Finding Your Element

Finding your element is a highly personal and often surprising process.

Posted Jul 02, 2013

Excerpted from Finding Your Element: How to Discover Your Talents and Passions and Transform Your Life by Sir Ken Robinson 

Finding your element is a highly personal and often surprising process. We are all starting from different places in terms of our own characteristics and circumstances. The Element is also different for each of us. Even so, there are some common principles that underlie this process that apply to everyone, and techniques and strategies that everyone can use. This chapter says what these principles are and why it’s important to understand them. It also introduces some initial techniques and exercises to help you take stock of where you are now and to begin to plan the way ahead.

As an example of how curious this process can be, let me start by telling you something about how I came to be doing what I do. I’m often asked what my own Element is and when I knew.

Like most others, my story is fairly improbable and it illustrates all of these principles. I am reasonably good at all sorts of things, most of which I’ve never pursued. In my teens, I used to tinkle on the piano and I thought I could sense a world- class talent forming deep within me. But when I noticed that real pianists typically play with both hands, I quietly moved on. I could pick out riff s on a guitar and quickly mastered the opening notes of “Whole Lotta Love” by Led Zeppelin. Then I listened to the rest of the track and decided to leave the field to Jimmy Page. Plus, playing the guitar hurts your fingers.

When I was much younger, I loved drawing and painting but had to drop art at school to focus on other things. As a teenager and into my twenties and thirties, I always liked to fix things and was often to be found in hardware stores admiring routers and drill bits. I also enjoyed cooking and, at one stage when my children were young, had a small but well- deserved reputation for my pastry— at least with them. In short, from concertos to haute cuisine, I had many options that I might have pursued in my life but did not. Being fairly good at several things, of course, can make it much harder to know what to do with your life than if you are really good at something in particular. I’ll come back to that later. The fact is that when I was younger, I had no idea what my Element was, and would not have known even if the phrase had occurred to me at the time,  which it had not.

I know now that my Element is communicating and working with people. I’ve spent a lot of my time traveling around the world presenting to hundreds and often thousands of people, and, through the media, sometimes to millions. When I was very young, I would never have guessed that this would be my Element and nor would anyone who knew me. I was born in 1950 in Liverpool, England. I grew up in a large, close- knit family that was also tremendously sociable and funny. But as a young child, I spent a lot of time on my own. This was partly circumstance. In the early fifties, Europe and the United States suffered a rampant epidemic of polio. Parents everywhere lived in terror of their children catching the virus. When I was four, I did. Literally overnight, I went from being a strong, fit and highly energetic child, to being almost completely paralyzed. I spent the next eight months in a hospital, some of it in an isolation ward. When I finally came out, I was wearing two leg braces and was in a wheelchair, or walking on crutches.

I have to say that at this point I was almost unbearably cute. I was five years old and in addition to all the orthopedic paraphernalia, I had curly blond hair and a winsome smile that makes my own toes curl now just to think of it. On top of that, I had a pronounced lisp. At breakfast, I might ask for “a cup of tea with two thpoonth of thugar and a peeth of toatht.” The net result was that people would melt in my presence and complete strangers would spontaneously offer me money in the street. The lisp was so marked that from the age of three I had weekly sessions with a speech therapist in Liverpool. One theory is that I may have picked up the virus there, since I was the only person among all my family and friends to catch it. So one reason for spending time on my own was circumstance.

Although my family was wonderful in not treating me differently, the fact was that I could not keep up with all the running games in the street or the local park, and I did spend more time on my own than I might otherwise have done. But the other reason was disposition.

As a child I was fairly placid and self- contained. I was a natural observer and listener, and I was happy to sit quietly and take things in from the sidelines. I also loved to make things and solve practical puzzles. At elementary school, one of my favorite lessons was woodwork. I would also spend hours at home assembling and painting plastic models of ships, airplanes and historical figures. I played a lot with Meccano and Legos. I amused myself for whole afternoons in our backyard inventing fantasy games with whatever was lying around. None of this pointed very clearly to a life in the public eye and an international reputation, which I now seem to have, as a public speaker. As is often the case, other people saw my potential before I did.

When I was thirteen, my cousin Brenda got married. Two of my elder brothers, Keith and Ian, and our cousin Billy put together a cabaret act for the evening that involved them dressing up as women and miming to current hit records that were speeded up to sound like Alvin and the Chipmunks. They called themselves The Alka Seltzers. (It’s a long story.) They needed someone to introduce them at the event and Keith suggested me. I was astonished, and I wasn’t alone in that. But I did do it, even though the idea terrified me.

I was terrified because I’d never done anything remotely like it and because the massed ranks of my Liverpool family are savagely funny and take no prisoners, no matter how many braces and speech impediments are held in front of them. I did it because I’ve always believed that you have to move toward your fears and not away from them. If you don’t exorcise them, they can haunt you long after they should have faded. As it happens, it was a fantastic evening. I received due acclaim for my small part. The group was a sensation and had invitations to perform at clubs and theaters across the country. They changed their name to The Alka Sisters (to avoid legal action by the popular antacid) and went on to tour for several years and to win a national talent competition. In the meantime, I had a small realization that I could face the public, too.

In high school, I performed in various plays and directed some. By the time I got to college, I had a taste for acting and directing and, although I never sought it, I was often called on to make speeches in debates and to make presentations. Once I was on stage, I found that I relaxed fairly quickly and enjoyed it. I still do. My professional work has always involved working with and presenting to groups of people. Although I was always nervous beforehand, I found from the beginning that I settled in quickly, and that the time passed quickly while I was doing this.

When you’re in your Element, your sense of time changes. If you’re doing something that you love, an hour can feel like five minutes; if you are doing something that you do not, five minutes can feel like an hour. At every stage of my working life, my wife, Thérèse, has always said that she can tell at the end of the day what I’ve been doing. If I’ve been sitting through routine committee meetings or doing administration, I look ten years older than I am: if I’ve been speaking at an event, teaching or running a workshop, I look ten years younger. Being in your Element gives you energy. Not being in it takes it from you.

So how do you set about finding your Element?

Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from FINDING YOUR ELEMENT Copyright © Sir Ken Robinson, 2013

About the Author

Nikhil Goyal is the author of One Size Does Not Fit All: A Student's Assessment of School.

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