Ken Robinson, the Element & the Iron Cage

The Element and Finding Your Element are Sir Ken Robinson’s venture into the self-help market, where he delivers a message that is, in one respect, the exact opposite of the message about education heard in his immensely popular TED videos. In the latter we were told that the entire educational system must be reorganised around a supposedly new understanding of the individual child. In the Element books, which are basically about work and are aimed at people who feel unfulfilled professionally, there is no equivalent message about the workplace needing to be reorganised around a new conception of the individual worker. No, instead, people who are unhappy at work are told to hand in their resignation and find something else to do – something that enables them to be “in their Element” – an occupation in which they can do something they have a talent for and can love doing.

Books like this are not written without prior market research, and what the research seems to have shown is that the self-help market is utterly atomised, being composed of individuals who want to pull themselves out of their respective holes. Doubtless Ken Robinson will have been told that what this particular market doesn’t want is broad social critique. The point for the self-helpers is not to understand the world – they are too impatient for theory – but to improve their lives, and for that they need inspiration and practical advice. Ken Robinson dutifully provides both the inspiration (in The Element, with a string of stories of talented people who found success doing the things they love) and the practical advice (in Finding Your Element).

In effect Ken Robinson suggests a solution to a problem. Now, we certainly don’t want to completely dismiss that solution – if people have drifted into unsuitable jobs, it’s great if they can be encouraged to find something more suitable. No, we don’t want to dismiss the solution, rather we want to point out that the solution is also part of the problem. What is the problem? In the Element books Ken Robinson frames the problem as something utterly personal: the individual’s dissatisfaction with his or her role in the division of labour. But this perception ignores the larger problem with work as such and what has become of it – a problem that thinking people have been wrestling with since the first telling of the story of the Fall. Ken Robinson says nothing about work as such and what has become of it, so to get a perception of that we will have to look elsewhere, turning (we suggest) to Max Weber (1864–1920).

Max Weber studied the world of work as it had developed in the West under the influence of the Protestant work ethic (see The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism). He described the way the voluntary actions of individuals who felt they had a religious calling to be industrious helped to build a colossal economic order unguided now by any understanding of its purpose or significance. The older voluntary industriousness is replaced by the total organisation of society for the maximisation of production – an organisation which “determines the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism.” We are all seduced now to serving a system in which material accumulation has become an end in itself – a seduction Weber thought might last until “the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt.” Although early Puritans like Richard Baxter (1615 -1691) had insisted that the concern for material things should lie on our shoulders like a light cloak which can be thrown aside at any moment, that light cloak has now become what Weber described as an iron cage.

The feature of Weber’s view that we want to highlight is the fate of our thinking about and understanding of the purpose of work and production. Some have called this ends reasoning – thinking about the ends/purposes of what we are collectively doing. It is the absence of this that gives the world of work the mechanistic and alienating character that Weber describes and condenses so well in the image of the iron cage. There is no inspiring view of the world we are either bringing into being or sustaining through our labours, and in the absence of that it is hard for work to have more than an instrumental significance: we work for the money. At the time and place (Greece) of writing the livelihoods and savings of millions of people are being sacrificed to save the European banking system. There is no mention of a vision of a new and better world that will become possible once the books have been balanced.

The iron cage

If we read the Element books with Weber’s view of the fate of work in mind, we could easily end up thinking that the subtitle of those books should be: Learning to love the Iron Cage, because in helping the individual to make the best of a bad situation they persuade him or her to yield completely to that situation, thereby affirming a state of affairs that really deserves criticism (and it is in this way that Ken Robinson’s solution is part of the problem, albeit a problem that he doesn’t acknowledge). We can pick out three components of the Element books with which Ken Robinson persuades his readers to yield unquestioningly to the very forces that are dehumanising them: 1) a post-Protestant view of work, 2) a one-sided concern with the individual, and 3) the exclusion of any concern or thought for the ends of our collective activity.

The post-Protestant view of work

One of the characteristic features of life in the West is the idea that it is by working that we fulfil ourselves, or “realize” ourselves. To become what we are we must “be” someone. How? By finding a line of work. By dedicating ourselves to it, and perhaps managing to distinguish ourselves.

Find your Element - the auditions

Although Ken Robinson includes hobbies as activities in which people can be in their Element, it is clear that his thesis is primarily about helping people to find their Element at work. When discussing Finding Your Element in an interview for Time magazine, he began by talking not about skilled activities in general but about occupations. To be in your Element is, first and foremost, to be in work and to be passionate about the work that you do. To counter the impression that this might be something for an elite few Ken Robinson espouses two very bold beliefs: Everyone can find an occupation that will allow them to be in their Element and every occupation is one that someone somewhere will love (Robinson in a Time interview: “If you think of any occupation, somebody will love it.”) Neither of these beliefs has any connection with reality, but they are essential to the encouragement and reassurance Ken Robinson needs to give his self-helping readers.

In your Element

Here we have the remnants of the Protestant notion of a calling to work, even though the Voice that might call us is now absent and the belief has faded that the best places in Heaven are reserved for the most conscientious labourers. Ken Robinson’s target market is unlikely to believe quite literally that the Devil finds work for idle hands to do, but it almost certainly retains the perception of idleness as something prima facie shameful. You must work, and you must be passionate about your work. This is actually even more demanding than the Protestant imperative that required hard work but didn’t require the individual to love his work – to love the thing that imprisons him.

Although Weber did not take this step, people like Hannah Arendt have argued that we are long overdue for a reassessment of the significance of work. Those of us who live in democracies lead political lives that are as nothing compared to our working lives. Why? Why is it that we must find fulfilment primarily as workers and not as citizens? The ancient Greeks would have laughed. For the Greeks, the business of work had to be organised to support the rich political and cultural life of a people who had sufficient leisure to enjoy it. For us, the opposite is the case: our political and cultural lives are organised to promote the business of work. Why is this not perceived as a senseless state of affairs? Surely it is utterly questionable, especially now that belief in the divine rewards for labour has evaporated (we rely now not on theologians to wield the carrots and sticks, but economists, for whom nothing is any longer divine). Of course the Greeks wisely avoided becoming dependent financially on a digitally connected international bond market dominated by Persian hedge funds, which gave them the freedom to organise their affairs according to ideas of the Good, the True and the Beautiful that hedge funds are notoriously blind to.

The “help” offered by Ken Robinson in effect encourages people to stay on the treadmill, persuading them that however hard things get they can find work they love. The iron cage is supposed to disappear from view. Momentary experiences of dehumanisation are to be reinterpreted as indications simply of a misfit between personal talent and the demands of a particular job. But maintaining the compulsion to work and denying that there is such a thing as the iron cage are just what is needed to preserve the perverse post-Protestant penal regime.


The image of the iron cage is a perception of an utterly impersonal and alienating social order. As Georg Simmel has argued, the odd thing about that impersonal order is that its emergence goes hand in hand with our insistence that the essence of our lives is something utterly personal – something that has to do with us as individuals in our difference from each other, not something we share with others. For Simmel the impersonal character of our society is evident primarily in the fact that money (and the arid world of number to which it belongs) is what has the highest socially recognised value. The connection between this and our insistence upon our personal freedom is that the space for the latter is only opened up when all our older obligations to society are replaced by a monetary payment (tax). Thus the rise of the personal and the rise of the impersonal are two sides of the same coin (sic). In trying to heighten the personal character of our lives we create a society with a public character that is overwhelmingly impersonal and dehumanising.

In the Protestant context the insistence upon the personal had to do with a belief in our immediate (personal) relation to the divine. In the post-Protestant context it has more to do with the idea that our highest obligation (insofar as the idea of such a thing exists at all) is to ourselves. As Ken Robinson puts it: “You owe it to yourself [to find fulfilment].” Two other features of this notion of the personal appear in Ken Robinson’s books: the essential uniqueness of the person and his or her personal responsibility.

The first of Robinson’s “core principles” in Finding Your Element is: “Your life is unique.” What is essential is not what you share with others but what makes you different. Hence, it wasn’t quite an accident that The Element made making a name for yourself an apparently essential feature of being in your Element. The examples, beginning with Gillian Lynne, tended to be of people who had distinguished themselves. He went first for people who had become famous, rather than holding up as a prototype the image of an anonymous worker who had overcome his egoistic concern for himself in a sort of Taoist union of ability and interest. Of course, Robinson tried to deny that the Element thesis really had anything to do with achieving a name for yourself. The unknown homemaker, he said, could be just as much in her Element as the world famous choreographer. But if uniqueness is the first of the core principles, how else are people to feel they have done justice to this idea of themselves if they don’t get public recognition for their difference? And how else are they to do that without making a name for themselves?

Ken Robinson’s first core principle is really just a confirmation of something that the atomised self-help market already insisted on. The self to be helped is me in my solitude; it is not we who are to recognise our common humanity and our common predicament, and come together to act in concert and thereby help ourselves in our plurality. No, we who eagerly buy Ken Robinson’s books stand alone (because we insist on our uniqueness as the essence of our being).

The second of the “core principles” in Finding Your Element has to do with personal responsibility: “You create your own life and you can recreate it,” says Ken Robinson. If you have drifted into a job that you are not happy with, it is in your hands to leave and find a better one. You have no one to blame for your unhappiness other than yourself, and there is no agency to look to improve things beyond your solitary self.

Interestingly, even before Ken Robinson delivers the first chapter of The Element he describes something from his own life that completely undercuts this aggressively individualistic idea of human being. The very first sentences in the book are the dedication – a dedication to all the members of Robinson’s extended family, of whom he says: “It’s when I’m with you and the ones you love that I really am in my Element.” The word “really” is not something to be skimmed over, since it implies that this being-with-others might be more important than the solitary striving for personal fulfilment. Unfortunately, in the rest of the book and in Finding Your Element, Ken Robinson then ignores this and focuses exclusively upon the solitary self striving to fulfil its dreams of personal happiness. And it is this sort of striving that is needed to preserve the cage-like quality of the society we live in.

The social Element


The overriding message of the Element books is: Be true to yourself. This requires three things: knowledge of your talents/abilities; knowledge of what makes you happy; and the courage to insist on your personal happiness in defiance of conflicting social obligations. (See the final chapter of Finding Your Element, where the major regrets of people on their deathbeds are listed, and top of the list is: “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”)

Ken Robinson must have read Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. Surely he remembers the distinction Ibsen makes in the play between the properly human notion of being true to yourself and the troll dictum: “Troll, to thyself be enough”. What Ken Robinson is really doing is repackaging the advice of the trolls. Following your passion without any sense of duty or obligation or higher calling is utterly troll-like. The word “true” becomes little more than advertising copy used to give a pseudo-human spin to a product of the trolls. People who are inclined to use the word “truth” in connection with themselves are people who are ready to set aside the concerns for personal happiness precisely in order to remain true to something. People like Martin Luther King Jnr., for instance, or Socrates, who preferred to drink the hemlock than promise to keep quiet and live in exile, arguing that he could not refrain from doing what he felt duty-bound to do, i.e. speaking out against the lack of wisdom in public life.

Call of Duty

To link this back to Weber’s view of our predicament: in a post-Protestant world the iron cage is sustained best by people who are content to live like trolls, with dreams that do not go beyond the narrow realm of their personal happiness. We must be persuaded to keep our heads down and not pay attention to the absurd way that everything is being organised. And Ken Robinson stands among the ranks of those who are persuading us to do just that. “Be true to yourself,” as Robinson describes it turns out to mean: “Your passion is enough,” and in practice this is indistinguishable from the old Nike slogan: “Just do it!”

If you have a passion for something, there really is nothing else to be said. You have a passion for advertising – finding new ways to make people dissatisfied with what they have? Great. Just do it! You have a passion for standardising school assessments? Great. Just do it! You have a passion for playing the casino of international finance, buying rice futures, helping to push prices beyond the reach of those who are starving? Great. Just do it! You have a passion for efficiency in the workplace, turning the division of labour on the factory floor into a mathematically precise science? Great. Just do it! You have a passion for creative accounting, helping the world’s largest corporations pay only a fraction of their taxes? Great. Just do it! Your passion is consuming you to such an extent that you fail to notice that you are walking on blood-soaked earth? No problem. Just follow your passion. All these people, utterly in their Element, are not just in the iron cage, they are polishing its bars.

Behind this view of action as thoughtless is a very questionable approach to history. In The Element Ken Robinson says: “No other period in human history could match the present one in the sheer scale, speed, and global complexity of the changes and challenges we face…We can’t know what the future will be like. The only way to prepare for the future is to make the most out of ourselves on the assumption that doing so will make us as flexible and productive as possible.” Here, Ken comes clean as an apostle of productivity as an end in itself, and he also paints a picture of history as something to be accepted fatalistically, and therefore as something beyond criticism. There is no question of reflecting upon where history is going and what we are collectively doing, and then trying to change it. The reason given for not reflecting – that change is so rapid – is, of course, no reason. Change might be rapid, but there are obvious trends that we can reflect upon and criticise if we have a mind to. There is a lot we can say that might begin: “If we carry on like this,…” But, Ken Robinson dismisses that kind of reflection and debate. Instead, helping ourselves means letting history take its course and focusing our energies on being flexible enough to adapt to whatever the unknown forces of history might throw at us, keeping ourselves in tiptop condition so that we can maximise our contribution to the GDP.

Back to the beginning

Perhaps everything springs from how we frame the initial problem. At the beginning of The Element Ken Robinson describes what got him thinking about the topic of the book: he notes how on his travels around the world “I lost track of the number of people I met who…don’t enjoy what they are doing…” But is this the real problem?

Ken Robinson has read Brave New World. He knows that it is not enough for people to enjoy what they are doing (which is not to say that enjoyment is not an issue). If we were to come across a happy slave, we would wonder whether it might not be better to help them to see their slavery for what it is, even if this might make them less happy. If, like Weber, we are troubled by the perception that we are all now in an iron cage, there are good reasons for not wanting people to be perfectly happy with the current state of affairs – for wanting people to draw strength, not from their personal adaptation to the cage, but from their ability to come together to challenge it.

Of course there is something to be said for atomised self-help. If people are stuck in a job they can’t stand, and if they have the opportunity to do something better, they should do it. But there is no reason (assuming we can ignore the market research) why that atomised self help can’t be complemented by an understanding of the way people can come together to help themselves collectively, if only they can begin to make sense of the world they live in, understanding something of its peculiar and very questionable structure. And, at the end of the day, what is most appalling about the Element books is Ken Robinson’s quiet message that there is no need to try to make sense of the world. If the iron cage had ears, that is precisely the message it would like to hear.

Out of the iron cage

written by Torn Halves on August 27, 2013 in Ken Robinson with 5 comments