“What do you want to be when you grow up?” is a question asked of children from a very early age. As they grow and mature, their choices and, more importantly, the motivation for choosing a future profession change. When I put this question to young kids aged three to seven, I was taken aback by their courage. I had in front of me an astronaut, a policeman, a van driver, two pilots, an aircraft engineer, a gardener, a mechanical engineer, and a chef. Interestingly, the smallest children (under age of three) chose to be ‘baba’ and ‘mummy’ – undeniably smart choices, which define the right priorities in life! However, when I posed the same question to A’ level girls at a prestigious local school, the list, unsurprisingly, consisted mainly of doctors, lawyers, and engineers, with a social worker and a writer the only dissidents. Do they all truly want to be doctors and lawyers? Where have the astronauts and the chefs disappeared?

It seems that today our youngsters tend to pursue the road to success, as defined by parents, teachers, and society at large, instead of following their own dreams. More often than not, they themselves believe that financial stability is the most crucial building block of their future, leaving their passions and personal aspirations ‘for a later time’, if they consider giving them a chance at all. It is hard to blame them, as they have to make space for themselves in an increasingly materialistic world which emphasizes the rat-race above personal fulfilment. Often, they choose ‘successful’ professions for the status, prestige and, of course, the money involved, even if that means dragging themselves to work every morning. Can we help our youth to have more fulfilling work lives? Sir Ken Robinson says that we can.

Sir Ken Robinson is an English author, speaker, and international advisor on education, who claims that finding your true passion in life and pursuing it will change everything. Confucius said: “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” Sir Ken believes that every person can, and deserves to, have a fulfilled and happy life. He invites everyone to take a deeply personal journey of self-discovery, to think differently about themselves and the lives they could lead, and break free from standardized definitions of success, as our life is uniquely ours, not anyone else’s.

The Element

For describing that ‘true passion’ which can bring about change in life, Sir Ken uses the term ‘the element’ – that niche where your natural aptitude meets your personal passion. Being in your element means that you are doing something for which you have a natural feel and by doing which your sense of time changes. He says: “If you are doing something that you love, an hour can feel like five minutes; if you are doing something that you do not, five minutes can feel like an hour. Being in your element gives you energy. Not being in it, takes it from you.” Thus, if in their process of maturing, our youngsters discover their elements and pursue them as their future professions, they would have more fulfilled professional lives and a happier adulthood in general.

Finding your element is a quest to find yourself – a dilemma that the youth has faced since the beginning of time. Sir Ken points out several reasons for the need to identify it:

  1. Personal. Finding your element is vital in order to understand who you are and what you are capable of doing with your life.
  2. Social. Many people lack purpose in their lives: they are not interested in the work they do, they feel alienated by the education system, and in some extreme cases, they commit suicide.
  3. Economic. Finding your element will give you a sense of direction, and you will not be jumping from job to job. It’s the best way to find a job that truly fulfils you.

He continues by stating that searching for your element is a two-way journey: an inward journey to explore what is inside us and an outward journey to discover the opportunities in the world around us. As Sir Ken puts it, all of us live in two worlds: one which came into being when we were born and exists only because we do (the inner world of our personal consciousness, of our feelings, thoughts, moods, and sensations); the other which does not depend on our existence (the external world of other people, events, circumstances, and material things). We have to explore both these worlds: we need to focus on our own talents and passions and then look creatively at the opportunities in the world around us to fulfil them.

The Three Principles

For discovering your element, Sir Ken offers a process which is based on three principles:

Principle 1: Your Life is Unique. In the entire human history, there is no other life like yours. All of us are unique in two ways: biologically and culturally. According to Sir Ken, “finding your element involves understanding the powers and passions that you were born with as part of your unique biological inheritance.” It also means “reflecting on your own cultural circumstances – the opportunities of growth that you need and want now”.

Principle 2: You Create Your Own Life. As human beings, we always have a multitude of choices in front of us. We cannot change our past, but we can influence our future. What sets us apart from the rest of nature is our power of imagination and creativity – the best resources for shaping our life.  We were not given a resume along with our birth certificate, says Ken Robinson. Thus, we can create our own life and recreate it, if necessary.

Principle 3: Life is Organic. Very few people past middle age correctly anticipated the lives they have actually led. We cannot predict our lives because they are not linear in nature; they are organic: a constant improvisation between our interests and personality on one hand and circumstances and opportunities on the other. “Finding your element,” says Sir Ken, “means being open to new experiences and exploring new paths and possibilities in yourself and in the world around you.”

In a society focused on a tunnel vision of success, some youngsters may lack the courage to break free and take charge of their own lives. They may not think that their talents and passions are worthy of pursuing or may not see the right venues for applying them. Here, parents and teachers can step in to encourage them on the journey of self-discovery and guide them towards the opportunities which could lead them to lives they enjoy, not simply endure.

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Highly recommended motivational books by Sir Ken Robinson:

The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything

Finding Your Element: How to Discover Your Talents and Passions and Transform Your Life

Gift these books to youngsters you care about! In “Finding Your Element”, Sir Ken offers a detailed action plan with stories, examples, exercises and resources to help in discovering your element.