I’m Reading Ken Robinson’s “The Element”

This is not a full review of the book, mainly because I’m only 1/3 of the way through it. That said, I felt compelled to post on what I have read so far.

As Robinson describes in his book, finding The Element is crucial to us as individuals it is a “place where the things you love to do and the things that you are good at come together.” And that right there had my attention.

He points out that it isn’t just a matter of finding out what you are good at, but what you truly enjoy doing as well. I watched a YouTube video of one of his talks recently in which he mentioned a book editor he met in the 1980s who had been a concert pianist. When asked what happened she had explained that, although she was a talented pianist, she didn’t find joy in it. Someone had noticed this and suggested she do what she loved. And in that moment she realized that her future was in books. It was the thing that brought her joy…and she was rather good at it as well.

Think about that for a moment – a “place where the things you love to do and the things that you are good at come together.”

When working as a life coach I have often assigned five questions from Robert Ringer’s Million Dollar Habits and asked them to report back to me on what they found. The five questions are:

  • What do I enjoy?
  • What am I good at?
  • What do I want from life?
  • What is the price?
  • Am I willing to pay the price?

The Element focuses on these top two questions – and possibly the rest, I don’t know, I haven’t read that far yet!

What drew me to the computer this morning though was the Think Differently chapter in The Element. In particular, his discussion of the senses. Why limit yourself to five senses when we have instead somewhere between nine and twelve (depending on who you ask)?

We have our usual: touch, sight, taste, smell, and hear. And some say we also have that “spooky sixth sense.” But why stop there? When teaching our children about senses, why stop at just these?

The Anlo Ewe people of southeastern Ghana refer to a sense of balance as being the “other” sense. If you have ever had an inner-ear condition/infection, then you probably would not take a sense of balance for granted!

Then there are the physiologists that have identified four more:

  • Thermoception – our sense of temperature which is different from a sense of touch
  • Nociception – our sense of pain which appears to be a different sensory system from either touch or temperature
  • Equilibrioception – sense of balance and acceleration
  • Proprioception – a sense that gives us our understanding of where our limbs and the rest of our body are in space and in relationship to each other

Robinson promises to talk about the sense of intuition later in the book.

I woke up this morning thinking about English classes. I was remembering English 101 – the basics class, lots of essays, a good course in explaining how to write a paper, how to get to the point, and all that.

Other classes – studies of poetry, of American authors or European authors, and more – there were lists and lists of them. As I lay there in bed and thought of the lists of required classes, it all seemed so arbitrary. A “you just learn ABC in order to get your degree.”

Perhaps that is why I still look at classes and degree programs in college and think, “Yeah, no thanks.”

Nothing appeals to me enough for me to say, “Yes, this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. Or even the next ten.” Once, in that first semester at UMKC before I learned that I was expecting Emily, someone asked me, “So…a major in Psychology and a minor in Creative Writing…why?”

I smiled and said, “Delaying tactic. Can’t say I’m a writer until I’ve got that degree, right?!”

I remember making a right big pain in the ass of myself in high school as I struggled through pre-Algebra. “WHY do I have to learn this?” I would ask. The teachers, my dad, everyone would just roll their eyes or get frustrated with me.

“You just DO. It’s REQUIRED.” they would say in response.

I was promised that at some point all would be clear. That there would be a time when I actually would use Algebra in the normal course of my everyday life. I just turned 42 – and I can honestly say that it has NEVER been needed – except to inflict it upon my eldest. She responded in kind…she swore she would never understand, sat down on the basement steps near the whiteboard (as I tried for the 5th time to explain that ‘x’ was the unknown we were trying to solve for) and cried. Poor kid.

I just ran across this little gem from Forbes Nine Dangerous Things You Were Taught in School. I know that other people have actually had positive experiences in public school. I’m happy for them. I, however, did not. No matter how I may try to distance myself from it, those experiences bleed through and continue to affect my choices and preferences to this day when it comes to choosing an education for my daughter.

I learned to cope…somewhat…in public school as a child. I remember having one hell of a time learning my times tables, simple division, fractions and decimals. Along the way I devised several math games that helped cement the knowledge. So much so, that to this day I continue to practice them automatically, as a habit.

In The Element Ken Robinson discusses Dr. Terence Tao, who taught himself to read watching Sesame Street (which could well have been where I learned to read as well…or The Electric Company…who knows?) and by age three was doing double digit math problems. Tao once told an interviewer, “I remember as a child being fascinated with the patterns and puzzles of mathematical symbol manipulation. I think the most important thing for developing an interest in mathematics is to have the ability and the freedom to play with mathematics – to set little challenges for oneself, to devise little games, and so on.”

It’s odd to read that, and realize that, to some extent, that is exactly what I did. It was my way of figuring it out and cementing the knowledge within.

What Robinson writes in on the next page, however, makes me wonder if he is reading my mind…

What the rest of us need to do is to see our futures and the futures of our children, our colleagues, and our community with the childlike simplicity prodigies have when their talents first emerge.

This is about looking into the eyes of your children or those you care for and, rather than approaching them with a template about who they might be, trying to understand who they really are…Left to their own devices, what are they drawn to do? What kinds of activities do they tend to engage in voluntarily? What sort of questions do they ask, and what types of points do they make?

We need to understand what puts them and us in the zone.

And we need to determine what implications that has for the rest of our lives.

And that is exactly how I must help Emily…and myself…and my other loved ones, to the best degree that I can. It is the greatest gift I can give my child – the freedom to discover her interests and passions, the encouragement to pursue them, and the time necessary to become the person she is destined to be.

As I delve now into Chapter Five – Finding Your Tribe I am reminded of a movie I watched recently – A Dangerous Method – which profiled (and fictionalized to some extent) the life of Carl Jung. What caught my interest in the movie was when the characters were discussing psychological viewpoints, striving to capture and understand the human psyche. It reminded me of my own interest in the field (although I would have sucked as a psychologist – no patience whatsoever) and I missed suddenly the intellectual discussions we had in class. I miss discussions like that. Life hasn’t sent too many intellectuals my way recently…I know you are out there…and I miss having a relationship, a tribe member to quote Robinson, that would fill that vacancy in my life. Perhaps this chapter will explain better how to find just what I need.

More later…enough for now. Meanwhile, consider buying the book…




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