Every other Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal productivity, personal growth, career, or entrepreneurship book.

the elementThe brightly-colored cover of this book caught my attention on the “New Releases” shelf at the library. I picked it up and read a bit of the first chapter – a story about a girl left alone in a room and watched by her mother. The radio was on and the girl couldn’t help herself – she jumped up and danced to the music. It’s just what she was drawn to do – in her words, “she needed to move to think.”

It was an idea that really stuck with me. Quite often, I need to write to think. I need to be able to take ideas in my head and put them down in word form – if I don’t do that, I tend to spin my wheels in life. Writing is an outlet – it’s my passion and it’s simply a part of me. Without it, i would feel empty.

Virtually everyone has a deep passion or two like this – an activity without which we wouldn’t feel whole. The Element by Ken Robinson digs into those passions – finding them, bringing them to the forefront, and evaluating the enormous impact that passions can bring to our lives. Once found and given room to breathe and grow, passions can transform our day-to-day activities, our careers, and our whole lives.

The Element
What do you do when you’re alone and have no responsibilities to follow up on (assuming, of course, that any supplies you need are available to you)? I tend to do one of two things: read or write. I love expressing myself in the written word and receiving the ideas of others through that same medium.

Other people might do different things. One person I know immediately starts drawing elaborate landscapes – I’ve seen his notepads after meetings. Another person heads immediately to his workshop and starts working on small pieces of furniture – miniature display cases and end tables. One woman I know heads straight to the piano and starts playing whatever song appears in their head.

Take someone with the initial passion like that and feed that passion. What do you think happens next? That passion compels them to get better at their chosen craft.

Think Differently
Self-definition can be a dangerous opponent. Many people already have a strict definition of who they are – and who they’re not. “I’m a good accountant, but I’m not a painter,” says the naturally artistic individual whose life path somehow led her into accounting. Yet she doodles magnificently during long, boring meetings. “I’m a researcher, not a writer,” I once told myself, but I couldn’t help but spend my spare time writing essays and short stories and the like.

You aren’t defined by what you’re doing right now or what you believe your limits to be. Nor are the people around you. Margie from accounting might actually be a great artist. Trent from R&D might actually be a great writer. But until they discover it, they’ll stay stuck in place.

Beyond Imagining
Perhaps you know what you’re passionate about, but actually following it seems like a daydream. The competition is too fierce. I don’t have time for it. I love doing it, but I’m not actually good at it. To put it simply, they can’t imagine themselves actually succeeding.

Sustained passion can overcome all of these obstacles, as long as you’re willing to step back and look at the big picture. The people who succeeded before you – they’re human, too. The biggest difference between where you are and where they are is perspective.

In the Zone
One sure sign that you’ve stumbled across the right mix of passion and personal skill is the so-called “zone.” The “zone” refers to an intense level of focus, to the point where a person completely loses track of time and other events going on around them. When you’re in “the zone,” you’re utilizing all of your cognitive effort and talent towards one specific endeavor, often with amazing results.

When I’m in the zone, I lose all track of time and all track of the world around me. I don’t hear my wife talking to me. I don’t hear the telephone ringing. I’m just absorbed in what I’m doing. At some point, I’ll snap out of it, glance at the clock, and pretty much believe whatever it says, whether fifteen minutes have passed or nine hours have passed. I’ll believe either one. Almost without exception, all of my best work is done when I’m in “the zone.”

What things do you do that put you into this kind of “zone”? Whatever it is, it’s probably an indication of what you’ll excel at in life.

Finding Your Tribe
When you begin to follow your passion, you need a group of people around you to support you and help you grow that passion. They can be mentors, advisors, friends, and peers.

For many, though, the trick is finding them. The internet is making this easier, of course, but meeting people face-to-face can sometimes be a real challenge. Robinson offers a great deal of advice on how to find peers that share your interests. One big key that’s worked for me – visit shops in the area that sell items related to your passion and ask around there for groups and interested folks. If there are no groups, get involved in starting one and cooperate with that store to promote the group (they’re usually happy to do this).

What Will They Think?
Many people worry about what their friends might think of them if they start following a new passion. Will my friends laugh at me if I start spending a lot of my time painting?

Here’s the scoop: your real friends will support you. If you have “friends” that laugh at you because of an interest you’re following, are they really friends?

Along those same philosophical lines, you’re likely to find new friends that share your passion if you put effort into finding your tribe. When some friends – the unsupportive ones who really aren’t there for you as you grow – exit stage left, new ones – ones who do support you and share your passions – enter stage right.

Do You Feel Lucky?
Here, Robinson riffs on the idea that fortune favors the prepared. If you put yourself in situations where luck at least has a chance to happen, you have a much higher chance for success than avoiding such situations.

The simplest way to do this is to get involved in community projects or activities related to your interest. The nexus where your passion meets a lot of people is the best way to have opportunity come knocking at your door.

Somebody Help Me
Robinson digs deep into the idea of finding and cultivating a mentor here, suggesting that anyone embarking on a new life journey can really be served by finding someone to guide them.

For some passions and experiences, simply finding someone else who is experienced and passionate can be enough – you can probably locate these folks through community groups or online forums. For others, you may need to find people who are deeply engaged in careers that involve your passions. Don’t look for people who would be in direct competition with you – that would present a big conflict of interest – but look for people who are doing similar, parallel things. Ask them questions – and if they need any help you can provide, offer it!

Is It Too Late?
Obviously, no, it’s not.

Robinson tells several anecdotes, but the one I like to think about is my great grandmother, who passed away in 1999. During the last decade of her life – when she was in her eighties – she took up painting. She painted landscapes and a few still lifes and a few of them (painted in the year or two before her age started to catch up with her) have a certain something to them that’s indescribable. I have one hanging in our dining room that depicts a late winter evening, snow heavy on the ground. In the distance there’s a cabin with lights on. Whenever I look at it, I have this strong sense of “going home after being away for a long time” – a feeling evoked by this painting that my great grandmother’s frail hands painted. That’s exactly what she was trying to communicate with her frail hands and her paintbrush and the message came through loud and clear. That’s talent – and a bit of passion, too.

If a woman can take up painting in her eighties and produce things that can take my breath away, it’s not too late for you.

For Love or Money
Many people focus on the question of making money with their passion. Can they turn it into a profit-making venture? If not, why invest the time?

Robinson’s suggestion essentially boils down to do what you’re drawn to do. If it feels right to you – if it sucks you into that “zone” – do it. That’s the kind of experience that makes life worth living. Quite often, with a lot of practice of the mechanics of what you’re doing, the “zone” can produce truly amazing things and others will notice and value those things.

But there are no guarantees with anything in life.

Instead, follow the passion because you love to do it. If your reason for not following it revolves around

Making the Grade
The best part of following your passion is that you get to define what success is on your own. Perhaps success is just simply getting started each day, or maybe it’s an enormous lofty goal. Whatever it is, you define it – you get to figure out what success is.

It’s your baby, and it’s beautiful.

Is The Element Worth Reading?
The Element really codifies some of the ideas I’ve been developing over the last few years about following your passions – it’s really worth it, but you have to overcome your fears and you can’t just expect the world to come knocking because you’re now doing something interesting. It requires interaction, networking, practice, and footwork to channel your passion into something that can put a roof over your head. But it’s worth it.

Robinson does a great job bringing these ideas together into a very readable book, packed with approachable stories and ideas. If you’ve ever had an inkling of a passion in your life but have kept yourself from chasing it for one reason or another, Ken’s book might just be the antidote.

As with many books of this type, you get out of this book what you put into it, so if the concept seems alien or uninteresting to you, you likely won’t get too much out of The Element. However, if you’re struggling to find your passions and direction in life, this can potentially be a life-changer.

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