A letter to Penny

Dear Penny,

I wanted to write to thank you for your letter. I realise that replying to it twenty-two years after receipt is probably considered bad form. But then, at the time, I wasn’t ready to reply. And it was only this weekend that I was going through some boxes that I came across it and read and appreciated it.

photo 2

photo 1

Not missing the irony that, of course, this week people will be getting their own A-level results. And some of them will feel like I felt, back in 1992.

The strange thing about education, about our system is that we place so much importance on that very short period of time. You know, you and a few of the other teachers were absolutely right. I needed to go, I needed to get away and I needed to see what I could make of life.

At the time I was too obsessed with the opportunities that I saw diminishing before my eyes, to realise the world of opportunity that nonetheless awaited me. “But I was supposed to…” was the phrase that kept on going through my mind.

But life isn’t about “supposed to” or “should have”, life is about “can do” and “did do”. It took me the best part of twenty years to realise that. Before then I was too busy wanting to stick two fingers up to the past and show people I could be a success. I guess in some ways I’m grateful that this was my reaction to failure, rather than to get subsumed by it. Some people do.

The simple answer to your question though, is that I’m doing well. Life has been good to me, we’ve been successful and healthy and happy together. I’ve got to do things that I would never have dreamt would have been possible in that moment when I opened those results and saw the letters C,D&E. I’ve worked in amazing companies with some of the brightest people in their sectors. And together we’ve repeatedly made history.

And it makes me think that this week, like me 22 years ago, there are going to be people all over the country that are going to feel the world collapse under their feet as they look at the letters that they have on their screens (what happened to paper?)

My message to them is to, “go, get away and make what they can of life. Focus on what you can do and will do, not what you can’t do or won’t do. Your world feels limited, reduced and cruelly diminished. But your talents aren’t. You are everything that you were before and more. And you will be even greater still”.

With a bit of luck, they’ll have had teachers that cared for them, that nurtured them, that educated them. Not to pass exams, but (like I did) to help them grow. I hope they go out there and prove you right and the system wrong. I want them to be focussed, be successful and be happy.

Thanks for teaching me this Penny. I’m sorry it took me so long to realise and to learn, but maybe that’s why I didn’t do as well as I wanted. I’m a little bit slow. I hope life treated you well and I’m sorry we lost contact. Who knows, maybe the connected world of the web will rectify that.

From the bottom of my heart, thank you.


PS. You’re too kind about the poetry, it was always a bit crap. But I guess I’m still writing, so that’s ok?

NB. If anyone happens to know the whereabouts of Penny Salkield, it would be my absolute pleasure to thank her in person.


  1. Meera · August 11, 2014

    Wow. I have to say that I am truly in awe by this piece of writing. It is the first time I have read something by an industry leader that is relatable – my disappointing A-level grades (which I received 6 years ago) led to a very personal and ‘soul-crushing’ experience and a desperate need to prove something to myself over the next few years. If only I read something like this back then, and learned earlier that failure is not always a bad thing.
    Anyhow, more than anything, I just wanted to leave a reply to say thanks to you. For a moment I had forgotten the world is limitless and we are the ‘architects of our own ambitions’, and your letter to Penny was just the reminder I needed.
    P.S. I know I do not know you, but I do wish you every luck in reconnecting with her. All the best!

    • Neil · September 7, 2014

      Thanks Meera, your comment makes writing this worthwhile.

  2. Gaylin Jee · August 15, 2014

    This is a powerful blog. Its amazing that one person took the time to write this note to you, that you kept it, and that all these years later the insights have percolated into a place that makes sense. Thanks for sharing it with us.

    • Neil · September 7, 2014

      Thanks for commenting. I guess it goes to show that we can all take a little more time for one another?

      • Gaylin Jee · September 8, 2014

        Absolutely. And that sometimes the small things we take the time to do can have a fundamental impact – without us even knowing.

        I have used this quote to sum that up in the past:

        ‘We can never know the totality of our influence in the world, or what conversations happen in response to our work.’ Bud Hunt.

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