No Magic Pill

Knowledge + effort + time = success

The Element

Posted by Ben on Friday, February 13, 2009

Blogging’s a little slow at the moment for a variety of reasons, one of which is that I’ve actually started writing a bit in my other (personal) blog, and another being the ballet—no, sausage factory of house hunting, mortgage qualifying (or lack thereof, as it’s turning out for this year), and subsequent decisions on how much to write off on my tax returns. I’ve also been working out more (finally) as well as getting in some reading. As such, I’m obviously behind on my links and won’t get to them today; I’ll have a large link section on my next post unless I just do another link-only post.

This post has practically nothing to do about (direct) physical health. Instead, this is more of a mental exploration. I’ve been reading The Element, a book by PhD and gem Ken Robinson, over the past few days, and while it’s not really worthy of a review here, it does touch on some issues of mental health—not in the clinical way, just in the day-to-day and lifetime ways.

The premise of the Element (concept, not book) is similar to that question parents, teachers, counselors, and whoever else may’ve asked you at some point in your life: financial and logistical issues aside, if given the choice, what job/career/passion would you pursue in life? However, it’s not that simple. There are a lot of entertaining options out there, but the Element is about more than just passing the time without boredom. Instead, it’s about engaging in a pursuit that alters your state of mind and changes your perception of time. We’ve all been in situations where minutes pass like hours—that’s obviously not your Element—but we’ve all also been in situations where hours pass like minutes when we’ve been caught up in whatever we’re doing, loving every moment, wishing it wouldn’t end because we enjoy it so much. The trick is that we didn’t even think about it that way until after the fact; once you make yourself consciously aware of your condition, you immediately lose that time-warped mentality. Those moments are the times you are in your Element, and according to the book, it’s the people who manage to find, nurture, and incorporate their individual Elements that are the most content. That doesn’t mean they have to make a living at it, though many do, but it still has to be a part of life. It sounds cumbersome, but if it’s truly a passion, you don’t even realize you make time for it; it’s just a part of your life.

Anyway, I got to thinking about situations and activities that put me in my Element, where I lose track of time and gain a greater sense of self while recharging the batteries, so to speak, and yes, there have been more than a few, as you’ll see below. My (semi-rhetorical) questions are: how do I know my true Element if I’ve found it—or at least large chunks of it—in so many varied activities, or is there a way to incorporate them all under one venture? Also, how do I make it/them a positive part of my life (read: either make a living at it or at least not detract from regularly paying the bills)?

Training/Diet program design
Yeah, I know it sounds a little cliche given the general direction of this blog, but whenever it comes to putting together a program, whether training or diet or both, for me or for someone else, I tend to lose myself in the process while considering the person’s fitness and body composition goals, current condition(ing), timeframes, available equipment, mental/emotional adaptability and willingness, my own resources from which to pull information, and so on and so forth. It’s great, really, and I’ve had the good fortune to have a few people put their trust in my work. Needless to say, when they see results, it’s a nice feeling, and considering how few people actually come to me ready to do pretty much anything I say, this part of my Element easily fits into my life.

Physical activity
This pretty much only involves lifting, conditioning (not running), and playing with my dogs right now, which is plenty and would satisfy me for the rest of my life. These are the places where I feel attuned to something primal, basic, and in-the-moment without regard for the past or future or any of the petty cerebral issues that taint day-to-day life. Lifting requires concentration, both in proper movements and in tracking progression. Conditioning requires making the brain override the body and push through lactic acid build-up and shortness of breath and general feelings of omigodmakeitstop! and the like. Playing with the dogs is the essence of living in the moment, both in their own thought processes as well as in how they engage in their play with me and with each other.

You’d never know it just by looking at me, but I’ve had two extended phases of dance in my life. While this usually requires a partner (more a hindrance than a help in finding the Element), a GOOD partner pays attention and practices and learns the other person’s intricacies, meaning the two people build trust and familiarity to the point where each can let go of conscious thought and just go by feel. I had the fortune of having a good partner in high school when I both learned and taught shag. College pushed us apart, and I never returned to that style because, logistics aside, a good partner is a rare find, and I never connected with anyone through dance the way I did with her. Then, a couple years ago, I got very involved in country/Western dance, both line and partner. I went to clubs and took videos and largely learned the dances by practicing at home, but I also got to a point where I was teaching others again, which was a lot of fun, and when I didn’t know the dances, I coordinated with others who did and setup get-togethers with several people to learn. Dance had once again become a big part of my life, to the point where I was inquiring about joining or starting competitive groups (I was nearly at a competitive level with shag before high school ended). However, several factors started pushing me away from this style: the shag six-step count was/is so ingrained that I couldn’t shake loose from it when trying the two-step; I tore my hamstring (sprinting), which sidelined me for months just as my interest was peaking; and other things started taking priority (like not waking up feeling like crap every Thursday morning).

Riding my Harley
I don’t act like a biker, and I don’t really look like one, either, but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy and find myself out on the rural two-laners. I’ve written extensively in my other blog about solving the world’s problems while out on a ride, not to mention enduring fourteen-hour riding days and the occasional tornado. Motorcycles don’t coccoon you from the world that blasts by at who knows how fast, so you get a literal feel for temperature, sunshine, rain, chemicals, exhaust, bugs, cow manure, and so on. Much like playing with the dogs, there is a lot of immediate, experiential sensation, but there’s also a zoning-out of sorts, too. Needless to say, I never really enter my Element on a highway or in a city.

This is a more recent venture for me, but if I’m making pizza, I’m not paying attention to anything else. Other kinds of cooking get a similar but lesser response, but something about pizza, from making the dough to experimenting with sauces and toppings really tunes out the rest of the world for me.

Unless you’re completely new to this site, you know I can and do write. I enjoy it, but it has to be part of something bigger, not just writing for writing’s sake (though I’m trying that out to a degree on my other blog). Whether it was playing editor-in-chief for a short story compilation in high school or writing up a ream of paper on the uses of English in Taiwanese schools and society, writing usually puts me in my Element. Sometimes, of course, it’s like pulling teeth, and I need to step away from it for a day or a week at a time, but when it clicks, there are few things like it.

Drawing/Painting/Photo editing
Like dancing, you’d never know I did anything visual unless I told you. I haven’t drawn since high school, I think, but it was really the first thing I noticed that induced a mindshift, thanks in large part to the book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, which I’ll discuss more in a slowly brewing post on influential readings. At first, it was just pencil work since that was what was readily available. Later, it became charcoal, then watercolors, then scale models (thanks to a godawful semester in architecture school). I never really did anything completely original—everything was a mock-up of something I was looking at, whether it was something right in front of me or just a picture or schematic. However, more than anything else, this particular activity really took me out of the realm of conscious thought and dropped me smack into what I can only compare to a really good buzz on really good beer, just without the lightheadedness or sleepiness; on the contrary, my mental capacities were arguably the strongest I can remember during these times. As for the photo editing, I still do that from time to time, whether it’s the actual photography (just a digital camera, so I look for editable content and framing) or messing around in Photoshop, but when I do, everything else falls away.

Audio editing/engineering
Much like photo editing, the audio work I learned during the earlier part of my radio career really honed my senses to compiling and melding elements into a seamless whole. After my live-show work ended, during which I was also in another world of heightened awareness, I’d go sit alone in a production studio and work for a couple hours that seemed like only a few minutes. I later learned that a half-hour’s work was more than sufficient for what we were airing, but more than a few times, I’d work on stuff long past that point, tweaking and experimenting and being totally oblivious to the outside world (it really helped that I was in a sound-deadened room). I’ve fallen away from the intensity of work, but I still dabble on occasion with software at home.

Now, wait a minute, you might be saying. Isn’t videogaming just mindless entertainment? I’d answer, in most cases, yes. If you’re playing something like Super Mario Brothers or Halo, it’s simple entertainment. However, I might argue that Rock Band is more than just entertainment, and something like SimCity is pure engagement. I don’t know how many hours I’ve spent in my life playing SimCity (for the record, The Sims sucks), but what I do know is that it sparked and developed a seriously massive—and odd—interest in transportation management. Of all the metrics involved in the creation and maintenance of a sustainable city (in the game, which isn’t nearly as screwy as real life), the one I paid the most attention was transit. The instant a route became congested, I either upgraded the path or blew up the infrastructure to rebuild something more efficient, regardless of the immediate effect on development. Transportation is the lifeblood of a city’s economy and livability, so if that means upgrading a highway, switching to rail, or removing roadways to improve walking and biking options, it’s the first priority. Development will follow if the “feel” of a neighborhood is appropriate. (Side note: this reminds me that I need to upgrade my computer(s) to handle the latest releases.) It goes without saying that this part of my Element remains a daily indulgence in my work as a traffic reporter. Too bad I’m getting sick of this part of my job.

So, there are my moments of Element. I’m still trying to figure out what I want to do when I grow up, I suppose. Some commonalities seem to be instruction/coaching, writing, some form of travel, physical activity, and efficiency of chaos (transportation leading to human movement?). Okay, enough rambling from me. I’ll try to get back to something a little more practical next time. Thanks for the indulgence.


2 Responses to “The Element”

  1. Redlefty said

    It arrived from Amazon this week at my house. Unfortunately it’s on my nightstand and in line behind three others that got here first.

    I guess that after reading it I’d rather be like you (lots of element choices) rather than stuck with no Element moments at all!

  2. Ben said

    I will say to not expect anything in particular from it. It kinda waffles between metaphysics, self-help, and condemnation of traditional education. All valid, but as the book went on, I wasn’t really sure where certain points were going. For me, it wasn’t a horrible read, but I certainly don’t put it at the level of, say, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers (unfair comparison) or Ishmael (also unfair). Maybe I just expected a bit more engagement from a perennial TED favorite.

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