How Intelligent Are You?
I’m convinced that taking the definition of intelligence for granted is one of the main reasons why so many people underestimate their true intellectual abilities and fail to find their Element.
This commonsense view goes something like this: We are all born with a fixed amount of intelligence. It’s a trait, like blue or green eyes, or long or short limbs.
It is at the heart of our education systems and underpins a good deal of the multibillion-dollar testing industries that feed off public education throughout the world. It’s at the heart of the idea of academic ability, dominates college entrance examinations, underpins the hierarchy of subjects in education, and stands as the foundation for the whole idea of IQ.
We think we know the answer to the question, “How intelligent are you?” The real answer, though, is that the question itself is the wrong one to ask.
How Are You Intelligent?
The difference in these questions is profound. The first suggests that there’s a finite way of gauging intelligence and that one can reduce the value of each individual’s intelligence to a figure or quotient of some sort. The latter suggests a truth that we somehow don’t acknowledge as much as we should—that there are a variety of ways to express intelligence, and that no one scale could ever measure this.
Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner has argued to wide acclaim that we have not one but multiple intelligences. They include linguistic, musical, mathematical, spatial, kinesthetic, interpersonal (relationships with others), and intra-personal (knowledge and understanding of the self) intelligence. He argues that these types of intelligence are more or less independent of each other, and none is more important, though some might be “dominant” while others are “dormant.” He says that we all have different strengths in different intelligences and that education should treat them equally so that all children receive opportunities to develop their individual abilities.
Alexis’s task was to calculate in his head the thirteenth root of that number (that is, the number that multiplied by itself thirteen times would produce the exact two-hundred-digit number on the screen). He stared at the screen without speaking and then announced correctly that the answer was, 2,397,207,667,966,701. Remember that he did this in 72.4 seconds. In his head.
The Three Features of Human Intelligence
Human intelligence seems to have at least three main features. The first is that it is extraordinarily diverse. It is clearly not limited to the ability to do verbal and mathematical reasoning. These skills are important, but they are simply one way in which intelligence expresses itself.
He taught himself to play the piano and this helped him make some money to get by in his late teens. A few years later, he bought a camera from a pawnshop and taught himself to take pictures. What he learned about film and writing came largely from observation, an intense level of intellectual curiosity, and an off-the-charts ability to feel for and see into the lives of other people.
We think in sound. We think in movement. We think visually.
The diversity of intelligence is one of the fundamental underpinnings of the Element. If you don’t embrace the fact that you think about the world in a wide variety of ways, you severely limit your chances of finding the person that you were meant to be.
The second feature of intelligence is that it is tremendously dynamic. The human brain is intensely interactive. You use multiple parts of it in every task you perform. It is in fact in the dynamic use of the brain—finding new connections between things—that true breakthroughs occur.
Einstein was a student of all forms of expression, believing that he could put anything that challenged the mind to use in a variety of ways. For instance, he interviewed poets to learn more about the role of intuition and imagination.
“As a young student, he never did well with rote learning. And later, as a theorist, his success came not from the brute strength of his mental processing power but from his imagination and creativity. He could construct complex equations, but more important, he knew that math is the language nature uses to describe her wonders.”
“He would often play his violin in his kitchen late at night, improvising melodies while he pondered complicated problems. Then, suddenly, in the middle of playing he would announce excitedly, ‘I’ve got it!’ As if by inspiration, the answer to the problem would have come to him in the midst of the music.”
What Einstein seemed to understand is that intellectual growth and creativity come through embracing the dynamic nature of intelligence. Growth comes through analogy, through seeing how things connect.
The third feature of intelligence is that it is entirely distinctive. Every person’s intelligence is as unique as a fingerprint. There might be seven, ten, or a hundred different forms of intelligence, but each of us uses these forms in different ways.
Discovering the Element is all about allowing yourself access to all of the ways in which you experience the world, and discovering where your own true strengths lie.
Just don’t take them for granted.
Chapter 3: Beyond Imagining
During our interview, she told me that she felt that being out of school with asthma made a positive difference in her development "because I was not around for some of the indoctrinations, you know? I was not around to be really formed in the way that I think a lot of kids are formed in a regimented society, which a school is and I guess it has to be in a sense. Because when you have a lot of people in one space, you have to move them around in a certain way to make it work."
Her mother worked hard with her to help her keep pace with what she was missing in school. And when they weren’t studying, they were able to explore the wider world of the arts that existed all around Harlem in the 1930s.
“My mother took me to see all the great acts of that time. Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Billy Eckstine—all these old singers and bandleaders and all those people who were so wonderful. And so these people were the ones who I thought of as being highly creative. It was so obvious that they were making this art out of their own bodies. We all lived in the same neighborhood. You just ran into them—here they are, you know? I was deeply inspired by their art and by their willingness to give of themselves to the public and to their audience. It made me understand about the communication aspect of being an artist.
“I was never forced to be like the other kids. I did not dress like them. I did not look like them. And in my family, it was not expected that I should be like that. So, it came quite natural to me to do something that was considered a bit odd. My mother was a fashion designer. She was an artist herself, although she would never have said she was an artist. She helped me a lot, but she was very keen on the fact that she did not know whether art would be a good lifetime endeavor.”
“We had art in elementary school right straight through. An excellent experience. Excellent. I distinctly recall my teachers getting excited about some of the things that I had done and me kind of wondering, Why do they think this is so good?—but I never said anything. In junior high school, the teacher did a project with us in which she wanted us to try to see it without looking. We were supposed to paint these flowers in that way. I said, ‘Oh my god, I do not want her to see this, because this is really awful.’ And she held it up and said, ‘Now, this is really wonderful. Look at this.’
Now I know why she liked it. It was free and it was the same kind of thing that I like when I see children do art. It is expressive; it is wonderful. This is the kind of magic that children have. Children do not see anything so strange and different about art. They accept it; they understand it; they love it.
“I think the minute that I started studying art in college in 1948 I knew I wanted to be an artist. I did not know which road I would take, how it would happen, or how I could be that, but I knew that was my goal. My dream was to be an artist, one who makes pictures for a lifetime, as a way of life. Every day of your life you can create something wonderful, so every day is going to be the same kind of wonderful day that every other day is—a day in which you discover something new because as you are painting or creating whatever it is you are creating, you are finding new ways in doing it.”
The Promise of Creativity
most people believe that intelligence and creativity are entirely different things—that we can be very intelligent and not very creative or very creative and not very intelligent.
For me, this identifies a fundamental problem. intelligence and creativity are blood relatives. I firmly believe that you can’t be creative without acting intelligently. Similarly, the highest form of intelligence is thinking creatively. In seeking the Element, it is essential to understand the real nature of creativity and to have a clear understanding of how it relates to intelligence.
In my experience, most people have a narrow view of intelligence, tending to think of it mainly in terms of academic ability. This is why so many people who are smart in other ways end up thinking that they’re not smart at all. There are myths surrounding creativity as well.
One myth is that only special people are creative. This is not true. Everyone is born with tremendous capacities for creativity. The trick is to develop these capacities. Creativity is very much like literacy. We take it for granted that nearly everybody can learn to read and write. If a person can’t read or write, you don’t assume that this person is incapable of it, just that he or she hasn’t learned how to do it. The same is true of creativity. When people say they’re not creative, it’s often because they don’t know what’s involved or how creativity works in practice.
Another myth is that creativity is about special activities. It’s about “creative domains” like the arts, design, or advertising. These often do involve a high level of creativity. But so can science, math, engineering, running a business, being an athlete, or getting in or out of a relationship. The fact is you can be creative at anything at all—anything that involves your intelligence.
It’s All in Your Imagination
while we largely take our senses for granted, we tend to take our imaginations for granted completely.
We’ll even criticize people’s perceptions by telling them that they have “overactive imaginations”.
People will pride themselves on being “down to earth,” “realistic,” and “no-nonsense,” and deride those who “have their heads in the clouds.” And yet, far more than any other power, imagination is what sets human beings apart from every other species on earth.
Imagination underpins every uniquely human achievement. Imagination led us from caves to cities.
The relationship between imagination and “reality” is both complicated and profound. And this relationship serves a very significant role in the search for the Element.
If I ask you to think of your best friends at school, your favorite food, or your most annoying acquaintance, you can do that without having any of those things directly in front of you. This process of seeing “in our mind’s eye” is the essential act of imagination. So my initial definition of imagination is “the power to bring to mind things that are not present to our senses.”
Through imagination, we can visit the past, contemplate the present, and anticipate the future. We can also do something else of profound and unique significance. We can create.
Through imagination, we not only bring to mind things that we have experienced but things that we have never experienced. We can conjecture, we can hypothesize, we can speculate, and we can suppose. In a word, we can be imaginative. 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.
Does Size Matter?
What’s the purpose of life? This is another good question. It doesn’t seem to bother other species much, but it bothers human beings quite a bit.
“Is man what he seems to the astronomer, a tiny lump of impure carbon and water crawling impotently on a small and unimportant planet? Or is he what he appears to Hamlet? Is he perhaps both at once?”
-- Bertrand Russel
Is life essentially accidental and meaningless, or is it as profound and mysterious as Shakespeare’s great tragic hero believed it to be?
For years now, the Hubble telescope has been beaming back to Earth thousands of dazzling images of distant galaxies, white dwarfs, black holes, nebulas, and pulsars. We’ve all seen spectacular documentaries about the facts and fantasies of space travel, all framed with ungraspable statistics about billions of light-years and infinite distances. Most of us now get the point that the universe is gigantic. We also get the point that Earth is relatively small.
really, whatever you woke up worrying about this morning, get over it. How important in the greater scheme of things can it possibly be? Make your peace and move on.
The second is this. At first glance, these images do indeed suggest that the answer to Russell’s first question might be yes. We certainly do seem to be clinging to the face of an extraordinarily small and unimportant planet. But that’s not really the end of the story. We may well be small and insignificant. However, uniquely among all known species on Earth—or anywhere else, to our knowledge—we are able to do something remarkable. We can conceive of our insignificance.
Using the power of imagination, someone made the images I just showed you. Using this same power, I’m able to write about them and have them published, and you’re able to understand them. The fact, too, is that as a species we produced the Hamlet of which Russell speaks—as well as Mozart’s Mass in C, the Blue Mosque, the Sistine Chapel, the Renaissance, Las Vegas, the Silk Road, the poetry of Yeats, the plays of Chekhov, the blues, rock and roll, hip-hop, the theory of relativity, quantum mechanics, industrialism, The Simpsons, digital technology, the Hubble telescope, and the whole dazzling cornucopia of human achievements and aspirations.
The Power of Creativity
Imagination is not the same as creativity. Creativity takes the process of imagination to another level. My definition of creativity is “the process of having original ideas that have value.” Imagination can be entirely internal. You could be imaginative all day long without anyone noticing. But you would never say that someone was creative if that person never did anything. To be creative you actually have to do something. It involves putting your imagination to work to make something new, to come up with new solutions to problems, even to think of new problems or questions.
You can think of creativity as applied imagination.
It can be in music, in dance, in theater, in math, science, business, in your relationships with other people. It is because human intelligence is so wonderfully diverse that people are creative in so many extraordinary ways.
Creativity is the strongest example of the dynamic nature of intelligence, and it can call on all areas of our minds and being.
Creativity is a step beyond imagination because it requires that you actually do something rather than lie around thinking about it. It’s a very practical process of trying to make something original. It may be a song, a theory, a dress, a short story, a boat, or a new sauce for your spaghetti. Regardless, some common features pertain.
People who work creatively usually have something in common: they love the media 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 is why people who fundamentally love what they do don’t think of it as work in the ordinary sense of the word. They do it because they want to and because when they do, they are in their Element.
I know some wonderfully creative people who find parts of the process difficult and deeply exasperating. But there’s always profound pleasure at some point, and a deep sense of satisfaction from “getting it right.”
Many of the people I talk about in this book think they were lucky to find what they love to do. For some of them, it was love at first sight. That’s why they call the recognition of their Element an epiphany. Finding the medium that excites your imagination, that you love to play with and work in, is an important step to freeing your creative energies. History is full of examples of people who didn’t discover their real creative abilities until they discovered the media in which they thought best. In my experience, one of the main reasons that so many other people think they’re not creative is that they simply haven’t found their medium.
“If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never produce anything original.”
“Great education depends on great teaching.”
Creativity in different media is a striking illustration of the diversity of intelligence and ways of thinking. Richard Feynman had a great visual imagination. But he wasn’t trying to paint a picture of electrons; he was trying to develop a scientific theory about how they actually work. To do that, he had to use mathematics. He was thinking about electrons, but he was thinking about them mathematically. Without mathematics, he simply couldn’t have thought about them as he did. The Wilburys were thinking about love and relationships, life and death, and the whole damn thing; but they weren’t trying to write a psychology textbook. They were thinking about these things through music. They were having musical ideas, and music is what they made.
many people who spent endless hours as children practicing scales on the piano or guitar and never want to see an instrument again because the whole process was so dull and repetitive. Many people have decided that they were simply no good at math or music when it’s possible that their teachers taught them the wrong way or at the wrong time. Maybe they should look again.
Opening Your Mind
creative thinking usually involves much more of the brain than the bits at the front and to the left that dominate the Western view of intelligence.
Being creative is about making fresh connections so that we see things in new ways and from different perspectives.
Legs have a major role in running, but a leg on its own is frankly rather poor at it. In the same way, many different parts of the brain are involved when we play or listen to music, from the more recently evolved cerebral cortex to the older, so-called reptilian parts of the brain. These have to work in concert with the rest of our body, including the rest of the brain. Of course, we all have strengths and weaknesses in the different functions and capacities of the brain. But like the muscles in our arms and legs, these capacities can grow weaker or stronger depending on how much we exercise them separately and together.
in dance, in song, in performance—we do not use external media at all. We ourselves are the medium of our creative work.
Creative work also reaches deep into our intuitive and unconscious minds and into our hearts and feelings.
Usually, the best thing you can do is stop trying and “put it to the back of your mind.” Sometime later, the name will probably show up in your head when you’re least expecting it. The reason is that there is far more to our minds than the deliberate processes of conscious thought.
Beneath the noisy surface of our minds, there are deep reserves of memory and association, of feelings and perceptions that process and record our life’s experiences beyond our conscious awareness. So at times, creativity is a conscious effort. At others, we need to let our ideas ferment for a while and trust the deeper unconscious ruminations of our minds, over which we have less control.
Getting It Together
It’s in this sense that creativity draws not just from our own personal resources but also from the wider world of other people’s ideas and values.
The power of human creativity is obvious everywhere, in the technologies we use, in the buildings we inhabit, in the clothes we wear, and in the movies we watch. But the reach of creativity is very much deeper. It affects not only what we put in the world, but also what we make of it—not only what we do, but also how we think and feel about it.
What we think of ourselves and of the world makes us who we are and what we can be. This is what Hamlet means when he says, “There is nothing good or bad, only thinking makes it so.” The good news is that we can always try to think differently. If we create our worldview, we can re-create it too by taking a different perspective and reframing our situation.
“The greatest discovery of my generation is that human beings can alter their lives by altering their attitude of mind. . . . If you change your mind, you can change your life.”
-- William James
Chapter 4: In the Zone
I had never heard of pool. We followed them up there and I remember, the minute I walked in, I reacted to it right away. I loved the whole thing—this dark room with lights over each table and the clicking of the balls. I just thought it was mesmerizing right off the bat.
From that moment of epiphany, Ewa knew that she wanted to dedicate her life to billiards. Fortunately, her parents supported her, allowing her to spend six to ten hours a day playing at a local poolroom, doing her homework in between shots. “People there knew I was serious about the game, so they left me alone. But we also had a lot of fun there. If you find a place where everybody else likes the same thing that you do, it really becomes fun. So these odd characters—because we all had billiards together—we became like a family.”
In 1980, at sixteen, Ewa won the Swedish championship. At seventeen, she won the first-ever European Women’s Championship. This led to an invitation to go to New York to represent Europe in the World Championship. “That whole summer I practiced. The poolroom didn’t open until five in the afternoon, so I would take the bus in the morning up to the part of town where the owner lived, get the key to the poolroom, and then take the bus into town and let myself in. I did that all summer and then played ten, twelve hours a day. Then I went to the tournament in New York. I didn’t win, though; I came in seventh. I was disappointed I didn’t do better, but at the same time I thought, ‘Wow, that’s like seventh in the world!’ ”
"You’re almost unconscious to what’s going on around you. It’s literally the most peculiar feeling. It’s like being in a tunnel but you don’t see anything else. You just see what you’re doing. Time changes. Somebody could ask you how long you’ve been doing it and you could have said twenty minutes but it was actually nine hours. I just don’t know. I have never had it with anything before or since, even though I am very passionate about a lot of other things. But the feeling of playing billiards is unique for me."
To be in the zone is to be in the deep heart of the Element. Doing what we love can involve all sorts of activities that are essential to the Element but are not the essence of it—things like studying, organizing, arranging, limbering up, etc. And even when we’re doing the thing we love, there can be frustrations, disappointments, and times when it simply doesn’t work or come together. But when it does, it transforms our experience of the Element. We become focused and intent. We live in the moment. We become lost in the experience and perform at our peak. Our breathing changes, our minds merge with our bodies, and we feel ourselves drawn effortlessly into to the heart of the Element.
there are some common features to being in that magical place.
Are We There Yet?
One of the strongest signs of being in the zone is a sense of freedom and of authenticity. When we are doing something that we love and are naturally good at, we are much more likely to feel centered in our true sense of self—to be who we feel we truly are. When we are in our Element, we feel we are doing what we are meant to be doing and being who we’re meant to be.
Aviator Wilbur Wright described it this way: “When you know, after the first few minutes, that the whole mechanism is working perfectly, the sensation is so keenly delightful as to be almost beyond description. More than anything else the sensation is one of perfect peace mingled with an excitement that strains every nerve to the utmost, if you can conceive of such a combination.”
Superstar athlete Monica Seles says, “When I am consistently playing my best tennis, I am also consistently in the zone,” but notes, “Once you think about being in the zone, you are immediately out of it.”
In his landmark work Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Dr. Csikszentmihalyi writes of a “state of mind when consciousness is harmoniously ordered, and [people] want to pursue whatever they are doing for its own sake.”
“The key element of an optimal experience,” he says in Flow, “is that it is an end in itself. Even if initially undertaken for other reasons, the activity that consumes us becomes intrinsically rewarding.”
This is a crucial point to grasp. Being in the Element and especially being in the zone doesn’t take energy away from you; it gives it to you.
Activities we love fill us with energy even when we are physically exhausted. Activities we don’t like can drain us in minutes, even if we approach them at our physical peak of fitness. This is one of the keys to the Element, and one of the primary reasons why finding the Element is vital for every person. When people place themselves in situations that lead to their being in the zone, they tap into a primal source of energy. They are literally more alive because of it.
It is as though being in the zone plugs you into a kind of power pack—for the time you are there, you receive more energy than you expend. Energy drives all of our lives. This isn’t a simple matter of physical energy we think we have or don’t have but of our mental or psychic energy. Mental energy is not a fixed substance. It rises and falls with our passion and commitment to what we are doing at the time. The key difference is in our attitude, and our sense of resonance with an activity.
Being in your Element, having that experience of flow, is empowering because it’s a way of unifying our energies. It’s a way of feeling deeply connected with our own sense of identity and it curiously comes about through a sense of relaxing, of feeling perfectly natural to be doing what you’re doing. It’s a profound sense of being in your skin, of connecting to your own internal pulse or energy.
However we get there, being in the zone is a powerful and transformative experience. So powerful that it can be addictive, but an addiction that is healthy for you in so many ways.
When we connect with our own energy, we’re more open to the energy of other people. The more alive we feel, the more we can contribute to the lives of others.
This is another secret of being in the zone—that when you are inspired, your work can be inspirational to others. Being in the zone taps into your most natural self. And when you are in that place, you can contribute at a much higher level.
Being in the zone is about using your particular kind of intelligence in an optimal way.
When people are in the zone, they align naturally with a way of thinking that works best for them. I believe this is the reason that time seems to take on a new dimension when you are in the zone. It comes from a level of effortlessness that allows for such full immersion that you simply don’t “feel” time the same way. This effortlessness has a direct relationship to thinking styles. When people use a thinking style completely natural to them, everything comes more easily.
It’s obvious that different people think about the same things in different ways.
Ex: learning visually through mindmaps.
Getting Out of the Box
The risk in saying that there is a set number of personality types, a set number of dominant ways of thinking, is that it closes doors rather than opening them. To make the Element available to everyone, we need to acknowledge that each person’s intelligence is distinct from the intelligence of every other person on the planet, that everyone has a unique way of getting in the zone, and a unique way of finding the Element.
Do the Math
“I remember as a child being fascinated with the patterns and puzzles of mathematical symbol manipulation,” he told an interviewer. “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. Having good mentors was very important for me, because it gave me the chance to discuss these sorts of mathematical recreations; the formal classroom environment is of course best for learning theory and applications, and for appreciating the subject as a whole, but it isn’t a good place to learn how to experiment. Perhaps one character trait which does help is the ability to focus, and perhaps to be a little stubborn. If I learned something in class that I only partly understood, I wasn’t satisfied until I was able to work the whole thing out; it would bother me that the explanation wasn’t clicking together like it should. So I’d often spend a lot of time on very simple things until I could understand them backwards and forwards, which really helps when one then moves on to more advanced parts of the subject.”
“I don’t have any magical ability,” Dr. Tao told another interviewer. “I look at a problem, and it looks something like one I’ve already done; I think maybe the idea that worked before will work here. When nothing’s working out then I think of a small trick that makes it a little better, but still is not quite right. I play with the problem, and after a while, I figure out what’s going on. If I experiment enough, I get a deeper understanding. It’s not about being smart or even fast. It’s like climbing a cliff—if you’re very strong and quick and have a lot of rope, it helps, but you need to devise a good route to get up there. Doing calculations quickly and knowing a lot of facts are like a rock climber with strength, quickness, and good tools; you still need a plan—that’s the hard part—and you have to see the bigger picture.”
Left to their own devices, what are they drawn to do? What kinds of activities do they tend to engage in voluntarily? What sorts of aptitude do they suggest? What absorbs them most? What sort of questions do they ask, and what type of points do they make?
We need to understand what puts them and us in the zone.
Chapter 5: Finding your Tribe
FOR MOST PEOPLE, a primary component of being in their Element is connecting with other people who share their passion and a desire to make the most of themselves through it.
Meg Ryan could have been many things. She has genuine skill as a writer. She has considerable academic talents. She has a wide variety of interests and fascinations. However, when she’s acting, she finds herself with a group of people who see the world the way she does, who allow her to feel her most natural, who affirm her talents, who inspire her, influence her, and drive her to be her best. She is close to her true self when she is among actors, directors, camera and lighting people, and all of the others who populate the film world.
Being a part of this tribe brings her to the Element.
A Place to Discover Yourself
What connects a tribe is a common commitment to the thing they feel born to do. This can be extraordinarily liberating, especially if you’ve been pursuing your passion alone.
This “nervous energy” made him feel different from other kids, and sometimes uncomfortable. “As a child,” he said, “more than anything else you just want to be like all the other kids. So rather than me seeing my creativity as something special, it seemed to set me apart.”
There were maybe two hundred art students there, and about a hundred and eighty of them were graduate students. So for the first time I was around a big body of people who were very serious, knowledgeable, and committed to making their artwork, and it was fantastic for me. I went to all the critiques, not just in the ceramics department but in the painting department, the sculpture department, the weaving department, and everywhere, just soaking it all up. I spent a lot of time visiting with other students in their studios absorbing what everybody was doing. I started to read the art magazines and go to museums and fully immerse myself in art for the first time.
Finding the right tribe can be essential to finding your Element. On the other hand, feeling deep down that you’re with the wrong one is probably a good sign that you should look somewhere else.
For Helen Pilcher, a life in science has given way to a life of writing and communicating about science. Leaving the lab was scary, she says, “but not as scary as the prospect of staying. My advice, should you be contemplating making that leap, is to make like a lemming and jump.”
Domains and Fields
The people in this book have found their Element in different domains and with different fields of people. No one is limited to one domain, and many people move in several. Often, breakthrough ideas come about when someone makes a connection between different ways of thinking, sometimes across different domains.
As cultures and technologies evolve, new domains emerge, new fields of practitioners populate them, and old domains fade away. The techniques of computer animation have generated an entire new domain of creative work in cinema, television, and advertising.
Finding your tribe can have transformative effects on your sense of identity and purpose. This is because of three powerful tribal dynamics: validation, inspiration, and what we’ll call here the “alchemy of synergy.”
It’s Not Just Me
Connecting with people who share the same passions affirms that you’re not alone; that there are others like you and that, while many might not understand your passion, some do.
What matters first is having validation for the passion you have in common. Finding your tribe brings the luxury of talking shop, of bouncing ideas around, of sharing and comparing techniques, and of indulging your enthusiasms or hostilities for the same things.
Some people are most in their Element when they are working alone. This is often true of mathematicians, poets, painters, and some athletes. Even with these people, though, there’s a tacit awareness of a field—the other writers, other painters, other mathematicians, other players, who enrich the domain and challenge their sense of possibility.
Interaction with the field, in person or through their work, is as vital to our development as time alone with our thoughts. As the physicist John Wheeler said, “If you don’t kick things around with people, you are out of it. Nobody, I always say, can be anybody without somebody being around.”
“Up to a point you welcome being interrupted because it is only by interacting with other people that you get anything interesting done.”
How Do They Do That?
Finding your tribe offers more than validation and interaction, important as both of those are. It provides inspiration and provocation to raise the bar on your own achievements. In every domain, members of a passionate community tend to drive each other to explore the real extent of their talents. Sometimes, the boost comes not from close collaboration but from the influence of others in the field, whether contemporaries or predecessors, whether directly associated with one’s particular domain or associated only marginally. As Isaac Newton famously said, “If I saw further it was because I stood on the shoulders of giants.” This is not just a phenomenon of science.
Bob Dylan tells of his sense of alienation from the people there, from his family, and from the popular culture of the day. He knew he had to get away from there to become whoever he was going to be. His one lifeline was folk music. “Folk music,” he said, “was all I needed to exist. . . . I had no other cares or interests besides folk music. I scheduled my life around it. I had little in common with anyone not like-minded.”
When he first heard Woody Guthrie, he said, “It was like a million megaton bomb had dropped.”
it was a moment of truth for Dylan. “I felt like I had discovered some essence of self-command, that I was in the internal pocket of the system feeling more like myself than ever before. A voice in my head said, ‘So this is the game.’ I could sing all these songs, every single one of them, and they were all that I wanted to sing. It was like I had been in the dark and someone had turned on the main switch of a lightning conductor.”
Circles of Influence
Ex: The emulsion of the Silicon Valley
The Alchemy of Synergy
Why can creative teams achieve more together than they can separately? I think it’s because they bring together the three key features of intelligence that I described earlier. In a way, they model the essential features of the creative mind.
Great creative teams are diverse. They are composed of very different sorts of people with different but complementary talents.
Diversity of talents is important, but it is not enough. Different ways of thinking can be an obstacle to creativity. Creative teams find ways of using their differences as strengths, not weaknesses. They have a process through which their strengths are complementary and compensate for each other’s weaknesses too. They are able to challenge each other as equals, and to take criticism as an incentive to raise their game.
Still, Lincoln believed that each of these rivals had strengths the administration needed. With an equanimity difficult to imagine in current American politics, he brought this team together.
Lost in the Crowd
people often derive a large sense of who they are through affiliation with specific groups and tend to associate themselves closely with groups likely to boost their self-esteem.
Sports teams make fans feel as though they are part of a vast, powerful organization. This is especially true when the teams are winning.
Tribe membership as I define it here helps people become more themselves, leading them toward a greater sense of personal identity. On the other hand, we can easily lose our identity in a crowd, including a group of fans. Being a fan is about being partisan; cheering or jeering and finding joy in victory and agony in defeat.
In fact, fandom is in many ways a form of what psychologists rather awkwardly call “deindividuation.” This means losing your sense of identity through becoming part of a group. Extreme forms of deindividuation lead to mob behavior. it results in a sense of anonymity that leads people to lose inhibitions and sometimes perform acts they later regret, and in most cases do things outside their normal personalities. In other words, these actions can take you far from your true self.
Chapter 6: What Will They Think?
I think of the barriers to finding the Element as three concentric “circles of constraint.” These circles are personal, social, and cultural.
This Time It’s Personal
On top of his learning disorder and his physical maladies, Close also faced more tragedy than any young boy should ever encounter. His father uprooted the family regularly and then died when Chuck was eleven. Around this time, his mother, a classical pianist, developed breast cancer, and the Close family lost their home when the medical bills overwhelmed them. Even his grandmother became terribly ill.
What got Close through all of this was his passion for art. “I think early on my art ability was something that separated me from everybody else,” he said in an interview. “It was an area in which I felt competent and it was something that I could fall back on.”
Through ceaseless dedication to his passion and his craft, Chuck Close overcame considerable constraints to find his Element and rise to the pinnacle of his profession.
He made his way to the hospital, but within hours, he was a quadriplegic, the victim of a blood clot in his spinal column.
One day, however, Close discovered that he could hold a paintbrush with his teeth and actually manipulate it well enough to create tiny images. “I suddenly became encouraged,” he said. “I tried to imagine what kind of teeny paintings I could make with only that much movement. I tried to imagine what those paintings might look like. Even that little bit of neck movement was enough to let me know that perhaps I was not powerless. Perhaps I could do something myself.”
Throughout his life, Chuck Close has had endless reasons to give in to his problems and to give up as an artist. He chose instead to push on beyond every limit his life presented and to stay in his Element no matter what new obstacles reared up in his way. He would not let any of these things prevent him from being who he felt he was meant to be.
Whether you’re disabled or not, issues of attitude are of paramount importance in finding your Element. A strong will to be yourself is an indomitable force. Without it, even a person in perfect physical shape is at a comparative disadvantage. In my experience, most people have to face internal obstacles of self-doubt and fear as much as any external obstacles of circumstance and opportunity.
For me, the best in breed is Susan Jeffers’s landmark book Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway.
Fear is perhaps the most common obstacle to finding your Element. You might ask how often it’s played a part in your own life and held you back from doing the things you desperately wanted to try. Dr. Jeffers offers a series of well-tested techniques to move from fear to fulfillment, of which the most powerful is explicit in the title of her book.
Social: It’s For Your Own Good
Your parents and siblings, and your partner and children if you have them, are likely to have strong views on what you should and shouldn’t do with your life.
Many people don’t find their Element because they don’t have the encouragement or the confidence to step outside their established circle of relationships.
This is what happened to Paulo Coelho. Mind you, his parents went further than most to put him off. They had him committed repeatedly to a psychiatric institution and subjected to electroshock therapy because they loved him.
he had a passionate interest as a teenager in becoming a writer. Pedro and Lygia Coelho believed this was a waste of a life.
Coelho’s parents put Paolo in an asylum three times. They knew their son was extremely bright, believed he had a promising career ahead of him, and did what they felt they had to do to put him on the right track. Yet not even such an extreme approach to intervention stopped Paulo Coelho from finding his Element. In spite of the intense family opposition, he continued to pursue writing.
it is difficult to feel accomplished when you’re not accomplishing something that matters to you. It is rarely for your own good if it causes you to be less than who you really are.
The decision to play it safe, to take the path of least resistance, can seem irresistible, particularly if you have your own doubts and fears about the alternatives. And for some people it seems easier to avoid ruffling feathers and have the approval of parents, siblings, and spouses.
For all her success, Huffington knows that the biggest obstacles to achievement can be self-doubt and the disapproval of other people.
Huffington says there were two key factors in pursuing her early dream. The first was that she didn’t really understand what she was getting herself into. “My first taste of leadership came in a situation in which I was a blissfully ignorant outsider. It was in college, when I became president of the Cambridge Union debating society. Since I had grown up in Greece, I had never heard of the Cambridge Union or the Oxford Union and didn’t know about their place in English culture, so I wasn’t weighed down with the kinds of overwhelming notions that may have stopped British girls from even thinking about trying for such a position. . . . In this way, it was a blessing that I started my career outside my home environment. It had its own problems in that I was ridiculed for my accent and was demeaned as someone who spoke in a funny way. But it also taught me that it is easier to overcome people’s judgments than to overcome our own self-judgment, the fear we internalize.”
The second factor was the unwavering support of her mother. “I don’t think that anything I’ve done in my life would have been possible without my mother. My mother gave me that safe place, that sense that she would be there no matter what happened, whether I succeeded or failed. She gave me what I am hoping to be able to give my daughters, which is a sense that I could aim for the stars combined with the knowledge that if I didn’t reach them, she wouldn’t love me any less. She helped me understand that failure was part of any life.”
three main forces shape our development: personal temperament, our parents, and our peers. The influence of peers, she argues, is much stronger than that of parents. “The world that children share with their peers,” she says, “is what shapes their behavior and modifies the characteristics they were born with, and hence determines the sort of people they will be when they grow up.”
The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.
Since breaking the rules is a sure way to find ourselves out of the group, we may deny our deepest passions to stay connected with our peers.
When interviewed later, most of the subjects said they knew they were giving the wrong answers but did so because they didn’t want to be singled out.
The major obstacles to finding the Element often emerge in school. This is partly because of the hierarchy of subjects, which means that many students never discover their true interests and talents. But within the general culture of education, different social groups form distinctive subcultures. For some groups the code is that it’s just not cool to study. If you’re doing science, you’re a geek; if you’re doing art or dance, you’re effete. For other groups, doing these things is absolutely essential.
In this respect, schools of people are like schools of fish.
A Single Ant Can’t Ruin a Picnic
one of the oldest and most successful creatures on earth, the ant.
We aggregate as groups for the same essential and primal purposes. The upside for us is that groups can be tremendously supportive. The downside is that they encourage uniformity of thought and behavior. The Element is about discovering yourself, and you can’t do this if you’re trapped in a compulsion to conform. You can’t be yourself in a swarm.
Culture: Right and Thong
All social cultures promote what I’d describe as “contagious behavior.” One of the best examples is language, and more particularly accents and dialects. These are wonderful illustrations of the impulse to copy and conform.
The cultures in which we are raised do not only affect our values and outlook. They also shape our bodies and may even restructure our brains. Language, again, is a prime example. As we learn to speak, our mouths and vocal organs adapt to make the sounds our languages use. If you grow up speaking only one or two languages, it can be physically difficult to create the sounds that other languages require and that other cultures take for granted—those guttural French sounds, or the lispy sounds of Spanish, or the tonal sounds of some Asian languages. To speak a new language, we may have to retrain our bodies to make and understand the new sounds. But the effects of culture may go deeper still—into the actual structures of the brain.
Westerners tend to focus more on the foreground of the pictures and on what they consider the subject. Asians focus more on the whole image, including the relationships between the different elements.
Swimming Against the Tide
cultural identities have also been formed through direct contact with the people who are physically nearest to us.
All of this has changed irreversibly in the last two hundred years or so with the growth of global communications. We now have patterns of contagious behavior being generated on a massive scale through the Web. Second Life has millions of people online from different parts of the world potentially affecting how they each think and taking on new virtual identities and roles.
The complexities and fluidity of contemporary cultures can make it easier to change context and break away from the pressures of groupthink and feeling stereotyped.
in seeking your Element, you’re likely to face one or more of the three levels of constraint—personal, social, and cultural.
Sometimes, as Chuck Close found, reaching your Element requires devising creative solutions to strong limitations. Sometimes, as we learned from Paulo Coelho, it means maintaining a vision in the face of vicious resistance. And sometimes, as Zaha Hadid showed us, it means walking away from the life you’ve known to find an environment more suited to your growth.
Ultimately, the question is always going to be, “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.
Chapter 7: Do you feel lucky?
BEING GOOD AT SOMETHING and having a passion for it are essential to finding the Element. But they are not enough. Getting there depends fundamentally on our view of ourselves and of the events in our lives. The Element is also a matter of attitude.
his parents attempted to find a way to deal with the catastrophe that had befallen their lives. But Wilson did not regard the accident as catastrophic. “It did not strike me even then as a tragedy,” he said once in an interview with the Times of London. He knew he had the rest of his life to live, and he did not intend to live it in an understated way. He learned braille quickly and continued his education at the esteemed Worcester College for the Blind. There, he not only excelled as a student but also became an accomplished rower, swimmer, actor, musician, and orator.
At Oxford, he received his law degree and set out to work for the National Institute for the Blind. His real calling, however, was still waiting for him.
For Wilson, it was one thing to accept his own fate and quite another to allow something to continue when it could be fixed so easily. This moved him to action.
It is no exaggeration to say that generations of African children can thank the efforts of John Wilson for their sight.
In all, tens of millions can see because of the commitment John Wilson made to preventing the preventable.
Many people, faced with the circumstances Sir John Wilson encountered, would have bemoaned their existence. Perhaps they would have considered themselves cursed by ill fortune and frustrated in their attempts to do anything significant with their lives. Wilson, however, insisted that blindness was “a confounded nuisance, not a crippling affliction,” and he modeled that attitude in the most inspiring possible way.
He lost his sight and found a vision. He proved dramatically that it’s not what happens to us that determines out lives—it’s what we make of what happens.
Attitude and Aptitude
Their stories can be inspiring, of course, but they can also be depressing. After all, these people seem blessed in some way; they’ve had the good fortune to do what they love to do and to be very good at doing it.
But good and bad things happen to all of us. It’s not what happens to us that makes the difference in our lives. What makes the difference is our attitude toward what happens. The idea of luck is a powerful way of illustrating the importance of our basic attitudes in affecting whether or not we find our Element.
Describing ourselves as lucky or unlucky suggests that we’re simply the beneficiaries or victims of chance circumstances. But if being in your Element were just a matter of chance, all you could do is cross your fingers and hope to get lucky as well.
The real message there is that we all create and shape the realities of our own lives to an extraordinary extent. Those who simply wait for good things to happen really would be lucky to encounter them. All of the people I’ve profiled in this book have taken an active role in “getting lucky.” They’ve mastered a combination of attitudes and behavior that lead them to opportunities and that give them the confidence to take them.
One of these is the ability to look at situations in different ways.
In his book The Luck Factor, psychologist Richard Wiseman writes about his study of four hundred exceptionally “lucky” and “unlucky” people. He found that those who considered themselves lucky tended to exhibit similar attitudes and behaviors. Their unlucky counterparts tended to exhibit opposite traits.
Wiseman has identified four principles that characterize lucky people. Lucky people tend to maximize chance opportunities. They are especially adept at creating, noticing, and acting upon these opportunities when they arise. Second, they tend to be very effective at listening to their intuition, and do work (such as meditation) that is designed to boost their intuitive abilities. The third principle is that lucky people tend to expect to be lucky, creating a series of self-fulfilling prophecies because they go into the world anticipating a positive outcome. Last, lucky people have an attitude that allows them to turn bad luck to good. They don’t allow ill fortune to overwhelm them, and they move quickly to take control of the situation when it isn’t going well for them.
Dr. Wiseman performed an experiment that speaks to the role of perception in luck. He set up a nearby café with a group of actors told to behave the way people normally did in that setting. He also put a five-pound note on the sidewalk just outside the café. He then asked one of his “lucky” volunteers to go down to the shop. The lucky person saw the money on the ground, picked it up, walked into the shop, and ordered a coffee for himself and the stranger at the next chair. He and the stranger struck up a conversation and wound up exchanging contact information.
Next, Dr. Wiseman sent one of his “unlucky” volunteers to the café. This person stepped right over the five-pound note, bought coffee, and interacted with no one. Later, Wiseman asked both subjects if anything lucky happened that day. The lucky subject talked about finding the money and making a new contact. The unlucky subject couldn’t think of anything.
One way of opening ourselves up to new opportunities is to make conscious efforts to look differently at our ordinary situations. to see the world as one rife with possibility and to take advantage of some of those possibilities if they seem worth pursuing.
if we keep our focus too tight, we miss the rest of the world swirling around us.
Perhaps the most important attitude for cultivating good fortune is a strong sense of perseverance. Many of the people in this book faced considerable constraints in finding the Element and managed to do it through sheer, dogged determination.
We all shape the circumstances and realities of our own lives, and we can also transform them. People who find their Element are more likely to evolve a clearer sense of their life’s ambitions and set a course for achieving them. They know that passion and aptitude are essential. They know too that our attitudes to events and to ourselves are crucial in determining whether or not we find and live our lives in the Element.
Chapter 8: Somebody Help Me
The Life-Changing Connection
Finding our Element often requires the aid and guidance of others. Sometimes this comes from someone who sees something in us that we don’t see in ourselves, as was the case with Gillian Lynne. Sometimes it comes in the form of a person bringing out the best in us, as Peggy Fury did with Meg Ryan. For me, Charles Strafford saw that I would only reach my potential if my educators offered me greater challenges. He took the necessary steps to assure that it happened.
At the very least, good mentoring raises self-esteem and sense of purpose. But mentoring takes an elevated role for people when it involves directing or inspiring their search for the Element. What the psychologist saw with Gillian Lynne and what Wiley Pittman saw with Ray Charles was the opportunity to lead someone toward his or her heart’s fulfillment. What Howard Zinn saw with Marian Wright Edelman and Ben Graham saw with Warren Buffett was rare talent that could blossom into something extraordinary if nurtured. When mentors serve this function—either turning a light on a new world or fanning the flames of interest into genuine passion—they do exalted work.
The Roles of Mentors
some tests are available that aim to give people a general indication of their strengths and weaknesses based on a series of standardized questions. But the real subtlety and nuances of individual aptitudes and talents are far more complex than any existing tests can detect.
Some people have general aptitudes for music, or for dance, or for science, but more often than not, their aptitudes turn out to be much more specific within a given discipline. A person may have an aptitude for a particular type of music or for specific instruments: the guitar, not the violin; the acoustic guitar, not the electric guitar. I don’t know of any test or software program that can make the kinds of subtle, personal distinctions that differentiate an interest from a potential burning passion. A mentor who has already found the Element in a particular discipline can do precisely that. Mentors recognize the spark of interest or delight and can help an individual drill down to the specific components of the discipline that match that individual’s capacity and passion.
One day not long after this, Lou was sitting at his desk when Ian Ballantine strolled in and sat down. This part was surprising enough to Lou. The next several minutes, however, left him stunned. “Ian had a distinctive way of speaking,” Lou told me. “You got the sense that every thought was a pearl, but his language was so circuitous that it seemed the pearl still had the oyster around it.” What became clear as Ballantine continued to speak, though, was that—much to Lou’s astonishment—the publishing legend wanted to take Lou under his wing. “He never actually said, ‘Hey, I’ll be your mentor.’ Ian didn’t make declarative statements like that. But he suggested he might enjoy dropping by regularly, and I made it clear that he could drop by whenever he wanted and that I’d be happy to go halfway across the world to get to him if he didn’t feel like coming to me.”
One of Ballantine’s lessons to Lou was to “zig when everyone else is zagging,” his way of suggesting that the fastest path to success is often to go against the flow.
The second role of a mentor is encouragement. Mentors lead us to believe that we can achieve something that seemed improbable or impossible to us before we met them. They don’t allow us to succumb to self-doubt for too long, or the notion that our dreams are too large for us. They stand by to remind us of the skills we already possess and what we can achieve if we continue to work hard.
The third role of a mentor is facilitating. Mentors can help lead us toward our Element by offering us advice and techniques, paving the way for us.
the fact that it’s important for students to rub up against people who have actually done or are doing the thing that the students are learning.
The fourth role of a mentor is stretching. Effective mentors push us past what we see as our limits. Much as they don’t allow us to succumb to self-doubt, they also prevent us from doing less with our lives than we can. A true mentor reminds us that our goal should never be to be “average” at our pursuits.
most of us never would have heard that voice had it not been for a mentor.
It might be overstating things to suggest that the only way to reach the Element is with the help of a mentor, but it is only a mild overstatement.
Without a knowledgeable guide to aid us in identifying our passions, to encourage our interests, to smooth our paths, and to push us to make the most of our capacities, the journey is considerably harder.
More Than Heroes
We all have personal heroes—a parent, a teacher, a coach, even a schoolmate or colleague.
In addition, we all have heroes we’ve never met who stir our imaginations with their deeds.
These people inspire us and lead us to marvel at the wonders of human potential. They open our eyes to new possibilities and fire our aspirations. They might even drive us to follow their examples in our lives, moving us to dedicate ourselves to public service, exploration, breaking barriers, or lessening injustice. In this way, these heroes perform a function similar to mentors.
Yet mentors do something more than heroes in our search for the Element. Heroes may be remote from us and inaccessible. They may live in another world. They may be dead. If we meet them, we may be too awestruck to engage properly with them. Heroes may not be good mentors to us. They may be competitive or refuse to have anything to do with us. Mentors are different. They take a unique and personal place in our lives. Mentors open doors for us and get involved directly in our journeys. They show us the next steps and encourage us to take them.
Chapter 9: Is It Too Late?
“Even having my doctorate in psychology didn’t help. While my job was rewarding beyond my wildest dreams, I was miserable. I soon got tired of feeling sorry for myself and knew I had to find a new way of ‘being’ in the world. And that is when my spiritual journey began.”
In her free time, she studied Eastern philosophies and attended all manner of personal growth and New Age workshops. “I discovered that it was fear that was creating my ‘victim mentality’ and negative attitude. It was stopping me from taking responsibility for my experience of life. It was also fear that was keeping me from being a truly loving person. Little by little, I learned how to push through fear and move myself from the weakest to the strongest part of who I am. Ultimately, I felt a sense of power that I had never felt before.”
Since she was learning to trust her intuition, she decided to check it out.
‘Can I help you?’ I walked in and blurted out, ‘I’m here to teach a course about fear.’ Where that came from, I hadn’t a clue!
Without any forethought, I titled the course ‘Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway’
‘What just happened?’ I believe strongly in the Law of Attraction, but to me this was mind blowing.”
they were amazed at how shifting their thinking really changed their lives. Teaching this course convinced me that that the techniques that had transformed my life were the same techniques that could transform anyone regardless of age, sex, or background.
Is It Too Late?
We all know people who feel locked into their lives. They sincerely wish they could do something more meaningful and fulfilling, but at age thirty-nine or fifty-two or sixty-four, they feel that the opportunity has passed. Perhaps you feel that it’s too late—that it’s unrealistic to pivot your life suddenly in a new direction. Perhaps you feel that you’ve missed the one opportunity you had to pursue your heart’s desire (maybe due to one of the constraints we discussed earlier). Perhaps you didn’t have the confidence to follow the passion earlier, and now believe that the moment is gone.
There is abundant evidence that opportunities to discover our Element exist more frequently in our lives than many might believe. In the course of writing this book, we have come upon literally hundreds of examples of people following their passions later in their lives. For example, Harriet Doerr, the best-selling author, only dabbled in writing while she raised her family. When she was sixty-five, she returned to college to get a degree in history. But the writing courses she took along the way raised her prose skills to a new level, and she wound up enrolled in Stanford’s creative writing program. She eventually published her first novel, the National Book Award-winning Stones for Ibarra, in 1983, at the age of seventy-three.
While less than half that age at thirty-six, Paul Potts still seemed stuck in an obscure and unfulfilling life. He’d always known he had a good voice and he’d pursued operatic training. However, a motorcycle accident cut short his dreams of the stage. Instead, he became a mobile telephone salesman in South Wales and continued to struggle with a lifelong self-confidence problem. Then he heard about auditions for the talent competition television show Britain’s Got Talent. his beautiful voice brought down the house, leaving one of the judges in tears. Over the next few weeks, Potts became an international sensation—the YouTube video of his first performance has been downloaded more than eighteen million times. He ultimately won the competition and got the opportunity to sing in front of the Queen.
I was always a little bit different. So I think that’s the reason sometimes that I struggled with self-confidence. When I’m singing I don’t have that problem. I’m in the place where I should be. All my life I felt insignificant. After that first audition, I realized that I am somebody. I’m Paul Potts.”
We’ve all heard that fifty is the new thirty and that seventy is the new forty.
the “second middle age.” What we once considered middle age (roughly thirty-five to fifty) presaged a rapid descent toward retirement and imminent death. Now, the end of this first middle age marks a series of benchmarks (a certain level of accomplishment in your work, kids going off to college, reduction in necessary capital purchases). What comes after this is a second stretch.
if you can see the chances of making a dream come true, you can also likely see the necessary next steps you need to take toward achieving it.
One of the most basic reasons for thinking that it’s too late to be who you are truly capable of being is the belief that life is linear. As if we’re on a busy one-way street, we think we have no alternative but to keep going forward.
Directing commercials led to directing television. Only after that did Ridley Scott become immersed in the film world that would define his life’s work. If he’d believed at any point along this journey that he had to follow a straight path in his career, he never would have found his true calling.
Human lives are organic and cyclical. Different capacities express themselves in stronger ways at different times in our lives. Because of this, we get multiple opportunities for new growth and development, and multiple opportunities to revitalize latent capacities.
While physical age is absolute as a way of measuring the number of years that have passed since you were born, it is purely relative when it comes to health and quality of life. Certainly, we are all getting older by the clock. But I know plenty of people who are the same age chronologically and generations apart emotionally and creatively.
Benjamin Franklin invented the bifocal lens when he was seventy-eight. That’s how old Grandma Moses was when she decided to get serious about painting. Agatha Christie wrote The Mousetrap, the world’s longest-running play, when she was sixty-two. Jessica Tandy won the Oscar for Best Actress at age eighty. Vladimir Horowitz gave his last series of sold-out piano recitals when he was eighty-four.
Compare these accomplishments with the premature resignation of people you know in their thirties or forties, who behave as if their lives have settled into a dull routine and who see little opportunity to change and evolve.
If you’re fifty, exercise your mind and body regularly, eat well, and have a general zest for life, you’re likely younger—in very real, physical terms—than your neighbor who is forty-four, works in a dead-end job, eats chicken wings twice a day, considers thinking too strenuous, and looks at lifting a beer glass as a reasonable daily workout.
Dr. Henry Lodge, coauthor of Younger Next Year, makes the point sharply. “It turns out,” he says, “that 70% of American aging is not real aging. It’s just decay. It’s rot from the stuff that we do. All the lifestyle diseases . . . the diabetes, the obesity, the heart disease, much of the Alzheimer’s, lots of the cancers, and almost all of the osteoporosis, those are all decay. Nature doesn’t have that in store for any of us. We go out and buy it off the rack.”
One way to improve your real age is to take better care of yourself physically, through exercise and nutrition.
One of the fundamental precepts of the Element is that we need to reconnect with ourselves and to see ourselves holistically. One of the greatest obstacles to being in our Element is the belief that our minds somehow exist independently of our bodies, like tenants in an apartment, or that our bodies are really just a form of transport for our heads. The evidence of research, and of common sense, is not only that our physical health affects our intellectual and emotional vitality, but that our attitudes can affect our physical well-being. But equally important is the work you do to keep your mind young. Laughter has a huge impact on aging. So does intellectual curiosity. Meditation can also provide significant benefits to the physical body.
The answer to the question, Is it too late for me to find the Element? is simple: No, of course not.
Keeping Things Plastic
What this really comes down to is our capacity to continue to develop our creativity and intelligence as we enter new stages in our lives.
Consider, for instance, how we learn language. Learning to speak is one of the most miraculous achievements in a child’s life. It happens for most of us within our first few years. No one teaches language to us—certainly not our parents. They couldn’t possibly do that because spoken language is too complex, too subtle, and too full of variations for anyone to teach it formally to a child.
babies don’t learn to speak by instruction. They learn by imitation and inference. We are all born with a deep, instinctive capacity for language, which is activated almost as soon as we draw breath.
They eventually discovered that when he was a baby, he had been treated for a minor infection. The treatment included having the eye bandaged for two weeks. This would have made little difference to the eye of an adult. But in a young baby, the development of the eye-to-brain neural circuits is a delicate and critical process. Because the neurons serving the bandaged eye were not being used during this crucial period of development, they were treated by the brain as though they weren’t there at all. “Sadly,” said Greenfield, “the bandaging of the eye was misinterpreted by the brain as a clear indication that the boy would not be using the eye for the rest of his life.” The result was that he was permanently blinded in that eye.
There is strong evidence to suggest that the creative functions of our brain stay strong deep into our lives: we can recover and renew many of our latent aptitudes by deliberately exercising them. Just as physical exercise can revitalize our muscles, mental exercise can revitalize our creative capabilities.
the creation of new brain cells in adult humans, the brain continues to generate new cells, and certain mental techniques (such as meditation) can even accelerate this.
But in other ways and in other areas, maturity can be a genuine advantage, especially, for example, in the arts. Many writers, poets, painters, and composers have produced their greatest work as their insights and sensitivities deepened with age. One can say the same about disciplines as diverse as law, cooking, teaching, and landscape design. In fact, in any discipline where experience plays a significant role, age is an asset rather than a liability.
One of the results of seeing our lives as linear and unidirectional is that it leads to a culture (true of most Western cultures, in fact) of segregating people by age. We send the very young to nursery schools and kindergartens as a group. We educate teenagers in batches. We move the elderly into retirement homes. There are some good reasons for all of this. After all, as Gail Sheehy noted decades ago, there are predictable passages in our lives, and it makes some sense to create environments where people can experience those passages in an optimal way.
The program pairs a member of the retirement home with one of the children. The adults listen to the children read, and they read to them.
More than 70 percent are leaving the program at age five reading at third-grade level or higher. But the children are learning much more than how to read. As they sit with their book buddies, the kids have rich conversations with the adults.
The children ask things about how big iPods were when the adults were growing up, and the adults explain that their lives really weren’t like the lives that kids have now.
Many of the residents on the program have stopped or cut back on their drugs.
Why is this happening? Because the adult participants in the program have come back to life. Instead of whiling away their days waiting for the inevitable, they have a reason to get up in the morning and a renewed excitement about what the day might bring. Because they are reconnecting with their creative energies, they are literally living longer.
In a way, the Grace Living Center has restored an ancient, traditional relationship between the generations. The very young and the very old have always had an almost mystical connection. They seem to understand each other in a fundamental, often unspoken way. Our practice in the West is often to keep these generations apart. The Book Buddies program shows in a simple yet profound way the enrichment possible when generations come together. It shows too that the elderly can revive long-lost energies if the circumstances are right and the inspiration is there.
remarkable, life-enhancing things can happen when we take the time to step out of our routines, rethink our paths, and revisit the passions we left behind (or never pursued at all) for whatever reason. We can take ourselves in fresh directions at nearly any point in our lives. We have the capacity to discover the Element at practically any age. As the actor Sophia Loren once said, “There is a fountain of youth: it is your mind, your talents, the creativity you bring to your life and the lives of the people you love. When you learn to tap this source, you will truly have defeated age.”