Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Element

Ken Robinson, Ph.D.
with Lou Aronica

According to a popular myth there is a calling for each one of us, something that we are so good at and love doing so much that it doesn't feel like work at all. Ken Robinson advocates for the existence of this perfect occupation. He calls it being in one's "element," and recommends looking for that element in our own lives and pursuing whatever calling it presents us. Unfortunately, Henry David Thoreau's often quoted "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation" is more true now that when he wrote Walden in 1854.

Robinson never mentions this, but I believe that finding such an "element" for each and every person on Earth would be a good argument for the existence of a personal, omniscient and ever present God. Who else could organize the world in such a way that every single person would born with such a perfect fit to one or more pursuits? The evidence is not in favor of this hypothesis, though, as Thoreau has pointed out. Very few people ever find an "element."

Robinson uses examples, such as Paul McCartney, Julia Child and one of my favorite people, physicist Richard Feynman, to illustrate his thesis. Each of them did find something to do that was eminently suitable to his talents and each of them enjoyed his job immensely, not to mention making a pretty good piece of change at it. These very talented, very lucky people were able to take advantage of opportunities when they presented themselves and they all created careers for themselves doing what they loved doing. Most of us are just not that talented, or that lucky.

Dr. Robinson wants to encourage each of us to find our "element" and to help our children find theirs.I found his argument against the emphasis on standardized testing in schools, the core of "No Child Left Behind," to be highly cogent. As Robinson says, "I doubt there are many children who leap out of bed in the morning wondering what they can do to raise the reading score for their state." His basic thesis, however, I find to be messy, new age claptrap. Not that I am against people pursuing their dreams, but I think it's important to have a fallback position in case it doesn't work out.

After reading The Element I am ready to quit my job in order to pursue my dream of becoming a rock star. Or maybe not. He did mention being good at it.


  1. Hark, alas. You can find exactly the right job and find out the people make it different than expected. Life is with people.

  2. I love humanity. It's people I can't stand.


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