With so much going on lately and the kids taking my iPhone and iPad whenever they lay eyes on them, I haven’t been doing much reading. It was only recently that I managed to pick up The Element by Sir Ken Robinson and start reading it again. I bought the book after watching his presentation some time back on schools destroying our children’s creativity. Much of the introduction to the book and the early part of the book covers the stuff he talks about in his presentation on TED, however, in the book he also offers what he thinks we need to change in today’s education system in order to overcome the current problems we have in schools and that’s what I’m really interested in.
I am still a long way from finishing the book, but I’ve been pondering over some of the points Sir Robinson has highlighted which became a topic of conversation that I recently had with friend who is also a parent.
The book is titled “The Element” because it talks about helping people find their element – something in life that they love to do and are good at. You know when you’ve found your element, because work no longer feels like work. You love what you do and you would be happy to do it for the rest of your working career. You would do it even if you didn’t get paid for it.
Sir Robinson gave a good example of when he was listening to a man play the piano. After the performance, he told the man that he would love to be able to play the piano like that and the man replied, “No, you love the idea of being able to play the piano like that. If you really loved being able to play the piano like that, you would be doing it.” And it’s true. We often mistake the love of an idea with the love of doing. If this so-called interest of love has not motivated or inspired action from our part, then what we’re really in love with is the idea of it and that is not our element. I think it is important to understand this distinction because it will help us guide our children in their search for their element.
I don’t know about you, but when I was growing up, my parents were always harping on about getting a career that had a “good future”. In other words, it had to pay well and be secure. I received “strong” encouragement to study dentistry which is undeniably a fairly safe and promising career. What did I want to do? I wanted to be an engineer. Actually, no. I lie. My first real career aspiration was to be a writer but I was afraid I wasn’t good enough to make a living as one. I was sure I wouldn’t get the support from my parents either because I might as well be telling them I wanted to become a painter and everybody knows that painters don’t make much money from their paintings until they’re dead (okay, I’m kidding, but I just wanted to demonstrate the ignorance that arises when you start talking about a subject you know nothing about but pretend to be an expert on). So becoming a writer became one of those unrealistic dreams that only children have and becoming an engineer was my “grown-up” career goal.
My father was an engineer and he hated it. He left the profession to become a teacher during a period when engineering jobs were difficult to come by. Naturally, he felt it was a very bad career decision and discouraged me from it. So that was how I ended up studying dentistry. It didn’t take me long to realise that it was not the career for me. I was not just disinterested, I really didn’t like it. I was told to “learn to love what I do” and I really tried. But I couldn’t shake the dread I felt every morning when I got up to get ready for work. I would drive to work hoping my first two patients would cancel on me so I could sit in the tea room eating biscuits and reading the newspapers. I would end the day hoping my last two patients would cancel so I could go home early.
In the end, I quit the profession because I felt guilty. I knew I was not the kind of dentist I would want to see. It wasn’t that I was a bad dentist because I had patients who told me I was the best dentist they had ever seen and I was only a student back then. In terms of ability, it could have been my element. What I lacked was the passion and drive for it. No amount of willing could change how I felt.
Having had this experience, what Sir Robinson wrote in his book really resonated with me. All our lives, growing up, we’re told what we can’t do and what we should do. There are few people who have had mentors that encouraged their pursuit of their passions and few who have had the audacity to go against the “wise” advice of the adults. For example, when Paul McCartney tried to join the choir of Liverpool Cathedral, they told him he wasn’t a good enough singer. When Elvis Presley tried to join his school’s glee club, they told him his voice would ruin their sound. How ironic that both of them later went on to become two of the most famous singing sensations in the history of music. And they aren’t the only ones whose talents were missed while they were growing up.
Who are we to tell an individual that their career aspirations are unrealistic? Who are we to discourage an individual from pursuing a course they are passionate about? We keep talking about being realistic and choosing “safe” careers, but what may be realistic and safe during our generation may not necessarily be the case for our children’s generation. There are so many new careers that exist now that weren’t around during the time of our parents. For example, which of our parents would have thought you could write on the Internet and make money from it? Being a writer for them meant being a journalist for a newspaper or a book author.
In our parents time, being a doctor was a safe career because everyone gets sick. By the time my brother graduated, there were so many doctors in circulation that they had a new ruling that you had to have a “provider number” to practice. Without a provider number, it didn’t matter that you had an MBBS, you still weren’t allowed to practice. By that time, you also had to specialise to become a general practitioner. You couldn’t just graduate, open a clinic and start practicing. In short, things change. And parents, despite their good intentions, end up giving their children out-dated advice that is no longer relevant to their children’s era.
Last, but not least, if a child is truly in their element, he can excel in an area even if the competition is tough. Who do you think will be the better performer – the one who loves what he does and is good at it or the one who does it as a job to pay the bills and is mediocre at it? If an individual has truly found their element, they will find a way to make it work no matter what the challenges are. We may fear that our children are making poor decisions but perhaps what we need to do is have more faith in them. We’re parents – our role is to help them find their way, not choose the path for them.
I hope I can remember this when my children grow up and tell me their career aspirations.