Book Review: The Element (Sir Ken Robinson)

What can I say?  Sir Ken is my idol.  Not sure if you’ve heard of him previously, but he’s a leading expert on educational reform who writes, speaks, and travels the world trying to convince countries to abandon the focus on “standardized testing” and return to (or create) an educational system that allows students to be, well, more human.  This is not only a message and mission I believe strongly in, myself, but I also find him to be one of the most gifted public speakers on the planet.  If you’re interested in learning more about him, and watching some of the incredible speeches he’s delivered over the years, you can find quite a few of them on his website here.

(even if you’re not interested in the material itself, you might want to check out his site as a great example of “personal branding” in action)

The specific topic of this blog article, however, relates to a recent book  Sir Ken has written, called The Element.  Tying together many of his most compelling anecdotes, insights, and theories, this book discusses the incredible waste of human potential that he sees (and I think we all see) taking place by so many people working in jobs that don’t leverage their true gifts or connect to their passions in any way.  He explores this topic from a number of different angles, starting from the damage that gets done to children via today’s homogenized test-driven school systems, to the misunderstood nature of creativity, to the tendency to label “individual differences” as medical conditions, like ADD, to the factors like fear and peer pressure that often keep adults stuck in career paths that suck the life out of them.

As many of you know, however, I wouldn’t be buying into a book like this if it was all “woo woo” material or didn’t have a pragmatic bent to it.  What I love about the author’s perspective on all this stuff is that while he is highly inspirational, he doesn’t seem delusional or out of touch with the real problems people face — and the powerful internal/external realities that so often limit people from achieving their potential.  He acknowledges, for example, that we’re going through a recession and that it’s hard to “think big” when one is having trouble putting food on the table.  He discusses the notion that college degrees have lost much of their value, in this day and age, unlike his generation, which could expect an undergraduate degree to be an automatic meal ticket and career anchor.  And he acknowledges that as many of us grow older, we often feel that it’s “too late” to follow our dreams or reinvent ourselves in a meaningful way.

Is his book a step-by-step guide to fixing all of these problems?  Far from it.  The problems in question are obviously huge societal ones — and not even Sir Ken claims to have the magic formula that will make all of these challenges suddenly evaporate.  But I think you’ll find it a very uplifting read, if you’re in transition yourself and thinking about making some changes.  And while there a lot of them packed in there, I also think some of the case studies cited in The Element are a little more tangible than ones I’ve seen in other books, since most of the people he uses as examples are celebrities that we all know who have ignored the critics and gone on to their “true calling” in life.

So who knows?  Perhaps I found this book so engrossing simply because I care so much about these issues, on a personal level, but The Element definitely makes my “top five” list (along with 27 other books I’m sure I’ve written about before) for professionals today who are at a career crossroads — and who might be wondering whether the time has come to take the road less traveled!

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One Response to “Book Review: The Element (Sir Ken Robinson)”

  1. This is a good book for those who are thinking about a career transition away from what they are currently doing. While this is a quick read and is a good “beach” book, I would advise re-reading when you can really absorb the material.
    The reason for reading is the material, while seemingly simple, it complex and difficult to implement. This will require some reflection, searching and answers will not be immediately apparent. The book outlines a process that you will need to go through to find any answers. This can not be taught in a weekend seminar.

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