Review: Finding Your Element

Sir Ken Robinson is back with a sequel and companion to The Element, read on for a full review.

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Disclaimer: I’m a Sir Ken Robinson fan. Since I shelved my scepticism in 2011, I’ve been enthusiastic in every respect. From the video marathon to the retrospective epiphany, and my final review of The Element, my take has been persistently positive – this post will be no different in that regard!

Finding Your Element – How to Discover Your Talents and Passions and Transform Your Life is, as the title suggests, a how to guide on launching your “personal quest” to discover your Element. In that respect, perhaps, I’m not the primary target audience for Sir Ken Robinson’s newest creation. My personal quest is already well underway, hence this blog, my enrolment in UVic’s Fine Arts Diploma program, and my pending application to once more join the ranks of undergraduate students, this time in UVic’s Creative Writing program. My quest was launched by an outward scoff and an internal dialogue sparked by the cover of The Element – How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything. I thought to myself:

“Thanks Ken – helpful. As if I didn’t already know that… Do something you love and never have to work a day in your life… check… I can’t believe people pay for and read books, just to be told that…”

“Well, what are you doing about finding your passion?”

“Uhmm, nothing… apparently I’m looking for it in the self-help section of my local book store, and scoffing at what I see…”

“Well, what are you going to do about it?”

“Uhhmm…”

“Well what are you passionate about?”

“Uhhmmm… I like architecture and design…”

“And how are you pursuing those passions?”

“Erhh I’m not… really”

“Because…?”

“Uhh… Look I’m really busy! I say I’m passionate about these things but I can’t ever find the time. It’s hopeless, for me, without a schedule… an enforced schedule with structure and deadlines, otherwise all my best intentions get blown away in the exhale from daily life.”

“So…?”

“I… I guess I need that structure… “

“Mhhmm?”

“I guess I could get it by enrolling in a course… Okay – I’ll start by looking for courses available in town!”

And so my quest had begun. The first and most essential step taken without actually picking up Sir Ken Robinson’s The Element – my conversion to fan of the book and the man came later.

Fast forward – what does Finding Your Element offer to would be readers?

It offers the same motivational, relatable, balanced and hopeful package as The Element. It’s offered in the same humorous, easy to read prose – but this time it’s more personal. It’s about the reader and their personal quest and is full of exercises, suggestions and tools to help readers plan and commit to that essential first step.

The stories of people inside seem more focused on every-day people and less focused on people who became rock star savants, though of course there is some of that. The book also contains a more robust conversation on how a person can have more than one Element, and how it can change over time. Besides the laughter and the motivation to continue my quest, the most useful thing for me inside Finding Your Element was the recognition that for most of us who are just starting to cultivate our Element, it takes sustained effort, which can feel like work. But it’s work you enjoy doing, it’s work you’d do even if you weren’t getting paid,  and as you hone your raw “aptitude” into a bonafide “ability,” you enjoy the journey, you see your progress, you “get it,” and you continue to push forward hoping to achieve more regularly the nirvana of being in your Element.

As I aspire to write a great Canadian novel, these messages are timely. It’s work, it takes time, but I do enjoy it; When I’m in the flow I do lose track of time, and I do believe my writing ability is getting better week by week. I’m doing it without getting paid, in-fact I’m actively investing in honing the “ability,” an investment that’s likely never to make a financial return. Yet, taking pleasure in getting better at something creative, productive, and moving towards spending a larger portion of my life immersed in that – I think it’s worth any price.

TO-FU’s 29 Ways to Stay Creative

Despite this stylish illustrated video being online for about 8 months, being fantastic, and already earning a lot of praise from like minded people I had not seen it before.

I’m pleased to report that I already do most of these things. Even so, I shall be more diligent about ensuring I practice them and cross them off my list. The following three from the list of 29 are definitely the outliers in terms of my lack of adoption.

7 – Sing in the shower

I’m pretty noisy in the shower… it may be possible to classify it as some sort of gregorian chant but that might be pushing the boundaries a little… I must do better.

21 – Break the rules

I tend to be a rule follower most of the time. However I did do that video mashup of Sabrina and Lord of the Rings… maybe that counts?

23 – Read a Page of the Dictionary

This is an excellent idea. I’m going to read one page of the dictionary every night before bed.

Are you doing any of these things? Any ones you are not currently doing that you are brave enough to try?

This is a fantastic video, thank you TO-FU.

Poetry vs. Strategic Outcomes

Earlier this week I acknowledged that there was something lacking in my SMART News Year’s resolution model. By adopting the SMART technique it means that some of the overarching, higher level, bigger picture goals aren’t explicitly captured… these north stars are relegated to the land of the implied.

In my professional world of suits and ties here is how we would tackle this problem. We would take my list of SMART goals and categorize each of them under a heading, probably called a “Strategic Outcome”, so for instance you might do something like this:

Strategic Outcome: Increase Professionalism of Writing

  • Join Victoria Writing Society in January
  • Get published somewhere other than Exploring-Art.com this year
  • Complete a writing portfolio submission… by December

But that would not be very artful! So instead what I did is I wrote a companion poem to go with my SMART goals. Defy pigeonholes, embrace individuality and explore your passions – be brave! Without further ado, here’s my poem:

Three hundred and sixty five days make a year
Fear as always
Is the predominant barrier
Be brave – profess your goals
I must pursue writing with a professional rigour
I will spend effort, resources and time
transforming Exploring-Art
into a noteworthy cultural endeavour
I shall romance my darling wife and will also
pursue a healthy and nonjudgmental life.

Book Review: Out of Our Minds (2nd Edition)

For me Out of Our Minds (2nd Edition) was not as enrapturing as The Element; however, its pages still contained many gems. Perhaps my growing embrace of Sir Ken Robinson’s material was the reason this book seemed more complementary and less ground breaking than The Element. Regardless, I found the last two chapters, Being A Creative Leader and Learning to be Creative, particularly fresh and insightful. Overall I would recommend this book to anyone who is curious or skeptical of the importance of creativity and the need to transform our 19th Century outmoded education systems.

As with The Element  Sir Robinson masterfully weaves together the thoughts, philosophies and quotes of others to illustrate the pedigree of his own unique assertions. One such quote near the end of the book, which I’m sure many have heard but I had not, was from Socrates:

“Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.”

This quote raises a question of how we went from idolizing the demigods of ancient academia to neglecting how they taught for the sake of focusing solely on what they taught. This neglect is demonstrated in the shift from an individualistic approach to that of a production line. Alas! Marshall McLuhan was born too late! He could have warned our ancestors, the creators of our industrialized public education system, that the medium is the message.

The Element: A Dance, and A Book Review

The Dance

The Element and I have a dogged past. A year or so ago I was surveying the books in my local book store. I wandered through the store deep in thought. I had been struggling to keep the stress of my day job from encroaching on other parts of my life. I looked down and saw The Element by Ken Robinson, and I expressed an internal scoff… The cover read: “How finding your passion changes everything”… I thought to myself “Thanks Ken, that’s helpful… Basically the old adage: “Do something you love and you’ll never have to work a day in your life”… Not sure I need to read a book to get that.” Instead of leaving with a book I somehow left with the idea of enrolling in some form of continuing education. This led me to enrol in the Fine Arts Diploma program at Uvic. I had many reasons for enrolling, one of which was just to give my brain something compelling to think about other than work.

The Element showed up again not long after that initial encounter. I had helped facilitate a 100 person conference, and as recognition facilitators and organizers were  asked to pick a book from a selection that had been prepared at the front of the room. The Element was among them, I didn’t pick it.

In Fine Arts 101 I was introduced to Sir Ken Robinson via his inaugural video recorded TED Talk. At the time I didn’t make the connection with the book I had seen prior to enrolling at UVic. Close to a year later in a moment of frustration related to my return to academia I created the Sir Ken Robinson Video Marathon post, and it was only then that I started to grasp the connection… I returned to my local bookstore and bought The Element as well the only other in stock book authored by Ken Robinson.

The Review

After this dance, which transpired over nearly a year, I read The Element in a day and a half and I loved it. It made me laugh and it also brought me to tears. Only time will tell if it will have meaningful consequences in my life, but I am hopeful that it will. Obviously your mileage may vary, but for me it was brilliant. My wife asked me why it was so wonderful, and it was hard to describe at first, but here’s my thoughts on the subject. Using four related themes this is why The Element sings.

Motivational

The Element is motivational. Motivational has become something of a dirty word, with cheesy motivational posters and their parodies becoming a cultural phenomena. But alas I cannot think of a better descriptor. It makes you want to sit up and do more, be more, achieve more, contribute more; it is motivational in a profound way that is hard to find the words to describe; it doesn’t just lift your spirits as might be the case with something inspirational… It really makes you want to take action, to do something, to act.

Relatable

It is relatable. You get it right away, including all the many facets of what is detailed such as; the stories of  the super successful, what the element is, and how do you know when you have found it. It is all very accessible, the obviousness hinted at on the cover, which I originally scoffed at, is actually a huge asset to this book.

Balanced

Sir Ken Robinson’s advice is balanced. It’s not all black or white. It’s not quit your job and join an Ashram. It’s not think positive and love your slavery. It’s not here’s the one answer. It’s balanced and therefore more realistic, more practical and more motivational than I could have imagined. It opens many doors not just one.

Hopeful

It is one of the most hopeful books I have ever read. It promises hope for the individual and convincingly thereby for humanity as well. It makes a cogent case that we can all contribute at our optimal level: It is not something that is restricted to celebrities, superstars, or a lucky few. It also compellingly makes the case that each individual contributing at their peak is the best chance we as a species have to surmount the critical challenges we are facing today as well as the ones we will face in the not so distant future.

I very much look forward to reading the other Sir Ken Robinson book I purchased, Out of Our Minds. However,  before starting down that path, I’m now re-motivated to finish Richard Rhodes’ How to Write

Retrospective Epiphany and The Perils of Judgement in Education

Last week’s academic frustrations and the subsequent scouring of all Ken Robinson internet videos led to a number of events. First it culminated in the Sir Ken Robinson Video Marathon post. It also led me to purchase his books The Element and Out of Our Minds from my local book store. Since these impromptu purchases I have been utterly consumed by The Element and have breezed through the first 97 pages (more than one third)… and finally this journey led me to the following retrospective epiphany.

Roughly twenty years ago, I can’t remember in which grade, either in six or seven, my father presented me with this plea (yes my rebellious stage had already started to emerge)…

“Choose one subject you really like in school and just excel in that, really apply yourself to that one subject and see how it goes…”

Out of love and admiration for my father I committed to doing this, and the subject I chose was English. Creative writing was the primary focus of that elementary English year. I poured myself into the next two assignments. I wrote a short story about an escaped high fantasy hero with a last stand by a wooded river bank. Where, along the river shore, our hero with an un-described past barely bests all the kings men in mortal combat. The other short story was a modern car chase scene, with gangsta rap of the era, “Damn it feels good to be a gangsta” on the Porsche stereo. Here too a bloody end, this time involving police brutality in the snow.

As a reward for this effort and my father’s timely intervention my teacher wrongly accused me of plagiarism. Her “proof” was two fold. One, I’d never produced any work of this quality before, and second her sons had video games and she “knew” my inaugural writing efforts were “plagiarizing” their motifs. I’m not sure under what circumstance this terrible standard of proof (not to mention definition of plagiarism) would be worthy of anything. Yet, under the judgement of my elementary school principal (If I recall correctly ironically named Sunny) this was sufficient grounds for many parent teacher conferences, me being sent to the psychologist for testing, and having to write my next assignment, not at home, but in a detention like setting at school. This new setting clearly being a great environment for tapping into a spring of creativity. The immediate deliberations were inconclusive of course… other than I had an exceptional vocabulary for someone of my age, and my next assignment was predictably uninspired and unmemorable. Unbeknownst to me, my parents were also urged to realize I was the next “Jeremy”, as enshrined in Pearl Jam’s famous epic. I am thankful to report that 20 years later I’m still proving them wrong by living a violence free life!

My “retrospective epiphany” is this… this whole educational debacle had many longer term effects. It prolonged my rebellious period, with me breaking out of it barely in-time to gain entrance into University, and it left me profoundly untrustworthy of authority. Especially in circumstances where the “right answer” or the desired behavior is subjective or unclearly defined. Which is incredibly unfortunate because my passions have always been more in the arts than in the maths or sciences, but since this incident I have shied away form them, until very recently. This false accusation, which was leveled at me at a vulnerable time when I was making a first attempt to really apply myself, set back my emerging academic commitment for years. It also crushed my artistic aspirations, the residue of which lasted even longer. My angst with the education system and the grades assigned to my visual art (ART 150) writing efforts this semester have also been amplified by this ancient wound… astounding!

Having expressed this epiphany I feel relieved to have rooted out this piece of shrapnel, and revisited its ramifications… I’m also left pondering the significance and serendipitous nature of a chorus line in a song, which lately I have been listening to constantly: “And judgement is just like a cup that we share” – Iron & Wine, Rabbit Will Run.

Sir Ken Robinson Video Marathon

As the third class (ART 150) in my Fine Arts Diploma Program sunsets I can’t help but feel; that though the subject mater is less industrial than my Bachelor of Commerce degree the overall educational paradigm is the same. It feels a bit disheartening as well as misplaced… an area of study with an identity crisis perhaps?

This feeling got me thinking of a TED talk I was exposed to, in the first course of my program FA 101 (which was fantastic), by Sir Ken Robinson… some googling and hours later, I present the Sir Ken Robinson Video Marathon! The best internet videos I could find from the knight calling for an educational revolution. Fight on Ken, your revolution is not complete!

The Inaugural

The Animated 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDZFcDGpL4U]

The Element 

1 Hour Talk on the Element

No apparent way to embed this one but it’s worth the jump and the time, a lengthy talk covering a wide range of topics associated with the Element one of Sir Ken Robinson’s books.

The Latest

The Creative Process

Similar to the question of “What is art?” everyone has a different creative process. One creative journey is never exactly the same as another. However, there are some common elements, some considerations which are beneficial to contemplate, and these elements are the subject of this post.

I quite like Damien Newman’s, of Central Office of Design, design squiggle (depicted above) as a starting place.

The upper most categories I think are most generally relevant to the creative process. You start with a high level of uncertainty and slowly through a process of somewhat chaotic progressive elaboration move towards clarity and focus, and a finished piece of art. I think this wonderfully depicts how you rarely end up where you initially planned to. Through the creative process, you learn, you adapt, you modify, you refine, you change, you contemplate and eventually you decide you are done.

Phase 1: The initial idea.
In general the creator starts with an initial idea… it might be, I want to go out today into my hometown and take photographs, or it might be I want to write a poem for peace, or it might be I want to capture the essence of the human experience in mixed media… there’s something there, a spark that gets the creator off the proverbial couch.

Phase 2: Discernment
This is the doing and reflecting phase. You might take some notes about your initial idea, get it down on paper, you might just go out and start taking photographs, you might pick up a book on the subject or you might start the first few strokes of your next painting. After you’ve taken a few steps forward, at some level, conscious or super-conscious, you reflect on these few steps, getting a sense if your are heading in the right direction.

Phase 3: Refinement
During this phase we make modifications to what we are working on based on input from the Discernment phase. This loop may have a small time horizon; “I thought I wanted the fire hydrant off centre, but maybe centered is better”, the photographer is moving the camera and comparing the refined frame in the view finder. Or it may have a long time horizon; the first draft of the novel is complete, but I must make Ted pass Julie in the coffee shop, unaware, in chapter one, I’ve previously discerned that this will help bring the story together…

Discernment and Refinement are tightly coupled, and continue in an iterative cycle until the Completion phase of the creative process arrives.

Phase 4: Completion
Sometimes the hardest part is knowing when you are done, and that is what this final phase is all about. Everybody does it differently, and sometimes it might just be that you’re out of time.

Creative Challenge: Poetic Snapshot

Creative Challenge Number 2

For the next few days, or for as long as it takes, I want you to really look around you when you are out and about. You are looking for something that speaks to you, that inspires you, that reminds you that you live in an incredible world.

Whip out that camera or camera phone that I know you always have on you and snap a serendipitous shot. Post it online and share with us what you like about it.

Here’s mine:

My wife actually gets credit for spying this natural vignette but I snapped the photo with my iPhone 4. I love dew, it reminds of childhood and playing in the grass in the morning. It reminds of spring and fall, the seasons and the passing of time, the poetic nature of existence…

So keep your eyes open for something that inspires you, take a snap shot, determine what about it moves you and share it!