The Element, by Sir Ken Robinson


The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything

I heard about Sir Ken Robinson through Catalyst, but as I understand it, he’s also been a speaker at TED. Very intelligent man who has spent much of his life studying people and the great things they do… when they’re in their Element.

Defining the Element

The “Element” as it is used in the book refers to that intersection of talent, passion, and opportunity that when people reach it, those around them are in awe. This can refer to athletes, artists, entrepreneurs, non-profits, or pretty much anyone who does great things.

Specifically, there are three main criteria that Robinson points at as being essential to the Element, but I only remember two – being good at it and enjoying it. There are many people who are good at things for which they have no passion, but that is not the Element.

Why the Element is important

The Element is the difference between good enough and great, between compliance and agreement, between acknowledgment and enthusiasm.

When we’re not operating in our Element, we may not articulate it, but we know it, and it can slowly eat us alive. We know that we’re not doing the best we can and not operating in our arena of greatest strength, and it drains us of energy and vigor. Unfortunately, I know all too well what that’s like.

Operating in our Element, though, makes us feel alive and energized. Even if we get physically fatigued, we’re in the zone and kicking butt.

The Element in action

Sir Ken goes through a bunch of different examples of people who have achieved great results by finding and operating in their Element, some of them more renowned than others.

One thing I remember that he emphasized was the extent to which some of them had to break away from what they had previously known in order to tap into that Element power. Some became estranged from family and friends for a time being. That’s the one that sticks in my mind, because that’s the one that would be hardest for me to do – cut ties from people who I love and care about, but who could be holding me back.

What we can do

Sir Ken’s “call to action” is pretty much to question the systems we’ve built for ourselves – in education, in the workplace, anywhere we are finding ourselves stuck and not moving in a direction we are passionate about.

The biggest thing I remember about this call to action is the emphasis on early education, and I think he has a good point. We put so much importance on doing well all-around, sometimes to the detriment of what children are truly good at and passionate about. By emphasizing the importance of well-roundedness (which more and more, I don’t get, but more on that in another post), we can dull their senses to what they care about and want to pursue. And they can end up like us – coasting to retirement.

Sir Ken suggests, and I agree, that we can do better than that. But, it will require sacrifice. We’ll just need to decide what’s more important.

What’s missing

I picked up this book because the premise of it sounded fascinating to me, and I wanted to apply it to my life and where I’m currently at. What I found, though, was a very interesting book about this phenomenon at work. It kind of reminded me of a Malcolm Gladwell book. I will explain why.

I have a love-hate relationship with Malcolm Gladwell. He writes these great books about these really interesting psychological topics and how they are embodied in our everyday lives, and I love reading his studies and the examples that he’s found of these different phenomena. But, the way he concludes his books irks me a little bit.

At the end of each book, I feel like he’s just saying, “There, I’ve told you about this concept. Go think about it for a while.” That’s fine for some people, I guess, but I’d like to tap into that myself. To be fair, he does offer some guidance in that arena, but it’s not exactly a call to action.

In Outliers, one of his big emphases is that to achieve what we consider excellence, about 10,000 hours of practice is required. The combination of talent plus practice brings people into the arena of the excellent. Definitely a great insight.

But the takeaway I got from it (and to be fair, it’s been a few years since I read it) was, “Go get 10,000 hours of practice. Then we’ll talk.” And in another sense, since most of his examples were people who had started at an early age, I was almost hearing, “It’s too late. You’ve squandered your life instead of getting 10,000 hours of practice in a worthy discipline. All you can do now is watch.”

I’m completely certain that was not Gladwell’s intention, but without a clear call to action for one’s personal life, that’s what I essentially got out of it.

In the same way, and I realize this is a long digression, Sir Ken doesn’t exactly give us much in the way of guidelines to figuring out our own Elements. He brings up some great examples and tells great stories about what they’ve done, but at the end of it, I’m still at a loss.

Buy, borrow, or bypass?

Despite my complaints above, I still think this is a great book to read about what it looks like to pursue one’s passion, and the benefits of doing so. I also like that Sir Ken points out the sacrifices that people have made in this pursuit, but shows that at least to that person, it was worth it. I do wonder about people who may have gone a similar path but who have not met with success, but it wasn’t Sir Ken’s responsibility to look for every single person who’s had a dream.

So yes, certainly not a bypass. But is it a buy? I don’t intend to. It’s a great book, but it’s not a book that I’ll really need to crack open again. Unless I’m doing research, I won’t really be referring to it so much, so I don’t intend to buy.

So if you’re like me and are trying to de-clutter, I would say borrow, don’t buy, this book. You can certainly buy if you prefer, but it will likely stay on your shelf after you’ve read it, and maybe one day get donated to… a library!

If you still want to buy, though, click on the picture of the book cover to link to Amazon (not an affiliate link). I tried.

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  1. Wow, I can’t believe I’ve never heard of this book. Thanks for the intro. I’ll definitely have to check it out. I love books that speak on passion and opportunity. I have the same feelings you do towards Gladwell. I never really feel like I can apply the information he offers in his books.

      • wheretigerswill
      • October 27th, 2011

      Glad to help, Ralph! It’s definitely a good read, but yeah, feels like a Gladwell book at the end…

      Good to know I’m not the only one with this love-hate relationship with Gladwell. Great writer and intriguing research, but not much takeaway.

      Let me know what you think of the book when you finish! It’s not a short one, though.

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