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Sir Ken Robinson On Discovering Your Passions

With Jane Clayson in for Tom Ashbrook.

Sir Ken Robinson, who gave one of the most watched TED Talks, tells us how to find what really makes us tick and how to get the most out of life and work.

Sir Ken Robinson works in the development of creativity, innovation and human resources in education and in business. (Martin Mancha)

Sir Ken Robinson works in the development of creativity, innovation and human resources in education and in business. (Martin Mancha)

“If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.” — Sir Ken Robinson

Millions and millions have seen him. Sir Ken Robinson gave one of the most watched TED talks ever, telling us that we’re stifling creativity in our kids early on. Our students sit in classrooms for seven hours a day going over academic drills in math, science, English. But what if equal time were spent on the arts? Dancing, drawing and singing?

Currently Robinson’s not focusing just on children. His beat now is how we all can get more out of our lives if we hone in on our passions — that is, the things that really make us tick.

This hour, On Point: Letting your talents and passions transform your life.

Guest

Sir Ken Robinson, co-author of “Finding Your Element: How to Discover Your Talents and Passions and Transform Your Life” — read an excerpt. (@SirKenRobinson)

He has given several TED talks on the role of creativity in education. Watch his popular 2006 talk:

 

Interview Highlights

Here’s what Robinson had to say about education, creativity, talents, passion and fulfillment.

On everyone’s innate abilities:

We’re all born with immense, natural, creative abilities. Children demonstrate them all. We all feel them. But we feel they slip away from us as we get older. And I think it’s vitally important for personal and every other kind of reason that we focus on them and try to develop them.

How education is jeopardizing creativity:

“Many people in schools…are laboring under this sort of dead culture of continuous testing. And one of the results of it has been to reduce the curriculum, to narrow it.”

I’m not blaming teachers for it. I’m not blaming school principals for it. I’ve worked in education my whole life and I work a lot with teachers in schools and I know they’re as concerned about this as I am and everbody else is. I think it’s to do with this culture of standardization. There is a view that the way we improve education is to make it more and more standardized. Many people in schools — particularly in this country, I’d say — are laboring under this sort of dead culture of continuous testing. And one of the results of it has been to reduce the curriculum, to narrow it. So a lot of the things that people, who may be be in their 40s or 50s, will remember from school — things like band and orchestra, putting on plays, lots of interesting after school activities — a lot of those things are being pushed out by this culture of standardized testing. It’s all done with an honorable purpose, I think — the intention is to raise standards, but the irony is it’s really not doing it. And more and more kids are pulling out of school. There’s more and more teachers, I feel, demoralized by it. And I know parents are very concerned about it too.

“While Shanghai is trying to be like America, America is trying to be more like China.”

I’m not against testing. I’m not against any form of standardization, but what’s interesting to me is that some of the really high performing systems in the world — notably Finland, which is often spoken about — don’t have any standardized testing at all. They have a very broad curriculum. There are these international league tables run by an organization in Paris called the OECD, it’s called the Programme for International Student Assessment. They test for students achievement in math and reading and science. And the last round of tests a year or two ago showed that the top performing system is Shanghai…all kinds of anxieties in the American political circles that China was outperforming us. But what was interesting was that people in Shanghai take a different view of it; they say, “Well, we would expect to be good at these standardized tests. It’s what we do all the time. We drill our children in these things, so we’d expect to come out well. But the problem is that, for China, we know we have to help our children to become more creative, like they do in America.” And that seems to be a very interesting irony — while Shanghai is trying to be like America, America is trying to be more like China.

How STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) fits into the picture:

“A great country like this depends not only on mathematicians and scientists and engineers but on people who can work in business, on artists, on people who work in the community. We depend on a huge range of talents and abilities.”

It’s not an argument against math or science — on the contrary, they’re desperately important. But they’re not enough. Somebody once put it: They’re necessary but not sufficient. A great country like this depends not only on mathematicians and scientists and engineers but on people who can work in business, on artists, on people who work in the community. We depend on a huge range of talents and abilities.

Actually, there’s a very interesting study done a while ago by a man called Vivek Wadhwa at Duke University about the educational backgrounds of people who are running large companies in Silicon Valley. He expected they’d be from engineering or math backgrounds. Actually, over 60 percent of them had backgrounds in the arts and humanities. What it really speaks to to me is life is not linear like that. It doesn’t depend only on math and science; it depends on these other things too…I speak to a lot of math teachers and science teachers who are just as concerned that this culture of standardization is squashing creativity out of their disciplines too.

Loving what you do — or not:

An awful lot of people don’t enjoy what they do. They kind of get through the week and wait for the weekend. And there’s a lot of evidence for that; there’s been a lot of research to show there are huge levels of disengagement at work. You only have to look at other really startling figures like the growth in the sales of antidepressant drugs and levels of drop-out rate from schools. There’s massive evidence around the world of people not getting a lot from their lives and often being angry and frustrated from by them.

“It’s about having a balance in your life, that you find some time in your life, some point in your life where you feel you’re doing what puts you at your most authentic — the thing you were really made to do.”

And, yet, I also meet people who absolutely love what they do, who can’t wait to get to it. If you were to say to them, “Why don’t you try something else for a while?” they really wouldn’t know what you’re talking about. They’d say, “Well, this isn’t what I do. This is who I am.”

Firstly, this isn’t just about what you do for a living. I’m very clear about that. Some people can make a living from doing what they love — not everybody can. It may not be that sort of thing. They may not want to; they may not choose to. I interviewed all kinds of people for the book who were doing things that they loved but they don’t want to be paid for it. They’re doing it as it were “amateurs” in the literal Latin sense — they do it for the love of it. It isn’t just about what you do for the living. It’s about having a balance in your life, that you find some time in your life, some point in your life where you feel you’re doing what puts you at your most authentic — the thing you were really made to do.

“If you love something that you’re good at, then that’s a really great place to be in your life. And it can evolve over time.”

Being in your element, to me, is two things. It’s doing something that you’re naturally good at. So part of the argument here is that we have to have a generous conception of ability and talent. That’s one of my problems with the education system: We have a very narrow view of talent, for the most part, in education. But it’s not only doing things you’re good at — because I know all kinds of people who are good at things they don’t care for. To be in your element, you have to love it. If you love something that you’re good at, then that’s a really great place to be in your life. And it can evolve over time. But my experience of it is — and I’ve interviewed all kinds of people in all sorts of walks of life, in all kinds of different economic circumstances — that we all have this potential. It takes different forms for each of us because we’re very diverse. But it’s something worth reaching for because it gives you a sense of fulfillment that you don’t otherwise have.

The “quest” of finding your element, creating the life you want:

“If we create our life, we can recreate it…We owe it to ourselves to look deep inside to see what talents we really do have.”

Our lives aren’t linear. We create our life according to the talents that we find within ourselves, the interests that drive us, and everybody ends up having a unique resume. If we create our life, we can recreate it. Part of my argument in the book is that we owe it to ourselves to look deep inside to see what talents we really do have. Often, human talents are like the world’s natural resources. They’re buried under the ground; you don’t know that they’re there until you go actively searching for them and try to develop them.

There is obviously a balance between talent and passion…Broadly speaking, it’s this: It’s a two-way journey. Actually, no — the word I use in the book is “quest.”

“Quest” is a very interesting idea to me because if you take a journey, a regular journey, you might know where you’re heading to. You’re setting off from Boston to San Francisco. You know where it is and you know when you’ll get there. But some journeys aren’t like that. You set off hopefully, often, though, not completely sure what you’re looking for — that’s what the word “quest” is. It’s a medieval term. It’s where you’re setting out to find something with a purpose and an intention, but you’re not quite sure where it is and you hope to find it. Finding your element is like that.

“You set off hopefully, often, though, not completely sure what you’re looking for — that’s what the word quest is. It’s a medieval term. It’s where you’re setting out to find something with a purpose and an intention but you’re not quite sure where it is and you hope to find it. Finding your element is like that.”

I say in the book it’s a two-way journey — it’s a journey inside to spend more time with ourselves. A lot of people in my experience don’t know enough about themselves, about their talents or their abilities. I meet all kinds of adults who tell me they haven’t got any special talents at all, they don’t have any particular passions or interests, and I just don’t believe it. I think there are plenty of people who haven’t found them, who haven’t known where to look — it’s one of the problems with education that we get steered away from them. So there are a whole series of exercises in the book to help people reflect on their own talents, things they’re good at, whether they really know what they’re good at. And there’s a whole set of exercises about understanding how your passions come about.

And it’s an external journey in the world around you and to find new experiences and new opportunities. It’s those two things and how they come together that I try to map out for people in the book.

One person’s nightmare job, another person’s dream job:

I did tweet recently and asked people if they could name jobs they would hate to do but other people love. I got all kinds of answers back. The normal things like proctologist…but people would say things like, “How about office cleaners?” Well, I have somebody in the book that actually loves being a cleaner. Somebody said, “What about working in sewers?” Somebody immediately tweeted back, “My brother works in sewage disposal. He loves every day of the job.” You can’t make a presumption about what other people would love to do or how they would like to live their lives. That’s one of the beauties of the diversity of human talents and interests.

How you can tell if you’re in your element:

“At the end of a day, if you’re doing something you love to do, you can be physically worn out but elated.”

I make a distinction in the book between physical energy and spiritual energy. I don’t mean spiritual in the form of religious sense; I mean the sense in which you are high spirits or low spirits. If you do things that you love to do, it actually feeds your energy. At the end of a day, if you’re doing something you love to do, you can be physically worn out but elated. If you’re doing things that you don’t care for, you may be physically fine, but down and depressed. If you’re doing where time shifts — if you’re doing something you love, an hour can feel like five minutes. If you’re doing something you don’t care for, five minutes can feel like an hour. And these different things that feed our energy are different for all of us. So part of what I’m saying in the book is try and track those things. I have a whole series of exercises for people to try and recall, remember and explore the things that uplift them as opposed to the things they just feel weary about and having to get through all the time.

On creativity in all disciplines:

Often when people say they’re not creative, what they really mean is they don’t think they’re very artistic. People associate creativity with the arts but it’s as important in the sciences, in technology. I am a lifelong advocate of the importance of the arts in education. I think it’s catastrophic when school districts and schools cut arts programs. It’s very short-sighted and it cuts a lot of people off from their natural talents. But this isn’t just an argument about the arts; it’s a plea for more creative approaches in science, in technology.

The struggle in finding your element:

“Finding your element is not just about passion and aptitude; it’s about attitude and opportunity. It has to matter to you enough.”

I actually have an example in the book of somebody…who was working in business and determined to become a photographer. It was a big struggle. I’m very keen to underline that — I’m not suggesting some Pollyanna approach to this. The book is full of example of people who struggled against all kinds of odds. Finding your element is not just about passion and aptitude; it’s about attitude and opportunity. It has to matter to you enough. It isn’t about walking away from your responsibilities and leaving everything behind…It is about trying to find a purpose in your life and being honorable and true to yourself.

Creativity takes hard work:

“It’s a mixture of knowledge, discipline and imagination…Real creativity comes about through hard work and through application.”

Creativity is not just license; it’s not just blowing off steam and wandering around unsupervised…It’s a mixture of knowledge, discipline and imagination. Often people don’t spend enough time to think through what creativity really means and how it works…There have been moments in the history of education where teachers pulled back too far from their students and thought, “Well, whatever you come back is great by me.” Real creativity comes about through hard work and through application, but not the sort of application that kills the imagination but the kind of work that encourages it. It’s a mixture of those two things, of bringing it together — it’s a skilled process.

On alternative education:

Students do have immense talents and we serve them badly if we don’t give them the right kind of frameworks and structures. There are lots of examples we could go into of schools that come alive with students who are thought to be very unpromising but who’ve flourished quite different when the conditions have changed. And I believe that all of our students have much more to offer than our current system often allows them.

How teachers can include creativity in classrooms despite standardized testing:

Teachers do feel under immense pressure…I think the head teacher can give a strong lead in a school. I always do say to teachers there’s more freedom here than you often think. If you are a teacher with a classroom, when that door closes, you’ve got the next hour with those kids and you can work with them in any way you think is best. Promoting the use of imagination and more creative strategies for teaching and learning isn’t the opposite of raising standards.

Actually, the evidence — in my experience — is it’s the way to actually raise standards even higher. Standardization isn’t the same thing as raising standards. And if you get people excited and engaged…those kids are going to learn an awful lot about language and about community and about working together than they would otherwise have done. It’s important not to see it as the opposite, but as a strategy for improvement.

It’s never too late, but it takes a conscious effort:

“If you take the trouble to find your talents and the things that excite you, new opportunities open up that you hadn’t even considered were there.”

Everybody’s life is different…everybody has to face their own struggles. But your life’s not over until it is over, and it’s never too late. I think it is about taking stock. And I try in the book to give practical techniques to look at the balance of things that you do now, to see what time you have. I think if people looked at how much time they spend in doing things they dislike, things where they fritter their time, they may well find there are opportunities there they hadn’t seen before…If you take the trouble to find your talents and the things that excite you, new opportunities open up that you hadn’t even considered were there. It’s like a whole new portal becomes available to you. There are lots of examples of that, of people who’ve found a way forward that they didn’t know was there until they started to look for it. It’s about making a conscious effort. But it’s not a 10-step program. But it is, in the end, up to you, and what I’ve tried to do is to give some guidelines and tools that’ll make it possible.

Book Excerpt

“Finding Your Element: How to Discover Your Talents and Passions and Transform Your Life” by Sir Ken Robinson

Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright © Sir Ken Robinson, 2013

Finding your element is a highly personal and often surprising process. We are all starting from different places in terms of our own characteristics and circumstances. The Element is also different for each of us. Even so, there are some common principles that underlie this process that apply to everyone, and techniques and strategies that everyone can use. This chapter says what these principles are and why it’s important to understand them. It also introduces some initial techniques and exercises to help you take stock of where you are now and to begin to plan the way ahead.

As an example of how curious this process can be, let me start by telling you something about how I came to be doing what I do. I’m often asked what my own Element is and when I knew.

Like most others, my story is fairly improbable and it illustrates all of these principles. I am reasonably good at all sorts of things, most of which I’ve never pursued. In my teens, I used to tinkle on the piano and I thought I could sense a world- class talent forming deep within me. But when I noticed that real pianists typically play with both hands, I quietly moved on. I could pick out riff s on a guitar and quickly mastered the opening notes of “Whole Lotta Love” by Led Zeppelin. Then I listened to the rest of the track and decided to leave the field to Jimmy Page. Plus, playing the guitar hurts your fingers.

When I was much younger, I loved drawing and painting but had to drop art at school to focus on other things. As a teenager and into my twenties and thirties, I always liked to fix things and was often to be found in hardware stores admiring routers and drill bits. I also enjoyed cooking and, at one stage when my children were young, had a small but well- deserved reputation for my pastry— at least with them. In short, from concertos to haute cuisine, I had many options that I might have pursued in my life but did not. Being fairly good at several things, of course, can make it much harder to know what to do with your life than if you are really good at something in particular. I’ll come back to that later. The fact is that when I was younger, I had no idea what my Element was, and would not have known even if the phrase had occurred to me at the time, which it had not.

I know now that my Element is communicating and working with people. I’ve spent a lot of my time traveling around the world presenting to hundreds and often thousands of people, and, through the media, sometimes to millions. When I was very young, I would never have guessed that this would be my Element and nor would anyone who knew me. I was born in 1950 in Liverpool, England. I grew up in a large, close- knit family that was also tremendously sociable and funny. But as a young child, I spent a lot of time on my own. This was partly circumstance. In the early fifties, Europe and the United States suffered a rampant epidemic of polio. Parents everywhere lived in terror of their children catching the virus. When I was four, I did. Literally overnight, I went from being a strong, fit and highly energetic child, to being almost completely paralyzed. I spent the next eight months in a hospital, some of it in an isolation ward. When I finally came out, I was wearing two leg braces and was in a wheelchair, or walking on crutches.

I have to say that at this point I was almost unbearably cute. I was five years old and in addition to all the orthopedic paraphernalia, I had curly blond hair and a winsome smile that makes my own toes curl now just to think of it. On top of that, I had a pronounced lisp. At breakfast, I might ask for “a cup of tea with two thpoonth of thugar and a peeth of toatht.” The net result was that people would melt in my presence and complete strangers would spontaneously offer me money in the street. The lisp was so marked that from the age of three I had weekly sessions with a speech therapist in Liverpool. One theory is that I may have picked up the virus there, since I was the only person among all my family and friends to catch it. So one reason for spending time on my own was circumstance.

Although my family was wonderful in not treating me differently, the fact was that I could not keep up with all the running games in the street or the local park, and I did spend more time on my own than I might otherwise have done. But the other reason was disposition.

As a child I was fairly placid and self- contained. I was a natural observer and listener, and I was happy to sit quietly and take things in from the sidelines. I also loved to make things and solve practical puzzles. At elementary school, one of my favorite lessons was woodwork. I would also spend hours at home assembling and painting plastic models of ships, airplanes and historical figures. I played a lot with Meccano and Legos. I amused myself for whole afternoons in our backyard inventing fantasy games with whatever was lying around. None of this pointed very clearly to a life in the public eye and an international reputation, which I now seem to have, as a public speaker. As is often the case, other people saw my potential before I did.

When I was thirteen, my cousin Brenda got married. Two of my elder brothers, Keith and Ian, and our cousin Billy put together a cabaret act for the evening that involved them dressing up as women and miming to current hit records that were speeded up to sound like Alvin and the Chipmunks. They called themselves The Alka Seltzers. (It’s a long story.) They needed someone to introduce them at the event and Keith suggested me. I was astonished, and I wasn’t alone in that. But I did do it, even though the idea terrified me.

I was terrified because I’d never done anything remotely like it and because the massed ranks of my Liverpool family are savagely funny and take no prisoners, no matter how many braces and speech impediments are held in front of them. I did it because I’ve always believed that you have to move toward your fears and not away from them. If you don’t exorcise them, they can haunt you long after they should have faded. As it happens, it was a fantastic evening. I received due acclaim for my small part. The group was a sensation and had invitations to perform at clubs and theaters across the country. They changed their name to The Alka Sisters (to avoid legal action by the popular antacid) and went on to tour for several years and to win a national talent competition. In the meantime, I had a small realization that I could face the public, too.

In high school, I performed in various plays and directed some. By the time I got to college, I had a taste for acting and directing and, although I never sought it, I was often called on to make speeches in debates and to make presentations. Once I was on stage, I found that I relaxed fairly quickly and enjoyed it. I still do. My professional work has always involved working with and presenting to groups of people. Although I was always nervous beforehand, I found from the beginning that I settled in quickly, and that the time passed quickly while I was doing this.

When you’re in your Element, your sense of time changes. If you’re doing something that you love, an hour can feel like five minutes; if you are doing something that you do not, five minutes can feel like an hour. At every stage of my working life, my wife, Thérèse, has always said that she can tell at the end of the day what I’ve been doing. If I’ve been sitting through routine committee meetings or doing administration, I look ten years older than I am: if I’ve been speaking at an event, teaching or running a workshop, I look ten years younger. Being in your Element gives you energy. Not being in it takes it from you.

So how do you set about finding your Element?

From The Reading List

Forbes: Sir Ken Robinson: How To Discover Your True Talents — “Human resources are like the earth’s natural resources: they’re often buried beneath the surface and you have to make an effort to discover them.”

Time: What Graduation Speeches Should Say But Don’t — “Being in your element is more than doing things you’re good at. To be in your element, you have to love the work too. As they say, “Find a job you love and you’ll never work another day in your life.”

The Guardian: Fertile Minds Need Feeding — “Our approaches to education are ‘stifling some of the most important capacities that young people now need to make their way in the increasingly demanding world of the 21st century — the powers of creative thinking’, he says.”

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