exclude his own pupils from his remarks) displayed “an underlying sense of entitlement”.
He didn’t use the word “snowflake”—a word that, among other things, has come to describe a generation of people with an inflated sense of their own uniqueness. But he might as well have done. What particularly irked him was an interview he conducted with a trainee teacher who, at the end of the conversation, asked him: “Why should I come to work for you?” For Mr. Robb, it was a deflating response. As he reflected in his blog: “There used to be a real sense of pride associated with doing ‘an honest day’s work’, whatever the role might have been. There was also a real sense of achievement among individuals who, having started on the bottom rung of a company’s ladder and having been recognised for sheer effort levels, or stand-out skill, were fortunate enough to work their way up the ladder.” Now, he believed, some youngsters approach job interviews “in the same way as they might approach buying a luxury holiday”. They “expect to be given a ‘one-in-a-million’ job, despite being one of millions of applicants”.
In his blog, Mr. Robb praised James Dyson, a former pupil who embodied the kind of grit he wanted to see. The inventor spent 15 years developing his acclaimed vacuum cleaner, preparing more than 5,000 prototypes before finding success. Another suggestion for a role model with a Gresham connection is Sir Thomas Gresham, nephew of the school’s founder, whom I researched for my new book New World, Inc: The Making of America by England’s Merchant Adventurers (co-written with John Butman and published by Little, Brown on 20 March 2018). A brilliant financier, who gave his name to Gresham’s Law (the fundamental economic principle that bad money drives out good money) and founded the Royal Exchange (London’s first bourse), he was one of the main investors in a series of pioneering voyages to China (the adventurers never got there): first via the supposed Northeast Passage (following the coast of the Eurasian landmass), and then via the fabled Northwest Passage through the icy waters of the Canadian Arctic.
Born in 1518, Sir Thomas was, like many of the pupils at Gresham’s School today, raised in a privileged household. His father, a rich London merchant, was a renowned financier who rose to become Lord Mayor of London. Nowadays, that’s a ceremonial role. Back then, however, it carried real power. As a contemporary noted, there was “no public officer of any city in Europe that may compare in port and countenance” with the Lord Mayor of London.
Young Thomas was given the very finest education money could buy: he was schooled at St. Paul’s, then and still among the top academies in the country (Gresham’s wasn’t founded until 1555). From there, he advanced to Gonville Hall (now Gonville & Caius College) in Cambridge, before acquiring a smattering of law at Gray’s Inn, the grandest of London’s famed inns of court and then the classic finishing school for the country’s aristocrats.
After that, he might have expected to walk straight into the family business. But he didn’t do this—at least, his father wouldn’t let him. Under the old rules of patrimony, he was perfectly entitled to become a member of one of the most exclusive and powerful institutions in the country: the Worshipful Company of Mercers. In those days, membership of this august organisation conferred citizenship in London, and this was a requirement for anyone wishing to do business in England’s capital. But his father did not think it was a good idea simply to buy access. Yes, he wanted his son to follow in his footsteps and become a member, but not before working his passage and doing like everyone else who aspired to be a Mercer: complete a seven-year apprenticeship.
As a teenager, Gresham was apprenticed to John Gresham, the school’s founder. We do not know what he thought about this idea at the time. But afterwards, he praised his “wise” father for giving him the opportunity to get “experience and knowledge” of different kinds of business, even though he “need not have been an apprentice”. Sir Thomas was driven to put his thoughts down on paper after seeing too many people enter the cloth trade without first having completed adequate training. In his opinion, they were producing shoddy work, and this was having a detrimental impact on England’s reputation as a cloth manufacturer.
There might have been something of the protectionist in Gresham's stance. On the other hand, his thinking prefigured the modern view that to become a master of anything requires dedication, discipline and determination—or “grit”, as Mr. Robb puts it—and lots of time. As Malcolm Gladwell, the business writer, noted in his book Outliers, the magic number of hours needed to reach a world-class standard is 10,000.
And years later, Sir Thomas gave generously to help those who were ready to help themselves and work their socks off. In his will, he set aside his palatial London mansion for use as a new college. Accordingly, in 1597, Gresham College, sited where the iconic Tower 42 (formerly known as the NatWest Tower) stands today, threw open its doors, offering free lectures to anyone who cared to attend them. The lecturers, paid more handsomely than the greatest professors at Oxford and Cambridge, were some of the most celebrated intellectuals of their day.
For those willing to better themselves, Gresham College offered a priceless opportunity. They could turn up and hear Sir Christopher Wren, the architect, or Robert Hooke, the scientist, or John Bull, the composer. Even now, the college still offers free lectures, although it is no longer housed in Gresham’s mansion, which was demolished in the eighteenth century. Only the other week, my daughter and a friend, totally unbeknownst to me, took themselves off to hear the Oxford professor, Sir Jonathan Bate, give a lecture on Shakespeare. “Thrilling,” was her one-word precis.
Five hundred years after his birth, Sir Thomas Gresham is a powerful role model. He was privileged—exceptionally so. He had every reason to feel a sense of entitlement. And yet he set all of his inherited advantages to one side, and worked hard, and deserved everything he got.
His is an example well worth following—for the snowflake generation, or any other generation, for that matter.
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