In your element

I have been a supporter of Sir Ken Robinson and his ideas ever since I saw his seminal TED Talk of 2006 (for a full introduction to the man and his ideas see his excellent new website:

In the book “The Element” he talks about the way that we each have within us the thing  that represents  the “real you”. This thing is so much a part of you that if you are consumed with doing it for a living for example work will not feel like work at all.

He tells the stories of the rich and famous as well as the not so rich who have “discovered their element”. Sometimes it is very moving to read the words in his book and realise that these people have achieved something very important in life… the ability to do what their “inner self” (soul?) is telling them they should do. My favourite story from his book is about the fireman who as a child always wanted to be a fireman and had a teacher who decried this ambition. Years later that self same teacher was in a motor accident and his life was saved by the young man who had indeed become the fireman he had always wanted to be (who also saved the teacher’s wife as well).

A couple of days ago the Advanced (A)  Level results were published here in the U.K. My seventeen year old niece received her results and they were not good. Her parents were understandably upset as they had harboured ideas of their child following so many others into higher education. My niece though had other ideas.

My wife had sent her a text stating that whatever the situation we still loved her and hoped for her only the best. She replied by saying that we should not worry, that she had definite plans. She has always loved dress designing and making. Her mother paid one thousand pounds last year for an advanced sewing machine. She had made a stunning “Prom Dress” for her end of year dance that was the envy of many of her fellow students and was well thought of by her teachers.

She replied to us that she had decided that she was going to go into her own business that she would design her own dresses and make them. She knew what she wanted to do and she was not at all thrown by her lack of academic success.

I was elated by her reply. Here was an example in my own life of what Sir Ken had been saying in his book. Here was someone who knew what she wanted to do and she felt no fear in attempting to go out into the big wide world and try and design her dresses and then sell them. Maybe she will not succeed but that is not the point. She is doing what she is good at and what is her element. She will enjoy what she does, it will not really feel like work to her and who knows she may well be the most successful student in her current year group at school!

I compared her experience to my own when I was discussing events with my wife. I had also come up against the dreaded brick wall of examination failure at the age of eighteen. Unlike my niece I had been groomed to be an academic success and go on to higher education. I had “failed” and now I was stuck with what to do next. I had no real idea about what my element was. I had not been given the chance to explore anything other than a narrow range of academic study whilst at my Grammar School. I had loved writing as a hobby whilst in my teenage years but had been dissuaded from attempting to make a career from writing as “there are too many failed writers out there” (to quote my father when we had discussed this when I was about fifteen).

I therefore reached a similar point in my life as my niece has just reached but I was lost. I did not know what to do and did not have the same kind of conviction that she has that, make or break, it is worth doing. I had not realised what my element was and I took a similar path to many people in retaking my exams, passing them and then going on to university.

Sir Ken says there are many people now and in the past who could greatly contribute to our economies and indeed to our culture but never get the chance. This is why I am so proud of my niece and why I think that the book, “The Element” is one of the most important books that has come out in the field of education and human endeavour in the past few years. If you haven’t read it I would urge you to…as Sir Ken says, it might just change your life or the life of someone who you care about.


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