Are You in Your Creative Element?

Ballet dancer in mid leap

Image by Jeff Medaugh


There are moments when we step into our highest selves. We are lost in our activity and performing at our peak. We’re smarter. We contribute more. We connect to the heart and root of our identity.

We call this “the zone” or “state of flow”. Dr Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his landmark work Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience describes it as “joy, creativity, the process of total involvement.” Time melts away. Nine hours can seem like twenty minutes. “The key element of an optimal experience is that it is an end in itself…the activity that consumes us becomes intrinsically rewarding.”

We merge with what we are doing. The dancer becomes the dance.

At the same time, we are fully and completely ourselves.

We are in our Element.


Being in the Zone doesn’t drain you of energy. It restores and recharges you. It makes you – literally – more alive. It is a powerful and transformative experience, and the sense of self and wellbeing that it creates spills over into other aspects of your life.

What if you could put yourself into the zone everyday?

What if you knew your Element?

Your Element is that personal sweetspot where something you have a true passion for overlaps with your aptitude and ability. Ken Robinson, in his book The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything describes it as “a different way of defining our potential. It manifests itself differently in every person, but the components of the Element are universal….Finding your Element is essential to your well-being and ultimate success.” Whether your Element is something that you can build a career around, or pursue as a recreational activity, it connects you to the deep internal pulse of your own creative spirit.

As Robinson puts it: “You don’t know who you are until you know what you can do.”

Finding your Element is like finding your soul.


But it’s easier said than done, thanks in part to our limited definitions of creativity and intelligence and how they work and interact. Most of us remain blind to our own potential, having decided long ago that other people – you know, the ones in black turtlenecks sipping their lattes – are creative, but not us. Other people have passions…but not us. We’re not smart enough. Or maybe we think it’s already too late for us; we’re too old; the chance to find our Element passed us by long ago.

And yet we’re entering an era when creativity is more important than ever. As the global population continues to explode, as technology continues to transform society at a wicked pace, as jobs continue to be outsourced or automated, the individuals who will thrive and prosper will be the ones who can’t be replaced, who think in ways that computers can’t. Seth Godin calls them the linchpins: the people who bring a creative edge to everything they do, who impress with the quality of their ideas and their ability to relate to others.

School didn’t prepare us for this. Public education is a relic of the Industrial Age, meant to turn boys and girls into the men and women who would stock the factories and keep progress thrumming along. Factories had little use for creativity or independent thinking. What resulted is a system that drummed the creativity out of most of us: that prizes conformity, linear thinking and standardized testing. We learned how to get the grades we needed. We learned to please. We learned to fear anything that smacked of failure or potential social embarrassment. We learned how to hide our authentic selves so well that some of us lost them altogether.

Rejecting this – rejecting whatever label you got slapped with in school – and embracing the combination of ways that you truly process the world is key to discovering your Element.

Because you are so much more than a set of numbers, whether it’s your IQ score or your GPA.

Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner puts forward the idea of multiple intelligences, independent of each other and equally important: linguistic, musical, mathematical, spatial, kinesthetic, interpersonal (relationships with others) and intra-personal (knowledge and understanding of the self).

Your intelligence is strongest in certain areas and operates on many levels. It is diverse, dynamic, and every bit as unique to you as your fingerprint.

Creativity is a process that draws on these different levels of thinking at the same time. It can be an intensely physical process that taps into feeling and intuition, association and memory, nonverbal as well as verbal smarts. You can be creative at anything at all, in art or math or business or relationships – anything that involves the application of your imagination and intelligence in any of its forms.

But what the process requires is the actual doing and making (otherwise known as “creating”). This means that your brand of creativity isn’t just in relationship to your brand of intelligence, but also the medium through which you develop and express your ideas.

And people who engage in creative work usually have this in common: they love their medium.

They love to dance. They love to make deals. They love to write. They love to shoot pool, or cook, or whatever it is that they do.

Actually finding that medium can be a revelation. Points out Robinson, “history is full of examples of people who didn’t discover their real creative abilities until they discovered the media in which they thought best.”

Let me stress that: the media in which they thought best. The media that plays to their particular profile of the multiple intelligences. Different forms of media enable us to think in different ways. When you find your media, and develop your practical skills in the use of that media, you might prove more creative than you ever expected.

And then you can find your tribe.

This could be as dramatic as leaving your hometown for the bright lights of the big city, or as mundane as going online.

You might find members of your tribe on your bookshelves, or somewhere in the past. They could be living or dead. Young or old. Near or far. What matters is that something in their life resonates for you and calls forth a deep sense of recognition. You see yourself in them: who you are and who you want to be. Through examining their journeys you can begin to imagine your own. To paraphrase Einstein: we all see further when standing on the shoulders of giants.

What connects a tribe – and separates it from a mere crowd or group – is a passionate commitment to the thing that they feel born to do. A tribe offers validation that this thing matters and has importance, even if the people at home thought you were nuts, or smiled politely and looked at you askance.

A tribe offers stimulation and inspiration. It challenges your sense of what is possible and provokes you to the edge of your abilities. Robinson refers to an “alchemy of synergy”: the mix of creative energies and need to keep up with your peers that forces you to push to new heights. From Florence at the beginning of the Renaissance to Silicon Valley at the end of the twentieth century, there have always been powerful clusters of individuals who drive innovation through the ways they influence each other. But first they had to find each other, which was akin to finding themselves, or giving themselves permission to truly be themselves.

It’s never too late to find your Element.

Life is not linear, although for some reason we Westerners tend to favor that idea. The road that brings us face to face with our Element is rarely so straight-forward. “Different capacities,” Robinson says, “express themselves in stronger ways at different times in our lives…We get multiple opportunities for new growth and development.”

The brain turns out to be surprisingly plastic. Research indicates that, so long as we actively flex its muscle, the brain will continue to generate cells and build neural pathways as we age (techniques such as meditation can accelerate this). If we’re willing to take the time to step out of our routines, evaluate our paths and return to the passions we let fall by the wayside or maybe never pursued in the first place, we open the door to some remarkable possibilities. We can discover the Element at practically any age.

You don’t know who you are until you know what you can do.

You and Your Element

Have you found your Element?

Where and when have you felt most deeply in your Element?

How do you recognize fellow members of your tribe?

About the Author: Justine Musk explores what it means and how to be a kick-ass, soulful and savvy fiction writer in the digital age at Tribal Writer. You can check out her books at and follow her on Twitter @justinemusk.

How to get creative work done in an "always on" world

Productivity for Creative People

Mark McGuinness' latest book Productivity for Creative People is a is a collection of insights, tips, and techniques to help you carve out time for your most important work – amid the demands and distractions of 21st century life.

“Of all the writers I know, I have learned the most about how to be a productive creative person from Mark. His tips are always realistic, accessible, and sticky. It’s not just talk, this is productivity advice that will change your life.”

Jocelyn Glei, author and Founding Editor, 99U

More about Productivity for Creative People. >>

Responses to this Post


  1. Beautiful post!

  2. “The media in which you think best.” Bam. You just crystallized what I’ve been trying to say, to explain, to people who don’t get what it is that I do. Saying “I write” doesn’t cut it. Because writing is just the bucket that captures all the intersecting intangibles that make me feel “in the zone”. Great post!

  3. I like you insight on public schools. Very true.

  4. The idea of transforming our educational system into a developmental-based mentor-ship is a genius idea. How many people go through school, college, and graduate school only to find their true passion, unrelated to their lifelong studies, years later? This could be avoided to allow people to truly thrive in their element. Great post – thanks for articulating what’s been on my mind for years.

  5. Thanks Justine for this great post.

    Nothing can be more true than this;

    “You don’t know who you are until you know what you can do!”

    We cannot truly define who we are unless we know what we’ve been configured to do-finding your element as you’ve rightly put it.

    My whole life actually began to take on a greater meaning when I found my element in 2005. I didn’t locate my tribes on time not until I consciously began to act out the real nature of my element online in late 2008 did I begin to attract a tribe.

    In all, finding one’s element is the secret to getting out of the SURVIVAL race most people are running.

  6. Justine,

    I know what it means to be in the zone.

    It helped me to breakdown and define my element, and I now see what I need to do get back into my element.

    Very helpful.


  7. Really great piece. I’m a big fan of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work with Positive Psychology and flow. I also sense an element of John Taylor Gatto in some of your anti-public schooling sentiments (of which I agree with 100%!)

    Creativity is an aspect of humanity that was never discussed in my cultural upbringing. It was something personal to the point of taboo, like religion or politics. You weren’t supposed to encourage people to be creative or think outside-the-box. Like you said, we were brought up to follow rules and remain obedient.

  8. This post really gets to the heart of exploring your own creativity and how best to express it.

    I know so many people who feel that longing to express their deepest selves, but are stuck on how to take action or think that creativity is something available only to “geniuses” or classical artists.

    They need to know that creativity is as “unique to you as your fingerprint”.
    Thanks Justine!