Have you heard the joke – my heart was a scalar, till it found you. Now it’s a vector. ‘Being in your element’ is like being a vector, an entity that has both speed and direction.
Terence Tau is a vector. When he was two he watched Sesame Street, like many children do, but unlike most he used the television show to teach himself how to read! At age 3 he was solving equations, at age 9 he was attending university level mathematics courses, at 16 he had got his Masters degree, PhD at 21 and at 24 he became a full professor at UCLA. To top this he won the Fields Medal at 30, which is considered the Nobel prize of mathematics.
But most of us are not Terence Tau. We don’t have an epiphany about our passion. So the question becomes how can we find our element? How do we find something that we are not only good at but also love doing?
For young people the first step is to cast the net wide to discover what is it they are deeply interested in (at least at that point in time). Passion for any academic subject will most likely get discovered at their school, however discovering passion in non-academic areas becomes a challenge. One route is to try out different Clubs, if their schools offers these, or by joining activities offered by private enterprises, if these are available and affordable.
A word of caution for parents here. Karma they say is not about the act but the volition behind the act. You will earn good parenting karma if you encourage your child to try out different things with the underlying volition that you want them to go on a voyage of self-discovery. But if you do this in a super-competitive, better-be-better-than-our-neighbour’s-son, or any other Tiger mom volition then your Karma ledger does not augur well!
The other Karma caution is that you should not be prejudiced against any form of passion – “Why are you wasting your time on X. That will never get you a job.” To appreciate why bias against a passion will not pay off we can draw an analogy with the Periodic Table of Elements. During Napoleon III’s reign important guests dined with aluminium cutlery while those lower in the social hierarchy dined with mere silver. This is because till the 1880s it was extremely difficult to extract aluminium so it was considered a precious metal. Then invention of electrolysis and better ways of melting aluminium oxide made extraction significantly cheaper and aluminium was no longer considered precious. What is of ‘value’ can change very rapidly with changing circumstances so a passion or talent considered worthless today may well become most precious in the future, especially given the rapid rate of change we are witnessing. More importantly, passionate talent creates its own opportunity which a non-enthusiastic, non-energetic life pursuit never does.
Casting the net wide to explore varied areas of interest and finding your passion by a process of trial and error also includes cultivating hobbies. These days you can take a deep dive into a new hobby with DIY learning using online resources. For my upcoming workshops in April I am teaching myself robotics. I have found hundreds of free online tutorials on robotics and even a free MOOC on edX on micro-controllers. Plus, the required components are available quite easily now and are not too expensive.
Another way to discover your passion is through self-observation. Find out in what pursuit do you get so immersed, so involved and so enjoy yourself that ‘time seems to stop’. What Hungarian psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls ‘flow’ and gamers call ‘being in the zone’. You could keep a diary for a month or longer, where you note down what activity you were doing and what was your state of flow. A sufficiently long period of observation might give you insight about your element.
Do note that if you explain this to the young, as I have, the cheeky amongst them will tell you that time seems to stop for them when they are watching television! To which you have to patiently explain the difference between consumption and creation and how consumption alone does not lead to longer-term life satisfaction. You could even suggest ways of supplementing lean-back television watching with lean-forward creative acts like writing a review of the shows they watch, how these shows compare to other shows, or how these shows could inspire them to write their own piece of fiction.
Inputs from mentors can compress the time to discovery of your element. Teachers, parents or experts in a field who have observed you can opine about your aptitude and ability for a particular field.
‘A day in the life of’ observation could be another way to discovering your passion. Many offices now encourage ‘bring your child to work’ day. Use such opportunities to explore how a ‘day in the life of a profession’ feels like. Last year my wife took our friend’s daughter to her bank for a day so that this teenager could observe what a ‘day in the life of a banker’ feels like and see what do bankers really do (though what bankers do is a dark secret of the Universe, very hard to figure out!).
If viable, students could take a gap year after school and go on an adventure of self-discovery to different places, volunteering, or perhaps trying out different apprenticeships. Organisations like GapYear.com help with planning such sojourns for a fee but you can plan this on your own too.
For an adult the litmus of ‘being in your element’ is whether you think what you are doing is ‘just a job’ or do you jump out of the bed every morning eager to do what you do. It’s like that story of three men cutting stones. When asked what they were doing the first one grumbled, “I am cutting stones.” The second one stated, “I am making some money for my family.” The third enthusiastically replied, “I am building a cathedral.”
Often the reasons we don’t live our lives in our element are – fear of failure, fear of ridicule and lack of confidence. The alchemy of these three concocts thoughts like – ‘I am not as good as this other person, so if I try this new thing I am bound to fail and then what will others think of me’. A dose of ‘non-comparative self-confidence’ is needed to overcome this way of thinking.
I hope these ideas give you a sense of possible ways to discovering your element. You can also read two book written by Sir Ken Robinson on this topic.
Go forth, explore, find your element and become a vector!