“I understood the series of stages I was supposed to go through—you go to high school, you go to college, you get a credential, and then you go out and get a good job. I knew it wasn’t gonna work for me. I knew I was gonna be drawing cartoons forever.
“I made a decision that I was going to live by my wits. And by the way, I didn’t think it was gonna work. I thought I was gonna be working at some lousy job, doing something that I hated. My vision was that I’d be working in a tire warehouse. I have no idea why I thought it was a tire warehouse. I thought I’d be rolling tires around and then on my break, I’d be drawing cartoons.”
Dr. Paul Samuelson:
best-selling economics textbook of all time.
Three Stories, One Message
What unites them is one undeniably powerful message: that each of them found high levels of achievement and personal satisfaction upon discovering the thing that they naturally do well and that also ignites their passions. I call stories like theirs “epiphany stories” because they tend to involve some level of revelation, a way of dividing the world into before and after. These epiphanies utterly changed their lives, giving them direction and purpose and sweeping them up in a way that nothing else had.
They and the other people you’ll meet in this book have identified the sweet spot for themselves. They have discovered their Element—the place where the things you love to do and the things that you are good at come together. The Element is a different way of defining our potential. It manifests itself differently in every person, but the components of the Element are universal.
Lynne, Groening, and Samuelson have accomplished a great deal in their lives. But they are not alone in being capable of that. Why they are special is that they have found what they love to do and they are actually doing it. They have found their Element. In my experience, most people have not.
Lynne, Groening, and Samuelson have accomplished a great deal in their lives. But they are not alone in being capable of that. Why they are special is that they have found what they love to do and they are actually doing it. They have found their Element. In my experience, most people have not.
Finding your Element is essential to your well-being and ultimate success, and, by implication, to the health of our organizations and the effectiveness of our educational systems.
I believe strongly that if we can each find our Element, we all have the potential for much higher achievement and fulfillment. I don’t mean to say that there’s a dancer, a cartoonist, or a Nobel-winning economist in each of us. I mean that we all have distinctive talents and passions that can inspire us to achieve far more than we may imagine. Understanding this changes everything. It also offers us our best and perhaps our only promise for genuine and sustainable success in a very uncertain future.
Being in our Element depends on finding our own distinctive talents and passions. Why haven’t most people found this? One of the most important reasons is that most people have a very limited conception of their own natural capacities. This is true in several ways.
The first limitation is in our understanding of the range of our capacities. We are all born with extraordinary powers of imagination, intelligence, feeling, intuition, spirituality, and of physical and sensory awareness. For the most part, we use only a fraction of these powers, and some not at all. Many people have not found their Element because they don’t understand their own powers.
The second limitation is in our understanding of how all of these capacities relate to each other holistically. For the most part, we think that our minds, our bodies, and our feelings and relationships with others operate independent of each other, like separate systems. Many people have not found their Element because they don’t understand their true organic nature.
The third limitation is in our understanding of how much potential we have for growth and change. For the most part, people seem to think that life is linear, that our capacities decline as we grow older, and that opportunities we have missed are gone forever. Many people have not found their Element because they don’t understand their constant potential for renewal.
This limited view of our own capacities can be compounded by our peer groups, by our culture, and by our own expectations of ourselves. A major factor for everyone, though, is education.
One Size does not fit all
Some of the most brilliant, creative people I know did not do well at school. Many of them didn’t really discover what they could do—and who they really were—until they’d left school and recovered from their education.
Paul McCartney said that he’d always loved music, but that he never enjoyed music lessons at school. His teachers thought they could convey an appreciation for music by making kids listen to crackling records of classical compositions. He found this just as boring as he found everything else at school.
He told me he went through his entire education without anyone noticing that he had any musical talent at all. He even applied to join the choir of Liverpool Cathedral and was turned down. They said he wasn’t a good enough singer. Really? How good was that choir? How good can a choir be? Ironically, the very choir that rejected the young McCartney ultimately staged two of his classical pieces.
McCartney is not alone in having his talents overlooked in school. Apparently, organizers kept Elvis Presley from joining his school’s glee club. They said his voice would ruin their sound.
If these were isolated examples, there’d be little point in mentioning them. But they’re not. Many of the people you’ll meet in this book didn’t do well at school or enjoy being there. Of course, at least as many people do well in their schools and love what the education system has to offer. But too many graduate or leave early, unsure of their real talents and equally unsure of what direction to take next. Too many feel that what they’re good at isn’t valued by schools. Too many think they’re not good at anything.
I’ve worked for most of my life in and around education, and I don’t believe that this is the fault of individual teachers. Obviously, some should be doing something else, and as far away from young minds as possible. But there are plenty of good teachers and many brilliant ones.
In many ways, though, the education system in the United States is very similar to that in the United Kingdom, and in most other places in the world. Three features stand out in particular. First, there is the preoccupation with certain sorts of academic ability. I know that academic ability is very important. But school systems tend to be preoccupied with certain sorts of critical analysis and reasoning, particularly with words and numbers. Important as those skills are, there is much more to human intelligence than that. I’ll discuss this at length in the next chapter.
The second feature is the hierarchy of subjects. At the top of the hierarchy are mathematics, science, and language skills. In the middle are the humanities. At the bottom are the arts. In the arts, there is another hierarchy: music and visual arts normally have a higher status than theater and dance. In fact, more and more schools are cutting the arts out of the curriculum altogether. A huge high school might have only one fine arts teacher, and even elementary school children get very little time to simply paint and draw.
The third feature is the growing reliance on particular types of assessment. Children everywhere are under intense pressure to perform at higher and higher levels on a narrow range of standardized tests
The point here is that most systems of mass education came into being relatively recently—in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These systems were designed to meet the economic interests of those times—times that were dominated by the Industrial Revolution in Europe and America.
The result is that school systems everywhere inculcate us with a very narrow view of intelligence and capacity and overvalue particular sorts of talent and ability.
People who think visually might love a particular topic or subject, but won’t realize it if their teachers only present it in one, nonvisual way. Yet our education systems increasingly encourage teachers to teach students in a uniform fashion. To appreciate the implications of the epiphany stories told here, and indeed to seek out our own, we need to rethink radically our view of intelligence.
All children start their school careers with sparkling imaginations, fertile minds, and a willingness to take risks with what they think.
when they are very young, kids aren’t particularly worried about being wrong. If they aren’t sure what to do in a particular situation, they’ll just have a go at it and see how things turn out. This is not to suggest that being wrong is the same thing as being creative. Sometimes being wrong is just being wrong. What is true is that if you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.
They seem to believe that if they feed our children a nationally prescribed menu of reading, writing, and arithmetic, we’ll be more competitive with the world and more prepared for the future.
What is catastrophically wrong with this mode of thinking is that it severely underestimates human capacity. We place tremendous significance on standardized tests, we cut funding for what we consider “nonessential” programs, and then we wonder why our children seem unimaginative and uninspired. In these ways, our current education system systematically drains the creativity out of our children.
Most students never get to explore the full range of their abilities and interests. Those students whose minds work differently—and we’re talking about many students here; perhaps even the majority of them—can feel alienated from the whole culture of education. This is exactly why some of the most successful people you’ll ever meet didn’t do well at school. Education is the system that’s supposed to develop our natural abilities and enable us to make our way in the world. Instead, it is stifling the individual talents and abilities of too many students and killing their motivation to learn. There’s a huge irony in the middle of all of this.
politicians seem to think that it’s essential for economic growth and competitiveness and to help students get jobs. But the fact is that in the twenty-first century, jobs and competitiveness depend absolutely on the very qualities that school systems are being forced to tamp down and that this book is celebrating. Businesses everywhere say they need people who are creative and can think independently. But the argument is not just about business. It’s about having lives with purpose and meaning in and beyond whatever work we do.
The idea of going back to basics isn’t wrong in and of itself. I also believe we need to get our kids back to basics. However, if we’re really going to go back to basics, we need to go all the way back. We need to rethink the basic nature of human ability and the basic purposes of education now.
The Pace of Change
No one has any idea of what the world will look like in ten years’ time, let alone in 2070. There are two major drivers of change—technology and demography.
Technology—especially digital technology—is developing at a rate that most people cannot properly grasp. It is also contributing to what some pundits are calling the biggest generation gap since rock and roll. People over the age of thirty were born before the digital revolution really started. We’ve learned to use digital technology—laptops, cameras, personal digital assistants, the Internet—as adults, and it has been something like learning a foreign language. Most of us are okay, and some are even expert. We do e-mails and PowerPoint, surf the Internet, and feel we’re at the cutting edge. But compared to most people under thirty and certainly under twenty, we are fumbling amateurs. People of that age were born after the digital revolution began. They learned to speak digital as a mother tongue.
Before too long we may see the merging of information systems with human consciousness. If you think about the impact in the last twenty years of relatively simple digital technologies on the work we do and how we do it—and the impact these technologies have had on national economies—think of the changes that lie ahead. Don’t worry if you can’t predict them: nobody can.
Add to this the impact of population growth. The world population has doubled in the past thirty years, from three to six billion. It may be heading for nine billion by the middle of the century. This great new mass of humanity will be using technologies that have yet to be invented in ways we cannot imagine and in jobs that don’t yet exist.
The only way to prepare for the future is to make the most out of ourselves on the assumption that doing so will make us as flexible and productive as possible.
Many of the people you’ll meet in this book didn’t pursue their passions simply because of the promise of a paycheck. They pursued them because they couldn’t imagine doing anything else with their lives. They found the things they were made to do, and they have invested considerably in mastering the permutations of these professions. If the world were to turn upside down tomorrow, they’d figure out a way to evolve their talents to accommodate these changes. They would find a way to continue to do the things that put them in their Element, because they would have an organic understanding of how their talents fit a new environment.
Many people set aside their passions to pursue things they don’t care about for the sake of financial security. The fact is, though, that the job you took because it “pays the bills” could easily move offshore in the coming decade. If you have never learned to think creatively and to explore your true capacity, what will you do then?
When the only thing we know about the future is that it will be different, we would all be wise to do the same. We need to think very differently about human resources and about how we develop them if we are to face these challenges.
What is the Element?
The Element is the meeting point between natural aptitude and personal passion. What you’ll find in common among the people you’ve met in this chapter and the vast majority of the people you will meet in the coming pages is that they are doing the thing they love, and in doing it they feel like their most authentic selves. They find that time passes differently and that they are more alive, more centered, and more vibrant than at any other times.
Being in their Element takes them beyond the ordinary experiences of enjoyment or happiness. We’re not simply talking about laughter, good times, sunsets, and parties. When people are in their Element, they connect with something fundamental to their sense of identity, purpose, and well-being. Being there provides a sense of self-revelation, of defining who they really are and what they’re really meant to be doing with their lives. This is why many of the people in the book describe finding their Element as an epiphany.
How do we find the Element in ourselves and in others? There isn’t a rigid formula. The Element is different for everyone. In fact, that’s the point.
The Element has two main features, and there are two conditions for being in it. The features are aptitude and passion. The conditions are attitude and opportunity. The sequence goes something like this: I get it; I love it; I want it; Where is it?
I Get It
An aptitude is a natural facility for something. It is an intuitive feel or a grasp of what that thing is, how it works, and how to use it. Gillian Lynne has a natural feel for dance, Matt Groening for telling stories, and Paul Samuelson for economics and math. Our aptitudes are highly personal. They may be for general types of activity, like math, music, sport, poetry, or political theory. They can also be highly specific—not music in general, but jazz or rap. Not wind instruments in general, but the flute. Not science, but biochemistry. Not track and field, but the long jump.
Throughout this book, you will be meeting people with a profound natural grasp for all sorts of things. They’re not good at everything, but at something in particular.
I happen to be one of those others. I was never very good at math at school and was delighted to leave it behind when I finished school. When I had my own children, math reared up again like the monster in the movie that you thought was dead. One of the perils of being a parent is that you have to help your kids with their homework. You can bluff it for a while, but you know deep down that the day of reckoning is approaching.
Until she was twelve, my daughter, Kate, thought I knew everything. This was an impression I was very keen to encourage. When she was little, she’d ask me to help if she was stuck with an English or math problem. I’d look up with a confident smile from whatever I was doing, put my arm around her, and say something like, “Well, let’s see here,” pretending to share the difficulty so she’d feel better about not getting it. Then she’d gaze at me adoringly as I swept effortlessly, like a math god, through the four-times table and simple subtraction.
One day when she was fourteen, she came home with a page full of quadratic equations, and I felt the familiar cold sweat. At this point, I introduced learning-by-discovery methods. I said, “Kate, there’s no point in me telling you the answers. That’s not how we learn. You need to work this out for yourself. I’ll be outside having a gin and tonic. And by the way, even when you’ve done it, there’s no point showing me the answers. That’s what teachers are for”
The next week she brought me home a cartoon strip she’d found in a magazine. She said, “This is for you.” The strip showed a dad helping his daughter with her homework. In the first frame, he leaned over her shoulder and said, “What have you got to do?” The girl replied, “I have to find the lowest common denominator.” The father said, “Are they still looking for that? They were trying to find that when I was in school.” I know how he felt.
We don’t know who we can be until we know what we can do.
I Love It
Being in your Element is not only a question of natural aptitude. I know many people who are naturally very good at something, but don’t feel that it’s their life’s calling. Being in your Element needs something more—passion. People who are in their Element take a deep delight and pleasure in what they do.
I said that I’d love to be able to play keyboards that well. “No, you wouldn’t,” he responded. Taken aback, I insisted that I really would. “No,” he said. “You mean you like the idea of playing keyboards. If you’d love to play them, you’d be doing it.” He said that to play as well he did, he practiced every day for three or four hours in addition to performing. He’d been doing that since he was seven.
Suddenly playing keyboards as well as Charles did didn’t seem as appealing. I asked him how he kept up that level of discipline. He said, “Because I love it.” He couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
I Want It
Attitude is our personal perspective on our selves and our circumstances—our angle on things, our disposition, and emotional point of view. Many things affect our attitudes, including our basic character, our spirit, our sense of self-worth, the perceptions of those around us, and their expectations of us. An interesting indicator of our basic attitude is how we think of the role of luck in our lives.
People who love what they do often describe themselves as lucky. People who think they’re not successful in their lives often say they’ve been unlucky. Accidents and randomness play some part in everybody’s lives. But there’s more to luck than pure chance. High achievers often share similar attitudes, such as perseverance, self-belief, optimism, ambition, and frustration. How we perceive our circumstances and how we create and take opportunities depends largely on what we expect of ourselves.
Where Is It?
Without the right opportunities, you may never know what your aptitudes are or how far they might take you. There aren’t many bronco riders in the Antarctic, or many pearl divers in the Sahara Desert. Aptitudes don’t necessarily become obvious unless there are opportunities to use them. The implication, of course, is that we may never discover our true Element. A lot depends on the opportunities we have, on the opportunities we create, and how and if we take them.
Being in your Element often means being connected with other people who share the same passions and have a common sense of commitment. In practice, this means actively seeking opportunities to explore your aptitude in different fields.
Often we need other people to help us recognize our real talents. Often we can help other people to discover theirs.
In this book, we will explore the primary components of the Element in detail. We will analyze the traits that people who have found the Element share, look at the circumstances and conditions that bring people closer to it, and identify the deterrents that make embracing the Element harder. We’ll meet people who have found their way, others who pave the way, organizations that lead the way, and institutions that are going the wrong way.
My goal with this book is to illuminate for you concepts that you might have sensed intuitively and to inspire you to find the Element for yourself and to help others to find it as well. What I hope you will find here is a new way of looking at your own potential and the potential of those around you.
Chapter 2: Think differently
MICK FLEETWOOD is one of the most famous and accomplished rock drummers in the world. His band, Fleetwood Mac, has sold tens of millions of copies of their recordings, and rock critics consider their albums Fleetwood Mac and Rumours to be works of genius. Yet when he was in school, the numbers suggested that Mick Fleetwood lacked intelligence, at least by the definitions many of us have come to take for granted.
“I was a total void in academic work, and no one knew why,” he told me. “I had a learning disability at school and still do. I had no understanding of math at all. None. I’d be hard pushed right now to recite the alphabet backward. I’d be lucky if I got it right going forward quickly. If someone were to say, ‘What letter is before this one?’ I’d break out into a cold sweat.”
“Playing the piano is probably a more impressive signal that there’s something creative going on,” he said. “I just wanted to beat the shit out of a drum or some cushions on the chair. It’s not exactly the highest form of creative signal. It’s almost, ‘Well, anyone can do that. That’s not clever.’ But I started doing this tapping business, and it turned out to be the make or break for me.”
Mick’s epiphany moment—the point at which the “tapping business” became the driving ambition in his life—came when he visited his sister in London as a boy and went to “some little place in Chelsea with this piano player. There were people playing what I now know was Miles Davis and smoking Gitanes cigarettes. I’d watch them and saw the beginnings of this other world and the atmosphere sucked me in. I felt comfortable. I wasn’t fettered. That was my dream.
“Back at school, I held on to these images and I dreamt my way out of that world. I didn’t even know if I could play with people, but that vision got me out of the morass of this academic bloody nightmare. I had a lot of commitment internally, but I was also incredibly unhappy because everything at school was showing me that I was useless according to the status quo.”
“One day, I walked out of school and I sat under a large tree in the grounds. I’m not religious, but with tears pouring down my face, I prayed to God that I wouldn’t be in this place anymore. I wanted to be in London and play in a jazz club. It was totally naive and ridiculous, but I made a firm commitment to myself that I was going to be a drummer.”
Mick’s parents understood that school was not a place for someone with Mick’s kind of intelligence. At sixteen, he approached them about leaving school, and rather than insisting that he press on until graduation, they put him on a train to London with a drum kit and allowed him to pursue his inspiration.
What came next was a series of “breaks” that might never have occurred if Mick had stayed in school. While he was practicing drums in a garage, Mick’s neighbor, a keyboard player named Peter Bardens, knocked on his door. Mick thought Bardens was coming to tell him to be quiet, but instead, the musician invited him to play with him at a gig at a local youth club. This led Mick into the heart of the London music scene in the early 1960s. “As a kid, I had no sense of accomplishment. Now I was starting to get markers that it was okay to be who I was and to do what I was doing.”
For Mick Fleetwood, getting away from school and the tests that judged only a narrow range of intelligence was the path to a hugely successful career. “My parents saw that the light in this funny little creature certainly wasn’t academics.” It happened because he understood innately that he had a great aptitude for something that a score on a test could never indicate. It happened because he chose not to accept that he was “useless according to the status quo.”
Taking It All for Granted
One of the key principles of the Element is that we need to challenge what we take for granted about our abilities and the abilities of other people. This isn’t as easy as one might imagine. Part of the problem with identifying the things we take for granted is that we don’t know what they are because we take them for granted in the first place. They become basic assumptions that we don’t question, part of the fabric of our logic. We don’t question them because we see them as fundamental, as an integral part of our lives. Like air. Or gravity. Or Oprah.
A good example of something that many people take for granted without knowing it is the number of human senses. When I talk to audiences, I sometimes take them through a simple exercise to illustrate this point. I ask them how many senses they think they have. Most people will answer five—taste, touch, smell, sight, and hearing. Some will say there’s a sixth sense and suggest intuition. Rarely will anyone offer anything beyond this.
There’s a difference, though, between the first five senses and the sixth. The five all have particular organs associated with them—the nose for smell, the eyes for sight, ears for hearing, and so on. If the organs are injured or compromised in any way, that sense is impaired. It isn’t obvious what does intuition. It’s a kind of spooky sense that girls are supposed to have more of. So, the general assumption among the wide range of people I’ve spoken with over the years is that we have five “hard” senses and a “spooky” one.
There’s a fascinating book by the anthropologist Kathryn Linn Geurts called Culture and the Senses. In it, she writes about her work with the Anlo Ewe people of southeastern Ghana.
One of the things she learned about the Anlo Ewe is that that they don’t think of the senses in the same way that we do. First, they never thought to count them. That entire notion seemed beside the point. In addition, when Geurts listed our taken-for-granted five to them, they asked about the other one. The main one. They weren’t speaking of a “spooky” sense. Nor were they speaking of some residual sense that has survived among the Anlo Ewe but that the rest of us have lost. They were speaking of a sense that we all have, and that is fundamental to our functioning in the world. They were talking about our sense of balance.
The fluids and bones of the inner ear mediate the sense of balance. You only have to think of the impact on your life of damaging your sense of balance—through illness or alcohol—to get some idea of how important it is to our everyday existence. Yet most people never think to include it in their list of senses. This isn’t because they don’t have a sense of balance. It’s because they’ve become so accustomed to the idea that we have five senses (and maybe a spooky one) that they have stopped thinking about it. It’s become a matter of common sense. They just take it for granted.
One of the enemies of creativity and innovation, especially in relation to our own development, is common sense. The play-wright Bertolt Brecht said that as soon as something seems the most obvious thing in the world, it means that we have abandoned all attempts at understanding it.
Around six years old, he started to do something very unusual. It turned out that he could walk on his hands nearly as well as he could walk on his feet.
Then one day, when he was ten, with his mother’s approval, his grade-school physical education teacher took him to a local gymnastics center. As he walked in, Bart’s eyes bulged in amazement. He’d never seen anything so wondrous in his life. There were ropes, parallel bars, trapezes, ladders, trampolines, hurdles—all kinds of things upon which he could climb, cavort, and swing. It was like visiting Santa’s workshop and Disneyland at the same time. It was also the ideal place for him. His life turned in that moment. Suddenly his innate skills were good for something more than amusing himself and others.
He went on to become America’s most decorated male gymnast ever and the first American to win medals at every level of national and international competition.
Athletes like Bart Conner and Nadia Comaneci have a profound sense of the capacities of their physical bodies, and their achievements show how limited our everyday ideas about human ability really are.
In performance, they are usually moving too quickly and in ways that are simply too complex to rely on the ordinary conscious processes of thinking and decision-making. They draw from the deep reserves of feeling and intuition and of physical reflex and coordination that use the whole brain and not only the parts at the front that we associate with rational thinking. If they did that, their careers would never get off the ground, and neither would they.