The Musings Of An Opinionated Sod [Help Me Grow!]

Control Life, Don’t Let It Control You …
July 17, 2009, 6:12 am
Filed under: Comment

One of the things I find quite humouress is the reaction I get when people find out I didn’t go to University.

It’s especially amusing when this fact comes out while I’m speaking at Asian conferences because almost immediately, the audience splits into 2 specific groups …

1/ The “He-must-have-terrible-parents” mob.
2/ The “Why-the-hell-are-we-listening-to-him-then” crowd.

To be fair, I can understand why the #2 group would say that – I wonder the same thing– however underpinning their reaction is the fact Asia doesn’t regard education as just a provider of ‘knowledge’, they regard it as the pathway to success and progress – so having me on a stage, someone who openly admits he chose not to further his formal education, is seen as potentially setting a dangerous precedent regarding how far you can go without formal education.

Now whilst success and progress are things everyone wants to achieve – in Asia they have even greater significant meaning – because it’s more than just individual achievement, it taps into the cultural values of the region that basically dictates each family generation must go further than the one before.

This is not just about material acquisition [though it’s becoming more so these days] it’s about anything that represents progress from being the first to embark on further education to starting a company to going an overseas placement etc … however underpinning all this is, quite correctly, the importance and power of education – however sadly, rather than it being about acquiring knowledge that can drive fresh thinking, ideas, approaches and dreams, it tends to translate into a singular process and theory by which anything that fails to meet that pre-determined criteria is viewed as wrong.

I’ve written about this in the past – as well as the dangerous implications it can lead to – however that is not what I want to write about.

Recently Kaj asked me the ‘university’ question – and for the first time I realised why, back in the late 80’s, I decided it wasn’t for me.

Contrary to popular opinion, it wasn’t because I was too thick … nor was it because I don’t value education … infact, I would say that I am one of the biggest and most passionate advocates of formal education [even though I don’t believe it should be run as an independent profit centre] it was that I wanted to feel in charge of my destiny rather than let someone else decide my fate.

Now that’s big talking so let me explain …

I was a good student at school.

I was diligent, my grades were good and I was actively involved in all classes.

Infact apart from a couple of incidents involving my Father and my Art and History teachers [who both ended up with their tails between their legs, which mortified me even more], I only ever heard good things from my teachers.

Unless it was exam time.

Like many kids in Asia experience today, I was educated at a time where your exam results represented everything.

It didn’t matter if you had 1000 ‘grade A’s’ through the year, if you failed your end of term exams, your life [as you thought you wanted it] was over … and that ‘pressure’ really got to me because despite studying and revising diligently, the moment I went into an ‘exam hall’, I would literally be paralysed with fear.

This wasn’t something that happened just one year – it happened every year – and whilst my parents and teachers were great trying to help me out, the UK’s education policy had led me to believe that those exams would dictate how my life would turn out and the fear of failure was so great that my brain would literally shut down in panic.

Now you might think that’s all dramatic – and it probably was – however an incident with a careers advisor reiterated that fear to such a degree that at one point, I thought my life was over before it had even properly begun,

Basically I went to see this guy and told him I was interested in doing law or journalism.

After hearing me talk passionately about these subjects for about 10 minutes, he looked at my prospective exam grades [that bore no resemblance to the marks I’d got in class] and said I’d never get to do either of those professions and should instead explore a career in catering management.


Look there’s nothing wrong with that job – and I know he was probably just trying to manage expectations – but the way he did it and the way he paid no value to my personal ambitions/interests and goals meant he almost crushed my spirit irreversibly. I say ‘almost’ because I was in the very fortunate position to have parents whose encouragement, beliefs, values and attitude ensured I was brought up believing you should follow the things that you are the most passionate and/or interested about because often you’ll find a way to make parts of it happen, and thank god for that or my life could be very, very different to what I currently enjoy today.

So here’s the thing …

When I finished school, I wanted to go to college and study, however because of my exam grades, I had to literally beg to be let in.

After a few weeks or tooing-and-froing, I was accepted on the proviso my first 2 assignments achieved a minimum grade of ‘PASS’.

Jesus, how thick must they of thought I was … however as I said, my day-to-day work was fine ,,, which is why 2 years down the line – and a course grade based exclusively on course work – I ended up in the top 5% of all students in the UK who took that particular course.

From ‘charity case’ to top 5% in 2 years …

Now I admit the course wasn’t the most demanding of things, but my attitude hadn’t changed in all that time so the only difference between ‘failure’ and ‘achievement’ was the willingness of one lecturer at my local college to give me a break.

So anyway, after all this, the next logical step was to go to Uni … and whilst my parents wanted me to go [and I was accepted by a couple of places] … I chose not to go.

Whilst I gave my parents a bunch of reasons, I’ve literally just worked out the underlying reason why I felt – and still feel – it wasn’t for me.

I wanted to fail on my own terms.

That’s it. I wanted to be in a position that if I failed, it was because I genuinely screwed up rather than some other person deciding whether I should be allowed to ‘go on or not’.

Sure working life still has elements of that … but for me, it was a case of being judged on the everyday, not just at significant moments and whilst I appreciate Uni isn’t like that anymore, the way the education system has been imposed on me left such an indelible mark that I chose to do my learning through other methods rather than formal education.

This doesn’t mean I am one of those that talk about ‘the school of life’ … that’s not what this is about … I love learning, however rather than go into a formal education system, what works for me [and what I’m fortunate to be able to do] is find other ways to achieve it, which often means finding experts in areas I am interested in and paying/bribing/pleading with them to pass on some of their knowledge.

The reason I write all this is because in Asia in particular, the attitude is that someone without education [read: degree and/or MBA] is a second-class citizen and what makes it worse is that companies seem to embrace this thinking so we end up with a region full of wannabe bankers and lawyers, forcing those with bigger plans and ideas to either keep them to themselves or move abroad to stand a chance of fulfilling them and that’s a tragedy – not just for the individuals, but for the countries they come from.

Of course there’s some great people like SMU’s Mark Chong who encourages his students to hear alternative viewpoints and ideas … and I am talking to LucasArts in Singapore about creating an ‘alternative’ job centre for the people who don’t fit the mould of the typical school leaver/graduate… but the reality is that until the regions Governments [especially in the rich countries] start celebrating, promoting and encouraging the entrepreneur with the same passion as they do CEO’s, then I expect my parents will continue to have their ears burn when I speak at Asian conferences.

I’m not trying to talk anyone out of education, I’m just trying to encourage people to use it for what they really want to achieve rather than submit to what it wants you to do.

[PS: If you need inspiration, click here or here. They’re old, but gold]

51 Comments so far
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and tonight on this is your boring life, rob campbell.

if you were charged 1 cent for every time you pushed that ken robinson vid, youd be in the hole for millions by now.

fucking long post campbell. thought you fuckers were supposed to simplify. its easy, look:

failed at school.
met andy.
moral:education is great but andy makes you greater.
the end.

see? fucking easy, but I give you your fucking thesis is not too bad even if it took me 4 hours to get through the whole fucking thing.

Comment by andy@cynic

i say fuck a lot.

real men do.

Comment by andy@cynic

It took you 4 hours to read my “thesis”?

As a [real] man in your 40’s, don’t you think you should have mastered this reading lark by now? Creatives – act like children, are children.


PS: What’s the betting your response has the word ‘Fuck’ in it?

Comment by Rob

After reading Andy’s comment, I’m incapable of producing a serious response to this post.

Comment by fredrik sarnblad


thats to both campbell and swedeball.

Comment by andy@cynic

After reading Andy’s comment, I’m incapable of producing a serious response to this post.

Comment by fredrik sarnblad

so thats the famous fucking swedish humour ive heard about.

wasnt worth the fucking wait was it.

how the fuck are you mr roxette? i hear good things are happening. always do when you leave campbells clutches.

Comment by andy@cynic

And the winner of ‘Mr Sensitive New Age Guy’ goes to …. anyone but Andy.

Comment by Rob


I can relate to this post big time. [Not because I had exam phobia, I find an exam rather annoying / insulting, as if someone is asking for proof]

Rob, this formal education / acquiring of a degree thing is huge, it’s a way to break ‘in to’ something rather than leaving behind.

What I find ironical, I can only say from India’s POV, is that this started off due to a genuine craze for ‘knowledge’ / education in the first half and middle of this century – because as a society we’ve always been fascinated by ‘Gyan’ [ knowledge] and people would go to uni to learn, there were no fat paying jobs then, so they would learn and spread the word, but with time that got distorted, because again there arose a need to segregate and people started using level and place [institution] of education to create classes amongst themselves.

There are still a lot people that work hard to get in to uni with a genuine interest to learn and they have a passion for their chosen field , but then there are enough people out there who are lazy and haven’t even bothered to learn anything in school but still spend their parents hard earned money on a higher degree, without knowing why. These people end up at makeshift private, money sucking institutions and also earn a degree.

So in the end, in everyone’s quest to differentiate [ wall in and bar out] it comes down to where [ institute] you’ve studied from – that decides whether your good or bad – not what you’ve learnt or are capable of.

Comment by bhaskar

And i’m surprised you wiated till Kajal asked you where you attened uni, because people use it as a way / measure to ascess how bright you may be. Sad but thats why most people here ask these questions 🙂

Comment by bhaskar

“use it as a way / measure to ascess how bright you may be”
true – im fortunate that my uni is called ‘Buckinghamshire Chilterns University’ (sounds posh hey? But think otherwise – it was in High Wycombe). Its all advertising..I sometimes say it with a royalty-ish accent.

Shame they changed the name to ‘New Bucks Uni’ after i left though – so I still get to use the posh version

Comment by Jacob

Hey Bhaskar – actually, I didn’t ask Rob ‘where’ he went to uni, I asked him if he ever regretted his decision =)

Like Rob, I’m not as crazy about formal education though I do have a degree in philosophy (and a master’s – but that’s another story)

One of the best career moves I made was joining Euro RSCG as a copywrirter at 18 – my second year of college in Delhi – which I figured was an absolute waste of time.. This was when Euro had just set up shop in India so I got to work w a very talented + ambitious bunch of people. And I figure that’s what got me hooked to start ups (hence M&C Saatchi India and now Sunshine)

Incidentally, being the child of surgeons means that I’m the least educated person in my family, tho I did study in the UK as well – and the best thing about our program was that there weren’t formal exams like we’d had in India. we were encouraged to debate, argue with our professors, present a case study and POV clearly and do our own research at the library.

Anyway, yeah I figure some Indians are v edu focussed but some of the best planners I’ve met -including Rob and Rupin don’t have the ‘college degrees’ one expects…

Comment by Kaj

I think both Jacob and Bhaskar’s comments speak volumes about what frustrates and upsets me about education, marketing and society today.

Of course not everyone is like this – and I appreciate it is something that has been around [in many cultures and industries] for years – but this belief a persons value is based more on their accademic associations rather than what they have actually done/thought, makes me upset.

There’s many reasons for why certain cultures/society are beginning to wholeheartedly think this way – including the role of Government who look at University as a revenue raiser rather than a fundamental investment in the nations future, hence push this belief like mad – but I can’t help but feel if we allow this attitude to continue, we will have a culture that is akin to the Victorian age.

I think education is a wonderful, wonderful thing – I wish it was an option for everyone and anyone who wished to do it – but whilst I appreciate that the result is an accademically more rounded individual, I certainly don’t believe this always equates to a fundamentally cleverer person … just like I don’t think someone who didn’t go to University is more ‘practical’ than someone who went to Oxford etc.

Saying that, maybe all this comes from the fact that not only did I not go to Uni, I come from Nottingham as well – so I’m doubly prejudiced against.

Comment by Rob

Throughout my childhood I never knew what I wanted to do but what I DID know was that I never wanted to be what my Dad was… and that was be a mechanic. I hated hanging around in his workshop. Hated all the grease, the thousands of things that can and do always go wrong with cars. Argh, hated it.

But that suited my parents because if they had found out that i wanted to be a mechanic after sending me to a private school they would of shit bricks of anger. But it all worked out…

Anyways… midway through year 11 when it’s time to get all serious and make your decisions about study and life we did an aptitude test similar to yours. And guess what occupation came up as my #1?


Imagine my poor mum’s face. Ha!! At that moment I pretty much laughed off any credibility that test, or school, or university had for that matter and even though i got good marks at the end of high school and ended up enrolling at uni… i dropped out after a year to (like you) go it alone and never looked back.

I’m very passionate about this stuff. The title of this post says it all. Great stuff, Rob.

Comment by Age

Ican honestly sat that two things changed my life and neither were the education I got formally:

1) when I was 17 the cAst of ‘La Haine’ spoke to me in a dream and told the deal was wack
2) reAding russel’s blog for the first time

Both were gamechangers. Both had more impact than any formal trainig. But love of all things formal, be it educAtion or proprietory tools seems to be adlands thing! King gossage and ogilvy are to blame, or at least those who speak on their behalf. it is like the FBI in the 50’s. All ivi league and wasp until they realized being wasp in the getto or around Italians is not much use.

To qoute puff daddy : diversify or die!

Comment by Niko

I studied the thing I loved the most and ended up with a scroll that lives in my sock draw.

20 years later I work in a shed.

Comment by Marcus

Damn Rob – your blog’s become the Oprah show!

Comment by Juanita

It’s a gift and a curse Juanita.

Comment by Marcus

It’s symptomatic of the laziness and short-cuts that infests anything to do with the supposedly important realm of human capital.

X has the right certificates and must therefore have the right stuff. Much easier to tick boxes than to actually dig a little deeper and risk discovering that the ranks of any “prestigious” academic institution contain quite a few people that the rest of the class wouldn’t touh with a bargepole.

Comment by john

The thing about formal education is that you spend the rest of your life realising how many things you never learned about.

Comment by john

I wanted to be a vet.
I went to MIT to please my parents and get a job with better prospects.
I met Rob.
Rob says he hired me because he liked that I think you learn more from animals than technology..
My parents tried to pretend they were happy for me.
I now work at Apple.
My parents don’t have to pretend anymore.
I still want to be a vet.

Comment by Bazza

That’s what I told you Baz, but the reality is that you had references from some of the most important people on the bloody planet and I could get you on the cheap. 🙂

BTW, do you want to be a vet because you relate to their small size. I’m not taking the piss, the delightful Juanita also works with animals and she too is vertically challenged.

[but unlike you, perfectly formed!]

Now Marcus – what did you study and why did you study it? Was it out of interest, a desire to make it your career or something completely different? And with hindsight, do you regret or embrace that decision. I think I can guess, but we should never assume.

And this is not like Oprah! Maury Povich maybe, but not that bloody God-delusion bird!

Comment by Rob

I went to the uk (#1!) to study sports management, 3 years later had a degree in music business and marketing – got a job in fashion. I guess all lost souls end up in advertising.

Comment by Jacob planning now

Comment by Jacob

You had to bring up the vertical challenge. why? why? what has my Napolean syndrome got to do with this Oprah blog….nevermind I just answered my question.

It’s soooo Oprah. All it needs is a box of tissues or Andy to get it back to Jerry Springer.

See you tonight at 7.30 🙂

Comment by Juanita

I brought it up because Oprah always brings up the hard hitting issues doesn’t she? Oh no she doesn’t – she is a sycophantic cow which is why I’d rather be a Geraldo than her and that’s saying something because I absolutely LOATHE him.

Definitely see you at 7:30pm …

As for all lost souls ending up in advertising,
I don’t agree Jacob.

I wish it was the case – we desperately need more people with diversity and life experience in this industry because the scary thing is we seem to be creating/encouraging a
particular type of ad person … someone who might wear the cool clothes, say the cool things and listen to the cool tracks, but interms of attitudes, thoughts and opinions, they are quite often all the bloody same.

I remember a guy at HHCL whose previous job was selling pig feed to farmers. Would he get hired today? Probably not … and yet he was/is a better planner than I could ever be. Same with Fredrik, the ex-IKEA bed designer we hired who knows more about kids than even Micheal Jackson. And then Mr John Connell, our BBH friend and creator of one of the A[P]SOTW assignments. Taken from a life as a DJ to strategic planning in Tokyo … but not because he was in with ‘the cool set’, but because he had an amazing ability to understand how people were ruled by emotion.

I’ve said it before, but I don’t want to hire people who’ve only worked in adland, I want people who have lived a real life.

Oooooooh sorry, lost it a bit there didn’t I!

And as for accademia, I leave you with my fave Peter Ustinov quote …



Comment by Rob

I studied art.

Comment by Marcus

I thought you did … now answer the rest of the question please.

Oh, and for the record, even if your shed was made of lead, it still wouldn’t be able to contain your love and talent for art because you’re one of Mr Web’s most interesting children.

Now we need to get you doing it for money, as well as the love. 🙂

Comment by Rob

Oh go on Robbie – just shag her and get it over and done with…..I can see it now – Oprah with her red lacies and bono sunnies.

Clearly I need a drink – later.

Comment by Juanita

You need a drink? I need new fucking retina’s with that disgusting, horrific and uncalled for image that you’ve just put in my mind. Though to be fair, she’s probably thinking the same thing.

Nice to see you have been soooooooo productive this afternoon. As usual. 🙂

Comment by Rob

I can’t decide whether I prefer Andy’s first comment or Rob’s statement in his comment:

“I think education is a wonderful, wonderful thing – I wish it was an option for everyone and anyone who wished to do it – but whilst I appreciate that the result is an academically more rounded individual, I certainly don’t believe this always equates to a fundamentally cleverer person”

Or *gasp* John’s comment:

“Much easier to tick boxes than to actually dig a little deeper and risk discovering that the ranks of any “prestigious” academic institution contain quite a few people that the rest of the class wouldn’t touch with a bargepole.”

My whole childhood revolved around getting into university, sadly. Yet I had no idea what I wanted to be. So I chose Business. And yet, I have a degree in ‘The Bold and the Beautiful’ with a minor in ‘Tally Ho rolling’. I fucking hated it. And quit half way through, only to return later through obligation. Sad, but true.

I get the cultural differences and I get that it works for some people, in some areas and I, for one, love exams, but I hate(d) the emphasis on tertiary education.

Comment by Angus

Oh, don’t get me started! I wrote this in 2007 during my “time” at the newest polytechnic in Singapore:

As you can imagine, I’m no longer in Academia. BTW, great post Bobbie…..

Comment by perki

True Andy, the same applies to your ex wives doesn’t it?

Failed at life
Met Andy
Got rich

😉 😉 I kid… well not really

Comment by Rob Mortimer

i love university, am in the middle of postgrad studies and am considering a doctorate. which, technically, would make me an academic. perhaps that makes me unpopular. probably.


Comment by lauren

i can answer your fucking question angus. you like my fucking insightful more than any other fuckers. ever.

and youre almost right mortimer, it goes

failed at life
met me
got rich
ex looks at his bank statement
orders hit men

well it fucking will be like that soon.

and lauren. youll always be my blow job dream destroyer regardless of many fucking doctorates you have. that is actually a fucking compliment.

Comment by andy@cynic

“Blow job dream destroyer” = excellent

Comment by Angus

rob, what i didn’t say was how much i loved this post. and no, i’m not takin’ the piss. it’s an element of your relationship to education that i haven’t heard before.

as brain-dead as australia can be, it’s still possible here to be accepted professionally on your merits, your wit, your experience and your ability to follow your gut. the ‘i never went to uni and look where i am now’ is not an uncommon story here – we love our ‘rags to riches’.

and while that makes for an entirely different fucked-up relationship to education, it does enable people to not be locked into a pattern of thinking or behaviour, but to follow their own hearts.

it’s interesting times at the moment here, watching the intensity of education values from asia/india mixing with the more lassez faire attitudes and sense of entitlement from australians. unfortunately for the bogans in our country, the relationship that students from asia and india have towards education is sparking fires here and the poor loves are not coping – resorting to their violent convict past. here’s hoping that both ‘sides’ (for want of a much better term) can actually exchange values and come to a workable medium.

Comment by lauren

‘blow job dream destroyer’… sung to ‘wake up sleepy jean’, from daydream believer. even better.

Comment by lauren

I love checking in and seeing that things have been going on – even if it’s weird shit like Andy’s comment about you [Lauren] … it feels weird and nice and ‘stuff’ all at the same time, though I do think you all have much better things to do. Or at least I hope so.

I agree that Australia is probably much more relaxed than other countries interms of acceptance – but I think it is changing and changing fast. It might be more prevelent in certain industries and certain states, but Oz is still the first country where I was asked which school I went to because the assumption was that would dictate how smart or how much time the other person should put into our conversation.

I found it weird because I was 28 or something at the time and believe it or not, it was my first real exposure to a sort of educational class system – don’t know why, maybe it say’s more about my friends or who I hang out with – but I hope Oz doesn’t fall too much into this sort of trap because the quality of education ends up being less important than the ‘brand value’ or the place you attend.

Or I could be talking shite as it’s Saturday and what little brain I have has turned off. Ha.

But I’m glad people liked this post and I hope people ‘get’ what I am trying to say. I’m a believer in not-for-profit, equal opportunity educator … but then I also believe learning shouldn’t stop when careers start.

Comment by Rob

Presumably most people didn’t need to ask the question.

Comment by john

Great post Mr C!
Vouch for it personally, have a degree in chemistry, have studied art history, fashion marketing and have an MBA…and now work in Qual.
But the 2 things that changed my life

1. People I have met
2. Travelling

I most certainly believe in education but not in institutionalizing education – One needs to understand, question, learn, apply (have the freedom to question, atleast).The system seems to be built to churn out clones rather than individuals

Comment by akshay

I am an Asian, an Indian to be precise. You have rightly summarised the way we (Asians) think of people who do not have a ‘degree’ brilliantly.

I was in the same boat as you. Come exams, especially physics, I used to get the blues. And the surprising thing about the whole thing was that Physics was my favorite subject. It required understanding parents who helped me overcome my fears. I managed to graduate in Physics and thereafter do an MBA to boot. I still do not know what the fuss is all about. I was lucky. My heart goes out to all those who did not luck out.

Beautiful piece!

Comment by Subbu

is it me or has subbu missed the point of this post and what fuss doesnt he get?

this is what happens when you get people with fucking mbas making comments on here. lol.

Comment by andy@cynic

I went to University to study what I loved, like Marcus. I studied English, and don’t regret it.

I don’t think it’s for everyone though, especially if you are unfortunate and learn from people who aren’t inspired and inspiring.

Luckily, I was – otherwise English would been very, very dull. Personally, I think you’ve got to love learning, but not necessarily academic learning. Good teachers help enormously.

Comment by Will

Hi Subbu, nice to have you on here.

Ignore Andy – he starts arguments in empty houses – I’m glad you had your parents support, but can I ask what you do for a job now and see if you were lucky enough to see your passion through to your career.

Comment by Rob

Hi Rob

I am happy that I provided fodder to Andy. On hindsight my comments could be easily misinterpreted(MBA!!!) To put matters to rest, I do not know what the fuss about education is all about when people like you have accomplished so much.

As regards me, I was in advertising until March of this year at Ogilvy. I was a suit (is that reason enough to be blacklisted) I have also worked in the Internet space for over 3 years (the dotcom boom days)

My interest has always been ideas and making that ideas happen. If you happen to read my blog you might get an idea as to the way I think. I am now working on a small project with an IT Major here in Bangalore. I am just experimenting not knowing where my life or career is headed. I have no major plans as such.

Hope it answers your query. More importantly, I love your blog and must thank Charles(Punk Planning) for guiding me here.

Comment by Subbu

Thanks Subbu … I’ll go check out your blog because it’ll be interesting to hear your views, especially after such a life change. I’m pretty sure you’ll realise there’s a hell of a lot of possibilities out there that adland doesn’t even know about, let alone have the capacity to exploit.

Oh, and I’m glad you realise Andy is an equal opportunity shit, it’s not personal – he hates everyone – especially himself. At 6am. When looking in the mirror, ha!

Comment by Rob

Andy – your comments crack me up! you’re my hero.. **please** hire me once Mr Campbell and I have spread enough Sunshine around here =)

Comment by Kaj

PS: I don’t have a MBA

Comment by Kaj

You should have started that CATERING Business…! SUNSHINE CATERING…brillant

Comment by Ange

I’d eat all the profits Ange!

Besides, why do I have to do that when Jill is doing it. Watch out for OBSCENITY cakes sometime very soon!

Comment by Rob

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