Pursuing a philosophy degree is disconcerting.

Ask my father. When I told him that I wanted to be the next Hegel, judging by the look on his face, you would've thought I told him I wanted to be the next Larry Flynt.

Paul Riswold had different plans for Jim Riswold. Ever since 1973, when I sold more candy bars than anyone else on the International Footprinters hockey team, he was certainI was destined to sit alongside Morgan and Rockefeller high up in the corner office of American business. This, my father reasoned, would allow him to retire early and have his successful son buy him a new truck.

He also reasoned that a philosopher son would mean no early retirement and no truck. 

Yes, my son is a member of the Hegel Society of America; yes, he understands the notion of Change; yes, he accepts Strife as essential to Progress; yes, he can argue dialectically; yes, he sees things as Parts of a Whole; yes, he views himself as a character in the Unfolding of History and, yes, he has a penchant for thinking in capital letters; but none of that is going to get me an early retirement or a new truck, now is it?

Ask my college roommates, Pat McGough and Scott Smolinsky. They spent their school years holed up in Balmer Hall learning how to line up decimal points and have since gone on to successful careers lining up decimal points. They also spent an inordinate amount of time trying to understand why their philosopher roommate would not eat in order to save money to buy a first-edition copy of John Locke's An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. 

They, like my father, also doubted the career prospects for philosophers. 

I'm terribly sorry, Mr. Riswold, we have no use for Hegelians here at Boeing at this time, but if you check back in six months...

Ask any girl I didn't go out with while chasing credits in philosophy. (This, unfortunately, was pretty much every girl with a pulse, but that's another and much longer and more embarrassing story.) 

Pat's roommate is kinda cute. Too bad he's a philosophy major.

No love life, no food, no "Philosopher Wanted" ads in the job opportunities column and no chance of buying my father that new truck is no way to leave school, but somehow my first-edition copy of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding and I soon after stumbled upon a career in advertising.

Long, boring, self-indulgent story short, I've been told by people who have nothing better to do than write about advertising that I'm pretty good at it.

Riswold's campaigns may have created more American icons than anyone since Walt Disney. You would not, however, suspect it by looking at him... Riswold looks more like the sevenyear philosophy undergrad he once was at the University of Washington than one of the most powerful forces in American advertising.


Flattering hyperbole, yes, but I don't think I would've been the subject of such fawning nonsense if it weren't for my background in philosophy. I've said this once, if not a hundred times before: The wondrous and wonderful years I spent in Savery Hall have enabled me to look at things in, hopefully, a different way. At the very least, reading the Sartres and Hegels of the world provides proof that, yes, there are far more difficult things to comprehend than all the really dumb stuff that happens constantly in the world of advertising.

It has also, in rare moments of lucidity, allowed me to realize there are far more important things in this world than advertising: family, friends, art, first editions of Locke, literature and baked beans. While the baked beans bit may sound flippant, it isn't; because when you come to grips with the fact that something as inconsequential as baked beans is more important than advertising, it allows you to create great advertising.

So I guess I can summarize all my answers to the whole what-good-does- being-able-to-wade-through-Hegel-dofor-a-career-in-advertising question by saying philosophy taught me something that's unfortunately in far too short a supply in my profession: perspective.

Good thing, this thing called perspective. Just think how much of it there might be if there were more philosophy majors, calorically challenged or otherwise.

It's worked for me. The influence of philosophy in my career has led to a happily ever life: I have two beautiful children; I've survived two cancers and premature male pattern baldness; the kind folks at the University of Washington Department of Philosophy named a seminar room after me despite the fact that I was never going to be the world's next Hegel; the value of that first edition of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding has moved a few decimal points to the right since 1979; and I may just buy my father that new truck yet.

Either that or a copy of Terry Pinkard's excellent 780-page biography on Hegel.

Cory Johnson, "Mr. November," George, October 1996

Jim Riswold