridge education, you’re going to feel at least a pinch of imposter syndrome. (And yes, I realise I carry with me a huge amount of privilege as a white, straight man, but that doesn’t insulate me from class-based discrimination.)
For Men’s Mental Health Week last year I interviewed the director Sam Donovan, and we got onto the subject of toxic masculinity, and I referenced the prevailing masculine culture of the advertising industry. For all the talk of diversity and inclusivity, adland is still largely run by very confident, middle-aged, middle-class white men. Most that I’ve met are very charming, but when I meet them I’m amazed at the confidence that they display – they give the impression that they know literally everything there is to know. Which in turn increases my imposter syndrome; because the more I learn, the more I realise I know virtually nothing.
If imposter syndrome is the opposite of entitlement, then I think what has been seen as a weakness for a long time, is about to become the best super-power in our industry. Doubt is important, doubt makes us look for things to give us confidence. It makes us turn to other people, it forces vulnerability, and that creates a culture of collaboration. While things are changing, imposter syndrome still feels like it posits you out on the edges.
The irony of all this is that I truly believe that the only way you create anything of value, is if you create it from the edges. Every conversation I’ve ever had with a client has been that to understand the future of culture, you have to look at what’s being created on the edges. That’s where the interesting things happen, but the precarious nature of feeling like you’re on the edge – especially when you’ve got such an inherent desire to belong and be valued – is stressful. But as the late Mr. Weatherall said, “If you’re not on the margins, you’re taking up too much room”.
I’m very fortunate now, because for the first time in my life I feel content. I’ve got a wonderful little family, a tight group of friends, and I work with people who feel like me. And our Love Will Save The Day family too, of course. I can now be me, everywhere, and while that might sound like a stupid thing to say, this is the first time I’ve been able to say that in my whole life. Of course I’m still filled with anxiety that this could all come tumbling down at any point, but now I channel my that fear into energy for those three areas of my life that make me feel like me. This foundation means I can explore cultures for development, rather than belonging. Discovering new music, ideas, and art takes on a new meaning; it becomes about evolution, not base security. I can push harder into unexpected places, which ultimately gives me a stronger chance of creating something of cultural value.
My challenge now is that that lack of belonging and feeling like an imposter had manifested in some of my behaviours. There was a window of nearly a decade where I was searching for my place, but the lack of confidence and security I had as to where I belonged meant that that process was almost frantic. That lead to developing some really unhealthy coping mechanisms – like making self-deprecating jokes, talking up being an outsider, and throwing myself into everything (without much care) to find where I belong. I hadn’t realised how those behaviours were effecting how I think of myself, and how they shape my behaviours with other people too. As I start understand more of who I am, and unpick more of why I am, I’m starting to realise I have to make some changes.
The first thing I need to do is to own my own narrative. I need to value what I’m creating. But to do both of the things, I have to value myself.
The second thing I need to address is how I create space for other people. I’m going to try my hardest to create an environment in work – and in life – where people can belong, and where I can help people realise that their value doesn’t reside in someone else’s opinion, but in their own opinion. I want to show people that their difference is their power, and that imposter syndrome supercharges that. I can’t remove someone’s imposter syndrome – but ultimately I wouldn’t want to, it’s what keeps us sharp. What I can remove is the downside. Both in and outside work I’m now incredibly fortunate to have a platform to offer to people; whether that’s developing teams at work, or bringing people together at parties and through this project.
As Joe Muggs said in his beautiful obituary for Andrew Weatherall, “he was a beacon of inspiration to others, a reminder that the world is full of wonders if you only take the time to look in unexpected places, and that being a participant in our culture is about far, far more than just serving up a product for others’ consumption: it’s a way of life in the truest sense.”
So I want to spend the rest of my life showing people that they can participate, and that they’re worth far more than the value other people place on them. Fail we may, sail we must.