Somehow the topic at the dinner table jumped to Native Americans and how they name their children only after observing their personality. The name finds them rather than the other way around. “I wonder what my name would be?” I thought outloud, and my sister responded without losing a beat, “Head in the Clouds.”
All my life I struggled to find what it is I am meant to do. When I was little I wanted to be an actress. I’ve been good at writing. I’ve been good at visual arts. I studied film and graphic design. I tap into an explosive reserve of energy when I dance. I lose the sense of time when I make collages. It’s been suggested by many that I should be a party planner. Strangers open up to me about their deepest troubles that make me repeatedly utter, “I should have been a therapist!”
My head in the clouds, my feet aching to grow roots, it’s been an ongoing war to claim a sense of belonging within the world, to acquire a specific sense of purpose within myself. A search for a particular kind of happiness, when you figure out what you love in life, undoubtedly. Tom Ford describes that “zone” like, “Sometimes I have moments where it’s sort of like everything is frozen and everything is absolutely clear. And you can feel, rather than think.”
According to Sir Ken Robinson, the brilliant author of the book titled The Element, what I’ve been searching for, and what Tom Ford describes, is just that. The Element – “The place where the things you love to do and the things that you are good at come together.” In other words, it is that magical place where your natural talent and personal passion meet.
If you’ve been feeling like something is missing in your life, if you notice your dreams beginning to shift, this awakening book creates a road-map for you, along with its sequelFinding Your Element. Like stations on the road, each chapter – the Element; Think Differently; Beyond Imagining; In the Zone; Finding your Tribe; What will they Think?; Do you Feel Lucky?; Somebody Help Me; Is it Too Late; For Love or Money; Making the Grade – fuels you with inspirational stories from a wide range of celebrated people with diverse paths and influences such as Paul McCartney; creator of the Simpsons, Matt Groening; the famous hairdresser who created the bob haircut, Vidal Sassoon, author of the best-selling bookAlchemist, Paulo Coelho and many many more.
When we hear these names without this context, we are pushed into a trap by the assumption that it all came easy to them. On the contrary, through Robinson’s witty, passionate and humane storytelling, we learn that most of them were faced with severe barriers, far more real and challenging than the ones we unconsciously build with our own minds. The difference lies in their response to those barriers. Their anectodes suggest evidence that opportunities to discover our Element exist more frequently in our lives than we might believe, and that it is never too late to get started.
In order to start however, we first need to acknowledge that most of us live in the tales we tell ourselves – “Stick to your current job… Better safe than sorry… Who am I to become a musician anyway…. I gotta make a proper living before anything else… It is too late…” Professor of education and an expert on creativity and human potential, Robinson points out that “all children start their school careers with sparkling imaginations, fertile minds, and a willingness to take risks with what they think… They are wonderfully confident in their own imaginations… Most of us lose this confidence as we grow up.”
That is because most of us have been a part of the “one fits all” type of an education system that tyrannically dismisses our individuality. Those tales we tell ourselves as adults are exactly the same fables we kept hearing since childhood, not only in our schools, but also in our families and cultures. “Don’t pursue art, you’re never going to be an artist… You’re not going to make money by dancing… Stick to law/medicine/architecture… It is for your own good.” These well-intentioned yet ultimately misguided counsels discouraged almost all of us from following our own instincts, held us back from exploring what we love, and knudged us to follow a road more traveled, outlined by society’s “survival manual for success.”
This inevitably molds our identities, which we obediently define by what we do for a living, rather than what we love to do. Constrained, we never really grow aware of the the fact that our full potential is completely compromised in our current lives and possibly our future. The book examines the conditions that enable us to find ourselves in the Element and those that stifle that possibility. Personal, social, and cultural, the most common challenges which we seem to battle with are our personal fears, our impulse to conform and our attitude towards luck.
The fear of failure, the fear of not being good enough, the fear of being found wanting, the fear of disapproval, the fear of poverty, and the fear of the unknown. 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.
… The decision to play it safe, to take the path of least resistance, can seem irresistable, particularly if you have your own doubts and fears about thealternatives. And for some people it seems easier to avoid ruffling feathers and have the approval of parents, siblings and spouses. But not for everyone!
All culture – and subcultures – embody systems of constraints that can inhibit individuals from reaching their Element if their passions are in conflict with their context… When people close to you discourage you from taking a particular path, they usually believe they are doing it for your own good… But it is difficult to feel accomplished when you’re not accomplishing something that matters to you. Doing something “for your own good” is rarely for your own good if it causes you to be less than who you really are.
… 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.
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 towards what happens… 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. There is much more to being lucky than that. Research and experience show that lucky people often make their luck because of their attitudes.
… We all shape the circumstances and realities of our own lives, and we can also transofrm them… Passion and aptitude are essential… Our attitudes to events and ourselves are crucial in determining whether or not we find and live our lives in the Element.
I have certainly suffered through fear of failure and fear of poverty, which for a long time kept me safe, but spiritually malnourished. Although I felt this wild, creative force within me, I kept it on a leash at work. I have labeled myself as “an unlucky person” while I blamed the Gods for never sending me the emotional support I needed or a mentor to guide my passions in the brutal setting of our urban generation.
Yet, as with the stories told in this book, there is a moment of epiphany that strikes you if you are ready or open to it. For some, that moment comes during a session with a child psychologist who sees not a child suffering from a learning disability, but a dancer. Like the choreographer of such beloved musicals like Cats and Phantom of the Opera, Gillian Lynne. For some it comes through a health crisis that puts a stop to your dreams, but through time creates new ones. Like Ken Robinson himself who was supposed to be football player until polio took that away from him. And for some, it is the moment when you realize that you-are-not-stuck.
Your ability and creativity is a lot richer than you give yourself credit for. By changing your perspective on your current situation, by following your instincts, and with utter perseverance, you can go on this worthy quest that is finding your Element and eventually reach blissful self-fulfillment.
But in order to realize your dream, your true purpose and intention, you must be willing do the work. As Picasso points out, “Inspiration exists. But it has to find you working.” Human resources are like natural resources; they’re often buried deep. You have to go looking for them, they’re not just lying around on the surface. You have to create the circumstances where they show themselves. “To be creative you actually have to do something.”
Spend a little time reflecting on the patterns of your life. What is missing? What do you crave? When you close your eyes, what do you daydream about? And when in doubt, remember Maya Angelou who said, “My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor and some style.”
Why merely survive when you can thrive?
If you have young children or feel the need to be inspired, I urge you to watch Sir Ken Robinson’s TedTalk from 2006, which happens to be one of the most viewed speeches of the organization.