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David Ogilvy on the True Value of Education: A Brilliant Letter of Advice to His 18-Year-Old Nephew

“Don’t judge the value of higher education in terms of careermanship. Judge it for what it is — a priceless opportunity to furnish your mind and enrich the quality of your life.”

David Ogilvy on the True Value of Education: A Brilliant Letter of Advice to His 18-Year-Old Nephew

“No one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life,” Nietzsche wrote in his 1873 reflection on the true value of education. The task of education, John Dewey asserted a generation later in his timeless treatise on how we think, is not “to teach every possible item of information [but] to cultivate deep-seated and effective habits of discriminating tested beliefs from mere assertions, guesses, and opinions.” But in order to reap the rewards of what we call education, we must actively elect the acquisition of those mental habits — for, as Adrienne Rich argued in her spectacular 1977 commencement address, an education is something we claim rather than something we get.

Perhaps the most elegant and compelling case for what we stand to gain when we exert ourselves on claiming an education comes from an unlikely champion: the legendary English businessman and Mad Man-era icon David Ogilvy (June 23, 1911–July 21, 1999).

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When Ogilvy’s 18-year-old nephew Harry graduated high school in 1984, his life-path was forked by the competing choices of higher education and immediate foray into the rat race of vocational self-actualization. Conflicted, the boy turned to his uncle for advice. Ogilvy’s response, found in The Unpublished David Ogilvy (public library), is a rhetorical masterpiece and an abiding testament to the ultimate rewards of education for those who pursue it with an earnest and receptive spirit.

Ogilvy writes:

Dear Harry,

You ask me whether you should spend the next three years at university, or get a job. I will give you three different answers. Take your pick.

Answer A. You are ambitious. Your sights are set on going to the top, in business or government. Today’s big corporations cannot be managed by uneducated amateurs. In these high-tech times, they need top bananas who have doctorates in chemistry, physics, engineering, geology, etc.

Even the middle managers are at a disadvantage unless they boast a university degree and an MBA. In the United States, 18 percent of the population has a degree, in Britain, only 7 percent. Eight percent of Americans have graduate degrees, compared with 1 percent of Brits. That more than anything else is why American management outperforms British management.

Same thing in government. When I was your age, we had the best civil service in the world. Today, the French civil servants are better than ours because they are educated for the job in the postgraduate Ecole Nationale d’Administration, while ours go straight from Balliol to Whitehall. The French pros outperform the British amateurs.

Anyway, you are too young to decide what you want to do for the rest of your life. If you spend the next few years at university, you will get to know the world — and yourself — before the time comes to choose your career.

Answer B. Stop frittering away your time in academia. Stop subjecting yourself to the tedium of textbooks and classrooms. Stop cramming for exams before you acquire an incurable hatred for reading.

Escape from the sterile influences of dons, who are nothing more than pickled undergraduates.

The lack of a college degree will only be a slight handicap in your career. In Britain, you can still get to the top without a degree. What industry and government need at the top is not technocrats but leaders. The character traits which make people scholars in their youth are not the traits which make them leaders in later life.

You put up with education for 12 boring years. Enough is enough.

Answer C. Don’t judge the value of higher education in terms of careermanship. Judge it for what it is — a priceless opportunity to furnish your mind and enrich the quality of your life. My father was a failure in business, but he read Horace in the loo until he died, poor but happy.

If you enjoy being a scholar, and like the company of scholars, go to a university. Who knows, you may end your days as a Regius Professor. And bear in mind that British universities are still the best in the world — at the undergraduate level. Lucky you. Winning a Nobel Prize is more satisfying than being elected Chairman of some large corporation or becoming a Permanent Undersecretary in Whitehall.

You have a first-class mind. Stretch it. If you have the opportunity to go to a university, don’t pass it up. You would never forgive yourself.

Tons of love,

David

Complement this particular fragment of The Unpublished David Ogilvy, which also gave us the legendary ad man’s tips on writing and his insight into the ten character qualities of creative leaders, with Parker Palmer on education as spiritual journey and Anne Lamott on the measure of a great teacher.

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Thin Slices of Anxiety: An Illustrated Meditation on What It’s Like to Live Enslaved by Worry and How to Break Free

A guided tour of this pernicious prison of the psyche, honest and assuring in its honesty.

Thin Slices of Anxiety: An Illustrated Meditation on What It’s Like to Live Enslaved by Worry and How to Break Free

Kierkegaard called anxiety “the dizziness of freedom” and believed that it serves to power rather than hinder creativity. For Darwin, it was a paralyzing lifelong struggle — he accomplished his breakthroughs not because of anxiety but despite it. “Anxiety,” Anaïs Nin wrote in her diary, “makes others feel as you might when a drowning man holds on to you.”

Anxiety belongs to the broader complex relationship between creativity and mental illness, and although the causal direction of that relationship might forever evade us, it is strangely assuring to know that other minds — especially minds of above-average intelligence and creative ability — have been savaged by this blunt-toothed beast.

Such solidary consolation is what Montreal-based designer and illustrator Catherine Lepage offers in Thin Slices of Anxiety: Observations and Advice to Ease a Worried Mind (public library) — an illustrated meditation on what it’s like to live enslaved by one’s own worries and what one can do to break free.

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Through a backdoor of disarming and almost lighthearted honesty, Lepage takes us on a guided tour of this heavyhearted prison of the psyche, its symptoms, and its side effects — from the trap of people-pleasing to the toxic allure of conformity to the sense of outsiderdom.

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Reflecting on her lifelong on-again, off-again relationship with this cyclical companion, Lepage distills the common pattern and extracts from it the four habits most certain to set the Rube Goldberg machine of anxiety into action.

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Laced with the meta-stressors familiar to anyone afflicted with anxiety — shame for being gripped by anxiety in the first place, self-blame for putting oneself in situations known to trigger it, exasperation upon realizing that its predictable trajectory of anguish is underway yet being unable to stop it — the book radiates a wistful yet warm assurance that these overwhelming emotional states, as all-consuming and singular as they seem, mark our membership in a larger fellowship of tribulation in which we are never as alone as we may feel.

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Under the self-conscious heading “Cheesy Quotes to Remember” — for, lest we forget, self-consciousness is one of anxiety’s most persistent symptoms — Lepage offers a number of truths so helpful and true that we tend to dismiss them as truisms, bounced off the maladaptive psychological shield of our cynicism.

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Complement the wonderful Thin Slices of Anxiety with Scott Stossel on the culture and costs of anxiety, Harvard social scientist Amy Cuddy on how to combat its causes, and philosopher Alan Watts on the antidote to our age of anxiety, then revisit artist Bobby Baker’s eleven-year visual diary of living with mental illness.

Artwork courtesy of Catherine Lepage / Chronicle Books

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The Emperor of Time: A Dreamlike Short Film About Motion Picture Pioneer Eadweard Muybridge

A foundational story of modern culture, told from the point of view of an abandoned son and viewed through an antiquated device.

“Muybridge was a doorway, a pivot between that old world and ours, and to follow him is to follow the choices that got us here,” Rebecca Solnit wrote in her masterwork about how Eadweard Muybridge annihilated space and time by inventing motion pictures.

That weird and wondrous doorway is what filmmaker and animator Drew Christie (who previously animated my essay on wisdom in the age of information) explores in The Emperor of Time — a dreamlike short film, part fiction and part nonfiction, about Muybridge’s odd and momentous life, told from the point of view of his abandoned son and viewed entirely through a mutoscope, an early motion picture device invented by animation pioneer Winsor McCay.

I’ve heard it said that in Ancient China, the emperor owned time — for all his subjects, their time was not their own but his. He could set the calendar to whatever he wanted, make hours or days as short or as long as he wanted.

My father was also an emperor of time. He was the first man who stared at time itself and said: “Stop.”

Complement with Solnit’s indispensable treatise on Muybridge and his cultural legacy, then revisit Christie’s lovely animated short film about Mark Twain and the illusion of originality.

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