The Element

How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything


  • On Amazon
  • ISBN: 978-0143116738
  • My Rating: 5/10

In The Element the authors talk about the point where talent meets passion, which allows you to do extraordinary things when you find your own Element. They support their points with many success stories of people who found their Element.

I was rather disappointed by this book. While the success stories of outliers like Richard Branson and Paul McCartney were somewhat inspiring I missed stories about ordinary people. The rest of the book was rather vague. And while I like Ken Robinson's passion for reforming education, and it's interesting to read his thoughts about this topic, it feels like this topic is overrepresented, and a bit misplaced, in this book (or maybe I simply got mislead by the book's title).

My notes

The Element

We all have distinctive talents and passions that can inspire us to achieve far more than we may imagine. Understanding this changes everything. It also offers us our best and perhaps our only promise for genuine and sustainable success in a very uncertain future.

Our systems of education put a high premium on knowing the single right answer to a question.

If you're not prepared to be wrong, you'll never come up with anything original.

How is it going to feel when you give your computer an instruction, and it asks you if you know what you're doing?

We can't know what the future will be like.

The only way to prepare for the future is to make the most out of ourselves on the assumption that doing so will make us as flexible and productive as possible.

The Element is the meeting point between natural aptitude and personal passion.

When people are in their Element, they connect with something fundamental to their sense of identity, purpose, and well-being. Being there provides a sense of self-revelation, of defining who they really are and what they're really meant to be doing with their lives.

The Element has two main features, and there are two conditions for being in it. The features are aptitude and passion. The conditions are attitude and opportunity. The sequence goes something like this: I get it; I love it; I want it; Where is it?

An aptitude is a natural facility for something. It is an intuitive feel or a grasp of what that thing is, how it works, and how to use it.

Finding and developing our creative strengths is an essential part of becoming who we really are. We don't know who we can be until we know what we can do.

Being in your Element is not only a question of natural aptitude. Being in your Element needs something more – passion. People who are in their Element take a deep delight and pleasure in what they do.

Attitude is our personal perspective on our selves and our circumstances – our angle on things, our disposition, and emotional point of view. Many things affect our attitudes, including our basic character, our spirit, our sense of self-worth, the perceptions of those around us, and their expectations of us.

How we perceive our circumstances and how we create and take opportunities depends largely on what we expect of ourselves.

Without the right opportunities, you may never know what your aptitudes are or how far they might take you. Aptitudes don't necessarily become obvious unless there are opportunities to use them. The implication, of course, is that we may never discover our true Element. A lot depends on the opportunities we have, on the opportunities we create, and how and if we take them.

Often we need other people to help us recognize our real talents. Often we can help other people to discover theirs.

Think Differently

Everything at school was showing me that I was useless according to the status quo.

Mick Fleetwood

One of the key principles of the Element is that we need to challenge what we take for granted about our abilities and the abilities of other people.

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

There are a variety of ways to express intelligence.

Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner has argued to wide acclaim that we have not one but multiple intelligences. They include linguistic, musical, mathematical, spatial, kinesthetic, interpersonal (relationships with others), and intra-personal (knowledge and understanding of the self) intelligence. He argues that these types of intelligence are more or less independent of each other, and none is more important, though some might be "dominant" while others are "dormant".

Robert Sternberg argues that there are three types of intelligence: analytic intelligence, the ability to solve problems using academic skills; creative intelligence, the ability to deal with novel situations and to come up with original solutions; and practical intelligence, the ability to deal with problems and challenges in everyday life.

Intelligence can show itself in ways that have little or nothing to do with numbers and words. We think about the world in all the ways that we experience it, including all the different ways we use our senses. We think in sound. We think in movement. We think visually.

The diversity of intelligence is one of the fundamental underpinnings of the Element. If you don't embrace the fact that you think about the world in a wide variety of ways, you severely limit your chances of finding the person that you were meant to be.

Beyond Imagining

Every day of your life you can create something wonderful, so every day is going to be the same kind of wonderful day that every other day is – a day in which you discover something new because as you are painting or creating whatever it is you are creating, you are finding new ways in doing it.

Faith Ringgold

Most people believe that intelligence and creativity are entirely different things – that we can be very intelligent and not very creative or very creative and not very intelligent. I firmly believe that you can't be creative without acting intelligently. Similarly, the highest form of intelligence is thinking creatively.

One myth is that only special people are creative. This is not true. Everyone is born with tremendous capacities for creativity. The trick is to develop these capacities.

When people say they're not creative, it's often because they don't know what's involved or how creativity works in practice.

Another myth is that creativity is about special activities. It's about "creative domains" like the arts, design, or advertising. These often do involve a high level of creativity. But so can science, math, engineering, running a business, being an athlete, or getting in or out of a relationship. The fact is you can be creative at anything at all – anything that involves your intelligence.

The third myth is that people are either creative or they're not. This myth suggests that creativity is an allegedly fixed trait, and that you can't do much about it. In truth, it's entirely possible to become more creative in your work and in your life. The first critical step is for you to understand the intimate relationship between creativity and intelligence. This is one of the surest paths to finding the Element, and it involves stepping back to examine a fundamental feature of all human intelligence – our unique powers of imagination.

Imagination is what sets human beings apart from every other species on earth. Imagination underpins every uniquely human achievement.

Through imagination, we can visit the past, contemplate the present, and anticipate the future. We can also do something else of profound and unique significance. We can create.

Through imagination, we not only bring to mind things that we have experienced but things that we have never experienced.

To be creative you actually have to do something. It involves putting your imagination to work to make something new, to come up with new solutions to problems, even to think of new problems or questions. You can think of creativity as applied imagination.

Usually the creative process begins with an inkling which requires further development. This is a journey that can have many different phases and unexpected turns; it can draw on different sorts of skills and knowledge and end up somewhere entirely unpredicted at the outset.

Creativity involves several different processes that wind through each other. The first is generating new ideas, imagining different possibilities, considering alternative options. The creative process also involves developing these ideas by judging which work best or feel right. Overall, creative work is a delicate balance between generating ideas and sifting and refining them.

Because it's about making things, creative work always involves using media of some sort to develop ideas. The medium can be anything at all.

People who work creatively usually have something in common: they love the media they work with. This is why people who fundamentally love what they do don't think of it as work in the ordinary sense of the word. They do it because they want to and because when they do, they are in their Element.

In all creative work, there may be frustrations, problems, and dead ends along the way. But there's always profound pleasure at some point, and a deep sense of satisfaction from "getting it right".

Finding the medium that excites your imagination, that you love to play with and work in, is an important step to freeing your creative energies.

To develop our creative abilities, we also need to develop our practical skills in the media we want to use.

Being creative is about making fresh connections so that we see things in new ways and from different perspectives.

Logic can be very important at different stages in the creative process, according to what sort of work we're doing, particularly when we're evaluating new ideas and how they fit into or challenge existing theories. Even so, creative thinking goes beyond linear and logical thought to involve all areas of our minds and bodies.

Creativity also uses much more than our brains. Playing instruments, creating images, constructing objects, performing a dance, and making things of every sort are also intensely physical processes that depend on feelings, intuition, and skilled coordination of hands and eyes, body and mind.

Creativity draws not just from our own personal resources but also from the wider world of other people's ideas and values.

The reach of creativity is very deep. It affects not only what we put in the world, but also what we make of it – not only what we do, but also how we think and feel about it.

What we think of ourselves and of the world makes us who we are and what we can be.

If you change your mind, you can change your life.

William James

In the Zone

If you find a place where everybody else likes the same thing that you do, it really becomes fun.

Ewa Laurance

To be in the zone is to be in the deep heart of the Element. Doing what we love can involve all sorts of activities that are essential to the Element but are not the essence of it – things like studying, organizing, arranging, etc. And even when we're doing the thing we love, there can be frustrations, disappointments, and times when it simply doesn't work or come together. But when it does, it transforms our experience of the Element. We become focused and intent. We live in the moment. We become lost in the experience and perform at our peak.

Doing the thing you love to do is no guarantee that you'll be in the zone every time. Sometimes the mood isn't right, the time is wrong, and the ideas just don't flow.

One of the strongest signs of being in the zone is a sense of freedom and of authenticity. When we are doing something that we love and are naturally good at, we are much more likely to feel centered in our true sense of self – to be who we feel we truly are. When we are in our Element, we feel we are doing what we are meant to be doing and being who we're meant to be.

Time also feels very different in the zone. When you're connecting this way with your deep interests and natural energy, time tends to move more quickly, more fluidly.

The other feature common among those familiar with this experience is the movement into a kind of "meta-state" where ideas come more quickly, as if you're tapping a source that makes it significantly easier to achieve your task. You develop a facility for the thing you are doing because you've unified your energy with the process and the efforts you are making.

Being in the Element and especially being in the zone doesn't take energy away from you; it gives it to you.

Activities we love fill us with energy even when we are physically exhausted. Activities we don't like can drain us in minutes, even if we approach them at our physical peak of fitness. This is one of the keys to the Element, and one of the primary reasons why finding the Element is vital for every person. When people place themselves in situations that lead to their being in the zone, they tap into a primal source of energy.

Mental energy is not a fixed substance. It rises and falls with our passion and commitment to what we are doing at the time.

Being in your Element, having that experience of flow, is empowering because it's a way of unifying our energies. It's a way of feeling deeply connected with our own sense of identity and it curiously comes about through a sense of relaxing, of feeling perfectly natural to be doing what you're doing.

The more alive we feel, the more we can contribute to the lives of others.

When you are inspired, your work can be inspirational to others.

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

Different people think about the same things in different ways.

If left to my own devices – if I didn't have to worry about making a living or what others thought of me – what am I most drawn to doing?

Finding Your Tribe

For most people, a primary component of being in their Element is connecting with other people who share their passion and a desire to make the most of themselves through it.

As a child more than anything else you just want to be like all the other kids. So rather than me seeing my creativity as something special, it seemed to set me apart.

Don Lipski

Finding the right tribe can be essential to finding your Element. On the other hand, feeling deep down that you're with the wrong one is probably a good sign that you should look somewhere else.

When I talk about tribes, I'm really talking about two distinct ideas, both of which are important for anyone who is looking to find their Element. The first is the idea of a "domain" and the second, of a "field". Domain refers to the sorts of activities and disciplines that people are engaged in – acting, business, architecture, psychology, teaching, visual arts, and so on. Field refers to the other people who are engaged in it.

Connecting with people who share the same passions affirms that you're not alone; that there are others like you and that, while many might not understand your passion, some do. It doesn't matter whether you like the people as individuals, or even the work they do. It's perfectly possible that you don't. What matters first is having validation for the passion you have in common. Finding your tribe brings the luxury of talking shop, of bouncing ideas around, of sharing and comparing techniques, and of indulging your enthusiasms or hostilities for the same things.

Interaction with the field, in person or through their work, is as vital to our development as time alone with our thoughts.

Finding your tribe provides inspiration and provocation to raise the bar on your own achievements. In every domain, members of a passionate community tend to drive each other to explore the real extent of their talents.

Great creative teams are diverse. They are composed of very different sorts of people with different but complementary talents.

Creative teams are dynamic. Diversity of talents is important, but it is not enough. Different ways of thinking can be an obstacle to creativity. Creative teams find ways of using their differences as strengths, not weaknesses. They have a process through which their strengths are complementary and compensate for each other's weaknesses too. They are able to challenge each other as equals, and to take criticism as an incentive to raise their game.

What Will They Think?

Finding your Element can be challenging on a variety of levels. Sometimes, the challenge comes from within, from a lack of confidence or fear of failure. Sometimes the people closest to you and their image and expectations of you are the real barrier. Sometimes the obstacles are not the particular people you know but the general culture that surrounds you. I think of the barriers to finding the Element as three concentric "circles of constraint". These circles are personal, social, and cultural.

Issues of attitude are of paramount importance in finding your Element. A strong will to be yourself is an indomitable force. In my experience, most people have to face internal obstacles of self-doubt and fear as much as any external obstacles of circumstance and opportunity.

Fear is perhaps the most common obstacle to finding your Element. You might ask how often it's played a part in your own life and held you back from doing the things you desperately wanted to try.

Your parents and siblings, and your partner and children if you have them, are likely to have strong views on what you should and shouldn't do with your life. They may be right, of course. And they can have positive roles as mentors in encouraging your real talents. However, they can also be very wrong.

People can have complex reasons for trying to clip other people's wings. Your taking a different path might not meet their interests, or might create complications in their lives that they feel they can't afford. Whatever the reasons, someone keeping you from the thing you love to do – or from even looking for it – can be a deep source of frustration.

There may be no conscious agenda from others at all. You may simply find yourself enmeshed in a self-sustaining web of social roles and expectations that forms a tacit boundary to your ambitions. Many people don't find their Element because they don't have the encouragement or the confidence to step outside their established circle of relationships.

When people close to you discourage you from taking a particular path, they usually believe they are doing it for your own good.

It is difficult to feel accomplished when you're not accomplishing something that matters to you.

Positively or negatively, our parents and families are powerful influences on us. But even stronger, especially when you're young, are our friends. We don't choose our families, but we choose our friends, and we often choose them as a way of expanding our sense of identity beyond the family. As a result, the pressure to conform to the standards and expectations of friends and other social groups can be intense.

Since breaking the rules is a sure way to find ourselves out of the group, we may deny our deepest passions to stay connected with our peers.

The upside for us is that groups can be tremendously supportive. The downside is that they encourage uniformity of thought and behavior. The Element is about discovering yourself, and you can't do this if you're trapped in a compulsion to conform. You can't be yourself in a swarm.

Beyond the specific social constraints we may feel from families and friends, there are others that are implicit in the general culture. I define culture as the values and forms of behavior that characterize different social groups. Culture is a system of permissions. It's about the attitudes and behaviors that are acceptable and unacceptable in different communities, those that are approved of and those that are not. If you don't understand the cultural codes, you can look just awful.

Finding your Element sometimes requires breaking away from your native culture in order to achieve your goals.

Ultimately, the question is always going to be, "What price are you willing to pay?" The rewards of the Element are considerable. but reaping these rewards may mean pushing back against some stiff opposition.

Do You Feel Lucky?

Being good at something and having a passion for it are essential to finding the Element. But they are not enough. Getting there depends fundamentally on our view of ourselves and of the events in our lives. The Element is also a matter of attitude.

It's not what happens to us that determines our lives – it's what we make of what happens.

Describing ourselves as lucky or unlucky suggests that we're simply the beneficiaries or victims of chance circumstances. But if being in your Element were just a matter of chance, all you could do is cross your fingers and hope to get lucky as well. There's much more to being lucky than that. Research and experience show that lucky people often make their luck because of their attitudes.

Wiseman has identified four principles that characterize lucky people. Lucky people tend to maximize chance opportunities. They are especially adept at creating, noticing, and acting upon these opportunities when they arise. Second, they tend to be very effective at listening to their intuition, and do work (such as meditation) that is designed to boost their intuitive abilities. The third principle is that lucky people tend to expect to be lucky, creating a series of self-fulfilling prophecies because they go into the world anticipating a positive outcome. Last, lucky people have an attitude that allows them to turn bad luck to good. They don't allow ill fortune to overwhelm them, and they move quickly to take control of the situation when it isn't going well for them.

One way of opening ourselves up to new opportunities is to make conscious efforts to look differently at our ordinary situations. Doing so allows a person to see the world as one rife with possibility and to take advantage of some of those possibilities if they seem worth pursuing.

If we keep our focus too tight, we miss the rest of the world swirling around us.

Another attitude that leads to what many of us would consider "good luck" is the ability to reframe, to look at a situation that fails to go according to plan and turn it into something beneficial.

Perhaps the most important attitude for cultivating good fortune is a strong sense of perseverance.

We all shape the circumstances an realities of our own lives, and we can also transform them. People who find their Element are more likely to evolve a clearer sense of their life's ambitions and set a course for achieving them. They know that passion and aptitude are essential. They know too that our attitudes to events and to ourselves are crucial in determining whether or not we find and live our lives in the Element.

Somebody Help Me

Finding our Element often requires the aid and guidance of others. Sometimes this comes from someone who sees something in us that we don't see in ourselves. Sometimes it comes in the form of a person bringing out the best in us.

At the very least, good mentoring raises self-esteem and sense of purpose. But mentoring takes an elevated role for people when it involves directing or inspiring their search for the Element.

Mentors connect with us in a variety of ways and remain with us for varying lengths of time. Some are with us for decades in an evolving role that might start as teacher/student and ultimately evolve into close friendship. Others enter our lives at a critical moment, stay with us long enough to make a pivotal difference, and then move on.

The first role of a mentor is recognition. Mentors recognize the spark of interest or delight and can help an individual drill down to the specific components of the discipline that match that individual's capacity and passion.

The fastest path to success is often to go against the flow.

The second role of a mentor is encouragement. Mentors lead us to believe that we can achieve something that seemed improbable or impossible to us before we met them. They don't allow us to succumb to self-doubt for too long, or the notion that our dreams are too large for us. They stand by to remind us of the skills we already possess and what we can achieve if we continue to work hard.

The third role of a mentor is facilitating. Mentors can help lead us toward our Element by offering us advice and techniques, paving the way for us, and even allowing us to falter a bit while standing by to help us recover and learn from our mistakes.

The fourth role of a mentor is stretching. Effective mentors push us past what we see as our limits. Much as they don't allow us to succumb to self-doubt, they also prevent us from doing less with our lives than we can. A true mentor reminds us that our goal should never be to be "average" at our pursuits.

We all encounter multiple roadblocks and constraints on the journey toward finding what we feel we were meant to do. Without a knowledgeable guide to aid us in identifying our passions, to encourage our interests, to smooth our paths, and to push us to make the most of our capacities, the journey is considerably harder.

Mentorship is of course a two-way street. As important as it is to have a mentor in your life, it is equally important to fulfill these roles for other people. It is even possible that you'll find that your own real Element is as a mentor to other people.

Is It Too Late?

One of the most basic reasons for thinking that it's too late to be who you are truly capable of being is the belief that life is linear. As if we're on a busy one-way street, we think we have no alternative but to keep going forward. If we missed something the first time, we can't double back and take another look because it takes all of our effort just to keep up with traffic.

Human lives are organic and cyclical. Different capacities express themselves in stronger ways at different times in our lives. Because of this, we get multiple opportunities for new growth and development, and multiple opportunities to revitalize latent capacities.

One of the fundamental precepts of the Element is that we need to reconnect with ourselves and to see ourselves holistically. One of the greatest obstacles to being in our Element is the belief that our minds somehow exist independently of our bodies, or that our bodies are really just a form of transport for our heads. The evidence of research, and of common sense, is not only that our physical health affects our intellectual and emotional vitality, but that our attitudes can affect our physical well-being. But equally important is the work you do to keep your mind young. Laughter has a huge impact on aging. So does intellectual curiosity. Meditation can also provide significant benefits to the physical body.

Remarkable, life-enhancing things can happen when we take the time to step out of our routines, rethink our paths, and revisit the passions we left behind (or never pursued at all) for whatever reason. We can take ourselves in fresh directions at nearly any point in our lives. We have the capacity to discover the Element at practically any age.

For Love or Money

Often the differences between professionals and amateurs have less to do with quality than with choice. Many people do perform at professional levels in the fields they love. They simply choose not to make their living that way. They aren't professionals in this field because they don't make money that way. They are, by definition, amateurs. But nothing about their skill is "amateurish".

In the original sense, an amateur is someone who does something for the love of it. Amateurs do what they do because they have a passion for it, not because it pays the bills. True amateurs, in other words, are people who have found the Element in something other than their job.

To be in your Element, it isn't necessary to drop everything else and do it all day, every day. For some people, at some stages in their lives, leaving their current jobs or roles to pursue their passions simply isn't a practical proposition. Other people choose not to do that for a whole range of reasons. Many people earn their living doing one thing, and they then create time and space in their lives to do the thing they love. Some people do this because it makes greater sense emotionally. Others do it because they feel they have no alternative but to pursue their passions "on the side".

Finding the Element is essential to a balanced and fulfilled life. It can also help us to understand who we really are. These days, we tend to identify ourselves by our jobs. The first question at parties and social gatherings is often, "What do you do?" We dutifully answer with a top-line description of our professions: "I'm a teacher", "I'm a designer". If you don't have a paid job, you might feel somewhat awkward about this and find the need to give an explanation. For so many of us, our jobs define us, even to ourselves – and even if the work we do doesn't express who we really feel we are. This can be especially frustrating if your job is unfulfilling. If we're not in our Element at work, it becomes even more important to discover that Element somewhere else.

Doing the thing you love and that you do well for even a couple of hours a week can make everything else more palatable.

Whether or not we can spend most of our time in our Element, it's essential for our well-being that we connect with our true passions in some way and at some point. Personal happiness comes as much from the emotional and spiritual fulfillment that this can bring as from the material needs we meet from the work we may have to do.

Discovering the Element doesn't promise to make you richer. Quite the opposite is possible, actually, as exploring your passions might lead you to leave behind that career as an investment banker to follow your dream of opening a pizzeria. Nor does it promise to make you more famous, more popular, or even a bigger hit with your family. For everyone, being in their Element, even for part of the time, can bring a new richness and balance to their lives.

The Element is about a more dynamic, organic conception of human existence in which the different parts of our lives are not seen as hermetically sealed off from one another but as interacting and influencing each other. Being in our Element at any time in our lives can transform our view of ourselves. Whether we do it full-time or part-time, it can affect our whole lives and the lives of those around us.

If you want to change the world, who do you begin with, yourself or others? I believe if we begin with ourselves and do the things that we need to do and become the best person we can be, we have a much better chance of changing the world for the better.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Making the Grade

Finding our Element is essential for us as individuals and for the well-being of our communities. Education should be one of the main processes that take us to the Element. Too often, though, it serves the opposite function.

The best way to improve education is not to focus primarily on the curriculum, nor on assessment, important though these things are. The most powerful method of improving education is to invest in the improvement of teaching and the status of great teachers.

The fact is that given the challenges we face, education doesn't need to be reformed – it needs to be transformed. The key to this transformation is not to standardize education but to personalize it, to build achievement on discovering the individual talents of each child, to put students in an environment where they want to learn and where they can naturally discover their true passions.


Finding the Element in yourself is essential to discovering what you can really do and who you really are. At one level, this is a very personal issue. It's about you and people you know and care for. But there is a larger argument here as well. The Element has powerful implications for how to run our schools, businesses, communities, and institutions.

Much of Western thought assumes that the mind is separate from the body and that human beings are somehow separate from the rest of nature. This may be why so many people don't seem to understand that what they put into their bodies affects how it works and how they think and feel. It may be why so many people don't seem to understand that the quality of their lives is affected by the quality of the natural environment and what they put into it and what they take out.

We need the right conditions for growth, in our schools, businesses, and communities, and in our individual lives. If the conditions are right, people grow in synergy with the people around them and the environments they create. If the conditions are poor, people protect themselves and their anxieties from neighbors and the world.

If we discover the Element in ourselves and encourage others to find theirs, the opportunities for growth are infinite. If we fail to do that, we may get by, but our lives will be duller as a result.