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.
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.
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.
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?”
She said, “How’d you mean?”
He said, “Well, you didn’t really seem to enjoy the performance.”
She said, “Well, no, I suppose not really.”
He said, “Do you enjoy playing? “
She said, “Well, no, not really.”
He said, “Well, why do you do it?”
She said, “I suppose, because I’m good at it.”
And he said, “You know, being good at something isn’t a good enough reason to spend your life doing it.”
So she said, “I finished the season. I closed the piano lid. I cancelled all my engagements and I haven’t played since. So I’ve spent my life since then immersed in books.” And she said, “I’ve never been happier in my life. Never been poorer but never happier.”
This is the point you have to love it. If you love something, it just doesn’t feel like work. It’s a passion that calls you. So to be in your element is those two things: it’s doing something you have an aptitude for that you love. And if you find that meeting point, your life goes in a completely different direction. As Confucius once said, you never work again. Confucius had not read, Finding Your Element by the way, but I feel in a way he had.
Why does this matter?
I think it matters enormously. There are three reasons I think why it matters. I mean, there are many, but I’ve got time to talk about three of them quickly:
The first one is personal. It matters to you, to your life, to what you do with your life and the quality of it. I was born in Liverpool in 1950. And I know you don’t believe that by the way, the 1950 thing. No, I felt the intake of breath. I thought… the surge of incredulity sweeps of the audience, how can this be, you’re thinking he’s so boyish.
I live in LA, I’ve had work done. What can I tell you?
If you think of all the circumstances and meetings and occasions and missed opportunities, as well as actual opportunities that led to you being born, it’s a pretty extraordinary situation though you’re here at all. And of course, many more people do not make it than do. So congratulations, we got here. And many people didn’t and for a lot of people, life is not as long and fruitful as many other peoples.
Somebody once said, I thought it was a wonderful comment. He said you should never resent getting old. It’s a privilege denied to many. As curious in this time that people spend so much time pretending they’re not maturing, as if it’s somehow it’s a mistake of nature that it should happen.
And maturing is a natural process. I’m going to come back to this. But to be born at all is a miracle and what astonishes me is how little people are willing to settle for in their lives that they’ll just put up with things, injure them, but not really enjoy their being here.
So Finding Your Element to me is essential to personal fulfilment, because it’s about discovering the truth within you, who you are and what you’re capable of, the things that make you feel at your most authentic as people do when they are in their element. The things that… they wake up in the morning thing that I have to get to this as opposed to people are waking up on the thing, Oh God; I’ve got to do this again.
I have the privilege to speak about finding your element in different parts of the country and signing books for the previous book as well, The Element. And I often ask people what they do and say, “Do you like it?” And intrigues me how often people say they’ll correct me spontaneously, I love it. And you know then that they’ve found this thing.
By the way, it may not be the same thing forever. You may progress through various incarnations in your own life as you evolve yourself but it’s personal.
There’s a second reason though, which is social, I suppose we can put it that way. It is astonishing now, I think how many people feel disengaged from what they do. In most surveys, if you ask people what they want from their lives, they’ll come out with some version of saying, I want to be happy, or I want my kids to be happy, or I want my family to be happy.
Happiness is one of those ultimate goods that people buy into, but happiness is not being cheerful. Happiness is a state of wellbeing. It doesn’t mean that you’re constantly going around in a great mood, but you feel somehow settled within you. But it’s not an exaggeration to say that a vast hoard of people do not feel centered in their own lives or living lives that have purpose and meaning.
According to the World Health Organization, by 2020, the second largest cause of mortality among human beings will be depression. Depression, in all its myriad forms. And depression is a bit of a portmanteau term. I mean, it covers all kinds of different conditions, of course, but depression taking over all is one of the things that is thought, likely to be the biggest cause of mortality.
30% of adults in America are currently estimated to be suffering from some form of depression. Last year there’s a category of drugs called anti-psychotics, which only used to be available for people who are under supervised care in mental institutions for recognized conditions.
Last year sales of anti-psychotic drugs on prescription more freely available for the first time overtook sales of drugs for cholesterol and acid reflux to become the highest category of drug sales. Those drugs now constitute a $14 billion market for the drugs companies in America.
Recent studies have suggested too, by Gallup that a huge proportion of adults are disengaged from the work they do. Again, they show up to work, and they appear to be working. But if you’re their boss, they wait till you leave the room and get back on Facebook. It’s not the thing they want. It’s not the thing they love for.
So there’s a social reason to think about finding your element. The social reason is that everyone is entitled I believe, to discover the thing that gives their life purpose and meaning. And if they do, there’s a different character and quality to the lives we lead, not just individually, but collectively.
But there’s a third reason why finding your element matters so much, which is economic. We spend most of our lives at work and we should be doing work that fulfils if we can or finding something in the work that we do that is fulfilling.
And if we don’t find that at work, there should be some part of our lives where we do find it. And all the evidence says that people find some parts of their lives, that they are deeply fulfilled by even if the work they do, doesn’t fulfil them, then at least their life has a different sort of balance.
But by the way, people love all kinds of things that you might not love at all. I recently tweeted a sentence that would have been meaningless 10 years ago. I mean, 10 years ago, people didn’t tweet. Did they? I mean, if they did, they were discouraged. People will say sorry, what was that? Would you mind not doing that? People trying to read it here, would you mind?
I asked people to say, if there’s a job that other people do that they couldn’t stand, but they know they love. It’s amazing the response I got. I mean, I got things you would expect, like proctologist. Fair enough, because people misunderstand proctology and proctologists love the work they do at least I imagine so. And I’m glad they do.
I recently spoke at the National Convention Of Pathologists, who were dealing, not just with, dead tissues, but all forms of tissues and then analyzing them, they’re passionate about the work they do. They love it. Absolutely love it.
Actually I often, when you give talks at these events, you’re given a little present at the end, just a thought here for public television to think about before we finish.
There are two aspects of being in your element. There’s aptitude and passion. But there are two conditions for it, too. It’s not enough to know what these things are. You need to really want it. So the two conditions for finding your element are attitude and opportunity.
Finding your element is about what is entailed in this process. And it’s really a two-way journey. That’s the point I want to make. You see, we all live in two worlds, quite distinct worlds.
What I mean is there’s a world that exists whether or not you exist. A world came into being before you did, and will be there when you’ve gone. A world that pre-existed you and will exist afterwards. A world of other people of objects, events, or phenomena.
But there’s a world that exists only because you exist, a world that came into being when you did and will end or change when you end or change according to your beliefs in these areas. A world of your consciousness, the world that is you, that place that only you know properly, if you do know it properly, but other people cannot really know properly.
It’s the world in which it was one said, there’s only one set of footprints, the world of your private being. And you see the outer world that we all share through this inner world. Anaïs Nin once put this beautifully; she said, “I do not see the world as it is. I see it as I am.”
And we frame it within our own conceptions and attitudes and belief systems. It’s why we all therefore do live in often very different worlds. We see the same worlds very differently.
To find your own is an inner journey to begin with. In my experience, the reason people don’t understand their own talents is because they don’t know themselves very well. We live in the world of terrible distractions and noise, and we need, if we’re to find our element, we need to get to know ourselves better.
But it’s also an outer journey into the world around us. If you live a closed life with repetitive experiences, it’s unlikely; you will have those new experiences that may trigger a new discovery in yourself. You need to be bold to try new things that you’ve not tried before, and to put yourself to different sorts of tests.
I think of this, not as a journey in the conventional sense, but as a quest. You see a quest is a medieval conception, isn’t it, which has ties into knighthood, which I thought is rather appropriate to mention at this point, quite frankly.
But a quest is a journey you undertake whose outcome is not certain. You set off in high spirits and optimistically, but it’s not like saying “We’ll go from here to San Francisco. I know San Francisco is there and I know how to get to it.”
A quest is a journey of discovery, and you may find yourself discovering things along the way you hadn’t anticipated. You may find yourself in unexpected places. It’s like setting off on the high seas. You may set off with a clear destination in mind, but you may be blown off-course. Some people actually sink, but you may end up on some foreign shore you hadn’t anticipated, which turns out to be a better option than one you had in mind. That’s all part of being alive.
There are principles, though, that apply to this journey. The first thing is this, that every life is unique. Now it’s easy to say this and it’s often forgotten. Can I ask you something?
How many people do you think have ever lived? How many human beings, let me be clear about this? I’m talking about modern human beings. I’m not talking about prehistoric creatures. It went round on the knuckles grunting. I’m talking about attractive people like us, you know, with striking profiles and a sense of irony.
With thought we’ve evolved… about maybe a hundred thousand years ago, I mean modern human beings, behaviourally, we evolved about it’s thought about a hundred thousand years ago, the arguments continue, but that kind of range.
So how many of us you think there have been? I mean, people like us who have woken up in the morning, concerned about what the day may bring, raising families if they did, wondering what their lives as a whole may add up to, but with all sorts of thought process access to language and so on.
How many do you think have preceded us? What number comes to your mind? Out loud? You have to be out loud.
(Answers from audience)
100 billion, 7 billion, 1 billion to a trillion. Okay. Let me tell you. Nobody knows. Of course not. People have been going around since the dawn of time with calculators; hang on this four more over here. Hang on. Nope. I’m sorry. It’s six.
But there’ve been informed attempts to get to the bottom of this. If you Google the question, which is what I did, you will find yourself on places like The Center for Population Studies and things like that; The UN and, people have been making attempts to figure it out. Taking account of demographic shifts and patterns of birth and migration all of that, it’s a complicated equation.
What it comes to, somebody at the back that was very close to it. They said that the figure people would gather around now is to say that probably the total number of people who’ve ever lived is somewhere between 80 billion and 110 billion. So let’s say a hundred billion, as you said, let’s go with that. A hundred billion.
The thing is that every single one of those lives is different and unique as yours is. Nobody has ever lived your life and nobody else ever will. You’re a unique moment in the whole of human history.
Now you may be like other people. Of course. I mean, I, for example, you know, I think about things that I thought was special, unique to me, but I’m an awful lot like my father. Now, my father was born in 1914 and we looked like each other.
And you know, it’s one of the things that happened to you. As you get older, you start having thoughts that your father shared with you when you were young, that you condemned him for, and you tended to realize, people tended to their mothers, but I’m a lot like my dad. So some of what’s unique about it is inherited, but I’m not a clone of my dad.
I’m also a lot like my mum, in lots of aspects. And I have five brothers and a sister and we all share some of these attributes, but we’re all different. Can I ask you how many of you have got children of your own? All right. How about two or more? All right, well look, let me make you a bet. And I’m confident I will win this bet.
If you’ve got two children or more, I bet you, they are completely different from each other. Aren’t they? You would never confuse them like, “Which one of you remind me”. Your mother and I are using this color code system so we can distinguish it from now.
Even identical twins are different and we’re different because our biology is subtly different. We carry within us the traces of all of our forebears, but in particular unique combinations. We’re also different because of our cultural circumstances, the lives that we’ve led, which have led us down certain paths.
I can’t live the life my dad lived, because he was born in a different age with different opportunities as I was from him. And that’s the second principle that life is creative. You create your own life. We are distinguished from most of the species on earth in this respect.
In most respects, like the rest of life on earth, aren’t we but in one respect, we’re very different. We have powerful imaginations. By imagination I mean the ability to bring into mind things that aren’t present to our senses. With imagination, you can visit the past; you have a past.
With imagination, you can enter the world of other people. You can empathize. With imagination, you can anticipate the future. You can’t predict it very easily, by the way. I mean, you can predict certain things. You can predict events in the physical world. That’s what the natural science is about.
But the human world, it’s very difficult to predict what’s going to happen. It’s what JK Galbraith had in mind once, the economist; he said that “The primary purpose of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable.”
I think it’s right. I was looking at… the iPhone has been out for a few years now. I don’t know if you know, but if you buy an iPhone, when they designed it, they built in this capacity to receive apps. And there are now hundreds of thousands of them, I don’t know if you know, but the iPhone has an app that you can buy. You can download it, which turns the iPhone into a blues harmonica. Really, a blues harmonica. You turn it on its side, the notes and little holes come out alongside. You can blow along it and play the Delta blues on your phone.
I can’t imagine that form part of the original design specification at Apple, can you, you know, we’re going to play; we’re going to build this phone. It’s going to destroy the competition, but don’t forget, it’s vital that you can pay the Delta blues on it because businessmen get depressed and business women too. And at the end of the meetings, they’re going to play Howlin’ Wolf, otherwise they’re not going to buy the phone.
Now what happens is a genuinely powerful idea attracts other powerful ideas to itself. It’s why human life is very hard to predict because we bounce off each other in all kinds of very interesting ways. You create your life and you can recreate it.
I think of the things that have happened in my life until I was four, everyone in my family was convinced I was going to be a soccer player in the local soccer team, because I was good at it as a kid at that age.
And then do you remember these big polio epidemics that swept across Europe and America in the fifties? And I got it. I was the only one in the family to get it, despite my best attempts to cross infect the entire community. But I wasn’t very happy about it.
No, I mean I was the only one to get it in the family and I was paralyzed overnight, from being this kind of fit able-bodied kid, I was in hospital for nearly a year. And then I came out and I was in a wheelchair.
So that really put an end to my soccer aspirations, all these my parents’ aspirations for me. I mean, it wouldn’t stop me getting in the local team. No, by the way, given how they’re performing. I think that’d be rather pleased if I make myself available to them.
But the idea when I was a kid in Liverpool with this large family in the fifties that I would be living in Los Angeles, talking to you is an outrageously improbable idea. And I say it not as some kind of compliment to myself, but to say your life is completely improbable too.
I mean, how many of you really anticipated the life that you are leading now and that you’ve led so far when you were kids? You may be working in a field that you wanted to get into, but this job, these people, this place, the life you’ve actually had, the partners you’ve had, the kids if you’ve got them, you can’t, that’s the point.
You create your life as you move through it and you create it according to the opportunities you see around you and the talents you find within you, and whether you’re open to both. And you can recreate it.
So life is unique. Every life here is unique. It’s creative. And thirdly, it’s organic. What I mean by that is life is not linear. It’s organic. You compose it as you go. It’s a constant process of improvisation. Isn’t it?
You kid yourself sometimes. There are times in your life when you have to write your resume out, and you put it all down on aside a paper, you put key dates in, you put certain headings in bold, some in Italic and you make the whole thing look like it was a plan. Don’t you?
The last thing you want to do is to give the impression to a prospective employer of the actual chaos you’ve been living through. You want to convince them that this was a strategic plan that you’ve been executing faithfully since you were 15. It’s not you actually make the whole thing up. So life is organic and it’s not linear.
They are three key principles. Now I say finding your element is a two-way journey. It’s an inward journey and an outer journey. The inward journey is to get to know yourself better. What you’re trying to find out more about in your life, if you’re finding your element, are firstly, what your aptitudes are, the things that you’re good at.
One of the problems you confront is that we live in cultures with a very narrow conception of aptitude. And it’s an idea that’s been promulgated systematically through many of our education systems.
We have a very narrow view of ability in schools. We tend to confuse all forms of intellectual ability with IQ or academic ability. And actually human talent is tremendously diverse and multifarious.
My brother, Derek for example, was always dismantling engines, putting them back together again; he had a natural aptitude for mechanics. When he was 10, people brought their motorbikes from across the neighborhood for him to fix them. He was fixing these things for the teachers at his school who were failing him at the end of each term for not being very interested in academic work.
You know what I’m talking about. Some things people are good at are disparaged, discouraged or marginalized. And the consequence of that is that people often conclude they’re not very good at anything because they haven’t found something that they might be good at.
So one of the principles of finding your element is to have a much bigger conception of aptitude.
But the second part of finding your element is knowing more about your passions. Let me just say a quick word about this. By passion, I mean things that you love to do. In English, we only have a couple of words for love and they’re not terribly helpful. We use the same word for your feelings towards donuts and your fiancé. So it’s not very helpful. We need something more, more nuanced I feel around this. The Greeks have a word for it, which is philos, which is that sense of ‘loving activities’. It’s the word that gets tacked on or at the end of words like a being a bibliophile or a Francophile, a love for certain ways of doing certain things. That’s what I mean.
You see, finding your passion is an intriguing process. The word passion itself has changed its meaning. What it originally meant was suffering and endurance. It’s in that sense that people in Christianity talk about the passion of Christ, the suffering. Of course now it means the exact opposite. It means things you love to do; things that fulfil you; things that give you a sense of deep reward and of meaning and purpose.
And that transition from a sense of suffering and endurance to a sense of fulfilment is really this journey that I’m describing. Finding your own is in that sense, not in a religious sense… I don’t mean it that way here.
Finding your element in that sense is a spiritual process. What I mean by that is that there are some activities that feed your spirit, that lift you up, that energize you. There’s a distinction to be thought of here between physical energy and spiritual energy.
If you’re doing something you love, at the end of the week, you might feel physically exhausted, but on a high spiritually in terms of your energy. If you’re doing things you don’t care for, you might be physically fine, but depressed.
If you do something you love to do, an hour feels like five minutes; doesn’t it? If you do things you don’t care for, five minutes feels like an hour. If you do something that resonates with your spirit, your whole sense of time shifts; it’s like you’re surfing on an energy that’s lifting you up.
So the inner journey is also about finding that… the things that resonate with your spirit. And very often it’s things we take for granted that we haven’t thought about for a long time. We think back to our child and think, “You know, I used to love doing that. Why did I stop doing that?”
Sometimes maybe you stayed away from it and maybe you weren’t. So the inner journey is about those two things, about finding your aptitude and passion.
But then there’s the outer journey. I just want to say a couple of words about this before we wrap up.
You see, to find your element you have to want to. When I say that we live in these two worlds, it’s true. We create our own view of the world. It’s what Anaïs Nin meant when she said, “I don’t see the world as it is. I see it as I am.” You know that. There’ve been lots of attempts throughout the whole of human culture… cultural history to come up with classifications of human beings. Like the signs of the Zodiac, the humors, that were very prevalent in medieval times.
Sociologists have got into this in a big way as psychologists have. Jung came up with his ideas of introverts and extroverts. People talk about the different temperaments. I remember once reading a sociologist who said there were, I think, 14 types of people in the world. I think a 15th was recently found just outside Cleveland.
It’s helpful to think about it that way, but we shouldn’t confuse the theory with the reality. We’re in different roles, in different situations with different people. People bring out different things in us. They suppress different things in us. Different aspects of ourselves are revealed in different sorts of situations.
So we’ve tried to talk a little bit about these forms of classification, but I urge you never to take them seriously. If there are a set number of people in the world… types of people, my near assessment would be probably a hundred billion of them. That we are all unique instances and we can learn from these classifications, but we shouldn’t be imprisoned by them.
When I talked about happiness earlier, that many people are not happy, one of the key reasons for this is it’s an obvious thing for us to agree on I think is that there is a terrible tendency to confuse happiness with material well-being, being the driving theme really of modern culture of materialism, that if you get this stuff, you’ll be happy.
All the evidence of course is the contrary, that some of the most affluent countries in the world are also home to some of the least happy people in the world. There is no correlation between wealth and happiness. We should know that. You only have to look at people who win the lottery and to see how desperate their lives often get mangled as a consequence.
I grew up in a large working class family in Liverpool. I’m not romanticizing poverty by the way. I’m not saying let’s all get poor; it’ll be great. I’m not saying that. There are some things we like, but they don’t in and of themselves deliver happiness to you. Happiness is not a material state. It’s a spiritual state.
If you look at the history of psychology and psychiatry, it’s interesting that the vast majority of what’s been written and researched in these fields since the 19th century, has been about the negative effects of feelings. It’s been about negative feelings. It’s been about fear, anxiety and depression. Very little has been written or researched about what contributes to positive emotions like joy, happiness, and compassion.
In the last few years, that’s begun to reverse. There’s a big movement. Now it’s called positive psychology, which is trying to look more properly at what makes us fulfilled and the conditions under which these things come about.
And there’s a very interesting article by Sonja Lyubomirsky, who is in the mainstream of some thinking, the positive psychology, says that there are various factors that contribute to a sense of spiritual well-being part of its biology.
Some people are naturally a bit more miserable than other people. Some people are a bit more buoyant than other people. You know that. So biology accounts for some of it. Circumstances account for some of it, but neither counts for all of it because there’s a third factor, which is very potent, which is behavior – what you actually do, what you choose to do with what’s at your disposal internally and externally.
And the people who are most fulfilled are the ones who take action to be that way. And one of the ways in which you can be that way is to discover these talents and passions to find your element. It’s one of the great sources of wellbeing of spiritual fulfillment.
I said I had polio. My father who was so supportive of me being a soccer player because he was a great sportsman himself, thought the worst tragedy had ever happened to our family when I got polio when I was four. And until then it was, but five years later completely independently, my dad at the time was working as a steel erector in Liverpool. He’d been out of work and he got this job, which the family needed. We are nine counting him and my mum.
And he went to work one morning and being back at work just a few weeks, my uncle came knocking at the door to get my mum and he said, “What’s up?” And he said, “Jim’s had an accident.” And then she thought, ‘Well, now what’s after him’ because you know, in that line of work, you often have accidents. So he’d broken his arm. He’d fallen on his head.
And so she kind of lifted her eyes, and said “Now what?” And she said, they went to the hospital expecting to see him sitting there, you know, smiling saying, hey, we’ve got again. And she said, she walked down the center of the hospital ward past all these different people, looking to see where he was. And they got towards the end of the ward. And there was only one bed left that was curtained off.
And she said, they opened the curtains. And she went in and there was this figure she sat on the bed, swayed from head to foot in bandages with tubes coming out. And they said, Miss Robinson, this is your husband and they said, you have to prepare yourself I don’t think he’s going to make it.
What had happened was it that he had been holding up a big beam of wood to put in this boiler. On the rope it snapped. This thing had fell, a beam of Teakwood and it fell on his neck from about 30 feet and broke his neck. And they said that his neck broke the thickness of a cigarette paper above the point where your neck breaks, if you’re hanged judicially. So they’d literally said he was hanging by a thread here. And they said he probably won’t make it.
The thing was he’d never lost consciousness. And he did make it through the night and he made it through the next day. And then he made it through the next week and eventually was transferred to a different hospital, but he was a quadriplegic for the rest of his life, for 18 years.
Quadriplegics often don’t live that long. It’s about nine years, I’m told. He lived for 18 and the reason was sheer willpower. He remained the head of the family. My mother and he were very, very close and they laughed endlessly. They had just a fantastic relationship. My house was just filled with laughter all the time I was growing up. And he was the center of that. And together they just created this wonderful ambiance in the family.
What it proved to me is that the power of attitude is all powerful. And that if you can get yourself into that frame of mind, despite the pain… he wasn’t some kind of Pollyanna life, by the way… I mean, he was very funny, vigorous, critical guy that we just respected. And we always wanted to see what he had to say about something, but he was vibrantly alive all the time.
And this power within him inspired everybody else who met him. And it also illustrated one of the things that the positive psychology movement talks a lot about which is that people kind of have a default happiness. The indications are that if somebody wins the lottery, they’re kind of exhilarated for a while, but then they go back to being miserable the way they were before.
But if they’re naturally happy, terrible things will happen to them and they’ll probably get back to that point again. And it was the case that we have to make terrible adjustments and all kinds of things had to be figured out.
Several years after the accident, my dad was kind of back to himself. He couldn’t do what he could do before, he was dependent on everybody, but he was back to being him. And he fought through with this sort of power of will.
It’s just always been to me an object lesson that you can create your life to be one sort of life or a different sort of life. You can, as we know, manifest things in your life, if you work hard enough on them. It’s Joseph Campbell’s point in The Hero’s Journey that if you apply yourself to certain opportunities, if you look inside yourself properly, opportunities will appear that were simply not available to you before. Doors open that you didn’t even realize were there.
So it’s about attitude and it’s about opportunity. I just want to end here with just two quick stories. One of them is that you have to create opportunities in your life to have the life that you want.
One of the people I feature in Finding Your Element is a wonderful girl called Ellen MacArthur. Ellen MacArthur was born in England in a small mining town in a place called Derbyshire, which is about as far from the ocean in England as you can get. England doesn’t really compare with America in size as you know what I mean.
When I came here, my son, James, he said, we were going up to Portland, Oregon, and we thought, we’ll drive. We said to somebody, “How far is it?” And we were struck by the fact, the answer was given to us in hours, not miles. And they said it was about 16 hours.
And I thought, well, how far is that? Because in England or Britain, you can’t drive for 16 hours in a straight line. You have to keep doing laps off the country. They’re going to clock up the appropriate manage.
Anyway, she was born as far as you can get from the ocean and, in a mining town, no money. When she was four, her auntie Thea bought an old boat. And Ellen’s grandmother took Ellen and her brother down to the Harbour in the South of England to see this old boat she got. Never had any thoughts about boats, never seen the sea properly, that close up. They got in this boat, there’s noodling around. She said, she went down into the cabin, said she loved it because it was like a Donald’s house, like a little house.
But she said, she’ll never forget what happened when her grandmother, when her auntie Thea, raised the sail on this boat, that the wind built it into this sail. And she said, it just sent like an electric shock for me. It was the greatest sense of freedom I’d ever had to feel this thing, pulling at the boat and said I just fell in love with the ocean and boating at that point.
So she went back up to Derbyshire, said there was nobody else who shared our interest in boats. They didn’t have any money for boats. It was a mining town. So she started saving her pocket money to buy herself a boat, and it took her years and years and years, but she got this fund to buy herself a boat.
She went to college and was going to become a vet, but didn’t do well enough there. And so she started some other studies and then she said she got glandular fever, which was the best thing that ever happened to her. Because she was lying in bed with glandular fever one day and the television was on and there was a film of the Whitbread round-the-world yacht race. He said, it took my breath away that you could do that. That maybe didn’t need to buy, but you get somebody to sponsor you to get a boat.
Anyway, at the age of 22, Ellen became the first person to, or the fastest person to sail solo around the whole world. She went on to be one of the most accomplished sails… sailors in modern history. She now has her own foundation and is funding education projects all around the world and also other philanthropic work in development.
Now I mentioned it because Ellen’s determination to fulfil this passion that she felt when she had to create the opportunity that she could then take. And the whole point of saying your life is unique, creative and organic is that we can all do that. You don’t have to sail around the world solo, to be in your element. It can be working with children in your school. It can be working with animals. It can be being a carer. It can be anything you can think of that makes you feel alive.
Because in the end, it’s not about winning some global prize, it’s winning the prize of your life back and having that life. One of the people though that I did just want to mention, that I’ve become very friendly. I’ve been through a lot of work in Oklahoma the past few years. Oklahoma wants to become the state of creativity.
Now stop that! See when I say that outside of America, people go ‘really?’
Inside America, people go ‘really?’
Really Oklahoma is full of wonderful people, 3.5 million people. It’s amazing place. Anywhere where there’s this deep resource of natural talent. So believing in that’s really important. It’s very interesting.
If you look at, as it were famous failures, like Steve Jobs was sacked from Apple. Oprah Winfrey, we’re told, was demoted as a news anchor because they said she wasn’t fit for television. Michael Jordan was dropped from the school basketball team. Walt Disney was sacked from his newspaper job, because they said he lacked imagination. You can go on with it.
Einstein was told he would never add up to anything. Winston Churchill was not a thrown out of school because his English results were so bad. He went on to win the Nobel Prize for literature, having done all the things he did in the military life.
I say resource are often buried deep beneath the surface. You have to look for them and believe that they’re in you and the people around you. And it’s true in Oklahoma and I’ve become an ambassador for Oklahoma people.
It’s like people who have never been to LA think it’s all the movie business and nothing else and plastic surgeons, and we know that that’s not true. There are dentists.
Anyway, one of the people I’ve got so really well is a wonderful guy called Bart Conner. Talking about Bart Connor, has a very interesting tale. When he was, I think eight, he discovered that he could walk on his hands as easily as he could walk on his feet. Now we don’t know how he discovered this, but he did.
And then he discovered that he could go up and down stairs on his hands as well as easily as on his feet. If he were here now, he’d do it for you.
Well, nobody thought much about this, although he was in demand socially. So Bart said he didn’t think much about it, but his mother did. And I think when he was eight or nine, somewhere there, his mother spoke to the school. This is in downtown Morton Grove, Illinois.
She spoke to the school and said that she thought Bart would benefit from going to the local gymnasium and the school agreed. So she took him down there and Bart said he will never forget the feeling he had when he walked into that gymnasium.
I said, “What was?”
He said, “It kind of took my breath away.” It was like Ellen MacArthur, seeing the wind fill the sails. He said, kind of took my breath away. He said, “It was like Santa’s house in Disneyland in one place.”
I said, “Go on.’
He said, “Well, you know, there were wall bars, there were trampolines, there were trapezes, ropes.” He said it was intoxicating.
Now, is that how you feel when you walk into gymnasium? Is it? Do you find it intoxicating and looking round? Not all of you I feel. I’m just saying, I don’t, I’ll be honest with you. I do not find it intoxicating to go to gymnasium.
On the country, I need to get intoxicated within 50 yards of a gymnasium. And he loved it. And he went to every day or as often as he could.
And 10 years later, he walked onto the mat at the Montreal Olympics representing the United States in the male gymnastics squad. He went on to be the most decorated male gymnast in American history to that point. He lives now in Norman, Oklahoma. He’s married to Nadia Comăneci. Remember, the first perfect 10 in women’s gymnastics. They have a wonderful little boy called Dylan, after Bob Dylan. They have their own gymnastics center.
And here Nadia, leading members of the World Special Olympics movement. So between them, they’ve helped to liberate the gymnastic capabilities of thousands of thousands of athletes with special needs.
Now, the thing is, none of that would have happened. You could rewind the whole movie, none of it would have happened if his mother hadn’t encouraged him. She could have said when Bart was eight, “Bart, will you stop it with the hands thing? We’re over it. We get it, knock it off. And focus on your homework”.
But she didn’t, she encouraged him. But by the way, we do that a lot in our public institutions. And especially as the curriculum of schools gets narrower and more standardized and we exclude options, we increasingly are saying to our kids or to other people, stop it with the hands thing. Whatever the hands thing is for them, it might be art or music or dance, or it might be physical education, whatever it is. The narrowing of the curriculum, which is excluding many of these programs, particularly arts programs I think and humanities programs is a catastrophe because it’s denying people access to some of their deepest talents, all kids.
So institutions say stop it with the hands thing. But the thing is, even though she encouraged him, she couldn’t have known, could she, when she took him to the gymnasium, the life that was opening up before him. She couldn’t have seen through that door to the road that lay ahead.
And the reason she couldn’t is because you can’t. You can’t plan the whole journey because it’s not like that. Life is not linear. It’s organic. All you can do is take the first step. And then the next step after that. And respond to what’s in front of you.
And of course, if you’re in your element, as he was there, you meet new people; new people come into your life. You affect other people’s lives and your life goes into different direction.
I’m quite sure his mother did not have a linear plan. I’m sure she didn’t think when Bart was eight, ‘his body can do this hands thing. I gathered there’s this girl in Romania. I have a Bob Dylan connection. The whole thing’s working out beautifully.’
You can’t live it that way. All you can do is open yourself to the world around you and to the world within you and see new opportunities arise.
Ellen MacArthur took that step and I say, you don’t have to win an Olympic medal. You don’t have to be the fastest person around the world. You have to live the life that’s the most authentic for you, whatever that direction that takes you in. It’s a quest and the result, and the outcome is different for everybody, but it’s worth taking that first step.
There’s a wonderful quote from Teilhard de Chardin, who said something to the effect that, rather than standing on the shore, wondering if the ocean should carry us, we should take to the waters just to see and see where that journey will take.
But the quote I’d like to leave you with is, again from Anaïs Nin, it’s not quite certain if she wrote it, but it’s often a tributary, she wrote a short poem called Risk, which speaks to me about this organic character of human life and the willingness that we should have to be open to ourselves and to the world around us to find out our element.
She talked about her own creative journey and she said, “There came a point when the risk of remaining tight in a bud was greater than the risk it took to blossom.”
I think that’s right. I think if we live lives that are constrained against what we feel are our natural talents; the effort we put in to not being ourself is greater than the effort it would take to become ourselves.
And although we can’t predict the outcome of that, the organic nature of human life, its inherent creativity, the diversity, which characterize it means, I think that if we make this determined effort to find our element, we’ll all be open up to new, harvest a possibility which will enrich not just our own lives, but the lives of all those around us.
Thank you very much.