Sir Ken in his element

Are you passionately doing something you’re good at?

That was Sir Ken Robinson‘s challenge to us (and everyone really) last night at the Arnolfini. I hadn’t seen his TED2006 presentation, you should, its just there on the right.

First of all, Sir Ken is an exceptional speaker. Very self-depreciating sense of humour, great timing, stage presence, etc. If the message weren’t so profound we might have been in the Comedy Club.

After a pre-amble Sir Ken opened by noting that he hadn’t really followed a planned career, that he’d been opportunistic whilst following his personal true north. But then do any of us follow a planned career these days?

When we write our CV we impose a narrative retrospectively, or as Sir Ken put it:

…thus I moved from being a gardener to helicopter pilot…[pause]

as have so many before me…

He boiled his book down into 2 core principles for being “in your element”:

  1. Doing stuff which for which you have a natural aptitude
  2. and loving what you do

Everyone has many aptitudes, things we’re good at, that we get. The trouble is, because we ‘get it’ we assume that its obvious, that anyone could do it. The trick is to realise that, maybe, it’s not so obvious and actually we are genuinely better at that particular thing than others.

The example Sir Ken used was Terence Tao. At two, Terence taught himself to read, by 3 he was doing double-digit mathematics, by 9 he scored 99% in the Maths SAT, by 20 he had a PhD and by 30 he won the Field Medal for Maths. Terence was good at maths, he ‘got it’.

Not everyone can be as good at maths as Terence, arguably no one is. But there are things we’re good at, that we get, that others find difficult. Those are the things that Sir Ken is suggesting we find, discover and encourage in ourselves and others. In an aside (of which there were a few) the culture of corporate & organisational development was touched upon. A very powerful case was made for thinking of the organisation as an organism, to consider development more akin to gardening than engineering.

A good gardener creates the right conditions for plants to flourish, a good manager should create the right conditions for their people to flourish.

Sir Ken then moved on to the concept of loving what you do. He related a gig he went to many years ago. Afterwards they were having a drink with the band and he remarked to the keyboard player that he’d love to be in a band and playing keyboards. The response was “no you don’t”, after a bit the clarification was that Sir Ken liked the idea of being in a band, whereas the keyboard player loved it, would be doing it even if he wasn’t playing gigs.

When we find something we love doing that plays to our natural aptitudes, then we’re in our element.

Like natural resources, human resources are often buried. They’re not always lying right on the surface to pick up and run with. That should be the role of the education system. In the TED talk Sir Ken makes the point that the education system is designed to produce University Professors. Which is fine for University Professors, but of varying use for everyone else.

Another issue touched upon was that life is not linear but our education system assumes it is. You can’t plan the future of anything (the recent weather has re-taught us that) let alone people. Schooling kids at Primary / Kindergarten to prepare them for University is madness. A 3-year old is not half a 6-year old; a 6-year old is not half a 12-year old.

Unfortunately there wasn’t much on what Sir Ken’s education system would look like or how it would operate. Perhaps that’s in the book. A lot of people are working on similar ideas, most notably in Bristol the Enquiring Minds project with Futurelab and Microsoft but the systemic transformation is some way off.

Thanks go to Bristol Festival of Ideas for organising and the Arnolfini for hosting.

One reply on “Sir Ken in his element”

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed the talk last night; insightful, probing and also very funny. I don’t think I’ve thought and laughed so much in the same space of time for quite a while.

    If you can get to see this man speak, do it!

Comments are closed.