The Art of Possibility

March 1st, 2012

This book by Roz and Ben Zander is not a self-help book. It is better than that. The writers of self-help books usually make certain assumptions about their readership. They assume that their readers have certain issues, or are unhappy underachievers. This book doesn’t. This book doesn’t require any fundamental change in your beliefs about yourself and the world around you. It doesn’t ask you to take on board any philosophical or psychological body of doctrine. This book doesn’t seek disciples. It is that rarest of objects – a book which can really make a difference to the lives of those who read it.

I came across this book purely by chance. I was searching for Benjamin Zander on the Internet. For quite a number of years now Mr. Zander has been making recordings of the Mahler symphonies but his Mahler cycle appears to have ground to a halt. I was looking for new Mahler recordings by Zander when I came across this book.

Ben Zander is a conductor with a difference. For many people, music is essentially the expression of emotion through sound. For Zander it is something more – it is a medium of communication. That is why a Zander recording will usually come with an extra disc in which Zander himself talks about the work he has recorded. Even for the seasoned music lover, these talks are always compelling and enlightening. So is his music making. Some conductors seem to be performing for their own satisfaction alone. But you always feel that a Zander performance is communicating with you – addressing you.

There is something else about Zander with which I was less comfortable. For many years Ben Zander has been working with businesses and corporations, giving talks and holding workshops on a range of topics from people management through to motivation through to the theory and practice of effective leadership. There’s nothing wrong with that in principle, but it did seem a very odd thing for a conductor – a classical musician – to be doing. Surely it is the business side of the music industry which has brought the whole world of Classical music into decline? Music has become commodified – a product to sell in order to make money. If it don’t sell by the shed load it aint important. So, no more studio recordings of opera – it doesn’t make enough money. The big companies no longer have any time for “minority” tastes and interests. Mahler might not be a “minority” taste at the moment – but that could all change. Why is Ben Zander getting his hands dirty?

I was mistaken. Business and commerce is part of life, not something you can simply ignore. Some of the greatest creative artists have been those who really understood the nature of the demand for their work and the business of marketing and selling their artistic creations. Perhaps if Mozart and Schubert had understood the music business as well as, say, Beethoven and Verdi did then their creative lives might have been both happier and longer.

The Art of Possibility is published by the Harvard Business School Press. The book is about the transformation of professional and personal life but the book doesn’t really draw any hard and fast distinction between these two areas. The book essentially consists of a series of “practices” which, if adopted, can help, enhance, transform both personal and professional live. Ben Zander is the co-author of this book. His name appears after Rosamund Stone Zander. Roz Zander is a therapist and an artist. As a therapist myself I recognize certain theories and techniques employed in the course of this book. Much, of not most, of this will, I imagine, have come from Roz Zander.

Each chapter of the book is devoted to a “practice” or technique which, if adopted, can help to transform personal and professional life because these practices can help to free us from some of the assumptions we have which block achievement and limit possibility. What follows is a very condensed summary of these practices. In the book they are elaborated at much greater length and illustrated by examples and anecdotes drawn from the personal and professional lives of both authors.

1. It’s all invented. The brain is hard-wired to perceive the world, the reality around us, in a certain way. Reality, as we perceive it, is a product of the human brain. But this practice does not require you to behave as if the world around us were not real, or were some kind of a dream. “Invented” or not, if you jump off a tall building, you will die. If you wander across a busy motorway you will get run over. This practice is trying to raise our awareness of the fact that much of our interpretation of what we experience is indeed invented by ourselves. We are, in fact, free to jettison what we have invented, or to invent something new and more helpful.

2. Stepping into a universe of possibility. This short chapter draws a distinction between “the world of measurement” and the world of possibility. Two plus two will always equal four. No car would move, no plane become airborne, without exact measurement. But something exists beyond the mechanics of materialism. The “world of measurement” can see no connection whatsoever between a teenage girl and a burning blob of gas floating in space some 94,000,000 miles from earth. But when Shakespeare says “Juliet is the sun” we grasp the truth of it immediately. Possibility is a type of artistic creation, one in which we can indulge every day of our lives.

3. Giving an A. This practice involved giving people “top marks” not for what they do but for what they are. This is something which we therapists would call “unconditional positive regard”. It doesn’t mean assuming that everyone is perfect. It doesn’t mean overlooking the faults and misdeeds of others. It does mean recognizing that every single person you encounter had more potential in them than either you or they could ever imagine. As a teacher, I have employed this practice myself, with astonishing results.

4. Being a contribution. Or, as the authors say, throw yourself into life as someone who makes a difference. Or, as I would say, give yourself an “A” for a change.

5. Leading from any chair. You don’t have to be formally “in charge” to make a difference. The previous two practices lead naturally to this one.

6. Rule number 6. Rule number 6 is: don’t take yourself too seriously. This might seem pretty self explanatory, but this chapter draws a distinction similar to the one implied in Practice number 2. The distinction here is between the “calculating” self and the “central” self. The calculating self is at the mercy of the world of measurement, fixed and trapped. The central self, in which nothing is fixed and everything is possible, belongs to the world of change and transformation.

7. The way things are. Or, as Johann Strauss would say: Glűclich ist, wer vergisst / Was doch nicht zu ȁndern ist – “Happy is he who accepts what cannot be changed”. Sometimes bad events, accidents or disasters can be turned into something better that what would have happened if those misfortunes had nor occurred. I dealt with this in my earlier article about Sophie Morgan.

8. Giving way to passion. Let passion flow through you. Don’t hold back. Harness its energy.

9. Lighting a spark. “Enrolment” is the key concept here – to generate “a spark of possibility” for others to share. Again, this is a natural continuation of practices three, four and five.

10. Being the board. This is really the key practice of the whole book. All the other practices, in one way or another, relate directly to this one. At the heart of the practice is a compelling metaphor: life can be conceived of as a board game, such as chess. Normally we think of ourselves as one of the protagonists on the board – whether king, pawn or something in between. But there are times in the course of our lives when the piece on the board which represents us runs into trouble, menaced by some other piece, in peril of a checkmate, or trapped in some way. When such crises occur, we tend to view them in terms of conflict – us against the enemy, us against a hostile destiny. “Being the board” requires a radical change of perspective. It requires you to think of yourself not as a protagonist on the board but as the board itself – to start to see yourself not as an actor in your own drama but as the actual framework, or stage, in which the drama of your life is played out. So, when a crisis occurs, one’s response should not be to blame or to attack, but rather to ask how that crisis appeared in the first place. Or, as the authors themselves put it: “If I cannot be present without resistance to the way things are and act effectively, if I feel myself to be wronged, a loser, or a victim, I will tell myself that some assumption I have made is the source of my difficulty”. (Chapter 10 p 143, emphasis mine).

11. Creating frameworks for possibility. Essentially this is about re-framing, to restructure a situation so that the situation can be seen as positive and helpful. One of the examples offered in the book is that of an imaginative and courageous teacher, one of whose pupils had lost her hair though cancer treatment. The teacher shaved her own head and, instantly, what had seemed threatening and abnormal suddenly became the desired norm. All the other children in the class had their heads shaved.

12. Telling the WE story. John Donne once said that no man is an island. And yet, in modern western culture, the emphasis is so often upon “me”. Professional life is about the acquisition of money for me as a consumer to spend, relationships are all about the pleasure and satisfaction “I” can get from them, pop culture and celebrity fetishism are overwhelmingly fixated upon the individual. What happened to “we”? Well, “we” haven’t gone away! Even the most greedy and voracious corporations appreciate the value of the “team”. And only the most egotistical or narcissistic of us can fail to realize, at least at some points in our lives, that we need others, that we belong to something bigger. Even Mahler, often thought of as the most neurotically self-obsessed of creative artists, was not simply laying bare his own soul – he was creating a world in which all of us, without exception, can share if we wish. He was telling the WE story.

Any summary requires omission, and therefore runs the risk of distortion. The above summary is not intended as a substitute for reading the Zanders’ book. The book itself describes the practices as simply and as clearly as possible and proceeds to illustrate them by means of compelling, usually anecdotal, illustrations and examples. It is a very easy book to read – but that doesn’t mean that it is saying something simple.

What of criticisms? I suppose one could complain that the authors do little to link their practices together in an overarching theoretical framework. But the purpose of the book is not to foist any theory or doctrine on the reader but simply to offer him or her some ways of making life more enjoyable and fulfilling. A more serious criticism might be that this book is very much aimed at its readership, and that readership is very likely to be educated and, for want of a better word, middle-class. In spite of 21st century economic woes, the world does present near endless possibilities for the educated and (reasonably) affluent Westerner. But to what extent is it possible to “become the board” if the town in which you live is about to be flattened by a hostile armed force? It is possible to “give an A” to the person who has raped your child? Can you tell yourself that “it’s all invented” if you have only been given three months to live? To include such situations would require a much larger book – maybe one which the Zanders will go on to write.

In the meantime I sincerely hope that Ben Zander is able to apply practice number 9 and enrol some sponsors for his as yet unfinished Mahler cycle. I await the next instalment with impatience!

Zander, R. S., Zander, B. The Art of Possibility, Harvard Business School Press 2000

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