The Element: Summary and Key Takeaways

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Sir Ken Robinson is one of my personal heroes. If you’ve ever watched his amazing TED talk, you will see why.

Plus, he’s an official knight, which is awesome.

Robinson is primarily an educator, and a very good one. He puts what is experienced has given him into words it is Ted talk and in this book. She is one of the foremost authorities on how to cultivate creativity in one’s life.

The best thing about creativity, is that it is the result of our connection with our “element”, an essential part of our self that we can’t live without.

Sir Ken’s approach is to help our youth and our adults to find that element so that they can learn the best, thrive, and contribute to society in the best possible way.

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But first we have to ask one question…

What is the Element?

The “element” in Sir Ken Robinson’s words is the “place where the things we love to do and the things we are good at come together.”

In other words, it’s the intersection of our passions and our skills.

A lot of books about purpose hold to this model, but often with one small edition: how we can contribute to society. I think Sir can intended this to be obvious, that we are naturally to contribute to society when we find the thing that we love that we are also good at. But that’s something else to keep in mind, that what we love and what we are good at must also find a way to contribute to society, otherwise we won’t feel fulfilled, and we are unlikely to make much money with it.

So now that we understand what the element is, let’s look at some the key takeaways from this book that explain how we can apply it in our lives.

How Are You Intelligent?

Sir Ken points out that most of us think in terms of IQ. We asked the question, “how intelligent are you?”

Instead we should be asking the question, “how are you intelligent?”

There is a profound difference in these two questions. If we ask how intelligent we are, we assume that the answer is finite. But if we ask how we are intelligent, we are asking what our strengths are, we are asking in what ways we can improve, and we make the assumption that each of us learns in different ways.

Another important assumption about the question “how are you intelligent?” Is the assumption that we are all intelligent. We just might be intelligent in different ways. This is an important distinction when working with other people, because you might realize that they are really good at one thing, or think in a certain way, that might not be the way that you think.

“Creativity As Applied Imagination”

I love this definition of creativity. Ken points out that we are imaginative all the time. As children, we are constantly immersing ourselves in our imaginations, and for many of us that doesn’t stop.

Creativity, on the other hand, is not the same as imagination. Robinson points out that we could be imaginative all day and never be creative, because imagination is an internal process.

Ken defines creativity as “the process of having original ideas that have value.”

Therefore in order to be creative, we have to first do something.

We have to embrace the concept of hard work, the implementation process, in order to be creative.

This is a key distinction for those who are looking to find their purpose. In my experience, you don’t find your purpose by simply thinking about it. This might get you part of the way there, but you must at some point take action.

Only when you do can you truly learn what your purpose is, because it will manifest itself to you in the form of your creativity. If you are pursuing the wrong purpose, that will come abundantly clear as you take action.

You Must Love What You Do

Ken points out that most creative people love the medium that they work with. “Musicians love the sounds they make, natural writers love words, dancers love movement, mathematicians love numbers, entrepreneurs love making deals, great teachers love teaching.”

This doesn’t mean that you will love every aspect of your job if you have found your element. Far from it. There will always be hard days. But if you have found your passion, you will have found the thing that you are willing to suffer for in order to pursue. That is why finding your element is so important. It helps you ride out the bad times as well as the good.

Achieving a Flow State

Have you ever started working on a project and you just lose track of all time? The minutes turn into hours and suddenly you find it’s the end of the day and you have no idea where the time went.

That is called flow. Other people describe it as being “in the zone”. When we enter a state of flow, this is a good sign that we are in our element. We find that the activity fills us with energy rather than draining us of it.

When this happens, we need to take note of it. We need to learn to shift some of our energy and invested in these activities that create flow. Doing so will only enhance our creativity and our ability to work.

Once again, this doesn’t mean that we will get into a flow stay all the time. It doesn’t mean that every activity we do must induce flow, but it does mean that we have found a task that is more likely to fulfill us. Those are the kind of jobs we should look for.

What Do We Gravitate Towards

If you didn’t have to worry about money, and you had an infinite amount of time, what would you want to do? Another question is: what would you pay money to do?

The answers to some of these questions will give you a good idea of what you are most drawn to do. When there are no financial rewards, would you still do it? If not, then perhaps you have not found your element yet. But that’s okay, keep looking.

We Will Encounter Opposition

As we pursue our element, we will find opposition. This will come internally as well as externally. And it can take a lot of courage to trust ourselves and trust our element.

Ken points out that we will encounter three levels of constraint: personal, social, and cultural. And some of this constraint may be legitimate. We have family and friends that are important to us, and we have certain responsibilities toward them.

But sometimes the resistance will not be in our best interest. What do we do then? Sir Ken says, “What price are you willing to pay? The rewards of the Element are considerable, but reaping these rewards may mean pushing back against some stiff opposition.”

So while it’s important to honor our relationships, it is equally important to trust ourselves and pursue our dreams.

Don’t Conform with Society

Ralph Waldo Emerson talks about being a “nonconformist”. The same is echoed in Ken Robinson’s book.

Sir Ken points out a study that showed that people will often conform to the majority even when they know that the majority is wrong. The results of the study are staggering.

It’s easy to conform to other people’s behaviors, but it takes a lot of courage to do so, especially when the majority is not in the right. Once again, trust is important. We have to trust in our element and push forward regardless of what people think.

Best Quotes from The Element

“If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.”

“The fact is that given the challenges we face, education doesn’t need to be reformed — it needs to be transformed. The key to this transformation is not to standardize education, but to personalize it, to build achievement on discovering the individual talents of each child, to put students in an environment where they want to learn and where they can naturally discover their true passions.”

“For most of us the problem isn’t that we aim too high and fail – it’s just the opposite – we aim too low and succeed.”

“What you do for yourself dies with you when you leave this world, what you do for others lives on forever.”

“The Element is about discovering your self, and you can’t do this if you’re trapped in a compulsion to conform. You can’t be yourself in a swarm.”

“Never underestimate the vital importance of finding early in life the work that for you is play. This turns possible underachievers into happy warriors.”

“To be creative you actually have to do something.”

“One of the strongest signs of being in the zone is a sense of freedom and of authenticity.”

“When people are in their Element, they connect with something fundamental to their sense of identity, purpose, and well-being.”

“As soon as we have the power to release our minds from the immediate here and now, in a sense we are free. We are free to revisit the past, free to reframe the present, and free to anticipate a whole range of possible futures. Imagination is the foundation of everything that is uniquely and distinctively human. It is the basis of language, the arts, the sciences, systems of philosophy, and the all the vast intricacies of human culture.”