One of the best books I’ve read in a while is The Element by Sir Ken Robinson. The sub-title is “How finding your passion changes everything”, which pretty much sums up neatly what it’s about. Regular readers will know that I’m a big fan of Sir Ken and his views on creativity and education and this book is full of witty, inspiring and insightful stories about people who have found their own ‘element’ – be it in sport, politics, music, arts, business, whatever. But this isn’t a book review. I wanted to pull out one passage that really struck a chord with me. Sir Ken was recalling a time when he watched his brother play in a band in Liverpool many years ago. After the gig, a young Sir Ken approached the very talented keyboard player, Charles, and said “I’d love to play the piano like that”. “No you wouldn’t” replied Charles. “Er, yes I really would” said a surprised Ken, to which Charles responded: “No you wouldn’t. You like the idea of being able to play the piano. If you’d love to play it, you’d be doing it”. And he’s right. We all like the idea of being really really good at something, of obtaining mastery in a particular skill, but how many of us are truly prepared to put in the hard work and dedication to reach the heights to which we say we aspire? In his bestselling book Drive, Daniel Pink describes mastery as one of the key motivating drivers for the 21st Century. But as Dan says, “only engagement can produce mastery”. We’re not going to achieve excellence in our personal lives unless we become engaged. I won’t become a scratch golfer because I can’t get excited about golf but until recently I was prepared to work hard to be as good as I can be at tennis. Why, because I love the sport and I had role models (Sampras and Federer). I was engaged. By the way, I still love tennis but I’ve ‘found my level’ and I’m comfortable with my own level of mastery! But what about professional mastery? We all want to be as good as we can possibly be in our jobs, right? But we have surveys up to our eyeballs telling us that so few people are engaged at work (as little as 2% in some organisations) so where’s all this mastery going to come from? According to Dan Pink, the magic formula is autonomy, creativity and purpose. Give people the freedom to take control over their jobs and careers, allow and encourage their creativity and provide them with a sense of meaning. By doing so, we enter the world of ‘flow’, famously invented by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to describe the state of mind of being ‘in the moment’ – what athletes call ‘the zone’ – when you are so consumed with what you are doing that you fail to notice time passing and you can think of nothing else. When was the last time you were in flow? For me, it’s when I’m writing – when I know I’m writing something good – or when I’m running a workshop and you can tell things are happening in the room. Progressive companies are recognising the business benefits of flow and enabling their employees to seek mastery (mastery is never obtained of course, the struggle for perfection is all part of the attraction) through creative performance management, collaborative technologies and playful environments. This is where communicators can make a big difference – not only by seeking their own mastery, their own moments of flow, but through telling stories, reinforcing meaning and sharing creative anecdotes. Let’s interview colleagues and ask them what being ‘in the zone’ means to them, when they are most fulfilled at work, what motivates them and what part of their job they most want to master. Let’s draw a clearer line of sight between the organisation’s objectives and the actual on-the-ground capability it requires to deliver them. And then let’s celebrate that capability. Who are the experts and why are they good at what they do? Who are the learners and what do they need to get better? So many business communications are too impersonal. Let’s get real people talking about their aspirations, their pursuit of excellence, their ‘element’, their passions and motivations. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes the deep sense of engagement that comes from being in flow as “the oxygen of the soul”. Now that’s a story I’d like to hear.