Born to a working class family in Liverpool, England, Sir Ken Robinson overcame childhood polio and paralysis to become a New York Times best-selling author and internationally recognized leader on creativity and human potential. The videos of his 2006 and 2010 TED talks have been viewed more than 25 million times. We talked about his new book, Finding Your Element: How to Discover Your Talents and Passions and Transform Your Life.
Karen: People come to Etsy from all walks of life. Some are life-time artists, some are in second or third careers, some are general enthusiasts. But like people everywhere, they often have questions: “Am I doing the right thing with my life? Can I make a living doing something I love?” or even, “If I follow a dream, am I being true to myself or just foolish?” What would you suggest to someone who has these kinds of questions?
Sir Ken: Well, the original book I wrote, The Element, is based on the recognition that an awful lot of people don’t have a sense of what their true talents are. They might be good at something, but they don’t necessarily enjoy it. Then, there are people who seemed to be living the life they should be living, doing things they love to do and are good at — that’s what I call being in your Element. The question I was always asked was, “If I haven’t found my Element, how can I?” So I addressed to this new book to those people.
The quest for your Element is really a two-way journey: an inner journey to explore what lies within you — to get away from the world of constant clutter, noise, distraction, and criticism — and an outward journey to explore opportunities in the world around you. I provide practical exercises in the book to help.
Karen: In Finding Your Element, you show that sometimes working with your Element is about finding the right form for your passion. You have a wonderful story in the book about Randy Parsons.
Sir Ken: Yes, Randy wanted to become a rock star when he was in high school, but realized it probably wouldn’t be the route for him. He sold all his guitars and gave up music entirely. Then, years later, one morning in the shower it hit him like a lightning bolt. He immediately ran out and bought some tools and set up a woodworking shop in his basement, without any idea of what he was doing. He worked passionately for two years and then became an apprentice. Now he operates several guitar-making studios and makes guitars for people like Jack White and Jimmy Page. He never lost his passion for music, and it became his quest to find the right form for it to take.
It’s important to mention, however, that some people don’t even want to make a living with their Element. The point is, whether you make money with your Element or not, that you find balance in your life by fulfilling your talents and passion.
Karen: In the quest to find our Element, what is the role of risk-taking, experimentation, and making mistakes?
Sir Ken: I do not think people should be foolhardy, of course, but some risk is inevitable. Getting up in the morning is a risk. Chances are, if your life is like most people’s, there has been a certain amount of chaos. I mean, a resumé is a narrative applied to your life to make it look deliberate and intentional, although it probably wasn’t. I write in the book about how to take stock of what is appropriate risk for your circumstances. And it needn’t always be a massive risk. For example, Randy didn’t throw his entire life away — he started by going down to the hardware store and buying a few tools. You simply can’t always know where it will lead you. You can start small and see how it goes.
Karen: Is there an age barrier, a stopping point at which if you haven’t found your Element it’s time to consider other things?
Sir Ken: No, I don’t think so. Not if you’re still drawing breath. As we get older, we experience changes in our bodies, of course. I am 63, and I don’t think I’ll do the 100 meters in the Olympics. But it often means we just need to think a little more creatively. Some of the most creative things in life — crafts, art, painting, music, writing — have no age limit.
Karen: I wrote an Etsy story last year on homeschooling. A mother I interviewed said she wanted her daughter “to dream her own dreams and not someone else’s.” Do you think education today can stifle dreams and if so, how can parents help their children find their Element?
Sir Ken: Education can be stifling, no question about it. One of the reasons is that education — and American education in particular, because of the standardization — is the opposite of three principles I have outlined: it does not emphasize diversity or individuality; it’s not about awakening the student, it’s about compliance; and it has a very linear view of life, which is simply not the case with life at all. I am for personalizing education to the greatest degree possible. Homeschooling is good for those who want it and can afford it, but it isn’t for everyone, and for most people I would say the best shot is the public education system. I believe the majority of people in public education also feel trapped and want to make it better. So there are opportunities for parents and educators to meet to work on improving the system.
Karen: Have you found your Element?
Sir Ken: Yes, for me it is communicating and working with people. When I was at university, my wife Terry said she could tell when I had a day of meetings and administrative work because I came home looking ten years older. When I was working with people or directing plays, she said I looked ten years younger. When the time passes quickly and your spirits are lifted — when you feel ten years younger, so to speak — that’s when you know you are in your Element.
Watch the most viewed TED Talk of all time: Sir Ken Robinson delivering “Do Schools Kill Creativity?”
Karen Brown is an award-winning designer and creative director of the Center for Ecoliteracy. Her work has been included in the Smithsonian Institution and Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, and featured in The New York Times, Architectural Digest, House Beautiful, and on Today on NBC. She believes that the handmade movement is a fundamental force for transforming society and the economy.