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.

Unfulfilled Visions and Machinations of Change

My father recently read my post on Soliloquies and Utopian Visions, during our Christmas get together he commented that the counterculture of the 60’s was largely interested in doing away with work and promoting “leisure” as well. I knew this of course, with the cliche of “working for the man” being a hallmark statement capturing the sentiment; however the comment led me to think of two things I’d like to add as a philosophical tributary to the earlier monologue.

In his book The Element, Sir Ken Robinson differentiates between three types of pursuits that people spend time on: Work, that which you do professionally to make a living. Leisure, that which you do to relax or take your mind off things. Recreation, things that you are passionate about that you pursue with the rigour of professional. I think of this last category as extra curricular activities. It is in this category where peoples’ “Element” often lives. It is here where the path to self fulfilment lies – Meaning just hanging around and having a cocktail won’t lead to self actualization. Indulging in libations would be categorized as leisure and is fine in moderation; however it is not going to lead to a positive transformation of the individual and by extension society.

There’s a problem here that a skeptic will quickly surface. Recreation, or extra curricular activities require effort, and quite possibly blood, sweat and tears. If people aren’t getting paid to do it, how do you get people pursuing their passions instead of just lazing about? There’s two high level answers, one at the individual level and one at societal level.

In the RSA Animate clip of a Sir Ken Robinson speech they do an excellent job illustrating the first contributor to the individual’s motivation. Following your passion feels good! It wakes you up, you like it, you’d do it even if you didn’t have to. So what’s the problem? People get busy, have other priorities, get dissuaded and generally lose sight of whatever their favourite extra curricular activity is. So once you’ve found it, you still have to make time for it and practice it, which can be hard especially in a culture that is skeptical of the inherent rewards. Making and keeping a schedule for your activity is a good place to start. Finding other people who share your passion can also be an important part of routinizing it into your daily life. Robinson reuses “finding your tribe” to describe this important facet of successfully cultivating your passion.

The societal level answer is culture. If a country’s culture can create a sincere outpouring of grief over the loss of a not so benevolent dictator, or an impassioned defence of a “democracy” where only one party is allowed to field candidates, then surely it can also create an environment where pursuit of one’s passion is more highly valued than having 500 television channels. Culture is a complex emergent entity… Where do we start? We start with ourselves as individuals and as Sir Ken Robinson rightly indicates we start with our public education systems as well. Why schools? They have relatively less for profit corporate vested interest. They are a common starting place for much of the worlds population, and they are very clearly broken.

As a New Year’s resolution and a commitment to practice what I preach, I will be seeking out my tribe at the Victroria Writer’s Society General Meeting, and the Victoria area Wordcamp. What are you doing next year to enrich yourself?


Soliloquies on Capitalism and Utopian Visions

Two of my favourite soliloquies from film are focused on capitalism and the effects of industrialization. One is affirmative and one is critical and yet both are brimming with truth. I was unable to locate the clips on Youtube, so I mashed them together and vimeo’ed them for your viewing pleasure.



Albert Einstein, in one of his many insightful writings in Ideas & Opinions, asserts that the greatest tragedy of the 20th Century is that automation and mechanization (extensions of the Industrial Revolution) were used to create new forms of work, rather than liberating man from labour. This envisioned liberation would enable men and women to pursue their passions (be it art, science, theatre, poetry, writing, philosophy) without the requirement to earn a living from it. To paraphrase Sir Ken Robinson’s words this would enable every individual to pursue their Element thereby contributing to society at their highest capacity. Robinson argues that this is our best strategy for surmounting the cacophony of crises that lie ahead. This thinking of course is an extension of Jungian philosophy, but taking the focus away from the transformative power of art, to the transformative power of passion. More specifically the transformative power, both for society and the individual, of individuals following and being successful in their passions.

So standing on the shoulders of giants where does this leave us? Capitalism and Industrialization should be encouraged to the extent that they enable opportunities for people to pursue their passions and lower the costs of living for all. As these mechanisms begin to encroach on personal freedoms and engender the extreme consolidation of wealth and power in the hands of a few, they should be eschewed.

There is an irony lurking here. Part of the cold war sales pitch of unfettered capitalism was the dominance of the individual over the state; it’s apparent that the dominance has quickly left the hands of individuals and is now firmly grapsed within the hands of economic necessity. “Don’t be a painter you won’t be able to make a living at it”. Perhaps that is the sad truth now that the Government assistance that sustained Poluck and Rothko in the early days of their careers has ceased. This failing of our societal mechanisms must be corrected… but how? Transform our systems of education? media? democracy? How do we affect a system with so much inertia, and vested short term interest? I suppose the only answer is to lead by example, follow your passion and encourage others to do the same… There’s nothing quite like the smell of utopia in the morning.


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

UVic FA101 A Creative Journey

I have recently returned to school, at the University of Victoria, as a continuing education student enrolled in the Fine Arts Diploma Program (FADP).

The impetus for this was two fold… First, after a 3 – 4 year professional development stint, where I attained my Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM), my PRINCE2 Practitioner and my Project Management Professional (PMP) designations, I was ready to study something other than Project Management. Secondly, my honeymoon in New York City left me once more passionate about my high school career aspiration which was to be an Architect. So the FADP seemed like a good place to start, 10 credit courses to graduate and possibly get me prepared to create an Architecture portfolio for entry into a Masters of Architecture program (Uvic has no such program)… all this without having to give up my day job and much needed income… FANTASTIC!

The one and and only required course for the FADP is FA101 “The Creative Being”; billed as an investigation of the creative process, the course had me more intrigued than your standard FA100 history, movements, recognize this slide type course. Initially I had concerns that the course wasn’t rigorous enough in it’s academic approach, I after all was a B.Comm. and as far as I could tell there was no testing to determine if we’d even read the course material… however I was slowly won over to the epistemological journey that was clearly, in hindsight, a wonderful journey in the way of learning by doing.

What follows is a collection of bi-weekly “creative acts”, the other weeks the exercises were more in the creative reflection side of things.

My first creative act: I took my collection of architectural photos and created a slide show set to music… “Architecture I Have Known”… Aperture and iMovie were the tools of choice.

Next up and sort of on the embarrassing side of things, we were instructed to go forth into the city and perform public art live… in front of an audience! Oh dear! Here’s my improvisational mime incorporating civic art.

Third, the dreaded group project! All in all it worked out pretty well, a little Madonna, a little super-hero spandex… what could possibly go wrong?

And last but not least, my final creative act of the semester, “An Examination of Time”, a mind twister mashup on multiple dimensions!

FA101 was a great introduction to the Fine Arts faculty, and its learn by doing approach was fantastically refreshing for a 1st year arts course… I look forward to my next course this summer FA350 “An Introduction to Architecture: Theory and Practice” as this will be the first architecturally specific course I’ve ever taken… after over 12 years of thinking about it!