Finding The Element

If you read nothing else in this life, read this book. I’ve been itching to write a review of it for two days now and haven’t because…because I don’t know why. Because I had a rule in my head that I had to finish it before urging you to read it, even though I knew I was going to recommend it after reading the first page.

I stumbled across his book after a friend posted a link to the author’s speech. You should watch it first. It will give you a really good idea what his book is about. Plus he’s a really entertaining speaker.

His book is called The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, and oh my is it ever true. He makes a lot of beautiful points about what it takes to find what he calls “the element”: that nexus between aptitude and passion, where what you’re good at meets what you love doing. Through countless examples of really successful people who found success through extraordinary means, Robinson shows how so many people go through life thinking they are not creative, or they’re not particularly good at anything, when nothing could be further from the truth. But true creativity, authenticity, and talent gets crushed by our educational system because it promotes one kind of success, one way of thinking, one route to fulfillment, and it’s becoming ever more standardized and forces children ever more towards conformity.

But when it comes to learning and growing and performing, there is not just one style. He says, “Never underestimate the vital importance of finding early in life the work that for you is play. This turns possible underachievers into happy warriors.” Never underestimate the importance of work that for you is play. We have such a social stigma, don’t we, against actually enjoying our work? People who love their jobs are said to be the lucky ones. Imagine what life would be like if we all allowed ourselves to pursue work that was our passion. Work we hate takes too much energy. It saps the life out of us. Work we love? It gives us energy. It gives us life. And yet, we put ourselves in “sensible jobs” to pay the bills, have stability, etc. because we’ve been told what we really love isn’t a viable option. But as Robinson says, “doing something ‘for your own good’ is rarely for your own good if it causes you to be less than who you really are.”

This isn’t just about personal fulfillment either. If people are pursuing their passions, they work to the fullest of their capacity. Therein lies the magic to maximizing human potential. We don’t just need this as individuals. We need this as a society to grow.

This message isn’t just for the young trying to find their way. It’s for anyone still looking. It’s for mothers with children for whom school doesn’t have a spark, or doesn’t tap into and allow enough space for learning in the area where the child’s heart is. It’s for people looking for a second or even third career. It encourages you to think about how it is you think and learn, in what ways you are intelligent and passionate. And it re-envisages the boundless ways you can use your particular strengths. Maybe you’re really good at memorizing baseball stats. Useless as that may seem to others, who knows…you could just be a really fantastic sports team manager. Maybe you love gardening…who knows, maybe there’s a life for you in landscape design. The point is, it is never too late to try to find it.

He makes a fabulous point about how the education system only prepares for the world as it is now and leaves us hopelessly unprepared for a changing and dynamic future. But the future is incredibly dynamic. Think how much change has occurred just over the past 2 decades. Can any of us say with any certainty what 2030 will look like?

I’m increasingly convinced too that the one career or one job for your entire working lifetime model of our parents’ generation is becoming obsolete. I think that for many industries and avenues for work, many of my generation will have multiple jobs and multiple careers over the span of their lifetime. Being able to adjust and roll with this requires a great deal of versatility and flexibility. It requires thinking about your skill set in broad, open-minded ways. For many of us, I think even the idea of working for large corporations is anathema to our deepest desires and happiness. Many will venture out on their own, as small business owners, freelancers, or otherwise self-made men and women. And for many of these paths, a college degree is not exactly what it takes to succeed.

Did I just really say that? *gasp* Yes I did. After teaching undergrads at the university level for the past 5 or so years, I’ve really begun to feel that pushing kids into college for that “all-mighty degree” is a mistake (perhaps one of even colossal proportions). We are told that you can’t get anywhere anymore without a college degree. Yet, once you get past the interview stage for most jobs…for how many of us has that degree actually mattered? It’s all about what you can do and what you have done. Meanwhile, kids plunk tens of thousands of dollars into a college education and at least 4 years (now going on 5 or more with budget cutbacks), and most students are just not plugged in. They’re not particularly interested in the subjects, certainly not as interested as they are in what grade they’ll get at the end and so they end up just floating through the whole experience. What an enormous waste of time and money for the students, and of expertise and know-how on the part of professors.

Of course I think education is important. But I don’t like this boilerplate model we’re adopting. I think many students would be far better served taking some time off after high school to work or travel to find out what it is that really motivates them. When they find their passion, then they should go to school for it. They’d get far more out of the experience. And it may be that a university is not the best place for them to learn. For a lot of careers, what employers are looking for is talent, not a GPA and magna cum laude. So it may be that looking into a trade school or a series of workshops and working internships is the way to go. Some guidance and feedback is always helpful. But sometimes people really do just learn best and discover their own unique contributions most efficiently simply by doing.

Anyway, take a look at the speech. If it speaks to you, I urge you to try the book.

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2 thoughts on “Finding The Element

  1. It is so frustrating working in the education system today. Everything is geared toward standardized testing. So much of what I try to do, encouraging kids to be creative, to find what they are interested in, to love books and the arts, to show them alternatives to the road most traveled… it just is looked down upon (to put it mildly). How dare we encourage kids to find out what they like? How dare we encourage kids to be creative? But how can we not???

    I'll be very interested to check out this book….

  2. I do wish he gave more practical advice for how to restructure the education system. He sets really laudable goals and makes them sound very achievable. But from the experience of one in the system, it's clear how nearly impossible major change is. I know there are a lot of schools that do set an alternate path and they can be very successful and are in high demand. But change in the mainstream? I just don't know. I think, just as parents, mentors, and educators, we can only try to make individual changes with individual students. We can try to be more aware of the range of possibilities of ways to reach them and to try to inspire them.

    But it's a trade off, isn't it? For, every moment you spend trying to fulfill the child personally is another moment you wonder if you're making it more difficult for them to do well on standardized tests. Or at least that's the fear. Maybe it's not really true, but you're scared it might be.