SPOTLIGHT: Meet Mark Palmer - Working in the Civil Service, discovering Autism to becoming a Writer!
Updated: Aug 17, 2021
Mark's journey from working in the Civil Service, discovering autism and becoming a writer.
"On the face of it, most of my career path has been quite conventional. School to university to starting in the civil service in 1990. But it has been a struggle as I have never fitted in, and many of the skills that seemed to come so naturally to many others, like making friends, socialising, and performing well at meetings were just not in my make up. My work has always been praised, but my “behaviours” have caused constant problems, to the point of coming close to be being dismissed at one point.
School was extremely difficult. For me, the academic work was always the easy bit. Through no fault of his own, my dad changed his job several times when I was growing up which meant I went to quite a few different schools as we moved around the country. I struggled making friends at the best of times, so being repeatedly dropped into a class as the new kid amongst others who had mostly been together for several years was never easy. Add to this that I was a bit odd as far as they were concerned, and I became a favourite and an easy target for the bullies.
I went on to university to study maths – an autistic stereotype, but my best subject and something that I still enjoy and am fascinated by. Somehow, I just see how numbers work, which makes me a terrible maths teacher because I can neither explain how I do it or understand why others cannot see it as I do!
The social side was still an issue. I had people I thought were friends but at the end of the first year when it was time to form groups to rent houses together for the next year, I soon found myself back on my own. Perhaps my biggest regret from university is that my lack of social skills and confidence meant that I did not take full advantage of the many opportunities to try new things, travel and so on.
With a year left at university, I still had no idea what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I spent the summer working as a clerk in a job centre and found that I loved it. It was ordered, relatively calm and I had a chance to make suggestions of better ways to do things. So I applied and was accepted for the civil service when I graduated, starting at a South London benefits office which was enjoyable if eye-opening experience. From there I moved on to other jobs, mostly in making new policy and devising ways to implement government priorities. From the very start, the work itself was no problem, but managing and dealing with people was always a challenge, and it remains this way today.
After 30 years, I have had enough of trying to fit into a corporate world that makes no sense to me and is not designed to accommodate me. I have always loved writing, so am now trying to establish my own freelance writing business with the ultimate aim of leaving my civil service job and writing full-time."
What key challenges did you face in your journey?
"Being different has been a constant challenge. For many years, I thought that there was just something wrong with me. Why couldn’t I find the words to make conversation with others, see value in endless meetings or keep my mouth shut when I saw things happening that were clearly wrong or a waste of time? It must just be me choosing to be awkward, even though it never really felt like that.
I could mask and play a part for short periods, but it was exhausting, affected my mental health and never lasted long. Over time, some managers got to know me and appreciated my strengths, but there has been a steady stream of complaints about me, either because I do not engage with the latest round of trendy management theory and sit there looking bored, or because I call out nonsense and ask difficult questions. The claim is that it is safe to challenge, but I have found that to be far from the case in practice, even now."
What solutions worked for you?
"The big breakthrough was being diagnosed as autistic through my employer’s occupational health service. I was under pressure from a new staff reporting system which had to identify 10% as needing improvement. Anyone a bit different, like me, was an easy target for that bottom 10%, with my “behaviours” again being cited as a problem. After encouragement from my mother and my wife over several years, it was time to face up to being autistic.
The diagnosis changed my life and reduced me to tears. It explained so much. As I said to my then manager, I am still a pain in the backside but at least we all know why. I had a document explaining why I am as I am, that it is not a choice, and that I need reasonable adjustments.
Being completely open about being autistic and what it means for me has been the best approach for me. I do not use my diagnosis as an excuse, but as an explanation for being different and perhaps not working in a way, others might expect.
It is still tough – my workplace and culture are still a long way from being autism friendly, and I would still love to escape, but it has helped a great deal."
What would you have done differently?
"I think I may have engaged with the possibility of being autistic sooner, internally if not actively seeking a diagnosis. A diagnosis much earlier than I received mine may actually have been unhelpful and led to a greater stigma and a negative label. Only very recently have the positive aspects of autism started to be recognised by employers. But by coming to terms with being autistic myself sooner I could have found my tribe earlier and received valuable advice from others going through similar experiences when I thought I was facing things alone.
I would also have started my writing much earlier, which may have enabled me to be writing full time by now."
Do you have any key lessons & tips?
"Accept yourself for who you are. There is nothing wrong with you, you are amazing. Actively follow your dreams and take the first step today. There is always something you can do to move things along even if it is only in very small steps."
What do you love most about your job?
"I love writing because it gives me an outlet for the many thoughts that my brain is constantly bombarding me with. I find it much easier to express myself in writing than in conversation (though I also love public speaking!). I also love being my own boss and being able to control the activities that I do not see as essential to what I am doing, so there are no strategy session and only essential meetings. I can and do write anywhere and everywhere at times and in ways that suit me. That is so valuable."
How do you define success?
"For me, success has always been to have made a tangible difference to something in some way. That is why I struggle with so much corporate activity – if the vast majority of strategy documents and meetings disappeared, almost nobody would see any difference.
I hope that my writing can and does make a difference, through educating, inspiring or entertaining."
Who inspires you?
"A very difficult question. I am inspired by people that keep going in the face of adversity and stand up for what they believe in no matter what it costs them. Leaders who tell the truth and recognise that they cannot do a good job and still be loved by everybody. So I am inspired by many different people at different times.
As a writer, I am inspired by those that can build intricate stories and worlds. I am not a big superhero fan, but I find things like the Marvel universe very inspiring from a creative point of view because of the breadth of ambition and the complexity of it. The Star Trek universe is a similar accomplishment. I would love to create something like that."
If you could choose anyone as a mentor, who would you choose?
"I have never really wanted a mentor, not because I do not think that they are valuable, but because I find one to one relationships and conversations very difficult and stressful. Every time I have a one to one with my manager, I am convinced that I am going to be fired! A mentor would feel like more stress of this kind. I do love to learn from others, but ideally from reading rather than meetings or listening to talks – I just find it hard to take information in, in that way."
What’s something about you that not many people know?
"I was once on the final of Mastermind on TV. But only in the audience, unfortunately!"
What’s the last book you read?
"'All the Lonely People' by Mike Gayle. I mostly read fiction because for me reading is generally for relaxation and escapism. I love Mike Gayle’s books because he always addresses real issues in a down to earth and entertaining way without compromising on the message. This book combines a brilliant evocation of the loneliness epidemic in modern society with a depiction of the struggles faced by the Windrush generation, yet always feels light and entertaining at the same time. It’s quite an achievement."
Mark Palmer is a freelance writer specialising in mental health, autism and neurodiversity. He can be contacted through his website www.markpalmerwriter.co.uk, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and on twitter @MarkPWriter.