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The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything


Like most people I know, I’ve not found that “one” thing that my world revolves around.  I’ve found passing interests and desires, but no central theme has emerged.  The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything is a series of stories designed to lead people to the discovery of that one thing.  Of course, this is not the only or even first book to guide readers towards finding their passion.  The ONE Thing is another example.  Unlike it though, The Element’s approach isn’t a systematic decomposition of life and its facets; instead, Ken Robinson and Lou Aronica lead us down the winding path of others who’ve found their calling.  It should be cautioned that all paths are winding – as was made clear in Extreme Productivity – and that not all winding paths lead to the desired destination.

Losing Touch

One of the key observations is that we start life with passions and little skill.  We finger paint and read the responses of the adults in the room.  From this we decide, unconsciously, whether this is something we’re good at or not.  Judith Rich Harris explains the subtle bending process in No Two Alike, where small differences in responses can send us down one road or another.  In Creative Confidence, Tom and David Kelley explain how they believe sometimes our creativity is stamped out of us by education and the process of growing up.

The consensus is that we’re often born with an innate sense for the things that we can do, and these are whittled down over time.  This is consistent with the neural pruning that happens within the first few years of life.  We start with more than we need, and then we whittle that down into what we think we’ll use.


Measuring performance is something that can – and often does – lead to improved performance.  The advent of statistical process control and continuous improvement have been a boon to manufacturing over the last half-century.  We’ve learned how to be more efficient – and, occasionally, more effective.  The two are not the same regardless of how similar they appear in the English language.  Efficient is doing things with less waste and more output.  Effective is doing the right things.

Manufacturing principles have been applied to other industries, including healthcare and education, and the results are mixed.  In education, we’ve standardized such that the things we measure – standardized tests – have become all we work for.  When teachers are measured on math and literature, art isn’t as important.  Nor do sports bubble to the top.  (See It’s How We Play the Game for another perspective on the importance of sports.)  The result is what Deming predicted: you get what you measure.

There’s an old Dilbert cartoon where Dilbert and Wally receive news that there will henceforth be a bounty for each defect found.  Five dollars for each one.  In the next frame, Wally comments that he’s off to “Code myself a minivan.”  This, of course, implies he’s going to intentionally create defects he can later find and resolve.  The system would be perverted by a malicious actor.  No such malintent exists when a teacher tries to save their job and their school by finding ways to improve results on standardized tests – irrespective of whether students will learn to live life better or discover their talents.

It’s not that standardized testing is bad or that we shouldn’t do it – it’s that there are negative impacts to be considered.  One of those is that we may be squashing out people’s natural talents to fit the test.  Howard Gardner in Changing Minds explains that not all intelligence works the same way or fits into the narrowly-defined limits of most standardized testing.

In The Years That Matter Most, Paul Tough explains how the SAT and ACT standardized tests for college entrance are hopelessly flawed at predicting success or identifying intelligence beyond the narrow frame of academia.

Prepare to Be Wrong

There are two dimensions of wrongness.  The first is the heart of the learning process itself.  We make mistakes, learn from them, and do something different the next time.  The other level is how the world will respond to originality, how the systems will attempt to reject something that isn’t the familiar status quo.  (See Originals.)  Systems need to protect themselves from entropy, and as a result, they have a tendency to stamp down anything that doesn’t fit the mold.  The problem with this is that, sometimes, the systems aren’t designed in ways that people can learn and grow into their Element.

This all means that the systems are set up to prevent you from finding your Element.  You’ll need to be diligent if you’re going to find what should be truly yours.  In Work Redesign, we learned about Ralph, who, after years of being beaten down by the system, couldn’t be reengaged to take on more work, responsibility, risk, and opportunity.  That happens to us all – unless we can persevere in our being wrong in the world’s eyes.  (See Willpower and Grit for how to do that.)

Seek Encouragement

Some people, as Liz Wiseman points out in Multipliers, can encourage people to do more and better than they can do on their own.  One of the most challenging things about finding your Element may be finding the people who will continue to support and encourage you along the way.  Like Sherpas who know the path, mentors and other encouraging people can help you recognize that you can find yourself.  Much of The Element is about getting parasocial encouragement knowing that many others struggled to find themselves but succeeded.  The book ends with several people who didn’t find their Element until the second half of their life.  The path to find their Element was long and winding yet ultimately rewarding.

“Think Different”

It’s an old Apple slogan, but it’s also a recipe for better results.  Scott Page in The Difference explains how different perspectives make for better teams.  The difference in perspectives, experiences, and upbringings allow the room to see multiple sides of the situation and thereby consider options and approaches that simply wouldn’t be possible with a single person.  It’s the way that we can get to better outcomes – not necessarily quicker outcomes.

If you follow the path of conformity, you’ll never find your Element.  It requires unwavering consistency to search.  It will be in the last place you look for it.  If you’re persistent and perhaps a little bit lucky, you’ll just find The Element.