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.

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?


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.

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