Book review: The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything

The Element is a good book—perhaps terrific. So what’s wrong with it?

There are some people who would be interesting to have around for dinner. Sir Ken Robinson would be near the top of my list. Some of my other prospective guests are dead, so I’m not holding out for an appearance from the likes of Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, bongo player and artist (possibly just as well if you’ve ever tasted my cooking). Feynman does, however, make an appearance in Sir Ken’s new book, The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything.

Robinson is a likeable storyteller, though you might wonder whether he has keynote fever—telling and retelling stories until they are hoary chestnuts. If you’ve seen his brilliant speech at TED in ’06, you will have repeated the story of the little girl drawing a picture at school. When the teacher asks what she is drawing, she replies ‘God’. The teacher is taken aback. “But no-one knows what God looks like.” Implacably the kid replies: ”Well, they will in a minute.”

It is a lovely story. Robinson uses it to illustrate the parallel thought that children are uninhibited creative beings and that adults, the products of our education, have repressed our creativity—or at least had it repressed by education systems that favour judgements based on supposedly reliable tests like IQ and the US SAT scores. Robinson kindly informs us that the inventors of both of these tests were eugenicists—you know, folks who believe that some human characteristics are more desirable than others and ‘undesirable’ ones should be eliminated from the species. Let’s just say I wouldn’t be so keen to invite them to my table; and neither would Sir Ken.

It’s a good book. The basic thesis is that we need different approaches to education and life to accommodate different learning styles, to tap the richness of the human resource and to know our own capacity and find our ‘element’. His argument is persuasive and the book is thoroughly enjoyable. I am happy to have read it. You should too. Odds on, I’ll read it again. But here’s the rub: I felt I had already read it before. Dan Pink’s A Whole New Mind and Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi’s Creativity both cover sets and subsets of Robinson’s story and both are referenced in The Element.

Actually, let me revise my position. It’s a terrific book. Erudite, heart warming and almost perfectly aligned with my own opinions and biases. Maybe that’s the nub of my problem with the book. Agreeing isn’t thinking, and I didn’t feel challenged.