Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Element Book Review

The Element: How finding your passion changes everything by Ken Robinson and Lou Aronica, Penguin, 2009, 274 pp. ISBN 978-0-670-02047-8 $25.95

Reviewed by Nicole Charest, M.Sc. Student in creative studies, Buffalo State College.

Sir Ken Robinson is a highly praised inspirational speaker in the area of human potential development ( (Robinson, 2006, 2010). One of his primary preoccupations is that too many young people worldwide leave school early or graduate still unsure of what their real natural talents are or what they should do next. At the core of his plaid, in The Element (Robinson & Aronica, 2010), as well as in his previous book Out of our minds (Robinson, 2001), is the need to revolutionize education systems which are, in most cases, still operating on premises inherited from industrial age. According to him, education systems must be transformed so that they can truly deliver on their mission of preparing children for a future that is completely unknowable. Education systems have to offer environments where children can discover their Element, where they can be inspired to develop their potential talents and live their passions so that they can aspire to higher level of personal fulfillment and achievement. This “also offers our best and perhaps our only promise for genuine and sustainable success in a very uncertain future” (Robinson & Aronica, 2010, p. 8).

In The Element, which is by nature and scope relevant to a broad audience, the authors adequately positioned the importance of the Element and creativity in the current context of unprecedented scale, speed and complexity of change; this resonates with some key challenges raised in the recent global CEO study or the Newsweek paper entitled The creativity crisis (Bronson & Merryman, July 10, 2010; IBM Corporation, 2010). “Businesses everywhere say they need people who are creative and can think independently. But the argument is not about business. It’s about having lives with purpose and meaning in and beyond whatever work we do” (Robinson & Aronica, 2009, p.16). Sir Ken’s goal with The Element “is to illuminate for you (the reader) concepts that you might have sensed intuitively and to inspire you to find the Element for yourself and to help other to find it as well. What I hope you will find here is a new way of looking at your own potential and the potential of those around you” (p. 26). The concepts are abundantly illustrated with stories of the journeys of real people with the intent to persuade a broader audience.

The concepts illuminated throughout The Element have much to do with the humanistic approach to creativity and are not fundamentally new to the field of creativity. The first seven chapters are about creativity and the later chapters deal with notions related to mentorship, facilitation, age and creativity, the place of the Element in one’s life. The authors conclude with urgent messages on the need to radically change the education systems and on the impact of not addressing these issues for the future of humanity and Earth.

The Element is described as the place where the things we love to do and the things we are good at come together (p.8). Whereas the manifestation of the Element varies with people, its components (two features – aptitude and passion- and, two conditions – attitude and opportunity) are fairly universal and often manifest themselves as “I get it, I love it, I want it and where is it”. Barriers to finding the Element include personal (attitude, awareness), contextual (social and cultural) and process related constraints (including major shortcomings of education systems). The Element is a powerful invitation to think differently about intelligence and to reframe our traditional question “how intelligent are you” in “how are you intelligent”.

Fundamental to finding the Element is accepting that human intelligence is diverse, dynamic and distinctive. “Discovering the Element is all about allowing yourself access to all the ways in which you experience the world and discovering where your own true strengths lie” (p. 51). The authors suggest that we can think about creativity as ‘applied imagination’ and rightly present creativity as the key example of the dynamic nature of intelligence. Fundamental notions such as the usual myths about creativity, the definition of creativity, the influence of attitude and openness, the characteristics of creative groups and the importance of creativity in searching for the Element are adequately presented. Chapter four is about being in the Zone, a concept that the authors compare to the notion of Flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 2008). Characteristically, being in the Element and in the Zone, does not drain energy but tends to replenish it. The authors describe obstacles to finding the Element, which include personal, social and cultural barriers to creativity as well as traditional processes at the core of education systems. Underscored is the vital role that coaching and mentorship can play in recognizing the Element and encouraging its development.

What I found the most refreshing and enlightening is the chapter entitled Finding Your Tribe. Tribe members can be very different from each other but what connects them is a common commitment to what they feel born to do, to the importance of pursuing their Element, doing their best and being themselves. Finding the right tribe can be liberating and transformative and can play important roles in offering interaction, validation, inspiration, provocation, and encouragement.

Overall, this book as highly inspiring. I did, however, find that the selection of true stories is skewed in favour of journeys of exceptional achievers who found their Element. Examples of journeys of creative everyday and self-actualized individuals could greatly enrich the message and make the inspiration significant to a broader audience. As well, proper credits should be given to those who created some of the notions mentioned in the book: e.g. applied imagination of Osborn, peak experience of Maslow, farmers analogy of Rogers or lateral thinking of de Bono (De Bono, 1990; Maslow, 1999; Osborn, 1954; Rogers, 1996).

Bronson, P., & Merryman, A. (2010, July 10). The creativity crisis: For the first time, research shows that American creativity is declining. What went wrong – and how we can fix it. Newsweek. Retrieved from

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2008). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience (First Harper Perennial Modern Classics edition of the 1990’s edition). New York, NY: HarperCollins.

De Bono, E. (1970). Lateral thinking: A textbook of creativity. Reprint (1990). London, UK: Penguin Books.

IBM Corporation. (2010). Capitalizing on complexity: Insights from the global chief executive officer (CEO) study. North Harbour, England: IBM Corporation. Retrieved from:

Maslow, A. H. (1999). The psychology of being (3rd ed.). New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. [First edition, published in 1968].

Osborn, A.F. (1953). Applied imagination: Principles and procedures of creative thinking (3rdprinting). New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Robinson, K. (2001). Out of our minds: Learning to be creative. Chichester, England: Capstone Publishing Limited.

Robinson, K. (2006, February). Ken Robinson says schools kill creativity. TED: Ideas worth spreading. Posted, June 2006. Retrieved from

Robinson, K. (2010, February). Sir Ken Robinson: Bring on the learning revolution! TED: Ideas worth spreading. Posted, May 2010. Retrieved from

Robinson, K., & Aronica, L. (2009). The element: How finding your passion changes everything. New York, NY:Penguin.

Rogers, C.R. (1996). Toward a Theory of Creativity, In A. Rothenberg, & Hausman, C.R, (Eds.), The creativity question, 8th printing (pp. 296-305). Durham, NC: Duke University Press [Reprinted from 1954 ETC (11(4), 250-258]

1 comment:

C J Good, Author said...

This is a powerful topic that really resonates with many people. I was certainly touched. Thanks so much for posting. I look forward to learning more.

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