Book Review: The Element

A few years ago Ken Robinson’s TED talk about creativity and education circulated around the web. I watched it and loved it and bought his book called The Element: Why Finding Your Passion Changes Everything.

The main point of the book is that each of us has a talent that we need to “discover.” If we discover our passion, happiness and success will be ours. His second point is that the formal schooling system prevents people from finding their passion. Schools drain kids of their natural creativity and talents.

On his first point, there is no discussion of developing a talent through practice and hard work. The focus is almost exclusively on finding. “She just needed to be who she really was” is a sentence from the book and a theme that repeats itself throughout. This is a view held by many people. A rebuke can be found on Cal Newport’s blog.

On his second point, about how schools squash creativity, he is more convincing. He discusses the problems in school curriculums. He talks about overly narrow measurements of intelligence. He presents a host of examples of folks who were told by teachers (or “the system”) that they wouldn’t amount to anything — folks like Paul McCartney or Gillian Lynne, the all-star musical theater producer. Lynne was almost medicated for ADHD until one wise specialist saw Lynne moving her feet to music; she was a dancer. Robinson doesn’t offer many specific, practical prescriptions for how to change schools to embrace rather than shun someone like Lynne, other than that arts programs should receive more funding and priority than they currently do.

The writing itself is clunky and cliche-ridden. In his TED talk, Robinson comes off as jokey and spontaneous. The book has none of that. Also, the title of the book causes confusion. “The Element” gets defined in various ways. I have a feeling that the book was titled something else, and in the late stages their publisher wanted a catchy one-word title, so they retroactively tried to insert references to Element.

All in all, this book disappointed me. We are still waiting for a book that gives passion the complicated treatment it deserves, above and beyond the easy advice to go “find” your talent. We are still waiting for a book that goes beyond diagnosing the education system as inadequate and rather dives into the practical challenges and approaches to changing it. Nevertheless, I support Robinson’s work in general and I hope he continues to deliver rousing public speeches that get more people thinking about these topics.


My favorite sentences / excerpts from the book are below. All direct quotes.

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.

Another thing I do when I speak to groups is to ask people to rate their intelligence on a 1-to-10 scale, with 10 being the top. Typically, one or two people will rate themselves a 10. When these people raise their hands, I suggest that they go home; they have more important things to do than listen to me. Beyond this, I’ll get a sprinkling of 9s and a heavier concentration of 8s. Invariably, though, the bulk of any audience puts itself at 7 or 6. The responses decline from there, though I admit I never actually complete the survey. I stop at 2, preferring to save anyone who would actually claim an intelligence level of 1 the embarrassment of acknowledging it in public. Why do I always get the bell-shaped curve? I believe it is because we’ve come to take for granted certain ideas about intelligence.

How are you intelligent? Knowing that intelligence is diverse, dynamic, and distinctive allows you to address that question in new ways.

I think it is because most people believe that intelligence and creativity are entirely different things—that we can be very intelligent and not very creative or very creative and not very intelligent.

Creativity is very much like literacy. We take it for granted that nearly everybody can learn to read and write. If a person can’t read or write, you don’t assume that this person is incapable of it, just that he or she hasn’t learned how to do it. The same is true of creativity.

So my initial definition of imagination is “the power to bring to mind things that are not present to our senses.”

My definition of creativity is “the process of having original ideas that have value.”

You can think of creativity as applied imagination.

“The greatest discovery of my generation is that human beings can alter their lives by altering their attitude of mind. . . . If you change your mind, you can change your life.”

But good and bad things happen to all of us. It’s not what happens to us that makes the difference in our lives. What makes the difference is our attitude toward what happens.

Earlier, I argued that we don’t see the world directly. We perceive it through frameworks of ideas and beliefs, which act as filters on what we see and how we see it. Some of these ideas enter our consciousness so deeply that we’re not even aware of them. They strike us as simple common sense. They often show up, though, in the metaphors and images we use to think about ourselves and about the world around us.

4 comments on “Book Review: The Element
  • I agree with you Ben, passion has yet to be given the treatment it deserves. A recommendation would be Stumbling on Happiness, which is fundamentally about happiness but has some interesting implications on the search for passion. I agree that the book on the whole and the arguments within it seem cliche and simplistic.

    Survivorship bias is an issue with using examples of successful people who were told they wouldn’t amount to anything – the folks who succeed in what are largely artistic pursuits are black swans – very few people who do follow their passions succeed in the same way, although it’s implied that that kind of success stems from following one’s passion.

  • I think passion is less important than Flow. The other evening I talked with a gal who is a senior in college, majoring in chemistry and trying to figure out what to do when she graduates. I asked her what is something she can do for hours on end and not even notice the time passing.

    At first she said “I like chemistry,” but I didn’t let her off the hook with that. I asked what “chemistry” means to her: is it reading books? staring at diagrams on the computer? doing equations in a notebook?

    Her eyes lit up and she said she loves mixing stuff up in the lab. She had never thought about the variety of actual physical activities one can do in the world of work. It really clarified her thinking about what to look for in a job.

    Of course, it’s hard to get a toehold when you first get out of college (doubly so for me – I was a music major who didn’t want to pursue music), but once you dial into the day-to-day activities that get your juices flowing, it’s a lot easier to figure out your passion.

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