A review of The Element by Ken Robinson

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

The Element:
How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything 
by Lou Aronica and Ken Robinson
Penguin (Allen Lane)
24 February 2009, Hardback , 288 pages RRP: $45.00 ISBN-13: 9781846141966

Like many others, I first came across Ken Robinson via his phenominal TED Talk clip about how schools are undermining creativity, sent to me by a friend who said I just “had to watch it.” I took her advice and not only did I watch the video, I immediately ordered the book once it finished. Robinson is certainly a good speaker, and he makes his points with humour, and a good dose of self-deprecating candour. But it isn’t the quality of Robinson’s delivery which hooked me. It was the obvious truth in what he was saying. Though much of the book follows what he talks about in the video, it is an excellent expansion of the topic, looking at the natural and varied forms of creativity that all of us possess, and how we can help our children and ourselves live up to that creativity. Aronica’s participation remains firmly in the background. For anyone familiar with Robinson’s speaking style, this is clearly his voice and he is most definitely the frontsman.

The book is rich in anecdote and story (that’s clearly Robinson’s own element), and explores the real life ‘left of centre’ creativity of well known figures like Gillian Lynne, Matt Groening, Paul Samuelson, Mick Fleetwood, Bart Conner, Albert Einstein, Paul McCartney, Meg Ryan, Debbie Allen and a number of others. Many of these people were interviewed directly by Robinson and present engaging stories about how they nearly missed out on realising their capabilities, but for a chance encounter, a great mentor or a dedication to push through failure. Robinson is not afraid to put himself into the story either, and talks about his own mentorship experiences, his struggles, and those of his wife’s and his friends. A common features of all the people spotlighted in this book is that few of them were straight ‘to the top’ achievers. Many struggled at school and it was the very place where they struggled that formed the nexus of their talent and ultimate achievement. Good examples of this are Buckminster Fuller, designer of the geodesic dome (a strange feature of my own childhood) and Albert Einstein. Both Fuller and Einstein found their Element in an unusual ability to fuse different disciplines:

The second feature of intelligence is that it is tremendously dynamic. The human brain is intensely interactive. You use multiple parts of it in every task you perform. It is in fact in the dynamic use of the brain—finding new connections between things—that true breakthroughs occur. (49)

The book goes beyond the individual and exposes many of our public systems including schooling and governmental policy. Although the tone is always warm and friendly and usually funny too with a commonsense approach, there is much in here to inform teachers and those that make legislative decisions (like the disastrous “No Child Left Behind” 2001 Act in the US.) Above all, this is a book that celebrates the diversity of human capability, informed by a deep humanism and presented in a way that is powerful and perspective changing:

I don’t mean to say that no other species on Earth has any form of imaginative ability. But certainly none comes close to showing the complex abilities that flow from the human imagination. Other species communicate, but they don’t have laptops. They sing, but they don’t produce muiscals. They can be agile, but they didn’t come up with Cirque du Soleil. They can look worried, but they don’t publish theories on the meaning of life and spend their evenings drinking Jack Daniel’s and listening to Miles Davis. And they don’t’ meet at water holes, poring over images from the Hubble telescope and trying to figure out what those might mean for themselves and all other hyenas. (67)

The book contains eleven chapters that cover such topics as the nature of an Element, about broadening our notions about the types of intelligence and where it might lie, about the power of creativity, about how to get “in the zone” (a mental space where our abilities suddenly flow freely, about the importance of community groups or “tribes”, about resistance, attitude, mentorship, on finding the Element late in life, and on the role of the education system.

Most of what is said in this book is so obviously right that it seems almost moot, but unfortunately few of us live this way. Pessimists will probably hate The Element, as the book is awash in the humanistic optimism that Robinson exudes. Failure is only a step on the path to success, and success is simply another word for happiness and fulfillment (even if you can’t get a record contract, job, or publisher). His examples are, of course, all about success, but few of his examples found their calling easily. Most people relied on mentors, good luck, supportive parents (though that certainly wasn’t always the case), and a ton of tenacity. One of the more interesting examples that Robinson provides is in his chapter “For Love or Money”. Gabriel Trop is a professional who combines an amateur passion for art with a well paid and practical type of job. There are many ways to achieve a life lived close to one’s element and it doesn’t have to involve working as a professional in that area.

The Element is really not a self-help book, nor is it sold as such. It doesn’t provide step by step instructions on how exactly to discover your element or change your own life. While it may provide inspiration for the individual this is a philosophical book with a broad perspective. It might be a frustrating read for those desperately hanging on to a job they hate in the hopes of finding panacea. The link between the need for financial security and the need for self-actualisation is not always clear, although Robinson does suggest that we do our best and potentially most lucrative work when we stick to what we love. I see this book as being targeted towards parents and educators primarily (there’s overlap there of course). For those of us who have responsibility for the future of our children, we need to think very broadly about their gifts, and keep open minds about where those gifts might lie. I completely agree with Robinson that every child is gifted in his or her own way, and that not all of those gifts sit squarely in the line of academic achievement. If this book makes even a small chip in the notion that a standardized test score is the best indicator of intelligence, it will have been worth Robinson and Aronica’s investment of time. For those of us reading it, it could do much more. It could open our eyes about the great diversity of unique capability that we all have and help us to think in much broader terms about ourselves, our children, our colleagues, and indeed our world.

About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball runs The Compulsive Reader. She is the author of Sleep Before Evening, The Art of Assessment, Quark Soup, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Cherished Pulse and She Wore Emerald Then. She runs a monthly radio program podcast The Compulsive Reader Talks.