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What it Means to Be in Your Element (with Sir Ken Robinson)

For many of us, adult life is an extension of middle school awkwardness, mitigated only by a cultivated apathy. Sir Ken Robinson says it doesn’t have to be that way.

When trying to wrap your mind around what Sir Ken Robinson means by “being in your element,” a state he hopes to help people achieve through his workshop How to Find Your Element on Big Think Mentor, it’s helpful to start with a counterexample: middle school in the USA. For those who have experienced this particular circle of hell, its torments are traceable to two basic causes: not wanting to be where you are, and feeling like you’re no good at whatever you’re doing there.

For me, personally, those two factors found their keenest expression at a 7th grade dance. I can’t recall the exact set of circumstances that led to my being at this dance, but it definitely wasn’t by choice. I was fascinated by yet terrified of girls and mortally self-conscious among my classmates. Faced with an impossible situation, I did the only rational thing: make a completely desperate move. I showed up dressed as a character from the early hip-hop movie Beat Street (which few in my Washington, DC prep school had seen or heard of), and started a breakdance circle in the middle of this otherwise sober affair. The thing is, I wasn’t an especially good breakdancer. Also, my approach to breakdancing (by necessity) was more collaborative than competitive.  Almost immediately, a rival breakdancer from another school entered the circle and challenged me to a “break-off.” Horrified, but with nowhere to run, I repeatedly performed my three moves: the Worm, a sort of 180-degree backspin, and a bit of robotic, upper-body “popping.” My rival, however, had the breakdancing zeal in his veins and seemed to have just returned from a 6-month sabbatical in the South Bronx. He mopped the floor with me and I slunk away in ignominy.

Video: What it Means to Be in Your Element, with Sir Ken Robinson – free preview/full video viewable with paid subscription to Big Think Mentor

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For many of us, adult life is an extension of that middle school awkwardness, mitigated only by a cultivated apathy. Sir Ken Robinson says it doesn’t have to be that way. Finding your “element,” he argues, is a matter of systematically identifying your talents and passions, then seeking or creating opportunities where these two factors overlap. “It’s not enough to be good at something to be in your element, says Robinson, “because there are plenty of people who are good at things they don’t really care for.” He cites the example of a talented concert pianist he met who realized mid-career that she was born to be a book editor. One day she closed her piano forever and took a job in publishing. “I’ve never been happier in my life”, she told him; “never poorer, by the way, but never happier.” 

In How to Find Your Element, his 7-session workshop for Big Think Mentor (, creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson tackles the epidemic of dissatisfaction with work and life. He offers practical exercises and tips for discovering your “element” – the environment and set of activities that will activate your unique abilities, sustain your happiness, and enable you to live your best possible life.

In this workshop, you’ll learn to:

– Understand the concept and the value of “finding your element”

– Recognize the perils and promise of the two-fold (internal and external) path to finding     your element.

– Discover your specific talents

– Identify your passions (which may differ from your talents)

– Take steps to ensure that your attitude and beliefs are steering you toward (rather than   away from) your element

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