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Book Review: The Element by Sir Ken Robinson

The Element: how finding your passion changes everything by Sir Ken Robinson, with Lou Aronica, 2009. New York, Viking. USD $17.


This book review was written in partnership with Viv McWaters, Beyond the Edge blogger.  You can also see this review depicted as a Wordle word cloud.

This book was mentioned in and follows on from Sir Ken Robinson’s 2006 TED Talk “Do schools kill creativity?” which made a profoundly moving case for creating an education system that nurtures—rather than undermines—creativity.  That presentation was subsequently viewed by tens of thousands of people.  This book has been written in the same anecdotal style that Robinson used in his TED Talk which, transferred to the written word, is eminently readable as an extended essay.  It will be of interest to people who have been shaped by schooling, particularly those for whom traditional schooling in subjects such as english, science and maths was less than ideal; as well as today’s parents, students, teachers and teacher educators.

Like Erica McWilliam’s “The Creative Workforce” (2008) Robinson’s book positions creativity as a key literacy for the knowledge era and argues for an urgent change to education practices rather than more of the same education and training practices that are failing many students (and educators):

Some of the most brilliant, creative people I know did not do well at school.  Many of them didn’t really discover what they could do—and who they really were—until they’d left school and recovered from their education (p. 9).

Robinson tackles this issue by focussing on what he calls “the element” that “place where the things you love to do and the things that you are good at come together” (p. 8 ) and describes how people, himself included, have discovered their ‘element’.   The book details the common traits of the phenomenon he calls “the element” which include:

  • passion for our own distinctive talent (whatever that might be);
  • a means to show that talent off;
  • support and space for developing this talent:
    • mentors,
    • a place to practice and make mistakes ,
    • an education system that looks to the individual;
  • connecting with others who share the same passions, ie finding your tribe[i]
  • the role of attitude and luck;
  • evidence that opportunities to discover our “Element” exist more frequently in our lives than many might believe, and that it may never be too late to get started.

Robinson argues that our education system works against most people finding their element and is passionate and persuasive in his calls for educational reform. This really is the core of the book, with the examples and anecdotes serving as evidence of the failure of the current system. He also explores the place of creativity, and the arts, in an educational hierarchy which, generally, places sciences at the top and the arts as a poorer second. Even within the arts, he argues, there are still hierarchies. This embedded structure in education mitigates the capacity for many of us to use our formal education as a means of exploration where we can try out many, and eventually discover, our own true ‘element’. Robinson is particularly critical of standardised tests – a ‘one size fits all’ model of most Western societies, that purports to measure like against like when every human individual is unique. This book sits nicely with Malcolm Gladwell’s latest, “Outliers” (2008) where Gladwell argues in a similar vein that success is due, mostly, from luck, circumstance and openness to new ideas.

If there is any lack to Robinson’s book it is in the area of ‘how to’. There is little practical advice, although lots of tangental clues, as to how to discover your own ‘element’. The reader hoping for more precise instructions will be disappointed. However, anyone who has any responsibility for education – their own or of others – would be well advised to read this book and incorporate its learnings into their own practice.

Chapters include: the Element; think differently; beyond imagining; in the zone; finding your tribe; what will they think?; Do you feel lucky?; somebody help me; is it too late; for love or money; making the grade; and a thought provoking afterword.


Gladwell, M. 2008. Outliers: The story of success. London, Penguin.

McWilliam, E. 2008. The creative workforce: how to launch young people into high-flying futures. Sydney, University of New South Wales Press.

Footnote [i] Interesting that there is a chapter on Tribes but no mention of Seth Godin’s book of the same name. Perhaps they were writing in parallel?


Robinson on The Element

See Sir Ken Robinson speak about his book “The Element”, RSA February 2009.


Manfred Kets de Vries presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the ILA

Palgrave recently announced that Manfred Kets de Vries had been presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the International Leadership Association (ILA). This news was of particular interest to me because he is one of my main theorists for my own practice and research.  I particularly like his notions of ‘inner theater’, ‘leadership as energy management’ and his work around ‘followership/leadership relations’ as outlined in his book “Leaders, fools and imposters: essays on the psychology of leadership”.

As it happened, I also met Cynthia Cherrey, President of the ILA (International Leadership Association) in Auckland last week at the ‘Studying Leadership’ conference and joined the ILA myself upon my return.

Here is the rest of the announcement about the award:

For the first time, this prestigious organisation honoured founding professionals in the development of leadership as a field and as a discipline.  Kets de Vries, Director of the INSEAD Global Leadership Centre (IGLC), is considered one of the world’s leading thinkers on management and has over 30 years of teaching experience in organisational behaviour and leadership studies.

‘Manfred Kets de Vries is a true pioneer in the field of leadership and we are delighted to acknowledge his lifetime achievements with this award,’ said Shelly Wilsey, Director of the International Leadership Association. ‘His exemplary work has been instrumental in the development and continued advancement of global leaders,’ added Cynthia Cherrey, President of the ILA.

Kets de Vries holds the Raoul de Vitry d’Avaucourt Chair of Leadership Development at INSEAD and is a founding member of the International Society for the Psychoanalytic Study of Organisations. Hia new book ‘Sex, Money, Happiness and Death’ will be publishing in April 2009.
For more information about his books visit: www.palgrave.com/business/insead.asp

Announcement: Leadership Masterclass for HE leaders

I’m very pleased to announce that I am running a leadership program in 2009 for ATEM and the L H Martin Institute based on my PhD topic. This program is for senior academic and administrative leaders in the tertiary education sector and is a residential program to be held at the Deakin Mgt Centre 10 – 12 February, 2009.

This Leadership Masterclass sets an ambitious agenda to test leadership literacies for the knowledge era, think in the future tense and give executive leaders much needed space for personal reflection and renewal to think deeply about their purpose and pathways to excellence.

The tertiary education sector is competitive, dynamic, multi-layered and globally focussed and new leadership literacies draw on the leader’s ability to build strong relationships, know themselves and their people well, and, lead with vision and strategy. These times call for new ways of doing business, not more of the same things that are not working.

This Leadership Masterclass has four foci:

Reflect, Recharge, Renew (built in to the whole residential program)
Values, Vision and Valour (led by Deborah Nanschild)
Engage, Empower, Enlighten (led by Heather Davis), and
Focus, inFluence and Futures (led by Maree Conway)

I’d really appreciate it if you could send this on to your communities of practice and get the word out for me.

Please see http://www.waypoint.com.au/Masterclass2009.html for full details, cost and registration details. Earlybird closes on 20 December.


Working with literatures

The word ‘subjunctive’ was added to the glossary today. This word was used to convey the possibilities of different endings or having a ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ feel to it, in that wonderful 2006 film “The History boys“.

There is also a great passage in this film where “Hector” the English Lit teacher is speaking to a student (Posner) about ideas and past authors and that magical moment when a thought of one’s own manifests itself in the form of someone else’s writing.  Hector describes this as:

…the best moments in reading are when you come across something—a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things—that you’d thought special and particular to you.  And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, maybe even someone long dead.  It’s as if a hand has come out [of the book] and taken yours.

It illustrates that whilst our own new found knowledge feels ‘new’ to us that the idea has probably been pondered upon before us and others will ‘find’ it after us. I think this is what “working with the literatures” (Kamler & Thomson 2006) is all about and I have had several of these magical moments myself, especially around the work of Mary Parker Follett from the 1920s. Kamler and Thomson move the notion of ‘the literature review’ from a passive, perhaps ‘preceding the research-not so much a part of it’ activity to one that is embedded and actively engaged with throughout the whole PhD study.


Kamler, B. & Thomson, P. 2006. Helping doctoral students write: pedagogies for supervision. Abingdon, Oxon ; New York, Routledge

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