Finding Your Element Summary and Review

by Ken Robinson
Has Finding Your Element by Ken Robinson been sitting on your reading list? Pick up the key ideas in the book with this quick summary.  

Finding Your Element Key Idea #1: Learn to appreciate what makes you unique: you are the first person to have your exact genes and experiences.

All our lives we’re reminded that we’re all special and different, but have you ever taken the time to consider what that truly means? The things that make us unique range from our unique thoughts to our biology and the environment we’re surrounded by. To start, you are the first person on Earth to be born with your specific genes. In the history of humankind, there has existed billions of different sets of genes that have produced billions of different human beings. Even in this long history of genetics, you are the first person ever to be made of your specific genetic makeup. This not only makes you unique biologically, but it also affects the makeup of your brain, making you unique psychologically. Scientists have found that, even between identical twins, there are vast psychological and biological differences. The environment you were raised in is another thing that contributes to your uniqueness. The time period you were born into will never be repeated, and the groups and communities you’ve been a part of will never exist the exact same way again, including the exact people in your neighborhood, family, school class, etc. The environments we’re raised in affect us tremendously, and you’re the only person on Earth who has the exact combination of your environments; no one else will ever experience the same things you have the same way again. So, learn to appreciate your uniqueness, both socially and biologically. The things you’ve experienced in your life never existed in human history before your life, and will not happen again the same way. You were born with genes that no one has ever had before and this results in a life that is uniquely yours and can never be recreated.

Finding Your Element Key Idea #2: It’s time to forget about planning for the long term and accept the unpredictable in life. This can lead to unexpected opportunities to attain your goals.

Have you ever felt the pressure to live your life in a certain way? There is a certain linear life plan that’s approved and encouraged by society. It’s expected that we graduate high school at 18, go to university, become a professional, get married, and then have kids. While this path might work really well for some people, it can be very stifling for others, causing them to move in directions away from where they might excel. It’s also expected that we commit to this traditional path while we’re very young. Teenagers are expected to decide on a field of study in university, and then are expected to choose a job based off that same decision. This means that there are a lot of young people who decide on a path for their future careers when they’ve only just come out of their childhoods. When you plan your entire life path when you’re so young, it doesn’t allow for any unexpected opportunities, and yet, the basis of life is full of the unexpected. While it isn’t a bad thing, no one has any idea what might happen in their futures. In your life, you might come across opportunities you would have never expected to come your way, so rather than hiding from unpredictability, use the unexpected to help you because the unknown might lead you to something amazing. Once you’ve accepted that the future can’t be predicted or controlled, you’ll be surprised how many opportunities come your way. In his own life, the author, Ken Robinson shows how this can happen well. From a childhood interest in theatre and stage direction, he ended up becoming interested in drama education, and then later, in education reform. He didn’t even start giving speeches until his middle age and as a young adult, he never planned for most of his career to be made outside of England nor to become known for writing speeches. Some of his greatest work was spurred from taking opportunities, even if he wasn’t sure of the path they would lead him down. Basically, it doesn’t make sense to hide from the unknown, because much of life is unknown.

Finding Your Element Key Idea #3: There might be skills and in born abilities you don’t even know you have, so give yourself the chance to discover them.

The scope of human intelligence is enormous, and we’re all born with aptitudes for different skills, which is part of what makes us so unique. You were born with many aptitudes, but the environment and cultures you were raised in may have prevented you from discovering those skills. For example, if you’ve never seen the ocean, you might not know that you’re actually really good at sailing. You also may never have had the resources to discover these skills. For example, the El Sistema school was opened with the goal of teaching classical music to kids living among violence and political strife in the dangerous parts of Venezuela. The school ended up beoming widely successful, and many of the students ended up going after professional music careers. Access to the El Sistema school gave them the resources to discover that skill. There might have also been social values in the culture you were raised in that may have prevented you from discovering your aptitudes. Take some time to think about what you’ve been raised to believe are your “acceptable aptitudes”based on your gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, etc. For example, you might have been raised in a culture that believes it’s inappropriate for women to want to pursue engineering or for men to be passionate chefs. If, for instance, you’re a woman who actually has a strong aptitude for engineering, but were raised in a culture that doesn’t approve of that, you may never discover this aptitude unless you push against your cultural norms you were raised in. It’s important to provide yourself with as many opportunities as possible to discover these hidden aptitudes. Get out of your comfort zone: take courses in subjects you're curious about but have never studied, meet new people, travel. There’s no way for you to tell what hidden skills you might have that have gone undiscovered and the more situations you put yourself in, the more opportunities you’ll have to discover these aptitudes.

Finding Your Element Key Idea #4: Institutionalized education is often discouraging: remember, you aren’t bad at something simply because of poor grades in that subject.

Most people consider people’s school grades or IQ test scores the best way to determine someone’s intelligence. However, these standardized tests actually only measure only one kind of human intelligence: logical reasoning. There are actually many other types of intelligence that schools don’t consider. Chances are, your school didn’t support you if you displayed a different type of intelligence. Schools put skills based on using your hands very low on the priority list. If you showed promise as a mechanic, chances are, your school tried to redirect you toward something they found more “professional,”such as law or medicine (even though mechanics are very intelligent, just in a different way). Moreover, the way schools are structured, they really only cater to a few learning styles. While schools generally focus on teaching through written text, there are lots of people who learn in different ways, such as through visuals. The famous composer Hans Zimmer was not someone who did very well in school, and it was only when he began learning music through understanding it visually, that he excelled. He is able to better understand music through seeing it as visual patterns, but he was never taught this way by a teacher. There are many challenging subjects that students are discouraged from attempting because the school itself has punished their past mistakes. For example, in math courses, points are deducted for mistakes. Because of this grading system, many students then try to avoid taking math classes. What’s more, even as we get older, since avoiding mistakes is a conditioned trait, we tend to become less creative. Overall, don’t assume you’re not skilled in something simply because of how your grades were in school. Examine it again and ask yourself: Are you certain you are bad at this subject? How do you know? It may be time to revisit these ideas.

Finding Your Element Key Idea #5: Make sure your attitude doesn’t get in the way of your potential.

There are a lot of factors that can affect our overall potential. Oftentimes, it can be our environment affecting us, but sometimes, it’s our own attitude. To start, you might have a negative outlook on your abilities. This pessimism is all too often a result of societal conditioning, since, as we grow up, we’re put in incredibly competitive environments —both in school, and later, in the workplace. This could easily lead to you abandoning some things that you’re actually quite good at, simply because you couldn’t keep up with the competition. For example, while you might have been a promising guitar player, you might have also abandoned it because you felt that you would never be as good as Jimi Hendrix. It’s also often encouraged by society to be pessimistic about developing our abilities. One key determinant to how you think about your abilities is whether you have a fixed mindset or a growth mindset. Fixed mindsets are based on the idea that we’re born with certain abilities, which means we can never improve upon them, whereas a growth mindset is based on the idea that abilities can be developed and improved upon through practice. Concepts like IQ are used by society to encourage a fixed mindset, by telling people that they are born with a certain IQ and will have that IQ for the rest of their lives, when, in reality, studying can greatly improve your intellectual abilities. It’s important to go through life with a growth mindset, which will help you to improve your abilities. Personality assessment tests are a great way to learn to understand yourself better. While they can’t define your personality, they can help you to reorient yourself toward some goals that are well suited for you. The Myers-Briggs, or MBTI test, is a common one people use, and can be accessed online.

Finding Your Element Key Idea #6: Finding what you’re passionate about is important to bettering your physical and mental well being.

Everyone is passionate about something, and having these passions is part of the human existence. Even if you feel like there’s nothing you’re passionate about, it’s most likely due to the fact that you might not have discovered yours yet. When you finally do find your passion, you’ll know intuitively because it’ll lead to a feeling of being “lost”in the activity, which is why many people describe perceiving time differently when they’re doing something they really care about. For example, musicians often don’t notice the passage of time when rehearsing or writing music, so ask yourself, what is it in your life that makes you feel this way? The positivity that happens when you’re immersed in something you’re passionate about can affect your physical health too. The Harvard Study of Adult Development has made many connections between emotional happiness and health. Experiencing positive emotions has been correlated with stress reduction, chronic pain reduction, aid in recovering from addictions, improve sleep and concentration, and more. Passions are an intrinsic part of who you are as a person, so it’s important to give yourself opportunities to discover them. You’ll become a happier and healthier person if you allow yourself the opportunity to discover your passions. It’s important to get out of your comfort zone and explore new physical and social environments and take opportunities to research in new fields you’re not familiar with but may have an interest in, perhaps by joining a book discussion group or online community. Try new sports and other physical activities, such as taking up a craft that involves using your hands. The more you take yourself out of your comfort zone, the more you’ll get the opportunity to discover what passions might be hiding in you.

Finding Your Element Key Idea #7: Figure out what happiness means to you instead of simply basing your idea of it on pre-established ideas from society.

Happiness is a very personal endeavor, yet, despite this feeling fairly obvious, society continues to tell us that there are two distinct routes to happiness: wealth and instant gratification. These philosophies can actually be very damaging and can prevent us from achieving true happiness in the long run and finding actual, meaningful routes to true happiness. Society tells us that we can achieve happiness by making more money, which is simply untrue. Depression is actually more common in wealthier societies and while money can sometimes help you deal with a situation, if your unhappiness is linked to a feeling of not being fulfilled, more money is simply not the solution. It’s also important to note that it’s not a requirement for happiness to turn your passions and interests into a profession. Instead, learn to make sure there’s room for those things in your schedule. For example, if you’re a passionate watercolor artist, it’s simply not necessary to focus your entire career around painting, but it is realistic to arrange your schedule to allow time to paint, even if it’s only for a few hours a week. Making time for these passions can make a huge difference in your overall health and wellbeing. Many people also only seek happiness through short-term, instant gratification. Many people fall into a vicious cycle of being miserable at work, only to use the money they’ve made to purchase distractions from the jobs that are making them miserable (like vacations or meals out at restaurants). Long-term satisfaction is much more meaningful, so it’s important to learn to invest in long-term projects that truly make you happy, for instance, creating something or building things. In contrast to the instant happiness simply going out to eat would provide, creating something yourself, like a novel or a piece of furniture will constantly prove new challenges and small successes, and will continue feeling more and more rewarding as you get closer to finishing the project. For many people, happiness comes from helping other people, which is a great option if you haven’t already considered it. Volunteering or getting involved in projects to help others and your community isn’t only for the people you’re helping – you may find that it brings you a deeper kind of happiness too.

Finding Your Element Key Idea #8: It’s important to realizing your goals to find a community of people who share similar passions.

While your passions are yours and yours alone, it can be really helpful to find a good community of people with similar interests. Finding people who share your passions can lead you toward new opportunities that might help you get closer to your goals. Let's say you're passionate about do-it-yourself electronics. Someone who’s interested in this could gain huge benefits from being around other people who can share ideas and work together with skills from different areas in that field. The “Maker” community has formed for exactly this purpose, and even has its own magazine and conferences. This group has allowed DIY enthusiasts to share ideas and advice and help to benefit others. When you’re in a community of like-minded people, you'll likely find others whose ideas you can help your own craft. They can help you learn new skills that are relevant to your goals and overall help you to better realize your ideas. Of course, you can also share your knowledge and help them in return. Working with others can sometimes be as necessary as it is beneficial because some goals can only be achieved in large groups. Sometimes it’s important to note that your goals don’t always have to be achieved alone, and some goals might even be impossible to achieve alone. For example, “The New Nordic Cuisine Movement,”which has become popular in Europe over the past several years started as simply a group of Scandinavian chefs who wanted to promote traditional Nordic food since it hardly gets attention worldwide. They worked to organize a network of participating restaurants, and recruited interested chefs, which led to them successfully increasing the popularity of Nordic food in Europe. This goal wouldn’t have been possible if it was only run by one individual chef or restaurant alone. It can be incredibly beneficial, and sometimes even necessary, to find a group of people who have the same passions and goals as you.

Final summary

The key message in this book: Allow yourself time to discover your natural talents, passions, and creativity because, ultimately, it is the key to achieving inner happiness and satisfaction. Let yourself explore those things as much as possible. Actionable ideas: If youre trying to figure out what you might secretly be skilled at, look back at what your teachers once said you were bad at. The way institutionalized education works often fails students for two main reasons: schools only value a certain types of intelligence, and they only cater to a few kinds of learning styles. Human intelligence is impossibly varied, but schools place an expectation on their students for them to all excel in the same system. Because schools stigmatize mistakes and deliver information in the same boring way over and over, children are often conditioned to let go of their creative sides and are told not to pursue fields they may struggle in. If you didn’t excel in a subject in school, it’s likely because school failed you, and not the other way around. Consider the things teachers told you you were bad at, and you may be surprised to discover what hidden talents you may have. Learn to use unpredictability to your advantage. So many people feel afraid when they find themselves in situations where they don’t know what the outcome may be, but the reality is, no one can predict the future. While you may have a plan, the truth is, you have no idea of what's actually going to happen in your future. Rather than letting that scare you, embrace it —any unknown part of your life might  lead to something great. Get out of your comfort zone and push yourself to experience as many unknown situations as possible (while being safe, of course), because an amazing opportunity could turn up anywhere. Suggested further reading: Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin Talent is Overrated discusses many of the top performers in multiple fields with the goal of getting to the bottom of what makes them so good at what they do. Contrary to what most of us believe about skill, this book offers enticing evidence that exceling in a particular field might not have to do with innate talent, but more so, has to do with deliberate efforts cultivated over the years.