To my sister and brothers, Ethel Lena, Keith, Derek, Ian, John, and Neil; to our extraordinary Mum and Dad, Ethel and Jim; to my son, James, and my daughter, Kate, and to my soul mate, Terry. This book is for you. For all your many talents and for the endless love and laughter we put into each other’s lives. It’s when I’m with you and the ones you love that I really am in my Element.
They say it takes a village to raise a baby.
An elementary school teacher was giving a drawing class to a group of six-year-old children. At the back of the classroom sat a little girl who normally didn’t pay much attention in school. In the drawing class she did. For more than twenty minutes, the girl sat with her arms curled around her paper, totally absorbed in what she was doing. The teacher found this fascinating. Eventually, she asked the girl what she was drawing. Without looking up, the girl said, “I’m drawing a picture of God.” Surprised, the teacher said, “But nobody knows what God looks like.”
The girl said, “They will in a minute.”
I love this story because it reminds us that young children are wonderfully confident in their own imaginations. Most of us lose this confidence as we grow up.
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. The result is that too many people never connect with their true talents and therefore don’t know what they’re really capable of achieving.
In that sense, they don’t know who they really are.
Everywhere, I meet students who are trying to figure out their futures and don’t know where to start. I meet concerned parents who are trying to help them but instead often steer them away from their true talents on the assumption that their kids have to follow conventional routes to success. Along the way, I’ve lost track of the numbers of people I’ve met who have no real sense of what their individual talents and passions are. They don’t enjoy what they are doing now but they have no idea what actually would fulfill them.
On the other hand, I also meet people who’ve been highly successful in all kinds of fields who are passionate about what they do and couldn’t imagine doing anything else. I believe that their stories have something important to teach all of us about the nature of human capacity and fulfillment.
their journeys haven’t been conventional. They’ve been full of twists, turns, and surprises.
Their personal journeys have not been easy and straightforward. They’ve all had their disasters as well as their triumphs. Their stories are often fascinating.
But this book isn’t really about them. It’s about you.
My aim in writing it is to offer a richer vision of human ability and creativity and of the benefits to us all of connecting properly with our individual talents and passions. This book is about issues that are of fundamental importance in our lives and in the lives of our children, our students, and the people we work with. I use the term the Element to describe the place where the things we love to do and the things we are good at come together. I believe it is essential that each of us find his or her Element, not simply because it will make us more fulfilled but because, as the world evolves, the very future of our communities and institutions will depend on it.
We need to make sure that all people have the chance to do what they should be doing, to discover the Element in themselves and in their own way.
This book is a hymn to the breathtaking diversity of human talent and passion and to our extraordinary potential for growth and development. It’s also about understanding the conditions under which human talents will flourish or fade.
Chapter 1: The Element
GILLIAN WAS ONLY eight years old, but her future was already at risk. Her schoolwork was a disaster, at least as far as her teachers were concerned. She turned in assignments late, her handwriting was terrible, and she tested poorly. Not only that, she was a disruption to the entire class.
This came to a head when the school wrote to her parents.
Gillian’s parents received the letter from the school with great concern and sprang to action. Gillian’s mother put her daughter in her best dress and shoes, tied her hair in ponytails, and took her to a psychologist for assessment, fearing the worst.
As soon as they were in the corridor outside the room, the doctor said to Gillian’s mother, “Just stand here for a moment, and watch what she does.” There was a window into the room, and they stood to one side of it, where Gillian couldn’t see them. Nearly immediately, Gillian was on her feet, moving around the room to the music. The two adults stood watching quietly for a few minutes, transfixed by the girl’s grace. Anyone would have noticed there was something natural—even primal—about Gillian’s movements. Just as they would have surely caught the expression of utter pleasure on her face.
At last, the psychologist turned to Gillian’s mother and said, “You know, Mrs. Lynne, Gillian isn’t sick. She’s a dancer. Take her to a dance school.”
“I can’t tell you how wonderful it was,” she told me. “I walked into this room, and it was full of people like me. People who couldn’t sit still. People who had to move to think.”
She started going to the dance school every week, and she practiced at home every day. Eventually, she auditioned for the Royal Ballet School in London, and they accepted her. She went on to join the Royal Ballet Company itself, becoming a soloist and performing all over the world.
Little Gillian, the girl with the high-risk future, became known to the world as Gillian Lynne, one of the most accomplished choreographers of our time, someone who has brought pleasure to millions and earned millions of dollars. This happened because someone looked deep into her eyes—someone who had seen children like her before and knew how to read the signs. Someone else might have put her on medication and told her to calm down. But Gillian wasn’t a problem child. She didn’t need to go away to a special school.
She just needed to be who she really was.