# 13: Seeing the Element — Inside

Robinson, Ken (2009). The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, 3.

Story behind the Passage

The story above touched me so much when I first heard about it that I keep writing and talking about it in different contexts. I am writing “heard” about it because, as far as I remember, I first watched a TED Talk by Ken Robinson in which he mentioned the story of Gillian Lynne. Today, I thought of the story again when talking to someone about executive education. There had been a case where a brilliant coach was rejected by an institution because of a simple misunderstanding that could have been settled easily if a simple question had been asked. Instead, a misunderstanding led to the consequence that the respective person was rejected. “She was brilliant, that was clear after only a few minutes of talking to her,” my contact remembered. “But they did not recognize this and instead told her she could not offer the program.”

Fortunately, in this particular case, the story ended on a positive note and she now gets to pass on her knowledge to people who can benefit immensely from it. But the point is: This is not the rule. What I mean by that is that millions of talents go unrecognized every day. They could move the world if people were only able to see — I mean, really see their potential and allow them to unleash it. This does not even take much money, usually. It just takes active listening, observing, open-mindedness, and trust. Somehow, all these things seem to be rare to find. I could tell endless stories about people who never find support, who constantly get rejected, and who end up not believing in their own capabilities. For many years, I was frightened of this scenario myself.

Ken Robinson’s book The Element offers nourishment for all those who think that something is terribly wrong with the education system in the West (yes, I know, this is very general…). This is not a secret anymore. Many people recognized this early on and took action. This is how all the online universities and learning platforms emerged that already count as established by now, including Udemy, Treehouse, Coursera and many more. But Robinson, a UK education researcher, really gets to the core of the problem in his book — the fact that the education system in the West does not promote the talents of children but actually kills them.

And by “education” I do not just mean elementary schools. Everybody who has been through many educational institutions can see systemic problems that run across all levels. And I can definitely say that I was affected by this passion-killing mechanism, even though I did not notice it consciously. One thing I can definitely underline: If I had not dared to go on the journey to “finding my passion,” I would not be writing this text this very minute. What does all this have to do with Gillian?

“… the doctor said to Gillian’s mother…” The passage is part of the story of how Gillian at the age of twelve was sent to a psychologist with her mother because the teachers suspected she had a learning disability. She could not focus, did not do her homework properly, misbehaved, etc. — all the things one always hears about children who are somehow lagging behind — to put it mildly. The doctor in this story is the real hero, next to Gillian, of course. For whatever reason — surely including sensitivity, gut feeling, and much experience — he questioned the ‘diagnosis’ of all others. In other words: He saw something in Gillian that was hidden from the sight of all others — even to her mother. This hidden potential was her ability — no, her irresistible compulsion — to dance.

In my life, I know I have been lucky to often meet people who saw something in me that I was not even aware of. But there were also many things hidden in me which others did not see but I knew they were there. It took many years to explore them myself and to finally decide to search for outlets for them. Books like the one by Robinson retrospectively explain this journey. And this is probably also the reason why I am so in love with the startup world. Many people in that crowd have walked similar paths. They followed their element quite early in life, thus also rejecting whatever others considered suitable or proper.

“Anyone would have noticed there was something natural — even primal — about Gillian’s movements.” Somehow this personal pronoun “anyone” seems to be a contradiction at first, right? How could her talent go unnoticed if anyone could have easily noticed it? But in reality, it always happens like this. Researchers call this “priming” (at least, this is one effect related to priming). As soon as you activate information in your brain and you start reactivating it repeatedly, this area in your brain gets so alarmed that any similar information will immediately draw your attention to it. All of us know this. If you are thinking about buying a Porsche, you will start seeing Porsches everywhere. If you think about spending your next vacation in Spain, you will start seeing pictures and travel guides of Spain everywhere.

This ability to see the natural passion in people as long as it is hidden is neither self-evident, I would say, nor is it common. But the ability to see it when the element has already made its way to the surface is human. We all see this which is why Robinson is right, after all, by saying that anyone can see it. It is so simple because it is not our brain that responds to it, at least not consciously. We are all energy conductors but when we do what we love, we seem to turn into walking power plants. And this how we catch the sparks by watching a person being in total resonance with his/her movements or actions.

I think, in one of the earliest coaching workshops I ever attended, we learned an exercise called “searching for lights.” It works like this: You get into pairs, one taking the role of the coach and the other one that of the coachee. The coach then keeps asking the coachee questions — any questions about preferences, interests, habits, and watches the verbal and non-verbal reponses of the coachee. You keep asking until “lights appear” in the eyes of the coachee. This is the moment when you have hit the sweet spot of a person — that thing that the person loves to do. This this shows on his/her face when just thinking of it.

“I walked into this room and it was full of people like me.” Human beings are social animals. For a long time, I doubted if that really is true. After all, there seem to be so many people that truly enjoy solitude — myself included, at least sometimes. But after observing many loners for a long time and after working amongst some, I do not think that they truly do not need or want anybody around them. It is just that they may not want to struggle that enemy inside anymore that tells one: “Ok, you have been disappointed by so many people that there is only one conclusion: People are evil and threatening. So, solitude is the only answer.”

I am not judging that conclusion. After all, every belief is a decision. And decisions are not to be judged as right or wrong by anybody else other than the person making it. But the point is: I think that even those who really, really prefer solitude over company sometimes do enjoy having people around them. But the likelihood of this to happen increases immensely if the other people are very much “like” that seeming loner. Yes, I do think that diversity and the attraction of opposites also have value and obviously bring joy to people. Still, especially when it comes to people who are not that much into other people, having like-minded souls around one makes it a lot easier to remain true to oneself. Am I drifting away from the topic here?

No, I do not think so, especially when it comes to the topic of finding one’s passion. As I just mentioned to someone who is looking for a new job yesterday, the question of “what do you like doing?” is not the only relevant one when trying to find the “right” career for you. The people surrounding you in that profession are at least equally, if not more, important. You can love a particular activity but if you constantly find out that your mindset, your way of thinking, talking, and dreaming is completely different from the people who also like this activity, the activity itself loses value. Hence, you might even completely stop doing what you love because you are not welcomed by the people around you — at least this is how it will feel like for you. The others might never notice.

For founders, I think, this aspect of a like-minded community is not to be underestimated. I would even say that this underestimation of the people factor is an important reason why many young companies fail or why the founders decide to leave. Just having the same vision of founding a company and building a particular technology does not say much about sharing the same or at least similar mindset when it comes to other aspects — most importantly values. Luckily, this feeling of being among people like oneself does not need words. It feels as natural as watching someone being in his/her element.

There is one more thing about Gillian Lynne that I want to mention. I actually searched for her name on YouTube a while ago because I had wanted to share the story in a talk. Whenever I do something like that, I try to make sure I know a little more about the person I am talking about than a short story. What I found — among some very interesting interviews — was a clip that shows how she was rehearsing with one of the main actors from Cats. This is how Gillian instructs Fiona:

“Don’t forget that when you come into this little circle of light, the rest of the cast is out… And it’s your task to absolutely drag the audience’s focus into you. And you will do that, not by selling anything but by being totally into yourself — totally, absolutely hedonistic about your own body. And the less aware of them [audience] you are, the more they’ll be aware of you.”

I am going to end with these lines today because to me, they reflect exactly what finding and living your passion goes along with. Yes, it is crucial to be surrounded by like-minded people. But when you are fully in your element, your surroundings will disappear, at least in your mind. You will focus on the inside. You do not look at others. You do not compare.

If you transfer these findings to the business world, it will put things into perspective. Yes, you can always start with analyzing your competitors, the market, do benchmarking. You can completely get lost in the outside world. But how about focusing on yourself and your biggest strengths — inside? Don’t you think the element will show and people will see how your passion can move the world?

Reflection Questions

1) Think of the last time you saw someone who was completely in his/her element. Who was it? How does it feel to think about this situation now?

2) Gillian has “to move to think” — Under which conditions do you think best?

3) Are you like the doctor in the story about Gillian? Do you sometimes see things in people that others see differently? How do you usually act in these cases?

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