Sir Ken Robinson: Finding Your Element (Full Transcript)

Full text of educator Sir Ken Robinson’s talk: Finding Your Element”. In this talk, Sir Ken Robinson, offers a guide to finding and being in your element. He provides basic principles and tools to help guide us to do the work we enjoy with a sense of contentment and purpose.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here:


Sir Ken Robinson – Author and educator

Hello and welcome! I’m Ken Robinson, and I want to talk to you about how people can discover their true talents and passions and the difference it makes in their lives if they do that. It’s what I call Finding Your Element.

And I want to say a few words about what it is, about why it matters and what you can do about it if you feel you haven’t found yours yet.

I meet some people, quite a lot of people actually, who feel they don’t have any real talents. They don’t have any special talents to speak of. Also, they don’t much enjoy the work they do, if they do work. They don’t enjoy their lives all that much. You know what I’m talking about, don’t you? I’m not saying it’s true of you, but you know, it’s true of a lot of people.

They don’t enjoy their lives. They kind of get on with it and wait for the weekend.

But I also meet people who absolutely love what they do and couldn’t imagine doing anything else. If you said, why don’t you stop this and try something else for change, they wouldn’t know what you’re talking about, because they’d say, “This isn’t what I do. This is who I am. This defines me. When I do this, I feel I’m in my most natural and authentic self.”

It can be anything by the way, absolutely anything, but they would describe themselves, if I haven’t done it already for them as being in their element. I did not make up the term, The Element, by the way, it’s a common expression as we talk about people being in their element.

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And what I’ve really tried to try to is describe what that means and how you can bring that about in your life if you don’t have it already.

It’s something that you get. And we all get things very differently; don’t we? I mean, some people walk onto a sports field and they feel immediately at home, or they jump into a swimming pool and think, I know what this is. I mean we all know what it is, but it depends what condition when we jump in the swimming pool. We don’t know what it is.

But let’s put aside those people who do not know what a swimming pool is, but we don’t care about these people, or the element, quite frankly.

I mean, for example, one of the people I remember talking about in the first book I did, it’s called The Element. The sequel of it is called Finding Your Element. One of the people we talked about in there is a mathematician who, when he was four, taught himself to read by watching Sesame Street. So he has a rather curious accent as a consequence.

When he was eight, he took a college entrance math exam and got 98%. When he was twenty, he took his PhD in pure math and got it. And when he was thirty, he was awarded the Fields medal for mathematics, which is the equivalent of the Nobel Prize.

Too reasonable to say, isn’t it, that he gets math. He’s got the hang of it. In a way I never did, I’ve given up; I’m putting my energy somewhere else.

I was on a plane recently. I started talking to this woman who was sitting next to me; by the way, I don’t normally do that. I don’t mean I don’t talk to women. I do, but I don’t normally speak to people on airplanes. If you fly, you know why, don’t you; from a long flight you don’t want it. I’m a social person. I just don’t want it. Particularly on a long flight, like five hours.

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The worst thing that can happen is some people strike up a conversation with you before they’ve closed the door of the plane. And I mean, I’m happy to talk to people as we’re landing.

I’m perfectly happy regretting the five-hour conversation we didn’t have rather than one we actually had that I didn’t want. And I was chatting to this woman next to me and asked her what she did. And she said, she’s an accountant.

And I said, “How long have you been an accountant?”

She said, “All my life.”

And I said, what drew to you?

She said, “Well, I was always good with numbers. I just got them.”

You know what I’m talking about. Some people pick up a trumpet and just get it. I don’t mean that perfect with it, but they know what they’re doing. Some people pick up a Word processor and words start coming out to them. Some people, you know, are naturally gifted in sport.

My point is we all have natural talents. They’re all different, but many people never discover them. And the reason is that natural talent is like natural resources in the earth. It’s often buried beneath the surface. There have to be conditions which should bring it up and you then have to refine and cultivate these resources that you have.

And the people we think of as highly talented are among those who have found that particular talents. The people often think they’re not specially talented, it’s often I think because they simply don’t know what lies inside them. They haven’t had the opportunity to find that yet.

So being in your own is partly that it’s finding your natural talents. But it’s more than that, you see, because you can be good at something, but not like it. I know all kinds of people who do things that are really careful. To be in your element you have to love it. And if you love something you’re good at, well, as they say, you never work again at that point.

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Years ago, one of the first books I was involved in, we had a fantastic editor and I got chatting to her. She was really good. I mean, irritatingly good. She kept pointing out little faults in my writing style, which I bought with admirable fortitude, frankly. Anyway, I forgave her for being so interestingly horrible.

To change the subject with her I said, when did you get to be a book editor and brackets what qualifications do you feel you have to be criticized by writing?

And she said, “About five years”.

I said, “How did that happen?”

She said, “Well…”

I said, “What were you doing before this?”

She said, “I was a concert pianist.”

I said, “Really? And so why aren’t you doing that now?”

She said, well, because I was, I’d been playing for years. And, one night I was doing a concert in London, giving a concert on the South bank in London. And at the end of it, the conductor and I went out for dinner and over dinner, he turned to me and he said, “You know, you were terrific this evening. She said, well, thank you very much.”

He said, “Forgive me for saying this, but you didn’t really enjoy it. Did you?”

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