From one of the world's leading thinkers and speakers on creativity and self-fulfillment, a breakthrough book about talent, passion, and achievement
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Ken Robinson, PHD, is an internationally recognized leader in the development of creativity, innovation, and human resources. He has worked with national governments in Europe and Asia, international agencies, Fortune 500 companies, national and state education systems, nonprofit organizations, and some of the world's leading cultural organizations. He lives in Los Angeles, California.
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Table of Contents
CHAPTER ONE - The Element
CHAPTER TWO - Think Differently
CHAPTER THREE - Beyond Imagining
CHAPTER FOUR - In the Zone
CHAPTER FIVE - Finding Your Tribe
CHAPTER SIX - What Will They Think?
CHAPTER SEVEN - Do You Feel Lucky?
CHAPTER EIGHT - Somebody Help Me
CHAPTER NINE - Is It Too Late?
CHAPTER TEN - For Love or Money
CHAPTER ELEVEN - Making the Grade
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First published in 2009 by Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
All rights reserved
Artwork on page 65: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)-ESA/ Hubble Collaboration. Acknowledgment: D. Gouliermis (Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, Heidelberg).
All other artwork: NASA/JPL-Caltech.
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING IN PUBLICATION DATA
Robinson, Ken, date.
The element: how finding your passion changes everything / Ken Robinson with Lou Aronica.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
eISBN : 978-1-440-65618-7
1. Self-actualization (Psychology) 2. Self-realization. 3. Creative ability
in children. 4. School failure. I. Aronica, Lou. II. Title
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To my sister and brothers, Ethel Lena, Keith, Derek, Ian, John, and Neil; to our extraordinary Mum and Dad, Ethel and Jim; to my son, James, and my daughter, Kate, and to my soul mate, Terry. This book is for you. For all your many talents and for the endless love and laughter we put into each other’s lives. It’s when I’m with you and the ones you love that I really am in my Element.
They say it takes a village to raise a baby. Rearing a book like this takes a small metropolis. I know I have to say I can’t thank everyone, and I really can’t. I do have to single out a few people, though, for special service awards.
First and foremost, my wife and partner, Terry. This book simply wouldn’t be in your hands but for her. Its origins were in an off-the-cuff remark I made at a conference a few years ago. I had just told the Gillian Lynne story, which now opens chapter 1 of the book. In passing, I said that one of these days I was going to write a book about stories like that. I’ve since learned not to say these things out loud in front of Terry. She asked me when did I have in mind. “Soon,” I said, “definitely soon.” After a few months had passed, she started it herself, wrote the proposal, worked on the ideas, did some of the initial interviews, and then found the agent, Peter Miller, who was to help make it happen. With the foundations laid so solidly, and the escape routes closed so firmly, I finally kept my word and got on with the book.
I want to thank Peter Miller, our literary agent, for all his great work, not least in bringing Lou Aronica and me together. I travel a lot—too much, really—and producing a book like this needs time, energy, and collaboration. Lou was the ideal partner. He is seriously professional: sage, judicious, creative, and patient. He was the calm center of the project as I orbited the earth, sending notes, drafts, and second thoughts from airports and hotel rooms. Between us, we also managed to steer a successful course between the often comic conflicts of British and American English. Thank you, Lou.
My son, James, gave up his precious, final student summer to pore over archives, journals, and Internet sites, checking facts, dates, and ideas. Then he debated virtually every idea in the book with me until I was worn out. Nancy Allen worked for several months on research issues under increasingly tight deadlines. My daughter, Kate, had a wonderfully creative collaboration with Nick Egan to produce a unique Web site that shows all the other work we’re now doing. Our assistant, Andrea Hanna, worked tirelessly to orchestrate the myriad moving parts in a project like this. We wouldn’t still be standing up without her.
As the book was taking shape, we were extremely fortunate to have the wise and creative counsel of our publisher, Kathryn Court, at Viking Penguin. Her benign form of intimidation also ensured that we got the book finished in decent time.
Finally, I have to thank all of those whose stories illuminate this book. Many of them spent precious hours, amid very busy lives, to talk freely and passionately about the experiences and ideas that lie at the heart of The Element. Many others sent me moving letters and e-mails. Their stories show that the issues in this book reach into the core of our lives. I thank all of them.
It’s usual to say, of course, that whatever good things other people have contributed, any faults that remain in the book are my responsibility alone. That seems a bit harsh to me, but I suppose it’s true.
A FEW YEARS AGO, I heard a wonderful story, which I’m very fond of telling. An elementary school teacher was giving a drawing class to a group of six-year-old children. At the back of the classroom sat a little girl who normally didn’t pay much attention in school. In the drawing class she did. For more than twenty minutes, the girl sat with her arms curled around her paper, totally absorbed in what she was doing. The teacher found this fascinating. Eventually, she asked the girl what she was drawing. Without looking up, the girl said, “I’m drawing a picture of God.” Surprised, the teacher said, “But nobody knows what God looks like.”
The girl said, “They will in a minute.”
I love this story because it reminds us that young children are wonderfully confident in their own imaginations. Most of us lose this confidence as we grow up. Ask a class of first graders which of them thinks they’re creative and they’ll all put their hands up. Ask a group of college seniors this same question and most of them won’t. I believe passionately that we are all born with tremendous natural capacities, and that we lose touch with many of them as we spend more time in the world. Ironically, one of the main reasons this happens is education. The result is that too many people never connect with their true talents and therefore don’t know what they’re really capable of achieving.
In that sense, they don’t know who they really are.
I travel a great deal and work with people all around the world. I work with education systems, with corporations, and with not-for-profit organizations. Everywhere, I meet students who are trying to figure out their futures and don’t know where to start. I meet concerned parents who are trying to help them but instead often steer them away from their true talents on the assumption that their kids have to follow conventional routes to success. I meet employers who are struggling to understand and make better use of the diverse talents of the people in their companies. Along the way, I’ve lost track of the numbers of people I’ve met who have no real sense of what their individual talents and passions are. They don’t enjoy what they are doing now but they have no idea what actually would fulfill them.
On the other hand, I also meet people who’ve been highly successful in all kinds of fields who are passionate about what they do and couldn’t imagine doing anything else. I believe that their stories have something important to teach all of us about the nature of human capacity and fulfillment. As I’ve spoken at events around the world, I’ve found it’s real stories like these, at least as much as statistics and the opinions of experts, that persuade people that we all need to think differently about ourselves and about what we’re doing with our lives; about how we’re educating our children and how we’re running our organizations.
This book contains a wide range of stories about the creative journeys of very different people. Many of them were interviewed specifically for this book. These people tell how they first came to recognize their unique talents and how they make a highly successful living from doing what they love. What strikes me is that often their journeys haven’t been conventional. They’ve been full of twists, turns, and surprises. Often those I interviewed said that our conversations for the book revealed ideas and experiences they hadn’t discussed in this way before. The moment of recognition. The evolution of their talents. The encouragement or discouragement of family, friends, and teachers. What made them forge ahead in the face of numerous obstacles.
Their stories are not fairy tales, though. All of these people are leading complicated and challenging lives. Their personal journeys have not been easy and straightforward. They’ve all had their disasters as well as their triumphs. None of them have “perfect” lives. But all of them regularly experience moments that feel like perfection. Their stories are often fascinating.
But this book isn’t really about them. It’s about you.
My aim in writing it is to offer a richer vision of human ability and creativity and of the benefits to us all of connecting properly with our individual talents and passions. This book is about issues that are of fundamental importance in our lives and in the lives of our children, our students, and the people we work with. I use the term the Element to describe the place where the things we love to do and the things we are good at come together. I believe it is essential that each of us find his or her Element, not simply because it will make us more fulfilled but because, as the world evolves, the very future of our communities and institutions will depend on it.
The world is changing faster than ever in our history. Our best hope for the future is to develop a new paradigm of human capacity to meet a new era of human existence. We need to evolve a new appreciation of the importance of nurturing human talent along with an understanding of how talent expresses itself differently in every individual. We need to create environments—in our schools, in our workplaces, and in our public offices—where every person is inspired to grow creatively. We need to make sure that all people have the chance to do what they should be doing, to discover the Element in themselves and in their own way.
This book is a hymn to the breathtaking diversity of human talent and passion and to our extraordinary potential for growth and development. It’s also about understanding the conditions under which human talents will flourish or fade. It’s about how we can all engage more fully in the present, and how we can prepare in the only possible way for a completely unknowable future.
To make the best of ourselves and of each other, we urgently need to embrace a richer conception of human capacity. We need to embrace the Element.
GILLIAN WAS ONLY eight years old, but her future was already at risk. Her schoolwork was a disaster, at least as far as her teachers were concerned. She turned in assignments late, her handwriting was terrible, and she tested poorly. Not only that, she was a disruption to the entire class, one minute fidgeting noisily, the next staring out the window, forcing the teacher to stop the class to pull Gillian’s attention back, and the next doing something to disturb the other children around her. Gillian wasn’t particularly concerned about any of this—she was used to being corrected by authority figures and really didn’t see herself as a difficult child—but the school was very concerned. This came to a head when the school wrote to her parents.
The school thought that Gillian had a learning disorder of some sort and that it might be more appropriate for her to be in a school for children with special needs. All of this took place in the 1930s. I think now they’d say she had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and they’d put her on Ritalin or something similar. But the ADHD epidemic hadn’t been invented at the time. It wasn’t an available condition. People didn’t know they could have that and had to get by without it.
Gillian’s parents received the letter from the school with great concern and sprang to action. Gillian’s mother put her daughter in her best dress and shoes, tied her hair in ponytails, and took her to a psychologist for assessment, fearing the worst.
Gillian told me that she remembers being invited into a large oak-paneled room with leather-bound books on the shelves. Standing in the room next to a large desk was an imposing man in a tweed jacket. He took Gillian to the far end of the room and sat her down on a huge leather sofa. Gillian’s feet didn’t quite touch the floor, and the setting made her wary. Nervous about the impression she would make, she sat on her hands so that she wouldn’t fidget.
The psychologist went back to his desk, and for the next twenty minutes, he asked Gillian’s mother about the difficulties Gillian was having at school and the problems the school said she was causing. While he didn’t direct any of his questions at Gillian, he watched her carefully the entire time. This made Gillian extremely uneasy and confused. Even at this tender age, she knew that this man would have a significant role in her life. She knew what it meant to attend a “special school,” and she didn’t want anything to do with that. She genuinely didn’t feel that she had any real problems, but everyone else seemed to believe she did...
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