Review: Finding your Element by Ken Robinson with Lou Aronica

elementThis review first ran in the June 30 edition of the Hamilton Spectator.

Finding Your Element: How to Discover Your Talents and Passions and Transform Your Life

By Ken Robinson with Lou Aronica

Penguin Books


My kids did something this month that they’ll still be talking about with their grandkids.

They were among a cast of 100-plus kids, tweens and teens who danced at Hamilton Place before a packed house of proud parents, family and friends. They hung out in backstage dressing rooms with their classmates and dance crews.  The recital was their reward for 10 months of practice at the Hamilton Conservatory for the Arts with great teachers who were even better role models.

My kids had a blast. They were also in what author Sir Ken Robinson calls their Element. “It’s about doing something that feels so completely natural to you, that resonates so strongly with you, that you feel that this is who you really are.”

The Element is where natural aptitude meets personal passion. “Finding your Element is about discovering what lies within you and, in doing so, transforming what lies before you.” If you’re in your Element at work, you look forward to Sunday nights and Monday mornings.

Robinson wrote Finding Your Element as a sequel to his bestselling book The Element. It’s for people who think they have no special talents or passions, who believe they’re too young or too old for a career change and who worry that they won’t even realize when they’re in their Element.

While there’s no 10-step program for finding your Element, Robinson says there are three elemental principles to guide you on the journey:

  1. Your life is unique. “You can learn from the experience of other people, but you cannot and should not try to duplicate them.”
  2. You create your own life and you can re-create it. “In doing that, your greatest resource are your own imagination and sense of possibility.”
  3. Your life is organic, not linear. “You can’t plan the whole of your life’s journey and you don’t need to. What you do need to plan are the next steps.”

Robinson sets out a series of exercises to help you figure out what you’re good at and what you love doing. “Whatever your aptitudes, the greatest source of achievement is passion. Aptitude matters but passion often matters more. If you love doing something, you’ll be constantly drawn to get better at it.”

My kids found their passion on the stage of Hamilton Place and we have an opportunity to help a lot of other kids do the same.  The day before my kids’ recital, a different kind of dance happened across the street at City Hall. Councillors began looking at a new way of funding local arts organizations. Some of those organizations lobbied hard to keep their share of the pie. Other organizations pushed for a bigger pie with more slices to go around.

So what if we gave a generous slice to arts programs that engage disengaged kids and teens in our code red neighbourhoods?

What if we had professional dancers, musicians and artists work with these kids, instilling self-discipline through practices and boosting their self-confidence through performances and exhibitions?

What if we gave these kids the opportunity to shine on the stage at Hamilton Place or Theatre Aquarius and showcased their work at the Art Gallery of Hamilton and in James North galleries?

What if we used the arts to transform lives by helping kids discover their talents and passions and develop a strong sense of purpose?

“Finding your Element won’t guarantee that you’ll spend the rest of your life in a constant, unbroken state of pleasure and delight,” says Robinson. “It will give you a deeper sense of who you really are and of the life you could and maybe should live.”

Book review: Out of our Minds: Learning to Be Creative

This review originally ran in the Hamilton Spectator.

Out of our Minds: Learning to Be Creative

By Ken Robinson

John Wiley & Sons


My daughter was a happy camper this summer.

She spent her days dancing, rehearsing and performing in plays, productions and talent shows.

My daughter was in her element. Dancing has long been her creative outlet. She’s at her happiest when she’s on stage. It’s where she shines the brightest. Dancing fills my daughter with grace and brings a real joy to both her and her parents.

Yet watching my daughter’s Friday performances this summer left me frustrated on two counts.

In a few weeks, my daughter returns to school. She won’t spend any part of her days dancing. She’ll have to leave an important part of who she is at home. My daughter doesn’t dance at school because dancing falls on the bottom rung on the hierarchy of academic disciplines. It’s not tested so it’s not taught. Dancing doesn’t factor into the standardized testing that’s used to sort, rate, rank and process students. Her natural abilities aren’t being engaged or valued. And I’m bracing for the day when a teacher or guidance counsellor unwisely questions and challenges my daughter’s ambition to be a ballet instructor.

Fortunately, my wife and I can afford to send our daughter to summer camps and to the Hamilton Conservatory for the Arts where she adores her teachers and feels very much at home. But not every family is so lucky. There are too many kids who never get to discover, much less develop, their special talent. If they’re resilient, they’ll survive their education and find their true calling beyond the classroom. If not, they’ll drop out and, even worse, spend the rest of their lives believing that they’re not creative, that they’re not full of potential and that they can’t contribute, make a difference or add value to our community.

That represents a huge waste of our most valuable resource, says Sir Ken Robinson, author and professor emeritus of education at the University of Warwick, in his fully updated and revised edition of Out of Our Minds. “Our best resource is to cultivate our singular abilities of imagination, creativity and innovation. As the world spins faster and faster, organizations everywhere say they need people who can think creatively, communicate and work in teams: people who are flexible, and quick to adapt.”

These people are hard to find. It’s not that we grow out of creativity. Robinson says we’re educated out of it.

We continue to use a seriously outdated educational system that was created to meet the needs of the Industrial Revolution. We don’t need educational reform, says Robinson. We need a wholesale transformation.

“In the interests of the industrial economies, we have subjected generations of people to narrow forms of education that have marginalized some of their most important talents and qualities,” says Robinson. “We have wasted much of what people have to offer because we have not seen the value of it. Along the way, we have jeopardized the balance of communities by not recognizing how our different talents and passions sustain and enrich each other.”

We need to move from an impersonal system built on the primacy of linearity, conformity and standardization to one where the focus and value is on entrepreneurship, innovative and creativity. The future belongs to those who can imagine, rethink and create it.

“Current approaches to education and training are hobbled by assumptions about intelligence and creativity that have squandered the talents and stifled the creative confidence of untold numbers of people,” says Robinson.

“The whole process of elementary and high school education is a protracted process of university entrance. Those who go to university rather than straight into work or vocational training programs are always seen as the real successes of the system. You might conclude that the primary purpose of compulsory education is to produce university professors.” We educate our kids from the neck up and to the left side of their brains.

South of the border, 30 per cent of students who enter Grade 9 don’t graduate. In some areas, the dropout rate hits 50 per cent. As we learned through this paper’s Code Red series, dropout rates are equally high in some Hamilton neighbourhoods.

“It’s wrong to blame the students for these numbers. Any other standardized process with a 30 per cent wastage rate would be condemned as a failure. In the case of education, it isn’t a waste of inert commodities; it’s a waste of living, breathing people. Those who don’t graduate from high school are offered few alternatives apart from low-income work if they can find it; or long-term unemployment if they cannot.”

Robinson sets out an agenda for creating an educational system that unlocks and develops creativity. “When students find something they enjoy and can excel in, they do better in education generally,” says Robinson. “Transforming education is not easy but the price of failure is more than we can afford, while the benefits of success are more than we can imagine.”

Education and training are the keys to the future. But as Robinson points out, a key can be turned in two directions. Turn it one way and we lock resources away. Turn it the other way and we release resources and give people back to themselves.

“To realize our true creative potential — in our organizations, in our schools and in our communities — we need to think differently about ourselves and to act differently towards each other,” says Robinson. “We must learn to be creative.”

My daughter is one of the lucky ones. She’s realizing her creative potential albeit beyond the classroom. And whether she follows through on her dream of becoming a ballet teacher or chooses a different path, she’ll always carry with her the creative spirit she’s developing when she slips on her ballet shoes at the conservatory. Here’s hoping your children have the same glorious opportunity to be fully in their element. The future health and prosperity of our community depends on it.