"You don't need a degree to succeed in business," is a mantra my mother has always repeated to me, explicitly praising to the heavens the likes of Sir Richard Branson and many others who left school at the age of 16 and went on to become billionaires.
There was contained within this praise for others an oblique criticism of me – who managed to spend an incredibly wastrel 11 years as a full-time student, acquiring a couple of MAs and a PhD, with no clear academic goals in mind. Imagine if I had devoted all that time and energy instead to business activity – how much more successful would I be!
It has always seemed to me that not only do you not have to have a degree to succeed in business, but a rich humanities-based education can often be a positive disadvantage.
For example, I used to notice how my rivals in the property sector often had no other interests whatsoever outside of business. While I broke up the monotony of my working day by filling up my lunchtimes and evenings reading the novels of world literature, or popping in to see art exhibitions, or brushing up on my foreign languages, they would do nothing but business, business, business.
Their idea of fun of an evening was to pore over reams of property advertisements, looking for bargain investments. They would take pleasure in reading users’ guides to new accountancy software packages that would send me to sleep.
The only books they would have in their homes were self-help improvement manuals and they would look with incredulity at the “story books” that filled my home (and mind).
While I tended to see business as a means to allow me to visit all the countries in the world I wanted to see – sometimes disappearing for a month to drive across South Africa or Argentina – many of my business contemporaries showed no interest in foreign travel whatsoever.
“It’s all the same thing wherever you go,” one of them dismissively remarked to me, before settling back to a consideration of his recent investments.
They would constantly have their ear to the ground listening for any flicker of movement in any part of the city they could turn to their business advantage – but of events in foreign nations they had no more interest than in the empty seas of the moon.
How do you compete in life with these kind of intensely focused business machines? I could perhaps console myself that all this narrow fixation on business didn’t exactly make them rounded individuals – talk about any subject other than property and the conversation would abruptly peter out. But still, in the business arena, they were formidable people to be up against.
Yet eventually it occurred to me that having a broadly liberal arts education might come in handy after all. For one thing, the narrowness of their focus sometimes led them to being blind to world trends or historical patterns – it is only when you know for example that the Japanese stock market is around half now what it was in 1989 that you gain some sense that markets do not always inexorably rise.
Being obsessed with nothing but business and real estate – and deriving all your sense of worth from success in it – can also easily lure you into overly risky investments as you become caught up in a vortex of blinkered, overreaching ambition.
Buying in bulk cheap furniture sets for student properties does not really bring out your inner Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen
And there are other consolations of education too: A nuanced feel for words has come in handy more times than I can recall in business as I have marshalled it to extricate myself from tricky disputes.
I have also often listened in horror as I have heard of the damage my competitors have wrought in their refurbishment of historical properties, ripping out beautiful features and adding carbuncle extensions in their ceaseless, unthinking pursuit of functionality and profit.
But I must admit that the one time I felt that a cultural education finally came into its own was when I climbed the property investment chain and started arranging the decor of more high-end properties. Buying in bulk cheap furniture sets for student properties does not really bring out your inner Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen.
But considering the aesthetic differences of Afghan, Persian and Pakistan rugs or researching the qualitative differences of Steinbech, Yamaha or Kawaii pianos – all items I have recently supplied in a listed building refurbishment – finally gave me a sense that having a broad, artistic outlook might have some advantages after all.
Everything in this world connects: the challenge sometimes is being able to marshal your artistic instincts to full advantage in a ruthlessly business environment.