The Element

Think about this fact:  In 2004, there were more unemployed college graduates than there were unemployed high school dropouts.  This could potentially be construed as a positive thing, if it meant that the number of high school dropouts had declined drastically but, unfortunately, this is not the case.  Instead, the simplified truth is this:  With a post secondary degree these days, you have roughly the same likelihood of finding a job as a high school dropout.  How could this be?

Competition.  Global competition for jobs has increased dramatically over the past 30 years.  The world’s population has doubled in the past 40 years, and with it so have the number of applicants for the same number of jobs.  Average doesn’t cut it when there are 35 people clamouring for the same job.  If you want to be visible in your field, you need to be exceptional.  We all have the power to be exceptional.  We all have unique strengths and skills that we can utilize to thrive in a field that fills us with passion, purpose and energy.

Unfortunately, as Sir Ken Robinson (of the “School Kills Creativity” video fame) points out in his brilliant book The Element, our current education system is only training us to excel in a chosen few.  If you don’t fit the mold of math, science or language, a traditional education system may not lead to the fulfilling life you’d once imagined.

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

Chicken Cordon-bleu Makes a Terrible Chicken Nugget

"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."
- The Element, page 43

‘IQ’ and other standardized testing may be the singular most crippling tool on our future.  I love Robinson’s comparison of standardized testing to Fast Food.  When you order fast food, you always know exactly what you’re going to get.  It’s reliable.  Not good for you, not enriching, but reliable.  If the chicken nugget comes out the right size, right temperature, and with the proper amount of batter, it gets served.  If not, it get’s put back through the system or tossed out with the trash.  A beautifully prepared chicken cordon-bleu does not pass chicken nugget standardized testing.  When we use one form of measurement at the exclusion of all others, we marginalize and disregard other forms of brilliance.

More and more research studies are proving that human beings have multiple forms of intelligence.  But we don’t really need studies to prove this to us – we know it inherently already.  Some people are naturally gifted athletes.  A couple of our friends may be more “emotionally intelligent”; able to determine the root of a disagreement or cause of pain before the rest of us.  My good friend Sean has a brilliant musical ear – writes fantastic songs, and is virtually self taught.

So what does an IQ test teach us?  For a great many people, it teaches (incorrectly) that they are dumb. Since the only tests we use in education are one dimensional (focusing on math, science or language), there’s nothing to refute the results (I’m dumb), and we go through life believing it to be true.  If science has shown us that there are many different types of intelligence, why do we insist on testing only one?

Sir Ken Robinson suggests that if you’re not happy in our current role in life, it may be because you haven’t yet found your “Element” – that place where natural aptitude meets passion; you haven’t yet identified that natural intelligence that you do have.  And everyone has something.  (If you believe you don’t, there’s a good chance you haven’t “recovered” from your formal education yet)

Whether it becomes our full time career, or a recreational activity, Robinson believes passionately (as do I) that finding your Element and deliberately including it in your life will lead to a happier, fuller existence.

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Seek Out Flow

"'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.'"
- Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, as quoted in The Element, page 92

We discussed Flow when we looked at Daniel Pink’s recent success, Drive.  Quite coincidently, I find myself revisiting the topic in The Element.  Perhaps it’s not so coincidental after all, when you consider that Pink and Robinson are both tackling the same issue from different directions – we need to figure out (and quickly) how to succeed as individuals and as a society within the new rules of business in the 21st century.

A recap for those who missed the Drive article (which you can find HERE, by the way):  Flow – a term coined by Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi –  is the state we’ve all been in at one point or another where the task we’re engrossed in becomes all consuming.  (It’s also often referred to as being “in the zone”) We lose track of time and sense of self, becoming solely fixated on the task at hand.  It’s a wonderful state, and one which most of us don’t enjoy nearly often enough.

Flow is the signal you’re in your element.  Be aware of it.  When you realize you’ve been engrossed in a certain activity, reflect on it.  (TV, by the way, is not an activity, ACTIVE being the core of the word.  TV is a “passivity”) What aspects of what you were doing excite you?  Taking inventory of these may give you a list of indicators as to what your Element might be.

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Find Your Tribe

"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."
- The Element, page 114

Before he became the legend he is today, Bob Dylan had to move from his home town of Minnesota to New York City and experience Woody Gunthrie records.  Meg Ryan was terrified of public speaking until she moved to LA and met her acting coach.  Surrounding ourselves with the people that “get” what makes us tick – people that share our passions and aptitudes – is a huge step to finding your Element.  The right people will challenge us, encourage us, and inspire us to live and play in our Element.  You need to get out there – to sign up for courses, classes, volunteer groups, whatever.  If you’re drawn to a particular activity, industry or discipline, try it out.  We all spent 12 – 20 years being indoctrinated with the belief that a lot of activities are “silly” or “pointless”.  We need to get over that.  You need to take the first step, by reaching out to people who are already doing it.  Then, let the tribe inspire and push you to live in your element as much as you can.

The theme here is active participation.  Until the education system is overhauled to the purpose of identifying and cultivating individual intelligences, it’s on us, as individuals, to actively seek out that which makes us most satisfied in life.  We can’t wait around for “luck” to sneak up on us and present us with our perfect form of happiness.

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Chris Taylor

ABOUT Chris Taylor

Founder of Actionable Books, Chris Taylor is a writer, entrepreneur and speaker. He spends his daylight hours helping consultants and employees alike find meaning in their work and discover rich team relationships through his company, Actionablebooks...
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