Chapter 10: For Love or Money
In the original sense, an amateur is someone who does something for the love of it. Amateurs do what they do because they have a passion for it, not because it pays the bills. True amateurs, in other words, are people who have found the Element in something other than their jobs.
To be in your Element, it isn’t necessary to drop everything else and do it all day, every day. For some people, at some stages in their lives, leaving their current jobs or roles to pursue their passions simply isn’t a practical proposition. Other people choose not to do that for a whole range of reasons. Many people earn their living doing one thing, and they then create time and space in their lives to do the thing they love. Some people do this because it makes greater sense emotionally. Others do it because they feel they have no alternative but to pursue their passions “on the side.”
Finding the Element is essential to a balanced and fulfilled life. It can also help us to understand who we really are. These days, we tend to identify ourselves by our jobs. The first question at parties and social gatherings is often, “What do you do?” We dutifully answer with a top-line description of our professions: “I’m a teacher,” “I’m a designer,” “I’m a driver.” If you don’t have a paid job, you might feel somewhat awkward about this and find the need to give an explanation. For so many of us, our jobs define us, even to ourselves—and even if the work we do doesn’t express who we really feel we are. This can be especially frustrating if your job is unfulfilling. If we’re not in our Element at work, it becomes even more important to discover that Element somewhere else.
To begin with, it can enrich everything else you do. Doing the thing you love and that you do well for even a couple of hours a week can make everything else more palatable. But in some circumstances, it can lead to transformations you might not have imagined possible.
“I enjoyed practicing medicine and was always honored that patients put their trust in me to take care of them and their loved ones,” he said in a recent interview. “But writing had always been my passion, since childhood. I feel ridiculously fortunate and privileged that writing is, at least for the time being, my livelihood. It is a dream realized.”
There’s an important difference between leisure and recreation. In a general sense, both words suggest processes of physical or mental regeneration. But they have different connotations. Leisure is generally thought of as the opposite of work. It suggests something effortless and passive. We tend to think of work as something that takes our energy. Leisure is what we do to build it up again. Leisure offers a respite, a passive break from the challenges of the day, a chance to rest and recharge. Recreation carries a more active tone—literally of re-creating ourselves. It suggests activities that require physical or mental effort but which enhance our energies rather than depleting them. I associate the Element much more with recreation than with leisure.
“And I literally would study it like any other academic science. Huge visualization. I would sit on planes and I would visualize myself going through all the dances. So anytime I couldn’t physically practice, I would mentally practice. I could feel the music. I could feel the emotions. I could see the facial expressions. And I would come the next day to the dance studio after being gone and I would be better. And my dance partner would say, ‘How did you get better overnight? Weren’t you traveling to Philadelphia?’ and I would say, ‘Oh, I practiced on the plane.’ And I literally would practice up to two hours in my head totally uninterrupted.
I dreamt of being a writer for Saturday Night Live, but learned weekly deadlines and high-stress environments take any enjoyment out of it for me. I began to think, why does a paycheck validate my talent? When it comes down to it, I just love to make people laugh and if one of my sketches, short stories, or funny e-mails makes someone crack up, well that’s really enough for me. I became a much happier person when I came to that realization.
The objective of this form of recreation is to bring a proper balance into our lives—a balance between making a living and making a life. Whether or not we can spend most of our time in our Element, it’s essential for our well-being that we connect with our true passions in some way and at some point. More and more people are doing this through formal and informal networks, clubs, and festivals to share and celebrate common creative interests. These include choirs, theater festivals, science clubs, and music camps. Personal happiness comes as much from the emotional and spiritual fulfillment that this can bring as from the material needs we meet from the work we may have to do.
The Element is about a more dynamic, organic conception of human existence in which the different parts of our lives are not seen as hermetically sealed off from one another but as interacting and influencing each other. Being in our Element at any time in our lives can transform our view of ourselves. Whether we do it full-time or part-time, it can affect our whole lives and the lives of those around us.
I believe if we begin with ourselves and do the things that we need to do and become the best person we can be, we have a much better chance of changing the world for the better.
Chapter 11: Making the Grade
Finding our Element is essential for us as individuals and for the well-being of our communities. Education should be one of the main processes that take us to the Element. Too often, though, it serves the opposite function.
This Looked-Down-Upon Thing
Here I am sitting quietly unable to sleep in my room. It’s currently 6:00 a.m., and this is the period of my life that is supposed to change me forever. After a few weeks, I will be a senior and colleges seem to be the main topic of my life right now . . . and I hate it. It’s not that I don’t want to go to college, it’s just that I had thoughts of doing other things that wouldn’t suppress my ideas. I was so dead confident about something I wanted to do and devote my time with, but to everyone around me it seems like getting a Ph.D. or some boring job is key to being successful in life. To me I thought that spending your time on something boring and meaningless was a bad idea. This is the one opportunity in my life . . . heck it’s the one life I’ll ever get and if I don’t do something drastic, I will never get a chance to do it. I hate it when I get some funny look from my parents or my friends’ parents when I tell them I want to pursue something completely different than the trite old medical- or business-related job.
Somehow, I stumbled upon a video with a guy talking about ideas I’ve had in my head for some time now and it utterly shook me to euphoria. . . . If everyone wants to be a pharmacist, in the future, a job in the medical field won’t be such a prestigious profession. I don’t want money, I don’t want some lousy “expensive” car. I want to do something meaningful with my life, but support is something I rarely get. I just want to tell you that you’ve personally made me believe once again that I can follow my dream. As a painter, a sketcher, a music writer, a sculptor, and a writer, I truly thank you for giving me hope. My art teacher always gives me stares when I would do something odd. I once poured my paintbrush cleaning water on top of a painting my teacher said was “completed and ready to be graded.” Boy, would you have loved the look on her face. These boundaries are so clearly set in school and I want to break free and create the ideas that come from my head at three in the morning. I hate drawing plain old shoes or trees and I don’t like having this “grading” of art. Since when should someone “grade” art? I bet if Pablo Picasso handed in one of his pieces to his old art teacher, she’d absolutely flip and fail him. I asked my teacher if I could incorporate sculpture with canvas and have both intertwined together and have my sculpture give the illusion that the painting was alive and coming towards the viewer. . . . Her response was that it wasn’t allowed! I am going to take an AP art studio class my senior year and they tell me that I can’t do three-dimensional art? It’s insane and we need people like you to come down to New Jersey and give a speech or two about this looked-down-upon thing called creativity.
It pains me when the minute I say I want to be an artist when I grow up, all I get are laughs or frowns. Why can’t people do the things they love to do? Is happiness a mansion, some big-screen television screen, watching numbers scroll go by as you cringe when S&P goes down a point? . . . This world has turned into an overpopulated, scary, and competitive place. Thank you for those nineteen minutes and twenty-nine seconds of pure truth. Cheers.
Conformity or Creativity
Public education puts relentless pressure on its students to conform.
In many ways, they reflect the factory culture they were designed to support.
some teachers install math in the students, and others install history. They arrange the day into standard units of time, marked out by the ringing of bells, much like a factory announcing the beginning of the workday.
Students are educated in batches, according to age, as if the most important thing they have in common is their date of manufacture. They are given standardized tests at set points and compared with each other before being sent out onto the market.
a college degree is not worth a fraction of what it once was. A degree was once a passport to a good job. Now, at best, it’s a visa. It only gives you provisional residence in the job market.
It’s mainly because so many more people have them now. In the industrial period, most people did manual and blue-collar work, and only a minority actually went to college.
These operations teach preschoolers, sometimes even one-year-olds, to prepare for entrance exams to prestigious elementary schools (the necessary first step toward placement in a high-level Japanese university). There, small children perform drills in literature, grammar, math, and a wide variety of other subjects to gain an edge on their “competition.”
Cram schools exist all over the globe. In England, cram schools focus on getting kids through college entrance exams, as do SAT prep courses in the United States. In India, cram schools known as “tutorials” help students drive through competitive tests. In Turkey, the dershane system pushes students toward getting ahead, with extensive programs for students on weekends.
It’s difficult to believe that an education system that places this kind of pressure on children is of benefit to anyone—the children or their communities. Most countries are making efforts to reform education. In my view, they are going about it in exactly the wrong way.
The first is economic. Every region in the world is facing the same economic challenge—how to educate their people to find work and create wealth in a world that is changing faster than ever. The second reason is cultural. Communities throughout the world want to take advantage of globalization, but they don’t want to lose their own identities in the process.
The mistake that many policymakers make is to believe that in education the best way to face the future is by improving what they did in the past. There are three major processes in education: the curriculum, which is what the school system expects students to learn; pedagogy, the process by which the system helps students to do it; and assessment, the process of judging how well they are doing. Most reform movements focus on the curriculum and the assessment.
the teacher complained bitterly that she gets to spend much less time on a reading program she loves because the school administration forces her to prep her students for the district-wide tests that come up every marking period. Good teachers find their own creativity suppressed.
But the tests in themselves are only useful as part of a diagnosis. The doctor needs to know what to make of the results in my particular case, and to let me know what I should do about them given my particular physiology.
It’s the same in education. Used in the right way, standardized tests can provide essential data to support and improve education. The problem comes when these tests become more than simply a tool of education and turn into the focus of it.
The most powerful method of improving education is to invest in the improvement of teaching and the status of great teachers. There isn’t a great school anywhere that doesn’t have great teachers working in it. But there are plenty of poor schools with shelves of curriculum standards and reams of standardized tests.
The fact is that given the challenges we face, education doesn’t need to be reformed—it needs to be transformed. The key to this transformation is not to standardize education but to personalize it, to build achievement on discovering the individual talents of each child, to put students in an environment where they want to learn and where they can naturally discover their true passions. The key is to embrace the core principles of the Element. Some of the most invigorating and successful innovations in education around the world illustrate the real power of this approach.
I was always deeply impressed by the power of drama to invigorate the imaginations of children and to promote a strong sense of collaboration, self-esteem, and community feeling in classrooms and schools.
Children learn best when they learn from each other and when their teachers are learning with them.
“I passionately believe that, when it is properly integrated into the curriculum, drama can transform the culture of a school. I know this from my own experience as a teacher in one of the poorest areas of Liverpool. We actually kept clean clothes at the school for some of the kids to wear while attending classes. They would change into them in the morning and change out of them to go home. We discovered that if they were just given the clothes, within a week, they would be in just as a bad a state as the rest of their things, or they would mysteriously disappear.
Some of the children lived in terrible circumstances at home. I remember that in one of our creative writing classes, one of the girls wrote a story about dead babies. We were struck by the vividness of this story, and the school contacted social services to check what was happening at home. They discovered that her premature baby sister’s body was rotting under her bed.
The headmaster believed in playing to our strengths and that teaching should be child-centered.
when it came time to put on the school plays, the kids were confident and desperate to be involved, to perform, sew costumes, build sets, write, sing, and dance. They couldn’t wait to get to their lessons. It was a lot of fun, and it was so fulfilling to see how kids developed social skills and interacted.
They were using their imaginations in ways they never had before. Kids who had never excelled at anything suddenly found they could shine. Kids who couldn’t sit still didn’t have to, and quite a few discovered they could act, entertain, write, debate, and stand up with confidence to address an entire group. The standard of all their work improved dramatically. There was great support from parents, and the governors used the school as a model. It was all because of the head teacher, Albert Hunt, a wonderful man.
Paul McCartney had a wonderful experience with the teacher who introduced him to Chaucer because that teacher chose to do so in a way that he knew would reach the teenaged boy.
"The best teacher I had was our English teacher, Alan Durband. He was great. I was good with him too because he understood our mentality as fifteen- and sixteen-year-old boys."
is made of one hundred.
The child has
a hundred languages
a hundred hands
a hundred thoughts
a hundred ways of thinking
of playing, of speaking.
A hundred always a hundred
ways of listening
of marveling of loving
a hundred joys
for singing and understanding
a hundred worlds
a hundred worlds
a hundred worlds
The child has
a hundred languages
(and a hundred hundred more)
but they steal ninety-nine.
The school and the culture
separate the head from the body.
They tell the child:
to think without hands
to do without head
to listen and not to speak
to understand without joy
to love and to marvel
only at Easter and Christmas.
They tell the child:
to discover the world already there
and of the hundred
they steal ninety-nine.
They tell the child:
that work and play
reality and fantasy
science and imagination
sky and earth
reason and dream
that do not belong together.
And thus they tell the child
that the hundred is not there.
The child says:
No way. The hundred is there.
The teachers consider themselves researchers for the children, helping them to explore more of what interests them, and they see themselves as continuing to learn alongside their pupils.
For the past two decades, Reggio schools have received considerable acclaim, winning the LEGO Prize, the Hans Christian Andersen Prize, and an award from the Kohl Foundation. There are currently schools all over the world (including thirty American states) using the Reggio approach.
“My key words are experiential and contextual,” Gerver told me.
“They are learning because they can see how it moves their community of Grangeton onwards—exams are a way of assessing their progress to that end. It’s giving the children a completely different perspective of why they are here.”
Children are more confident and as a result more independent.
A recent report from Ofsted, the British school inspection agency, noted of Grange, “Pupils love coming to school and talk enthusiastically about the many exciting experiences on offer, tackling these with eagerness, excitement, and confidence.”
Many of the people I’ve talked about in this book say that they went through the whole of their education without really discovering their true talents. It is no exaggeration to say that many of them did not discover their real abilities until after they left school—until they had recovered from their education.
It’s a systemic problem in the nature of our education systems. In fact, the real challenges for education will only be met by empowering passionate and creative teachers and by firing up the imaginations and motivations of the students.
The curriculum of education for the twenty-first century must be transformed radically. I have described intelligence as being diverse, dynamic, and distinct. Here is what it means for education. First, we need to eliminate the existing hierarchy of subjects. Elevating some disciplines over others only reinforces outmoded assumptions of industrialism and offends the principle of diversity. Too many students pass through education and have their natural talents marginalized or ignored. The arts, sciences, humanities, physical education, languages, and math all have equal and central contributions to make to a student’s education.
Second, we need to question the entire idea of “subjects.” For generations, we have promoted the idea that the arts, the sciences, the humanities, and the rest are categorically different from each other. The truth is that they have much in common. There is great skill and objectivity in the arts, just as there is passion and intuition at the heart of science. The idea of separate subjects that have nothing in common offends the principle of dynamism.
School systems should base their curriculum not on the idea of separate subjects, but on the much more fertile idea of disciplines. Math, for example, isn’t just a set of information to be learned but a complex pattern of ideas, practical skills, and concepts. It is a discipline—or rather a set of disciplines. So too are drama, art, technology, and so on. The idea of disciplines makes possible a fluid and dynamic curriculum that is interdisciplinary.
Third, the curriculum should be personalized. Learning happens in the minds and souls of individuals—not in the databases of multiple-choice tests. I doubt there are many children who leap out of bed in the morning wondering what they can do to raise the reading score for their state. Learning is a personal process, especially if we are interested in moving people toward the Element. The current processes of education do not take account of individual learning styles and talents. In that way, they offend the principle of distinctiveness.
The main thing is to encourage kids to follow anything they have enthusiasm for. When I got interested in magic, I got great encouragement and support. I devoted myself to magic in the same way that I do artwork now.
Whatever it might be for, enthusiasm is the main thing that needs to be developed.
The most successful systems in the world take the opposite view. They invest in teachers. The reason is that people succeed best when they have others who understand their talents, challenges, and abilities. This is why mentoring is such a helpful force in so many peoples lives. Great teachers have always understood that that real role is not to teach subjects but to teach students. Mentoring and coaching is the vital pulse of a living system of education.
One of the essential problems for education is that most countries subject their schools to the fast-food model of quality assurance when they should be adopting the Michelin model instead.
The future for education is in cultivating the real depth and dynamism of human abilities of every sort.
FINDING THE ELEMENT in yourself is essential to discovering what you can really do and who you really are. At one level, this is a very personal issue. It’s about you and people you know and care for. But there is a larger argument here as well. The Element has powerful implications for how to run our schools, businesses, communities, and institutions. The core principles of the Element are rooted in a wider, organic conception of human growth and development.
we don’t see the world directly. We perceive it through frameworks of ideas and beliefs, which act as filters on what we see and how we see it. Some of these ideas enter our consciousness so deeply that we’re not even aware of them. They strike us as simple common sense. They often show up, though, in the metaphors and images we use to think about ourselves and about the world around us.
The Climate Crisis
In their natural state, these creatures are all over each other. They live in complicated, interdependent environments, and their fortunes relate to one another.
Human communities are exactly the same, and they are facing the same sorts of crises that are now confronting the ecosystems of the natural environment. The analogy here is strong.
The Other Climate Crisis
The dominant Western worldview is not based on seeing synergies and connections but on making distinctions and seeing differences. This is why we pin butterflies in separate boxes from the beetles—and teach separate subjects in schools.
Much of Western thought assumes that the mind is separate from the body and that human beings are somehow separate from the rest of nature. This may be why so many people don’t seem to understand that what they put into their bodies affects how it works and how they think and feel. It may be why so many people don’t seem to understand that the quality of their lives is affected by the quality of the natural environment and what they put into it and what they take out.
We’re living in times when hundreds of millions of people can only get through their day by relying on prescription drugs to treat depression and other emotional disorders. The profits of pharmaceutical companies are soaring, while the spirits of their consumers continue to dive.
By 1900, 12 percent of the almost two billion people lived in cities. By 2000, nearly half of the six billion people on Earth lived in cities. It’s estimated that by 2050 more than 60 percent of the nine billion human beings will be city dwellers. By 2020, there may be more than five hundred cities on Earth with populations above one million.
Farmers base their livelihoods on raising crops. But farmers do not make plants grow. They don’t attach the roots, glue on the petals, or color the fruit. The plant grows itself. Farmers and gardeners provide the conditions for growth. Good farmers know what those conditions are, and bad ones don’t. Understanding the dynamic elements of human growth is as essential to sustaining human cultures into the future as the need to understand the ecosystems of the natural world on which we ultimately depend.
Then in the spring of 2005, something even more remarkable happened. Spring flowers covered the entire floor of Death Valley.
What this proved, of course, was that Death Valley wasn’t dead at all. It was asleep. It was simply waiting for the conditions of growth. When the conditions came, life returned to the heart of Death Valley.
Human beings and human communities are the same. We need the right conditions for growth, in our schools, businesses, and communities, and in our individual lives. If the conditions are right, people grow in synergy with the people around them and the environments they create. If the conditions are poor, people protect themselves and their anxieties from neighbors and the world. Some of the elements of our own growth are inside us. They include the need to develop our unique natural aptitudes and personal passions. Finding and nurturing them is the surest way to ensure our growth and fulfillment as individuals.
If we discover the Element in ourselves and encourage others to find theirs, the opportunities for growth are infinite. If we fail to do that, we may get by, but our lives will be duller as a result.
This is not a new view. It’s an ancient view of the need for balance and fulfillment in our lives and for synergies with the lives and aspirations other people. It’s an idea that is easily lost in our current forms of existence.
The crises in the worlds of nature and of human resources are connected.
“It’s interesting to reflect,” he said, “that if all the insects were to disappear from the earth, within fifty years all other forms of life would end.”
“But,” Salk went on, “if all human beings were to disappear from the earth, within fifty years all other forms of life would flourish.”
We still think too narrowly and too closely about ourselves as individuals and as a species and too little about the consequences of our actions. To make the best of our time together on this small and crowded planet, we have to develop—consciously and rigorously—our powers of imagination and creativity within a different framework of human purpose. Michelangelo once said, “The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it.” For all our futures, we need to aim high and be determined to succeed.
To do that each of us individually and all of us together need to discover the Element.