Toby Jones (as Neil) and Neil Baldwin
Like many, perhaps even all, of us in software engineering, and I’m sure other disciplines as well, I suffer from imposter syndrome. A crushing sense that I don’t, and never will, have the skills and knowledge to match my colleagues. I live in constant fear of being found out, that one day someone will come up to my desk and tell me they’ve figured out that I’ve been lying about my abilities all along, and that I need to pack my things and leave the building immediately. Its a feeling that caused me to take almost 10 years from writing my first code to even considering applying for a job in software, and when I first got a call from the recruiter, I genuinely thought she’d made a mistake and picked the wrong CV pile.
In reality, software is a field so incredibly vast and complex that no-one could ever know or understand everything, or even most things. We’re all learning and improving our skills all the time, and we all know different things as a result of our different experiences.
This weekend I was honoured to have the chance to meet a man who has been an inspiration to me for a few years now. A man for whom feeling he doesn’t belong has never caused him to question his abilities, perhaps quite the opposite - causing him to make every opportunity he could to do the things that made him happy. Someone who’s probably well known to you if you’re a 1990’s English league footballer, clown, or Church of England Bishop - a man named Neil Baldwin. I’m not the only person to be inspired by Neil, his friend, England’s best ever World Cup goal scorer Gary Lineker said of Neil “you want to be like him”. I think being more like Neil is a noble aim, and one we could probably all benefit from.
“I saw the Queen last week” Neil told me when I met him, in the same way you might mention to a friend you’d seen an old mutual acquaintance. I later found out he hadn’t just seen the Queen, but had been invited to Buckingham Palace to be presented with the British Empire Medal by Her Majesty, a medal he had pinned to his chest when we chatted, along with a small, seemingly random, selection of charity and football league lapel pins he had scattered on his jacket. This sums up Neil, he’s achieved a lot in his storied life, much of it is documented in the multi-BAFTA winning biopic Marvellous. Much of the rest you’ll find in his autobiography, standing out amongst his co-writer’s other titles, almost exclusively biographies of British Prime Ministers. All of those achievements are important to Neil, and he’s rightly proud, but none of them more important than any other.
Neil accepting a BAFTA for Marvellous
Neil left school at 16, he was diagnosed with learning difficulties, and although he had no problem with school, it didn’t make him happy. Neil had made a simple decision, one we should probably all make, and more importantly remind ourselves of - that he wanted to be happy. Given that credo, there was a clear next step for Neil’s career - he joined the circus to become a clown. After a few years of falling of the back of a fire truck to make others laugh, Neil returned home to his family. Unemployed, Neil’s career goal was to manage Stoke City Football Club. So Neil made sure he was in the right place at the right time, and was invited to be Stoke City’s kit man. Stoke manager, Lou Macari who hired Neil directly described this as “the best signing I ever made”
Neil interrupting a TV interview with Stoke City manager Lou Macari
Neil’s friends include Prince Edward - Neil just “knocked on his door” and introduced himself - the Archbishop of Canterbury - each one since the 60’s - and former England manager Kevin Keegan. He has an honorary degree from Keele University, and even played a match for his beloved Stoke City. Asked bout his learning difficulties, Neil replies “what difficulties?” Asked about what he’s achieved, Neil says: “I hope it shows people that you can do what you want with your life, if you keep at it.”
Neil accepting his degree from Keele University
It’s natural to doubt yourself and your abilities, but there are a few lessons I think we can all take from Neil to help us remember we’re all capable of achieving the best we can.
- Be happy
- Make other people happy
- Be confident in your own ability to do what makes you happy
- Be proud of all your achievements, but don’t brag
- Make your own opportunities
Perhaps being a little more like Neil might make us all happier.