Monday, February 10, 2014

The Element

I've just marked 50 trips around the sun, and quite serendipitously, the book I was reading as I reached this milestone was The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, by Ken Robinson. The serendipity comes because, now that I'm entering my second half century, I've decided it's finally time to figure out what I want to be when I grow up.

Unfortunately, Sir Ken doesn't tell me what that is. I shall have to decipher this on my own. But he does provide copious anecdotal evidence, mostly from the lives of successful and famous people, that devoting my energies to something I love would be a worthwhile endeavor, especially if it turns out I have some ability at that something.

This book made my reading list because it was on a list of books recommended to change your life, or a similar promise. Perhaps this would be true if I were reading it at age 19, but I suspect that most people of my age have encountered Robinson's themes previously. I recall as a teenager having Dr. Norman Vincent Peale's The Power of Positive Thinking thrust upon me by my parents, who apparently thought I was mired in teen negativity. Imagine that! In the intervening years, I've had exposure to finding my "zone", the "artist's way", and myriad programs of workplace creativity-inspiring. And yet, I still can't definitively label my particular element. There are numerous activities I enjoy, and a few I even do well, but nothing I could accurately describe as an overriding passion.

Most of Robinson's success stories involve people who found their element seemingly by chance. I'm left to wonder what happens to the would-be dancer who is never taken to the ballet studio and thus never discovers this latent gift? Robinson doesn't address that, although he does give examples of people who find a passion later in life, or in a unorthodox context.

I spent most of the book also wondering who would drive the garbage trucks if everyone is out looking for their creative element. Surely some tasks are necessary but unlikely to elicit much passion. Zen Buddhists tackle this reality by urging mindfulness and reverence when performing every task, no matter how mundane. But Robinson doesn't seem to be coming from the "be here now" school of thought. However, he does indirectly address the question in a section titled "for love or money," noting that some people pursue their passion as a hobby while working a job to pay the bills.

Robinson's stories are engaging and inspirational, and every now and then even those of us in our middle years can benefit by renewed attention to this question of, "what are my dreams and am I pursuing them?"

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