Friday, August 06, 2010

The Element - Book Review

I always try to have four or five different types of books on the go at the one time - a novel, a book of poems, an autobiograpy, a science book and usually a more general one on personal development and creativity.  The book that falls into that last category is The Element: Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, written by Dr Ken Robinson with the assistance of Lou Aronica, (Penguin, London, 2009).  It fits into that category of personal development, has a nice bright cover and readers like me buy such books in the vain hope of finding the key to success in life.

Which of us does not get tired, if not frustrated, with our jobs and/or role in life and wishes from time to time that we could earn a reasonable living from something we enjoy doing, from something that is both rewarding and personally nourishing?  Well, I suppose we all have those strong feelings that we could be doing something better and more rewarding with our lives.  In short, that is what this book is about.  It could be read in one sitting in two or three hours as, unlike say philosophy or science or even good psychology one really does not have to stuggle with understanding the arguments.  However, like all such books it speaks interminably in generalities and sweeping statements and really both during it and at its completion the reader will be nodding in agreement saying something like, "Yes, I agree with all that, that is very true indeed.  There is much wisdom here."  And yet that same reader will be disappointed, as I always am with such books, because very little by way of strategies are set out upon the page in such a way as to help you put that "element" you have found into practice, if indeed you are lucky enough to have found it, and then indeed hopefully earn a living by it.

I now read such books, not in the vain hope of suddenly landing the perfect job with the right amount of financial remuneration, but to gain little insights into living life better.  At least all these types of book have the ability to do just that, but no more.  Ken Robinson in this easily-read book asserts that finding your element in life will allow you to live it much more happily and contentedly.  He speaks about our need to connect with our true innate talents, about "growing creatively," and finding our element which he defines thus: "I use the term the Element to describe the place where the things we love to do and the things we are good at come together." (Op. cit., p. xiii).

Robinson also speaks in generalities in which such books as his abound.  He speaks about a richer cultural vision for humankind, of nurturing human talents and of improving human society.  While finding your element is truly about discovering what you really do and about who you really are, it also, he maintains has implications for how to run our schools, businesses, communities, and institutions.  Yes indeed, all this is laudable, but is highly aspirational.  It's very hard to see how it can be put into practice at all.  This is also a major criticism of most self-help or personal develoipment books like this, they have all the general and laudable ideas, all the aspirations and they are all truisms, yet, how to put them into practice is the major lacuna in all such works.

Still I have learned some interesting insights from Ken Robinson, one of which is the difference between imagination and creativity, the demarcation points between both being somewhat blurred in my mind. It is also complementary to my last post on imagination from the perspective of the  psychiatrist Dr Anthony Storr, and that's why I decided to place this particular review here at this time. Robinson sees creativity as putting imagination into action.  It's all too easy to have the ideas, but putting them into action, trying them out is the most important aspect of the whole enterprise.  This is where creativity comes in, because this latter is all about putting the ideas, good, bad or indifferent that the imagination came up with into practice. In fact, in a felicitous sentence, Robinson underscores the difference between imagination and creativity thus: "You can think of creativity as applied imagination." (Ibid., p. 67)

Other intrerseting points for me were given in two chapters with intersting headings, viz., In the Zone and Finding Your Tribe.  The first is about discovering the power of the element at work in you, and this very discoverey is energising to say the least.  Being in the zone is where you are conscious that you are in your element and that energy is literally flowing through you in a very natural way.  I get this natutral feeling when I am either writing or reading my poems or doing M.C. at school functions.  Things come together.  Yes, I have done preparations, but extra insights and wisdom and inspiration hit you and flow through you, giving a more profound order than that of which your preparations made you aware in the first place.  I experienced this "in the zone" feeling twice recently: at the graduation of our sixth years and at a reading I gave of my Irish poems in Arranmore some weeks back.  There was indeed something elemental at work because I had the distinct feeling on both occasions that this was my natural work, that this was what I was good at and that energy was flowing through me.  Another interesting pooint Robinson makes here is that it is not like work at all, that you are energised rather than burning up energy.  If you find your element you can do your work efforlessly, but of course with some initial preparation.   I remember one of our national broadcasters, Pat Kenny saying that he was extremely lucky because his hobby was his job.  Very few people can boast of that.  Pat Kenny is in his element, and he is so lucky to be earning vast sums of money for doing it.

One of the books I am reading at the moment
The second interesting chapter is entitled "Finding Your Tribe" and this is all about finding like-minded souls or kindred spirits.  When I speak with other poets I am energised because we have so much in common.  Finding one's tribe, then, is like coming home in a sense: you have to be welcomed into the arms of the fellowship because it is your spiritual or natural family in a deep sense,  Hence, we should work at finding some place where we really belong.  This sense of deep spiritual belonging with kindred spirits supports and nourishes us.

I will finish this post with another interesting insight that Robinson offers us about the diffrence between Western and Eastern minds.  In a study Westerners and Asians were asked to look at a series of pictures and to describe what they saw.  Essentially, Westerners tended to look at thge foreground and to focus on what they consider to be the subject of the photograph.  Asians, on the other hand, focus more on the whole image, including the relationships between all the elements in the picture.  Also in Asian art there is much less emphasis on portraiture or even on individual subjects.  In Asian art and culture there is less emphasis on the individual and more on the collective.  This seems obvious to me, now that I have read it boldly stated by Ken Robinson, but I had never formulated it in actual wordsWestern Philosophy, as also Western Culture, has always been concerned about the significance of the individual, the growth of the self, the importance of that individual and his or her freedom.  Let us listen to Ken Robinson's own words here as they are enlightening indeed:

Western philosophy since the ancient Greeks has emphasised the importance of critical reasoning, logical analysis, and the separation of ideas and things into catergories.  Chinesse philosophy is not based as much on logic and deductive reasoning and tends to emphasise relationships and holism.  (Ibid., p. 151)
Finally I liked the fact that Dr Ken Robinson is into the Mother Earth or Gaia as one great organism and into us as a smaller but great conscious organism that is one among many others on that greater organism that is Mother Earth.  He tells a lovely story from Dr Jonas Salk, the famous discoverer of the polio vaccine: "It's interesting to reflect," Salk said, "that if all the insects were to disappear from the earthg, within fifty years all other formns of life would end.  But, if all human beings were to disappear from the earth, within fifty years all other forms of life would flourish."  (Quoted ibid., p. 259)

In short, what the learned Doctor meant is that now we human beings have become trhe problem by polluting and destroying the great Mother Earth who gave us birth.  We need much imagination and creativity if we are to stop such on-going destruction of both our own species and of every other species with whom we share this wonderful, if at times, painful world.

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