The Element:  How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, by Ken Robinson (Viking, New York, 2009)

I've written before about Sir Ken Robinson, Creativity, and Education, and put an order in with our library as soon as I heard about his new book.  It finally came through, as library books are wont to do, at a time when hours for leisure reading are scarcer than arts classes in a standardized-test-obsessed school system.  But unlike Last Child in the Woods, The Element is a quick and non-technical read.  Robinson's 2006 TED talk is a good summary of the ideas in The Element.  The book goes into more detail, with more examples, and expands a bit further.

I use the term the Element to describe the place where the things we love to do and the things we are good at come together.  I believe it is essential that each of us find his or her Element, not simply because it will make us more fulfilled but because, as the world evolves, the very future of our communities and institutions will depend on it.

Robinson is convincing enough, and encouraging in his belief that it is never too late to find and nurture one's Element, but he is frustratingly short on practical advice.  So many of the examples he gives are of people who knew from childhood what they were good at, and what they wanted to do.  They may have been obstructed at every turn, may not have been able to do what they knew they were born for until much later in life, but at least they knew.

Now, I can quickly name three passions that at least begin to stir in me the excitement he speaks of, what another friend refers to as the "fire in the belly":  writing, education, and genealogy.  But not only were they not passions of mine during the years when I was in school and presumably focusing and honing my skills for the future, they were actually anti-passions:  I disliked my English and history classes, had negative interest in family stories, and teaching was not even in the vicinity of my career thoughts.  Nothing excited me, really.  I focused on science and math because I was good at them, which kept me going until some point in college, when they no longer came easily and my fair-to-middling interest was not sufficient to inspire the hard work necessary to master them.  How do we help the me's of this world to find their Element?

Here are some fairly random excerpts to give you a taste:

[I]ssues of attitude are of paramount importance in finding your Element.  A strong will to be yourself is an indomitable force.  Without it, even a person in perfect physical shape is at a comparative disadvantage.  In my experience, most people have to face internal obstacles of self-doubt and fear as much as any external obstacles of circumstance and opportunity....Fear is perhaps the most common obstacle to finding your Element.  You might ask how often it's played a part in your own life and held you back from doing the things you desperately wanted to try.

[Richard Wiseman, author of The Luck Factor] has identified four principles that characterize lucky people.  Lucky people tend to maximize chance opportunities.  They are especially adept at creating, noticing, and acting upon these opportunities when they arise.  Second, they tend to be very effective at listening to their intuition, and do work (such as meditation) that is designed to boost their intuitive abilities.   The third principle is that lucky people tend to expect to be lucky, creating a series of self-fulfilling prophecies because they go into the world anticipating a positive outcome.  Last, lucky people have an attitude that allows them to turn bad luck to good.  They don't allow ill fortune to overwhelm them, and they move quickly to take control of the situation when it isn't going well for them.

Effective mentors push us past what we see as our limits.  Much as they don't allow us to succumb to self-doubt, they also prevent us from doing less with our lives than we can.  A true mentor reminds us that our goal should never be to be "average" at our pursuits.

There is abundant evidence that opportunities to discover our Element exist more frequently in our lives than many might believe....I don't mean to say, of course, that we all can do anything at any time in our lives.  If you're about to turn one hundred, it's unlikely that you're going to nail the leading role in Swan Lake, especially if you have no previous dance background....Some dreams truly are "impossible dreams."  However, many aren't.  Knowing the difference is often one of the first steps to finding your Element, because if you can see the chances of making a dream come true, you can also likely see the necessary next steps you need to take toward achieving it.

In "The Pro-Am Revolution," a report for the British think tank Demos, Charles Leadbeater and Paul Miller underline the rise of a type of amateur that works at increasingly higher standards and generates breakthroughs sometimes greater than those made by professionals—hence the term Pro-Am....[They] call Pro-Ams "a new social hybrid," noting that they pursue their passions outside of the workplace, but with an energy and dedication rarely given to acts of leisure.  Pro-Ams find this level of intensity restorative, often helping to compensate for less-than-inspiring jobs.

In the last part of the book, Robinson deals with reforming, or rather transforming our educational system.

Public education puts relentless pressure on its students to conform.  Public schools were not only created in the interests of industrialism—they were created in the image of industrialism.  In many ways, they reflect the factory culture they were designed to support....This system has had many benefits and successes.  It  has done well for many people whose real strength is conventional academic work, and most people who go through thirteen years of public education are at least moderately literate and capable of making change for a twenty.  But dropout rates, especially in the United States, are extraordinarily high, and levels of disaffection among students, teachers, and parents are higher still.

Used the right way, standardized tests can provide essential data to support and improve education.  The problem comes when these tests become more than simply a tool of education and turn into a focus of it.

Many of the people I've talked about in this book say that they went through the whole of their education without really discovering their true talents.  It is no exaggeration to say that many of them did not discover their real abilities until after they left school—until they had recovered from their education.  As I said at the outset, I don't believe that teachers are causing this problem.  It's a systemic problem in the nature of our education systems.  In fact, the real challenges for education will only be met by empowering passionate and creative teachers and by firing up the imaginations and motivations of the students.

Too many reform movements in education are designed to make education teacher-proof.  The  most successful systems in the world take the opposite view.  They invest in teachers.  The reason is that people succeed best when they have others who understand their talents, challenges, and abilities.  This is why mentoring is such a helpful force in so many peoples' lives.  Great teachers have always understood that [their] real role is not to teach subjects but to teach students.  Mentoring and coaching is the vital pulse of a living system of education.

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, June 12, 2009 at 4:24 am | Edit
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I was disturbed the other day that one of my piano students refused to play the piece she had started to pick out by ear in the last lesson and gave the reason "I'm terrible at it." When she did sit down to play, it was beautiful up to the end where she needed some help because it was full of difficult intervals. I asked her how she thought she did and she said "bad," which in her mind was no better than terrible. I know she likes piano and playing by ear, and it troubled me that she should be a perfectionist at such a young age. I know she goes to a school that is as encouraging as it gets, and I've spoken to her teacher, who does not place great emphasis on grades and tests, but rather on character. So why, still, is she devastated over a less than perfect spelling test, and depressed over not being perfect at piano?

Here's one advantage of not being a pianist though I teach it, when I played through the same piece (picking it out by ear in the key she had chosen) I made five mistakes (as my other student gleefully pointed out to me). At the first mistake my depressed student turned to me with a smile of bewilderment and could it have been hope? Yes, the teacher makes mistakes, too.

Still, what is causing it and what can I do about it?

Sorry to hijack, I think it is relevant somehow, but can't quite bring it together.

Posted by Janet on Saturday, June 13, 2009 at 2:58 am

Perfectly appropriate. John Holt spent a lot of time trying to removed his students' fear, rightly (I think) seeing it as the biggest hindrance to their learning. Much of that fear he saw as instilled by the school, and I agree that's often the case, but I think it can come much earlier than that. In my case, my first memories of fear are related to kindergarten, but I don't have a lot of clear memories before that, so it's hard to say. I think some folks are more prone to it than others, and things that wouldn't faze someone else -- or might even stimulate and inspire him -- can do a lot of harm in the more sensitive. Parents, siblings, and certainly peers can inflict a lot of damage that way, even if unintentionally. (Though in the case of peers and siblings it often is intentional.)

I'm not offering much help. All I know is that it's a lot easier to instill fear than to heal it. Certainly learning that others make mistakes and don't quit should help. Ken Robinsons' book and lecture both say (I'm paraphrasing) that nothing creative happens if you're not willing to make a mistake. I also remember Marva Collins' saying that she drummed into all her students: If you can't make a mistake, you can't make anything.

Posted by SursumCorda on Saturday, June 13, 2009 at 1:27 pm
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Weblog: Lift Up Your Hearts!
Date: October 21, 2010, 11:02 am
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