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Book Summary: The Element – How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything

What would happen if you dedicated your life to doing what you’re truly meant to do? In “The Element,” Ken Robinson explains how to do just that. Drawing lessons from the lives of a diverse range of luminaries — from Paul McCartney to the renowned physicist Richard Feynman — Robinson outlines how to be true to yourself, achieve more than you dreamed was possible, and, most importantly, live the life you were meant to live.

How to fulfill your potential by living at the intersection of passion and talent.


  • Want to find your calling in life but don’t know where to start
  • Feel too isolated or insecure to pursue what you’re passionate about
  • Enjoy reading about how successful people unlocked their potential

The Element (2009) is about getting in the zone and unearthing exactly what drives you. That driver is your element and these blinks explain precisely what it is, how to identify it and what it will mean for your life.

Book Summary: The Element - How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything

Americans tend to overuse the word “love.” They love macaroni and cheese, they love Katy Perry, they love the color pink.

But Americans are not the only ones who use this weighty word so lightly. Perhaps you yourself have said, “I love to write,” or “I love playing the piano.” But unless you’ve truly dedicated yourself and put yourself on the line for your so-called love, “love” might not be the right descriptor for what you’re feeling. Perhaps you admire it or wish you could do it. To truly love something, that thing must be your element.

In this summary of The Element by Ken Robinson, with Lou Aronica, you’ll learn

  • why it’s not too late to start creating or learning something totally new;
  • how aptitude is not the same thing as passion; and
  • why finding your “tribe” involves more than a clever Instagram caption.


According to author and education consultant Sir Ken Robinson, today’s educational systems promote only certain types of learning and recognize only certain types of intelligence and creativity. Yet people are happiest when they follow their talents and do what they love. Robinson, writing with co-author Lou Aronica, describes this avenue to fulfillment as “the Element,” the intersection of ability and passion. He uses stories of artists, scientists, athletes and musicians to support his theory. While Robinson makes a strong case for finding your Element, he doesn’t tell you how to get there. Since he relies on case histories of the famous, some readers might feel more distanced than motivated. Nonetheless, getAbstract recommends this thoughtful self-help book, which challenges traditional views of intelligence and creativity.


  • “The Element” is the intersection of passion and talent.
  • Finding your Element is essential to your happiness, fulfillment and success.
  • The Element requires “aptitude and passion” and the right “attitude and opportunity.”
  • Most educational systems inhibit the emergence of artistic talents and focus more on logic and reasoning.
  • Human intelligence is “diverse, dynamic and distinctive.”
  • Everyone can nurture and develop the capacity for creativity.
  • To be “in the zone” means that you are operating at the peak of your abilities while doing what you love.
  • Finding your “tribe,” those who share your passion, is affirming, inspiring and motivating.
  • Uncertainty, fear of failure, and family and cultural pressures may prohibit you from exploring your passions.
  • With the right attitude, it’s never too late to find the Element.


You were born with tremendous abilities. Whether you were meant to paint beautiful pictures, discover a cure for cancer, or bring out the best in people by serving them delicious food, you have a one-of-a-kind set of talents and a unique purpose. Unfortunately, few people manage to take advantage of their talents in life because of societal pressures, isolation, or misconceptions about what it means to be successful.

In his time working with some of the most powerful corporations, nonprofit organizations, and governments in the world, Sir Ken Robinson met a lot of people and encountered a lot of different lifestyles. He believes that whether you reach your potential comes down to whether you are “in your element;” that is, whether you’re working at the intersection of aptitude and passion.

Thinking Differently

The key to finding your element is to find out what you are passionate about and especially good at. What is it that makes your heart flutter, gives you goosebumps, or makes you so absorbed in the present that you lose track of time? This is your passion.

When you were in school, you were probably taught to make decisions based on common sense, rules, and norms. But these things often get in the way of finding your element. In reality, wildly successful people usually achieve success by rejecting the status quo and doing what their hearts tell them to do. For example, when Paul McCartney was a student at the Liverpool Institute, he spent most of his time fooling around. Rather than studying when he got home each day, he listened to rock music and played the guitar. Although this probably horrified his teachers and parents, “goofing around” turned out to be a smart choice for McCartney, especially after he met John Lennon and decided to form a band known as The Beatles.

It might take some digging to find the intersection of your passion and talent. For example, Mick Fleetwood is one of the most famous and accomplished rock drummers in the world. Most rock critics consider his albums Rumors and Fleetwood Mac to be works of genius. But when he was in school, Mick was told that he had a learning disability, and his teachers treated him as though he was stupid. Fortunately, Mick’s parents saw beyond this and pulled him and his siblings out of school, so they could live on a barge for three years to discover their authentic passions and talents. During that time, they learned that Mick was great at drums, and that his sister Sally was a talented sculptor. Thanks to his parents’ encouragement and his years of experimenting, Mick decided to focus on drumming rather than on his studies. One day, when Mick was practicing in his garage, his neighbor stopped by to ask if he wanted to play at a local youth club. This turned out to be the first step in an astonishing career.

In the Zone

One of the best clues that you have found your element is if you occasionally find yourself in what Robinson and many others call “the zone.” This is the moment when you become lost in the experience of what you’re doing and perform at your peak. However, even when you are in your element, you won’t spend all your time in the zone, and it can take a long time to get there, especially in the early days. There are many other activities — like practicing, warming up, and studying — that might not make you feel hyped up and unstoppable all the time. But if you stick with your element, despite the difficulty, you will eventually arrive in the zone.

One sign that you’re in the zone is that you can’t quite understand how you were able to accomplish something. For instance, Ewa Laurance, one of the most renowned billiards players in the world, recalls that when she was playing, she would sometimes feel like she was in a tunnel and couldn’t see anything other than the table. Outside of the zone, since geometry and physics had never come naturally to her, Ewa studied hard so that she could get better at hitting the cue ball at the optimal angle. However, when Ewa was in the zone, she found that she could literally see lines and diagrams all over the table. Her mind had become so aligned with her element that it subconsciously told her everything she needed to know without even trying.

Another sign you’re in your zone is when you become obsessed with figuring something out, overcoming a tough challenge, or mastering a new skill. The Nobel Prize-winning mathematician Terence Tao has been called “the Mozart of Math” because his math lectures draw standing-room-only crowds. When he solves math problems or talks about mathematics, brilliant insights seem to flow effortlessly from him. But for Tao, being in the zone often requires a lot of effort. Tao remembers being fascinated with patterns and puzzles of mathematical symbol manipulation as a child. When he came across an equation, problem, or lesson that he only partly understood, he was instantly pulled into the world of numbers, unable to think about anything else until he worked the whole thing out. Tao has said that, when he is in the zone, he feels as though he is a rock climber scaling a cliff. The knowledge and ability to do quick calculations, which he has built up over the years, are like the rope and route-planning that an adept climber brings to a cliff. And in the same way that a climber feels united with the cliff they’re climbing, Tao feels sucked into the problem he is trying to solve.

Finding Your Tribe

Have you ever struggled to explain why you’re curious or passionate about something, or have you just felt alone in your pursuit of a goal? The sad reality is that most people won’t understand your element, and as a result, they won’t really understand why you’re so passionate about it. If you try to pursue your element by yourself, it can be easy to lose sight of what you love about it, get burned out, and eventually give up. But if you find your tribe, you’ll truly thrive in your element.

According to Robinson, your tribe is the group of people with whom you share a common commitment to the thing you feel born to do. Your tribe doesn’t have to be directly involved in your particular profession; they just need to share some common passion with the passion you have. In fact, the more diverse your tribe is, the more it can provide you with a richer, more exciting experience in your element. Finding your tribe can transform your sense of identity and purpose because of three powerful dynamics: validation, inspiration, and the alchemy of synergy.


First, finding your tribe can help validate your passion. For instance, Don Lipski, one of America’s most acclaimed sculptors and public artists, didn’t feel validated in pursuing his creative inclinations at the beginning of his journey to his element. He followed his parents’ advice when he graduated high school and enrolled in the University of Wisconsin as a business major. Lipski found his classes uninspiring, so he switched to economics and then history in search of something that resonated with him.

Then, in his final year, Lipski bluffed his way into enrolling in two electives in woodworking and ceramics that he wasn’t qualified to take. For the first time in his life, he felt the true exhilaration of working alongside other artistic people. Additionally, for the first time, Lipski had a teacher who encouraged him to embrace his artistic nature. This teacher turned everything in his life, from making a vase to buttering a piece of toast, into a form of art. This encouragement inspired Lipski to go to art school, despite his parents’ concerns about the practicality of an art degree. At art school, Lipski found himself alongside 200 other serious, knowledgeable, and committed artists, and this awakened him to the fact that his passion was worth pursuing.


Second, finding your tribe can inspire you to try new things or give you insights that you wouldn’t have come across on your own. For instance, Nobel laureate Richard Feynman once spoke of ultra-miniaturized machines, talking about them from a physicist’s perspective long before anyone had thought of creating them. This inspired the cognitive scientist Marvin Minsky, the father of artificial intelligence, to move the idea forward. Years later, engineer K. Eric Drexler approached Minsky at MIT and asked him to sponsor his thesis on miniature devices. Drexler would go on to pioneer the field of nanotechnology, which has had massive implications for innovation in recent decades.

Alchemy of synergy

Finally, finding your tribe allows you to tap into what Robinson calls the alchemy of synergy, which is a combination of creative energies and an urge to perform at your highest level. The alchemy of synergy is a bit like competition, but instead of trying to outperform or keep up with someone, you feel drawn to match the level of energy and commitment that flows from them.

For example, when Miles Davis gathered a group of talented musicians together to record the album Kind of Blue, the musicians were playing the pieces for the first time. But rather than mechanically stumbling through the notes, they synchronized their energy and quickly got into the zone together. As each felt the other’s passion for breaking musical barriers, the musicians subconsciously tapped into their underlying talent and performed much better than they would have individually. Because of the synergy formed by this tribe, Kind of Blue ended up being a landmark album that music lovers have cherished for over half a century.

Overcoming Barriers

Unfortunately, as you embark on the quest to find your element, you’ll likely encounter a few barriers. Three common barriers that people encounter in search of their element are personal barriers, social barriers, and cultural barriers.

Personal barriers

Over the years, you’ve probably acquired unhelpful feelings of self-doubt or fear about external obstacles. These fears and insecurities hold you back from finding your element and living a full life in which you make a contribution to the world. As you seek your element, you must adopt a strong will to be yourself and protect it no matter what.

For instance, Lipski had a hard time realizing that his true element was in the arts because he thought that, to be an artist, he needed to possess visual art skills such as drawing, something that he lacked talent in. Thankfully, he realized that there are many forms of art, and just because he didn’t manifest talent in one area did not mean that he wasn’t meant to do another.

Social barriers

Your parents, siblings, and friends probably have strong opinions about what you should and shouldn’t do with your life. Some of these opinions are helpful. Mick Fleetwood’s parents, for example, held the opinion that he was destined to do great things and just needed to take time to find his element.

However, other opinions are less helpful. For instance, the world renowned author Paulo Coelho was pressured by his parents to become a lawyer. As a teenager, Coelho insisted on spending his time writing poetry, so his parents placed him in a psychiatric hospital, where he was subjected to electric shock therapy. Your parents and friends probably haven’t taken such extreme measures to keep you from your element, but it’s important to use your discretion: Listen to advice that is helpful and ignore the rest.

Cultural barriers

Your culture has instilled in you a set of rules about what kinds of attitudes and behaviors are acceptable and unacceptable. If you’re like most people, you have been conditioned to worry about looking bad if you don’t adhere to the rules. According to the cultural anthropologist Clotaire Rapaille, a particularly influential set of rules that your culture has taught you is a sort of “survival manual” for success. For instance, if you grew up in an urban culture, you might be conditioned to believe that running a small shop where you know everyone by name doesn’t make you successful. Or if you grew up in a rural culture, you may have been conditioned to believe that having a big property and a family with children is essential to success.

Cultural barriers are so powerful that, sometimes, you must leave home for a while to escape them. For example, Zaha Hadid, one of the greatest architects of the century, had to move from her home in Baghdad to London and then America to pursue her career as an architect. Back in her homeland, being an architect was considered a risky profession, and careers in law or medicine seemed better in keeping with her culture’s “survival manual” for success.

No matter the barriers you encounter, do whatever it takes to overcome them — whether that means going on a retreat, having a hard conversation with your family and friends, or even leaving your home so that you can be in the right environment to flourish in your element. Doing so might be painful in the short term, but it will be well worth it when you finally feel like you’re tapping into your true potential and doing what you’re passionate about.

Your element has two important features

You’ve probably heard people talk about “being in their element” when referring to a sense of fulfillment and connection with their true identity and purpose. It sounds great, but how can you find that place for yourself?

Well, the truth is there’s no single route to get there. But by learning the main characteristics that define the element, you can begin to determine what it means for you. The first of these characteristics is aptitude.

Aptitude is what most people call “talent.” It’s the natural and intuitive ability to accomplish something. However, there are limits to how far aptitude can get you.

For instance, you could have an aptitude for anything from software development to poetry to playing the violin. Maybe you have a voice perfectly suited for opera, or for radio – that’s aptitude.

But aptitude isn’t enough. You also need passion. After all, you can do something with extreme proficiency and still not feel moved by it. Being in your element requires feeling a certain pleasure and delight in what you’re doing. This kind of passion will keep you practicing for hours and loving every minute of it.

Just take Charles, the keyboard player in the author’s brother’s former band. One night after a show, the author told Charles how well he had played and how much he himself loved playing keyboard. Charles responded by saying that the author didn’t actually love it, because, if he did, he would be doing it.

Charles practiced several hours a day. Not because anyone was forcing him to, but because that’s what he wanted to do. In other words, playing the keyboard was his passion.

Finding your element requires the right attitude and appropriate opportunities.

People love to classify themselves as lucky or unlucky, but when it comes to motivation, luck won’t get you very far. In fact, you’ll have a difficult time ever finding your element, if you’re not driven by the proper attitude.

Just consider all the high achievers with attitudes that drive their ambition and perseverance every step of the way. John Wilson is a good example. At the age of twelve, he was blinded during a mishap in chemistry class. But the experience didn’t defeat him.

He was glad to have the rest of his life in front him and jumped right into learning Braille, the writing system used by the visually impaired. He excelled at a college for the blind and later at Oxford, where he studied law alongside sighted students.

From there he went on to play a role in the formation of Sight Savers International, a group that works to treat and prevent blindness among the populations of developing countries. He served as director of the organization for decades, traveling all over the world and doing incredible work.

That’s the power of attitude.

Of equal importance is opportunity. To understand why, just imagine being the most talented pearl diver in the world, yet you happen to live in the Sahara Desert. You’d never notice your talent, much less apply it successfully. That’s why you need the right opportunities.

Opportunity can come in a variety of forms. In the author’s case, for instance, a mentor paved the way.

As a child, the author contracted polio, and, due to the partial paralysis he suffered, attended a school for children with disabilities. He didn’t have the opportunity to excel until a public official visited the school and noticed how bright the author was. The official, named Mr. Stafford, had the author take a special test, which ensured him acceptance to a good college and, from then on, Mr. Stafford became a mentor and good friend.

Intelligence is diverse, dynamic and distinctive.

Most people have a relatively limited perception of intelligence. They think of it as a score on a test, a grade in school or a knack for words and numbers. But, actually, a totally different perspective is required.

If you fail to recognize the nuances by which people navigate the world, you’ll dramatically limit your chances of finding your element. More specifically, when seeking your element, it’s essential to recognize the manifold forms that intelligence takes.

Just consider Gordon Parks. He barely got any high school education and probably would have bombed the standardized tests of today. But he taught himself to play piano, take photos, write and master a variety of other skills, molding himself into a renowned American photographer, filmmaker, author and composer.

Intelligence needn’t be limited by standard definitions. It’s a dynamic force. Like the human brain, it never settles into a single fixed state, and it can be developed by forming connections in a variety of ways.

Consider Albert Einstein, widely known as an incredible scientist and brilliant mathematician. He is a great example of the benefits different forms of thinking can offer. For instance, when Einstein faced difficult mathematical problems, he’d play his violin. This change of pace would foster new connections in his mind and produce solutions that would have otherwise been inaccessible.

And finally, it’s important to remember that every single person has a unique intelligence, like a fingerprint. That means there are no two people who use their intelligence in precisely the same way.

For example, some people study math and engineering at top universities to become amazing architects, while others travel the world, observing structures and shapes to help them reach the exact same goal.

Finding the people you naturally gravitate toward will help you discover your element.

Have you ever passionately described your dreams to another person and been met with nothing but an uncomprehending stare? Well, you’re not the only one, and this poses problems since finding your element requires other people. Indeed, finding your element is much easier if you first find your tribe.

This group could consist of just about anybody. It might be people you work with or even your competitors. What makes your tribe unique is a commitment to doing what feels most natural to you.

Consider the American actress Meg Ryan. She did excellently in school, was a brilliant writer and a talented academic. But despite all these other talents, it was on film sets that she met her tribe. These people – actors, cameramen and directors – shared her view of the world. And that’s exactly what you need a tribe to do.

So your tribe can help you find your element, but keep in mind that, once you do find your element, it might fully absorb you. You might have already experienced that certain state of mind where you totally lose track of time and space. Well, that’s a common way to experience your element.

You’ll find yourself entirely absorbed, even “lost” in what you’re doing. For instance, when the great Swedish-American pool player Ewa Laurance, is shooting pool, she sometimes feels as though everything around her disappears. She can’t keep track of time and will play for nine hours straight, experiencing it like 30 minutes.

But of course there are limitations to this. You can’t expect to be entirely absorbed in what you’re doing every second of your life. Sometimes the situation just isn’t right or you find your mood isn’t appropriate. You’re bound to get distracted from time to time and it’s important to accept that fact.

Personal and social barriers are par for the course on your way to your element.

Have you ever felt like you couldn’t do something? Whether it was running a marathon, finishing college or painting a beautiful picture, there was probably some goal that you felt you could never achieve. This is normal. Everybody is faced with self-doubt some of the time, especially when searching for your element; you’re bound to run into certain barriers, some of which will be particularly personal.

A good example is the celebrated American artist Chuck Close. Facing physical problems and a learning disorder, he did poorly in school, as well as in sports. His life at home wasn’t easy, either; his dad died young and his mother had a serious illness.

Nonetheless, his art kept him motivated and caused him to blossom. Even when he became paralyzed by a blood clot and lost the ability to hold a paintbrush, he refused to give up his art; he simply found a way to hold a brush with his teeth and forged ahead.

So whether you suffer from a physical disability or not, a strong will is essential. Remember, even a perfectly healthy person won’t be able to complete a marathon without a good attitude.

However, in other cases these barriers won’t be personal, but social. For instance, what would you do if your closest friends, or your family, disdained the life path you chose?

Well, that’s precisely what happened to the world-renowned Brazilian author Paulo Coelho. He had a difficult life growing up and his parents were desperate for him to become a lawyer. As a result, when Paulo pushed ahead with his art, they had him put into a psychiatric asylum, not just once – but three times!

That’s why it’s important to remember that, regardless of what the people in your life think is best for you, only you can find your element.

It’s rarely too late to find your element, and you don’t need to be a professional to do it.

Lots of people believe that, upon reaching a certain age, there are particular things they cannot do. But while it might feel too late, it rarely actually is.

Naturally, there are limits to this and you’re probably not going to become an Olympic figure skater at the age of 90, but that doesn’t mean life is strictly linear when it comes to capacity and accomplishments. People might age in a linear fashion, but you can still reach for your dreams later in life.

Just take the successful author Harriet Doerr. She wrote a bit while raising her children, but it wasn’t until the age of 65 that she finally returned to college. The writing courses she took at this late age helped her get into the creative writing program at Stanford University and she was 72 when her first novel, Stones for Ibarra, finally came out.

And even if you don’t become a world-renowned author, or anything else, you can still be in your element as an amateur. In fact, to find and enjoy your element, it’s completely unnecessary to be a professional. After all, your element isn’t about getting rich or famous; it’s about living according to your talent and your passion.

The academic Gabriel Trop is a good example. While pursuing his PhD in German literature at the University of California at Berkeley, he began playing cello. After just a year, he had risen to the title of lead cellist in the university orchestra.

But when he had to make a choice between music and literature, he chose the latter as his profession. Both pursuits put him in his element, but a career in literature would let him pursue the cello without financial stress. If he had taken the other route, and become a professional cellist, he would have struggled to meet his basic needs, much less find time for literature.


“The Element”

Gillian had trouble sitting still in class, staying focused or following directions. Her school’s administrators felt her behavior was disruptive and thought she might do better in a “special” school. This was in the 1930s, before Attention Deficit Disorder became a common diagnosis. Gillian’s mother took her to a psychologist, who conducted a series of tests. In a departure from common practice, he recommended that Gillian attend dance school. This is how Gillian described the experience. “I walked into this room, and it was full of people like me: people who couldn’t sit still. People who had to move to think.” This is the story of Gillian Lynne, the renowned dancer who choreographed the Broadway musical productions of Cats and The Phantom of the Opera for Andrew Lloyd Webber.

“If we discover the Element in ourselves and encourage others to find theirs, the opportunities for growth are infinite.”

When Gillian discovered dance, she entered the Element, the intersection of interest and ability. Finding your Element is essential to your happiness, fulfillment and success. Yet many people go through their entire lives without ever having this experience. Three obstacles limit them: First, most people underestimate their own capabilities. Second, they view the capacities of their minds, bodies and spirits as separate entities instead of parts of a whole. Third, people’s concept of development and change is often linear, and some feel that they’ve lost their chance at happiness by a certain age.

“We are all born with tremendous natural capacities…we lose touch with many of them as we spend more time in the world.”

When you are in your Element, you connect with your sense of self, purpose and well-being. The Element is different for each individual, but the process of tapping into it is universal. Doing so requires “aptitude and passion” and the right “attitude and opportunity.” Aptitude is a natural ability. Some people immediately grasp complex mathematical concepts, while others gravitate toward paints and brushes. Discovering and developing your creative strengths is essential to reaching your full potential. However, being in your Element requires more than natural talent; you must passionately love what you do.

“Imagination is the foundation of everything that is uniquely and distinctively human.”

People who love their work often describe themselves as lucky. Yet luck is not a happy accident. Your attitude plays an important role. Luck often follows those who are optimistic, positive, hardworking, determined and confident. Opportunity is also essential to reaching your Element. However, you can take specific steps to find opportunities to define your Element.

Lessons Not Taught in School

In spite of able and devoted teachers everywhere, the structure of school systems generally inhibits the emergence of diverse talents. This happens for three reasons: First, educational systems emphasize critical thinking and reasoning. Second, schools feature a “hierarchy of subjects.” Mathematics, sciences and languages rank higher than the humanities. Art, music, theater and dance receive the lowest priority. Third, schools rely heavily on assessment tools such as standardized tests. The result is that educational systems everywhere work within a narrow definition of intelligence and capacity.

“Given the challenges we face, education doesn’t need to be reformed – it needs to be transformed.”

Most people view intelligence as a set characteristic. This idea of intelligence has roots in the Greek philosophers’ belief in logic and reasoning. The assumption that intelligence equates to academic ability grew more entrenched as the scientific method developed. Scholars had to prove theories with evidence they could observe and document through the human senses.

“Being in the zone is about using your particular kind of intelligence in an optimal way.”

Alfred Binet contributed to the development of the IQ test, a common tool for measuring intelligence. Yet Binet never intended it to measure “mental worth” or to imply that intelligence is a set entity. An IQ test measures only a person’s abilities to work with certain types of mathematical and verbal reasoning. Today, many specialists are re-examining popular notions about intelligence. Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner notably posits that humans have multiple intelligences including “linguistic, musical, mathematical, spatial, kinesthetic, interpersonal (relationships with others) and intrapersonal (knowledge and understanding of the self)” intelligences. Clearly, human cognition is “diverse, dynamic and distinctive.”

Creativity’s Broad Reach

Just as people view intelligence in terms of academic ability, they also hew to a narrow definition of creativity. One common misconception is that only special people, such as artists or musicians, are creative. In truth, everyone can nurture and develop a creative capacity. Another mistaken belief is that creativity is limited to a few artistic mediums, like painting or dancing. People also view creativity as a fixed quality, but you can become more creative as you apply your intelligence and imagination to your work.

“We need to challenge what we take for granted about our abilities and the abilities of other people.”

Creativity is “applied imagination.” Imagination differentiates humans from all other species. Imagination is entirely internal, but creativity requires action. The creative process has some common features across disciplines. Although some ideas arrive fully formed, most begin as a seed that requires cultivation in a creative process. Mull over your original concept and consider various alternatives. Choose which options work best. Test your theory to refine your approach. Draw on your experience and build on the work of people in your field. You’ll hit roadblocks, encounter failure and feel frustration. The creative process is seldom linear or rational. When you get it right, you’ll experience joy and satisfaction that characterizes being in the Element.

Zones and Tribes

When you are doing something you love and are good at, you will feel a sense of connection and rightness, of being “in the zone” of your Element. Professional billiards player Ewa Laurence recognizes how “being able to control the cue ball scooting forward two and a half inches instead of three is a pretty amazing feeling.” Laurence spends hours every day perfecting her game and is not always in the zone. Yet, when it all comes together, she feels energized and at peace. Award-winning West Wing writer Aaron Sorkin explains that when his work is thriving, he feels “completely lost in the process.” Being in your Element is empowering because you connect with your authentic self. Hours fly by like minutes. Conversely, when you work on something that doesn’t come naturally to you or that you dislike, time slows, and you feel exhausted.

“Every person’s intelligence is as unique as a fingerprint.”

Many people find their Element by connecting with others who share the same interest. This association provides “validation and inspiration,” and it can spur people to new heights of achievement via the “alchemy of synergy.” Actress Meg Ryan initially went to school to study journalism in hopes of becoming a writer. When she detoured into acting, she found that she loved being in the company of other actors. “I was surrounded by people who worked from really deep, deep down in themselves and were interested in the human condition and the idea of bringing writing to life. All these things just started to bloom in my mind and in my heart and in my soul.” Finding your “tribe” is affirming and inspiring; it helps you excel.

“Different capacities express themselves in stronger ways at different times in our lives.”

A “domain” is a particular tribe’s activity, while a “field” refers to the category that includes its members. For example, Ryan’s domain is acting, and actors make up her field. When she moved into writing and directing, she expanded her domains and extended her field. You’re not limited to one domain, and sometimes activities in one domain overlap with another. For instance, Pablo Picasso’s interest in African art influenced the way he painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and led him into exploring the Cubist work for which he is famous.

“One of the enemies of creativity and innovation, especially in relation to our own development, is common sense.”

When people create together, the sum can be greater than the individual parts. Abundant examples confirm this phenomenon: from sports – such as the profoundly collaborative 1969 New York Knicks – to music – for instance, jazz trumpeter and composer Miles Davis and his band’s album Kind of Blue – to politics for example, President Abraham Lincoln’s administration, a collection of thinkers and politicians with disparate viewpoints that produced incredible results.

What’s Stopping You?

Often, the chief barrier to finding your Element lies within yourself. Uncertainty, fear of failure and self-doubt prohibit you from exploring your passions. You may fear the disapproval of friends and families. You may strive to live up to other people’s expectations, even when those expectations run contrary to your true calling. When your loved ones discourage you from following your dream, they usually believe they are acting in your best interests. They might tell you that pursuing acting will bring only disappointment, or your family might refuse to pay your tuition if you study art history. Such pronouncements are always destructive.

“Finding your tribe can have transformative effects on your sense of identity and purpose.”

The culture into which you are born also influences your ability to follow your interests. All cultures have rules, behavioral guidelines and constraints. Societal norms can prevent individuals from attaining their Element if their passions conflict with their environment. When confronted with “personal, social and cultural” constrictions, consider how willing you are to buck the tide in order to reach your Element.

“It is difficult to feel accomplished when you’re not accomplishing something that matters to you.”

You may need support and guidance from a mentor to navigate obstacles and find your Element. Mentors help by recognizing and identifying your aptitudes and talents, and by encouraging your development. They push you to learn, refine your skills and boost your confidence. Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play Major League Baseball, took endless abuse from management, players and fans. At one of his lowest points, Robinson’s Brooklyn Dodger teammate, shortstop Pee Wee Reese, told Robinson that he played well enough to earn a place in the Hall of Fame. Robinson credits Reese with giving him confidence when he needed it most, thereby saving his career. Mentors also act as facilitators who provide practical advice and help. A mentor’s support and confidence can allow you to stretch past your self-imposed limits.

Beyond Passion

Having an interest and an aptitude is never enough. You must have the right attitude. Some people ascribe success to luck, but it’s not that simple. John Wilson was conducting a routine experiment in his high school chemistry class when a mislabeled fluid blew up in his face and cost him his sight. Wilson continued his education, received a law degree from Oxford and worked for the UK’s National Institute for the Blind. Through his work at the Institute, he traveled through Africa and was astounded at the high rate of blindness caused by preventable diseases. He founded the British Empire Society for the Blind, now called Sight Savers International. His organization prevented blindness in millions of people. Losing his sight was not lucky for John Wilson, but he made his life productive by following his passion and finding his Element.

“A strong will to be yourself is an indomitable force.”

Many people believe that life is linear and so think it’s too late to attain the Element once they reach a certain age. However, Benjamin Franklin was 78 when he invented bifocals. Agatha Christie wrote the play The Mousetrap at age 62, and violinist Vladimir Horowitz was still filling every seat in concert halls when he was 84. Life expectancy is longer now than ever before, and people remain healthier as they age than they did in previous generations. Life is cyclical, and different opportunities arrive at different times. Continue to develop your creativity and intelligence so you can explore new avenues to the Element.

“We all shape the circumstances and realities of our own lives, and we can also transform them.”

You don’t have to devote 100% of your time to something to be in your Element. Most people can’t make a living doing what they love most. They can’t afford to leave their jobs to pursue their passions. Most earn their living doing their jobs and follow their interests in their own time. Moreover, in many fields, the line between professional and amateur is blurring. Consider, for example, the Linux computer operating system. Many so-called amateur programmers contribute to this collaborative open-source effort without receiving credit or remuneration.

“We don’t know who we can be until we know what we can do.”

Don’t be afraid to reach for your dreams. In the words of Michelangelo, “The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it.”


Although it can feel like you’re swimming upstream in the early days of finding your element, the stories in this summary show that no matter who you are, where you live, or what other people try to teach you, finding your element is worth it.

Just like Coelho had to resist his parents’ attempts to shape his future before he could write some of the greatest books in the world, and Hadid had to leave Iraq to find her tribe and create some of the century’s greatest architecture, you might have to make significant sacrifices to find and thrive in your element. But by committing to finding and pursuing the intersection of your talent and your passion, you can create a life where you’re inspired, fulfilled, and able to be who you were meant to be.

The key message in this book:

Every person can find her element – that place where she feels totally absorbed and fulfilled. Age, career status and personal barriers will be no match for you if you can find the confluence of your talent and passion and commit yourself to sticking with it.

About the author

Lou Aronica is the author of four novels, including the USA Today bestseller The Forever Year. She is also the coauthor of several nonfiction works, including the New York Times bestseller Finding Your Element and the national bestseller The Culture Code.

Sir Ken Robinson, PhD, is an internationally recognized leader in the development of creativity, innovation, and human potential. In addition to authoring numerous bestselling books, Robinson has worked with governments in Europe and Asia, Fortune 500 companies, international agencies, and some of the world’s leading nonprofit and cultural organizations.

Sir Ken Robinson, the author of Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative, is a speaker and consultant on education and creativity. Lou Aronica co-wrote The Culture Code.

Sir Ken Robinson | Website


Personal Growth, Education, Self Help, Psychology, Personal Development, Business, Philosophy, Inspirational, Teaching, Art, Academic Evaluation, Creativity, Psychological, Self-Improvement, Motivation, Self-Esteem, Job Hunting, Careers

Table of Contents

Chapter One: The Element
Chapter Two: Think Differently
Chapter Three: Beyond Imagining
Chapter Four: In the Zone
Chapter Five: Finding Your Tribe
Chapter Six: What Will They Think?
Chapter Seven: Attitude Adjustment
Chapter Eight: Somebody Help Me
Chapter Nine: Is It Too Late?
Chapter Ten: For Love or Money
Chapter Eleven: Making the Grade


A New York Times-bestselling breakthrough book about talent, passion, and achievement from the one of the world’s leading thinkers on creativity and self-fulfillment.

The Element is the point at which natural talent meets personal passion. When people arrive at the Element, they feel most themselves and most inspired and achieve at their highest levels. With a wry sense of humor, Ken Robinson looks at the conditions that enable us to find ourselves in the Element and those that stifle that possibility. Drawing on the stories of a wide range of people, including Paul McCartney, Matt Groening, Richard Branson, Arianna Huffington, and Bart Conner, he shows that age and occupation are no barrier and that this is the essential strategy for transform­ing education, business, and communities in the twenty-first century.

Also available from Ken Robinson is Imagine If, a call to action that challenges and empowers us to reimagine our world and our systems for the better, through a compilation of Sir Ken’s key messages and philosophies.


“The Element offers life-altering insights about the discovery of your true best self.” —Stephen R. Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

“Ken Robinson presents the theme of creativity and innovation in a way that makes you want to go out and make your dreams a reality. In his wonderfully easy-to-read and entertaining style he presents the stories of many who have done just that. . . . It is a book that lightens and lifts the minds and hearts of all who read it.” —Susan Jeffers, Ph.D., bestselling author of Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway® and Life is Huge!

“A great and inspiring book. It’s been said that an unexamined life is not worth living. True enough and Ken Robinson doesn’t let us off the hook. After the first page, you have to abandon your ego and look for your own gifts and graces.” —Warren Bennis, author of On Becoming a Leader: The Leadership Classic

“Robinson (Out of Our Minds), renowned in the areas of creativity development, innovation, and human resources, tackles the challenge of determining and pursuing work that is aligned with individual talents and passions to achieve well-being and success. . . . Motivating and persuasive, this entertaining and inspiring book will appeal to a wide audience.” —Publishers Weekly

“Ken Robinson is a remarkable man, one of the few who really look at and into you, so he makes you feel at ease and happy. I’m proud to be in his book as one of the people he feels attained the Element. Reading his book helps you pinpoint the search we must all make to achieve the best in us.” —Gillian Lynne, choreographer, Cats and The Phantom of the Opera

“While the world is changing faster than ever, our organizations, our schools, and too often our minds are locked in the habits of the past. The result is a massive waste of human talent. The Element is a passionate and persuasive appeal to think differently about ourselves and how to face the future.” —Alvin Toffler, author of The Future Shock

“A brilliant and compelling look at creativity, and the path to succeed in the global world of tomorrow.” —Harry Lodge, co-author of Younger Next Year

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The Element

GILLIAN WAS ONLY eight years old, but her future was already at risk. Her schoolwork was a disaster, at least as far as her teachers were concerned. She turned in assignments late, her handwriting was terrible, and she tested poorly. Not only that, she was a disruption to the entire class, one minute fidgeting noisily, the next staring out the window, forcing the teacher to stop the class to pull Gillian’s attention back, and the next doing something to disturb the other children around her. Gillian wasn’t particularly concerned about any of this—she was used to being corrected by authority figures and really didn’t see herself as a difficult child—but the school was very concerned. This came to a head when the school wrote to her parents.

The school thought that Gillian had a learning disorder of some sort and that it might be more appropriate for her to be in a school for children with special needs. All of this took place in the 1930s. I think now they’d say she had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and they’d put her on Ritalin or something similar. But the ADHD epidemic hadn’t been invented at the time. It wasn’t an available condition. People didn’t know they could have that and had to get by without it.

Gillian’s parents received the letter from the school with great concern and sprang to action. Gillian’s mother put her daughter in her best dress and shoes, tied her hair in ponytails, and took her to a psychologist for assessment, fearing the worst.

Gillian told me that she remembers being invited into a large oak-paneled room with leather-bound books on the shelves. Standing in the room next to a large desk was an imposing man in a tweed jacket. He took Gillian to the far end of the room and sat her down on a huge leather sofa. Gillian’s feet didn’t quite touch the floor, and the setting made her wary. Nervous about the impression she would make, she sat on her hands so that she wouldn’t fidget.

The psychologist went back to his desk, and for the next twenty minutes, he asked Gillian’s mother about the difficulties Gillian was having at school and the problems the school said she was causing. While he didn’t direct any of his questions at Gillian, he watched her carefully the entire time. This made Gillian extremely uneasy and confused. Even at this tender age, she knew that this man would have a significant role in her life. She knew what it meant to attend a “special school,” and she didn’t want anything to do with that. She genuinely didn’t feel that she had any real problems, but everyone else seemed to believe she did. Given the way her mother answered the questions, it was possible that even she felt this way.

Maybe, Gillian thought, they were right.

Eventually, Gillian’s mother and the psychologist stopped talking. The man rose from his desk, walked to the sofa, and sat next to the little girl.

“Gillian, you’ve been very patient, and I thank you for that,” he said. “But I’m afraid you’ll have to be patient for a little longer. I need to speak to your mother privately now. We’re going to go out of the room for a few minutes. Don’t worry; we won’t be very long.”

Gillian nodded apprehensively, and the two adults left her sitting there on her own. But as he was leaving the room, the psychologist leaned across his desk and turned on the radio.

As soon as they were in the corridor outside the room, the doctor said to Gillian’s mother, “Just stand here for a moment, and watch what she does.” There was a window into the room, and they stood to one side of it, where Gillian couldn’t see them. Nearly immediately, Gillian was on her feet, moving around the room to the music. The two adults stood watching quietly for a few minutes, transfixed by the girl’s grace. Anyone would have noticed there was something natural—even primal—about Gillian’s movements. Just as they would have surely caught the expression of utter pleasure on her face.

At last, the psychologist turned to Gillian’s mother and said, “You know, Mrs. Lynne, Gillian isn’t sick. She’s a dancer. Take her to a dance school.”

I asked Gillian what happened then. She said her mother did exactly what the psychiatrist suggested. “I can’t tell you how wonderful it was,” she told me. “I walked into this room, and it was full of people like me. People who couldn’t sit still. People who had to move to think.”

She started going to the dance school every week, and she practiced at home every day. Eventually, she auditioned for the Royal Ballet School in London, and they accepted her. She went on to join the Royal Ballet Company itself, becoming a soloist and performing all over the world. When that part of her career ended, she formed her own musical theater company and produced a series of highly successful shows in London and New York. Eventually, she met Andrew Lloyd Webber and created with him some of the most successful musical theater productions in history, including Cats and The Phantom of the Opera.

Little Gillian, the girl with the high-risk future, became known to the world as Gillian Lynne, one of the most accomplished choreographers of our time, someone who has brought pleasure to millions and earned millions of dollars. This happened because someone looked deep into her eyes—someone who had seen children like her before and knew how to read the signs. Someone else might have put her on medication and told her to calm down. But Gillian wasn’t a problem child. She didn’t need to go away to a special school.

She just needed to be who she really was.

Unlike Gillian, Matt always did fine in school, getting decent grades and passing all of the important tests. However, he found himself tremendously bored. In order to keep himself amused, he started drawing during classes. “I would draw constantly,” he told me. “And I got so good at drawing that I was able to draw without looking, so that the teacher would think that I was paying attention.” For him, art class was an opportunity to pursue his passion with abandon. “We were coloring in coloring books, and I thought, I can never color within the lines. Oh, no, I can’t be bothered!” This kicked up to another level entirely when he got to high school. “There was an art class and the other kids would just sit there, the art teacher was bored, and the art supplies were just sitting there; nobody was using them. So I did as many paintings as I could—thirty paintings in a single class. I’d look at each painting, what it looked like, and then I’d title it. ‘Dolphin in the Seaweed,’ okay! Next! I remember doing tons of painting until they finally realized I was using up so much paper that they stopped me.

“There was the thrill of making something that did not exist before. As my technical prowess increased, it was fun to be able to go, ‘Oh, that actually looks, vaguely, like what it’s supposed to look like.’ But then I realized that my drawing was not getting much better so I started concentrating on stories and jokes. I thought that was more entertaining.”

Matt Groening, known around the world as the creator of The Simpsons, found his true inspiration in the work of other artists whose drawings lacked technical mastery but who combined their distinctive art styles with inventive storytelling. “What I found encouraging was looking at people who couldn’t draw who were making their living, like James Thurber. John Lennon was also very important to me. His books, In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works, are full of his own really crummy drawings but funny prose-poems and crazy stories. I went through a stage where I tried to imitate John Lennon. Robert Crumb was also a huge influence.”

His teachers and his parents—even his father, who was a cartoonist and filmmaker—tried to encourage him to do something else with his life. They suggested that he go to college and find a more solid profession. In fact, until he got to college (a nontraditional school without grades or required classes), he’d found only one teacher who truly inspired him. “My first-grade teacher saved paintings I did in class. She actually saved them, I mean, for years. I was touched because there’s like, you know, hundreds of kids going through here. Her name is Elizabeth Hoover. I named a character on The Simpsons after her.”

The disapproval of authority figures left him undeterred because, in his heart, Matt knew what truly inspired him.

“I knew as a kid when we were playing and making up stories and using little figurines—dinosaurs and stuff like that—I was going to be doing this for the rest of my life. I saw grown-ups with briefcases going into office buildings and I thought, ‘I can’t do that. This is all I really wanna do.’ I was surrounded by other kids who felt the same way, but gradually they peeled off and they got more serious. For me it was always about playing and storytelling.

“I understood the series of stages I was supposed to go through—you go to high school, you go to college, you get a credential, and then you go out and get a good job. I knew it wasn’t gonna work for me. I knew I was gonna be drawing cartoons forever.

“I found friends who had the same interests at school. We hung out together and we’d draw comics and then bring them to school and show them to each other. As we got older and more ambitious, we started making movies. It was great. It partly compensated for the fact that we felt very self-conscious socially. Instead of staying home on the weekend, we went out and made movies. Instead of going to the football games on Friday night, we would go to the local university and watch underground films.