March 6, 2021

The Genie in Us (genius) All

The Genie in Us (genius) All


The Animal Fable

Interests and Talents Reflection


If humans are naturally drawn to learning, why doesn't everyone enjoy school? If everyone has unique gifts and talents? Why do some people feel dumb, depressed or insignificant? If you want something different, you need to do something different. Welcome to the element is everything podcast where we discuss real world experiences, research and strategies around finding your element, what it is, how to do it, and how to support others in developing it. Please welcome your host with over 30 years of experience in public education and independent learning. Terry Novacek.

Imagine a world with less depression, suicide, addiction and violence, where disengaged learners come to life and feelings of inadequacy disappear. A society where everyone is tapped into their element, where they are operating at their highest capacity. Hello, I'm Terry Novacek. And this is the first of four episodes introducing you to the idea of discovering and developing your element, its importance, how to do it, and the results you can expect. It is March 2021. One year since schools and businesses shut down in response to a worldwide pandemic. COVID-19. Even after we've reached herd immunity, it is going to continue to change the way we look at much of our lives, including who we are, and how we learn. The late Sir Ken Robinson, who passed just this last August, found his element when he combined his wit and wisdom, his experiences, and all his observations to become a famous speaker and author. His presentation at a 2006 TED conference to this day, remains one of the most viewed TED talks of all time. He was extremely gifted at telling stories to make a point. And I'm going to borrow a couple of minutes of that Ted Talk for you to hear one. I've heard him tell it a dozen times, and I enjoy it equally as much each time.

"I'm doing a new book at home called Epiphany, which is based on a series of interviews with people about how they discovered their talent, and fascinated by how people got to be there. It's really prompted by a conversation I had with a wonderful woman who most people never heard of called Gillian Lynne. Have you heard of her? Some have. She's a choreographer and everybody knows her work. She did Katz and Phantom of the Opera. She's wonderful. I used to be on the board of the Royal Ballet in England, as you can see. And one day, Gillian and I had lunch and I said, How do you get to be a dancer? And she said it was interesting. When she was at school. She was really hopeless. And the school in the 30s wrote to her parents that we think Gillian has a learning disorder. She couldn't concentrate. She was fidgeting. I think now that she had ADHD would new. But this was the 1930s and ADHD hadn't been invented at this point. So it wasn't a debatable condition. You know, people, people weren't aware they could have that. Anyway, she sent went to see this, this specialist, so this oak paneled room, and she was there with with her mother and she sat on this chair at the end. And she sat on her hands for 20 minutes while this man talked to her mother about all the problems Gillian was having at school. She was disturbing people and  homework was always late. And so a little kid in the end, the the doctor went and sat next Gillian said, Gillian, I've listened to all these things. That mother's told me I need to speak to her privately. So she said, he said wait here we'll be back. We won't be very long and and they went in after. But as they went out of the room, he turned on the radio that was sitting on his desk. And when they got out of the room, etc. They're just started watching. And the minute they left the room, she said she was on her feet moving to the music. And they watched a few minutes and he turned to her mother. And he said, You know Mrs. Lynne, Gillian isn't sick. She's a dancer. Take her to a dance school. I said, What happened? Said she did. I can't tell you how wonderful it was. We walked in this room. And it was full of people like me. People who couldn't sit still people who had to move, to think, to move to think that it ballet tap. They did jazz they did modern contemporary. She eventually auditioned for the Royal Ballet School. She became a soloist she had a wonderful career at the Royal Ballet. She eventually graduates from the Royal Ballet School and founded her own company. The Chilean Dance Company, met Andrew Lloyd Webber. She's been responsible for some successful musical theater in history. She's given pleasure to millions and she's a multimillionaire. Somebody else might have put her on medication and told her to calm down.

Last I looked the "Do Schools Kill Creativity?" talk had over 69 million views and had been transcribed into 64 languages. Now given the talk is oftentimes shared with large audiences, the viewership would actually be much larger than that. He mentions in the talk that he was working on a book called Epiphany. I believe he was referring to his first book, which ended up with the title, The Element, How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything. It was published in 2009, and was quick to become a New York Times bestseller. Later in 2013, he blessed us with a sequel, Finding Your Element, How to Discover Your Talents and Passions and Transform Your Life. If you are a parent, or professional educator, and you have not read any of his books, I highly encourage it. At the very least, everyone should take the 20 minutes required to view his first TED Talk, if for no other reason than to not be one of the only few who haven't heard it. If you like it, there are plenty of other talks and interviews to be found on YouTube. He states in his talk, we have no idea what's going to happen in the future. That was 13 years before the pandemic. Boy was he right? We had no idea.

I had the pleasure of hearing Ken Robinson speak at a conference in 2009. After that first book of his was released. I was a director of a charter school at the time, it was considered independent study, and we worked with homeschool families. We called our model personalized learning. I often struggled with that label, because much of what I was seeing was not personalized. And even though we had a more personalized approach than the traditional site based schools, it still was not authentic personalization. People oftentimes make the mistake of thinking just because you're homeschooling, you're automatically personalizing. But homeschooling and personalized learning are not one in the same. While homeschooling is one method in which personalized learning can take place, it's not a given that it is personalized, because regardless of whether it is a teacher in a school building, or a parent at home, if an adult is telling a child what to do, when to do it, and how to assess progress it's not personalized, more to come on that topic later.

So what is the element? What does that mean? Where can I get one? How much does it cost? Is it legal? How will it change my life? How easy is it to return if I decide I don't want it? And what does all this have to do with the COVID pandemic? And so I bring you to the purpose of this podcast Element is Everything to answer those questions and more. Each month we will focus on a different topic as it relates to learning and daily habits, which help you discover and develop your element and help others do the same. As we know education impacts everyone, not just parents, professional educators, and students. When the members of a society are engaged in meaningful learning and feeling a sense of significance, we all win. But likewise, when folks feel ignored and challenged, and lacking feelings of real success, and I'm not talking about participation, award type success, their life decisions tend to eke out to the rest of us, and it's oftentimes not pretty. I hypothesize that if formal education spent more time guiding students to find their element and less time trying to fit everyone into the same mold. We would find rates of depression, addiction, suicide, violence, and hatred drop considerably. Imagine a song recorded by Johhn Lennon in 1988. Wait a minute, I don't mean imagine a song I mean, the song called Imagine. Anyway. The lyrics describe a world absent of religion, countries, and possessions so that we wouldn't have anything to fight about. And we could then establish a world of peace. Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream that one day America would rise up and live in a manner in which all men are created equal. Well, my dream is that more people will have the freedom and capacity to find and develop their element and live fulfilling lives, to love themselves and others, and to do great right things. And so here we go.

Robinson described the element as doing something that feels so completely natural to you, that it resonates so strongly with you, that you feel that that is who you really are. It's where natural aptitude meets personal passion. Think about that for a minute. Where natural aptitude meets personal passion, where talent and interest collide. Your element is not something you get, you can't log on to Amazon and order a quantity of two elements. Or use your Doordash app to order kung pao chicken with a side of element. You don't go to the doctor and get a medical element card. And you don't need to arrange a back alley meetup to get it. It's something that's already within you. Something that gets more powerful as you develop it. What it costs mostly is time and the willingness to take ownership of your life. What it begins with his mindset. The idea of a growth mindset made popular by Carol Dweck is the belief that one can continue to learn and become more intelligent with effort. This is in contrast to a fixed mindset. That belief that we're born with a certain amount of talent and intelligence that can't be improved, no matter how much effort. While a growth mindset is absolutely crucial to discovering and developing your element, you need more than that. You need to be willing and able to engage all three of your brains. Yes, that's what I said, all three. And those of you thinking I've lost mine, hear me out on this. If I asked you to point to your brain right now, you would likely point to your head, and you would not be wrong. Our head brain is that powerful organ that manages our thoughts. It helps us to organize. And it reminds us that there are consequences for our choices. Well, that is unless you are a teenager, in which case, all I can say is hang in there, the prefrontal cortex does eventually develop. But there are other parts of our body that meets all the criteria of a brain as well, namely, our heart and gut. those thoughts in your head? Well, they're very much connected to the heart. And that subconscious, your little voice that is coming from your primary sensory brain, your gut. How many times have you heard or said things like follow your heart, or trust your gut, there's actually something behind the reason we choose those words. I'm not going to go into the science of it today. But I do request that you be open to the idea that when your head heart and gut align, you're able to operate as your best self. When you're operating in the zone. That's that time when you're you lose track of time. You feel just the right balance of ease in that you're not overly stressed and you have just the right challenge that you're not bored. Dr. Maria Montessori referred to the condition as normalization, which is not to be confused with being normal. By the way, it's when you're able to concentrate and work freely to determine your learning. Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Waldorf education also made reference to how learning happens best when the three parts of the whole brain the neocortex, limbic and sensory brains, aka head, heart, and gut are engaged at the same time. So let's segue into education a bit.

You will hear today's educators, the good ones anyway, talk more and more about serving as a guide on the side rather than a sage on the stage. For your Latin lesson of the day, I give you the word educo. It's a teacher-centered approach. It's that idea that we need to preserve and pass down knowledge, the action of rote memorization with a goal of creating good workers. On the other end of the Education spectrum, we have edujedi. It's a student-centered approach. It's a mindset where we believe we should be preparing students to create solutions to the problems they don't yet know, to developing skills and questioning, thinking, and creating. In other words, helping them learn how to learn and making them less reliant on a teacher and better prepared for the changes to come. So back to the pandemic. If we've learned anything about education in the last year, it's that we cannot put our kids or our parents in a position where they're like deer in the headlights when school buildings close. And I don't say that because we need to be prepared for school buildings to close again, I say it because we need to open our minds to the fact that the way it is always been done no longer jives with today's needs. And especially not with tomorrow's needs. The real world offers customization, it requires choices and decisions. And it's not always stable nor predictable. We cannot micromanage education, and then expect the products of that education, those passive learners we created to go out as young adults and save the world, conquer all its challenges we pass on to them and make life better for everyone. Even those that have been labeled as gifted students become unmotivated adults, when their purpose for learning was based on grades and awards. If that time and energy were spent more on finding their element and putting it toward a deeper purpose, they would have been better prepared for well, real life. Learning is not manmade, it's organic, it relies on an ecosystem. Those who think they can control it are just kidding themselves, great thinkers with much higher degrees in the field of education than me will tell you that children and adults learn differently. And it's related to motivation, with youth being motivated by peers, and adults being motivated by self-improvement. Well, I don't buy it. I believe both are motivated by both the children also want to do things better. And adults also find peers to be motivating. While there are some obvious differences, like children having more experiences for the first time versus the adult who's advancing a skill or knowledge in which they may already be proficient for the most part, I believe humans are humans when it comes to learning. And things like the stick and carrot methods of motivation, minimize the value and the level of learning regardless of one's age. An example of a stick is how we punish students when they don't have a predetermined list of words memorized by a certain date. And then they don't get any credit at all. And now they've lost all motivation to even learn the words and grades. Those are the biggest carrot of all, and sorry, but those carrots are plastic. Unfortunately, we have too many students these days that don't want to play the carrot game, who just disengage. Well, on the other hand, we have others committing suicide and turning to prescription drugs because they are taking them too seriously. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying learning should be void of any kind of pressure. After all, that's life. I am one that believes resiliency is a much-needed skill. Much more than memorizing the periodic table of elements by the way. I'm just saying there's a healthy level of stress, a level that actually results in deeper learning. And it even has a name. It is your stress, eu s t r e s s. It's that feeling we get when we're excited, or even slightly anxious about a challenge or something new. It's something we know we can work through, but still has a little bit of a rush for us, like finishing a race or going on a first date, or speaking in public. Too little stress leads to boredom and depression. Too much stress shuts you down altogether, boom, door closed, stress is gone because now I no longer care. Some protect themselves by operating somewhere in the middle. Just tell me what to do and I'll do it that keeps them safe keeps them from having to deal with any of the responsibility of their decisions, or the fact that some of their choices might end up being bad. Again, this is only a tactic for avoiding stress and shunning personal responsibility. But here's the thing. If we choose not to take the lead when it comes to our own life, someone else will. While on the surface, it might sound great to have someone else do all the thinking for you. You have to remember you can't have your cake and eat it too. If you choose to leave your learning up to others, you're choosing to also give up the freedom and creativity gifted to you missing out on the joy and the reward of personal achievement of being Your best you.

William Damon has a book, The Path the Purpose How Young People Find Their Calling in Life. In the appendix, he offers interview questions used in a youth purpose study. Although the book is designed around helping youth find their path to purpose, the questions are really good for anyone's reflection, and self-reflection is key to finding and developing your element. And so let's get back to finding your element.

There's a fable that's been around a couple of decades now. I believe the original author was George Reavis, and I've taken the liberty to add my own edits. It goes something like this. Once upon a time, a group of animals decided to organize a school that could serve all of them. They adopted a curriculum consisting of running, climbing, swimming, and flying. To be fair and ensure each had the same skills and knowledge. All of the animals took all the subjects. The duck was excellent in swimming, in fact, even better than his instructor. He made passing grades and flying but was very poor and running. Since he was slow and running, he had to stay after school and drop swimming to try and improve his running. This was kept up until his webbed feet were badly worn. Meanwhile, his swimming ability declined to average, whatever it was acceptable in school, so nobody worried about that. Except of course the duck. The rabbit started at the top of the class and running but had a nervous breakdown because of so much makeup work in swimming. The squirrel was excellent and climbing until he developed frustration in the flying class where his teacher insisted he began on the ground instead of the treetops. The exertion led to a C in climbing and a D in running. The eagle was considered a problem child and discipline severely. In the climbing class, he beat all the others to the top of the tree, but he insisted on using his own way to get there. At the end of the year, an abnormal eel that could swim exceedingly well and could run, climb and fly a little, had the highest average, and was valedictorian, the prairie dogs stayed out of school because the administration would not add digging and burrowing to the curriculum. They apprentice their children to a badger and join the groundhogs and gophers to enroll in an element education Charter School, where each of them was given the opportunity to operate in their element.

There are two types of talent, aptitude. That's the one that you're born with. The things that come easy to you that others might struggle with, like reading, music, building, designing, public speaking. And then there are abilities and in those are the talents that were nurtured that you developed with practice. Often, our image of what would make us happy, are illusions. If you think of the duck in the animal school, if the duck really wanted to be a sprinter, he would never be happy. It's like the person chasing the higher paycheck doing something they do not enjoy because they don't have the talent.

Self-determination theory, a term coined by educational researchers and professors Edward Deci, and Richard Ryan back in 1985 explains that more than any external factors, including a paycheck, the best motivators are a sense of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Daniel Pink wrote a book in more layman's terms called Thrive, the surprising truth about what motivates us. And it talks about how we have a need to direct our own lives to learn and create new things, and to do better by ourselves and our world. In other words, to find our element.

In 2000, Steward Hayes coined the term who to go G, which refers to self-learning, independent of formal teaching, basically learning how to learn. Just last year, Michael y. Meyer and Young Zell published Teaching Students to Become Self-directed Learners. So I know it sounds like I'm just giving you a reading list here and that's not my intent, and I apologize if I pronounced any of the author's names incorrectly. I'm just trying to point out that the idea of self-regulated learning has been around for a while. And in spite of that much of our society, we're like that scene in the animated movie A Bug's Life. When the ants were walking in a line and all of a sudden a leaf fell from the tree. and created a gap in the line where we'll be stuck here forever do not, do not. We are trained professionals. They'll stay calm. We are going around the leaf around. I don't think we can do that. Since this is nothing compared to the twig of 93. That's it. That's a good dog doing great. Go. Go. Watch my eyes Don't look away. And he is tonight again. Thank you. Thank you, Mr. Sawyer. Good job, everybody.

Well, many people embrace the changes brought about by the pandemic lockdown and enjoyed more time with family more interactive game playing, imaginative play, reading, and learning about topics of their choice. There were far too many that just shut down because without a building to drop a child and a teacher to tell them what to do all day they were lost. The belief that learning requires a building and a certified teacher at all times has got to stop. Now I'm not saying lock the doors and fire the teachers and make everyone be an autodidact, which is just a fancy term for self-taught. But I think it's time to face it that the purpose or role of a teacher as well as how a building is used has changed. It's interesting when you look at people who have been self-taught, there are high-performing musicians like Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and Prince even John Lennon and Paul McCartney were largely self-taught. Bill Gates is one of the most successful self-taught programmers in history. And Leonardo da Vinci is probably the most well known for being self-taught. Although he did briefly attend a local Abacus school to learn commercial math. Granville Woods was an inventor in the late 19th century, he left school to work and help his family. And it was an experience working on railroad systems that led him to several inventions 60 patents, starting and running his own business, and inventing telecommunications and railroad machinery that made transportation safer.

Although these people I've mentioned live in different parts of the world, during different time periods, with different backgrounds and life experiences. They all manage to learn on their own, how to identify their passions, build them up and put them to good use. While they became famous for their genius, their genius surfaced because of their own self-determination. So I have a challenge for you. As we wrap this up. In the next week, take a minute to reflect and describe the quality of your life. It can be a scale of one to 10 it could be a general statement, a paragraph whatever works for you. But overall, how would you rate the quality of your life. Then create a list of three columns in the left column lists the things you are good at. And the middle column lists the things you love doing. In the third column, list the things you wish you could do. We will use that information next week when we continue the discussion around what the element is and why it is important. We will also be joined by a guest who will describe what it was like to be close to his element, and how he was able to find the missing link. If you found anything in this episode worth knowing, please share it with a friend, teacher, a business leader or another decision-maker. If you have suggestions for improving the content or presentation, please share them with me at, you will find a link on the website as well.

Will this podcast bring world peace? Not likely. But if I can guide just a few listeners to discover the path to their element. And they help just a few others do the same. That will be a step in the right direction. So thank you for being part of my element ecosystem.