The Secret of “The Secret”.

December 18th, 2014


The Secret of “The Secret”.

A review of The Secret by Rhonda Byrne, Simon & Shuster, 2006.

About a year ago, a talented young performance artist came to me for some hypnotherapy for performance anxiety. Nervousness and anxiety had made her reluctant to try for auditions. After some therapy and self-hypnosis tuition she was once again able to put herself “out there”.

 In the course of our initial discussions she mentioned a book which had been recommended to her. She had read the book and tried to follow the suggestions it contained to no avail. This was a book which promised everything. Your heart’s desire can be yours and you don’t have to do a thing to get what you want – apart from alter the way you think.

I have encountered many books like this in the past. Books about bringing out your inner power, utilizing the “magic” in your own mind, and so on. But this book rang a bell. Unlike most “cult” books, this one had got itself mentioned by “successful” (i.e. famous) people, of one sort or another, who claimed to use its techniques. The title of the book is The Secret. It is by Rhonda Byrne. I try to make it a guiding principle not to voice opinions about books, or other things, which I haven’t read or seen, so I acquired this book from the local library. It shocked me. And I don’t shock easily.

The whole book rests on one single assumption. You can have literally whatever you want provided that you attract it with your thoughts (by asking the “universe” for it) and you then behave as if that thing has already been granted to you. Thoughts, apparently, have some sort of magnetic quality. If you think about something it will come to you. But that includes bad things as well as good things. If you have money troubles and you think about debt all the time then you will attract more debt. If you want to have a happy life then you need to be happy. Think happy thoughts. Always be grateful. Love yourself. And then – the whole world is your shopping catalogue! Having explained the “secret” – hardly a theory of Kantian intricacy – the theory is then applied to certain aspects of life – money, relationships, health and so on.

The book is very short – under 200 pages. It is written is a style of patronizing simplicity. It is one of those books which although ostensibly written for adults is couched in terms presumably intended to appeal to our “inner child”. This is highly characteristic of many American “therapy” books. Just consider the titles of some books about the now unfashionable “Neuro-Linguistic Programming” (or NLP, for short). Here are some of them: Frogs into Princes; A Handbook of Magic; Language Patterns Wizardry; Magic of NLP; The Sourcebook of Magic – and so on and so forth. The Secret is similar to the above in that everything is rendered simplistic. Everything works always and all the time, everything is miraculous without exception, realistic context is excluded and counter arguments are banished entirely. To consider a counter-argument would, presumably, mean thinking negatively. And we wouldn’t want that now, would we?

Because the book says only one thing and repeats it on virtually every page I found it intolerably boring and incredibly difficult to finish. It took a real effort to stay with it to the last page. What made the “journey” even more irritating were the constant interpolations from “teachers”, “experts” and “inspirational figures” whom I’d never heard of before and will never hear of again. One of the most irritating of these is a certain “Dr” Joe Vitale. I put his title in quotation marks as his “doctorate” is in something called “metaphysical science”, which is not an academic discipline recognized by Ivy League or Russell Group universities – or any other respectable academic establishments which lay claim to the title of “University”. There are numerous interpolations from this “academic” in this book and each is prefaced by his name and title – always a bad sign in my experience. As the holder of a PhD from a major British university I don’t take kindly to people who hijack the title of Doctor, even if they do so legally. The title is thereby devalued. But, then, I suppose that “Dr” Vitale attracted the title by just thinking about the qualification and having a high opinion of himself.

This book, then, consists of little more than stories or anecdotes of how certain people used the “secret” in various contexts for various ends and always with 100% success. Some of these stories and illustrations are of quite staggering banality. On p 88 we read the touching story of Colin. Colin was a ten-year-old boy whose family took him to Disneyland for a week (!). Colin didn’t like the queues at Disneyland. Lying in bed on the first evening he imagined being able to board all the rides without queuing. And – guess what? The very next day he was given a VIP pass to avoid all the queues. Hey presto. What a profound testimony to the power of the human mind. Pass the sick-bag, someone.


At least such stories as the above are harmless. This one isn’t. On p 59, the author tells us how she overcame the delusion that food was responsible for weight gain. Thinking “fat” thoughts is responsible for weight gain, not food. Here, then, is the author’s three-step weight loss plan. Step One: decide what weight you want to be. Step Two: attract that perfect weight to you by admiring clothes which fit a person of that weight and by praising people who are that weight. Think about that weight and size all the time. Step Three: Behave as if you are already at your target weight. Feel good about yourself and praise every inch of your body. That’s all there is to it. And, because thoughts and not food are responsible for weight gain you can presumably follow this simple three-step plan while stuffing your gizzards with every bit of chocolate you can lay your hands on. Hey presto. (When this fails, maybe come to me for some hypnotherapy for weight loss and we can start to make changes to your diet).

Hang on a minute. Anorexics think they’re fat, don’t they? They are constantly thinking fat thoughts. And yet they starve to death. Oh, there I go again, thinking negative thoughts…

The most intolerable of all these mendacious anecdotes comes on p 219. Poor Norman has an incurable disease. (The text says “incurable” not “fatal” but the implication is surely clear enough). But Norman knows the “secret” so he doesn’t sit around feeling sorry for himself. Not Norman! Instead, he has gets hold of a lot of funny films and has a jolly good laugh. And – guess what? Yep – he’s cured! So, if you’re in the latter stages of incurable terminal cancer all you need to do is to crack open the Bob Hope films and laugh your way to full recovery. Hey presto.

If, dear reader, you have read this far and are as angry as I am that such harmful, delusional and deceitful twaddle was ever allowed into print, then consider the implications of all this and be prepared to feel angrier. If money, health, happiness, success, and so on, are all due to our way of thinking, if these are things which we attract to ourselves through our own thought processes, by being lovable, bouncy, bubbly, smiling all the time, giggling with glee at all the glitz and glitter of the world and carefully avoiding such negative stuff as news of disasters, war casualties, famine and negative stuff like that – if this is the case, then what about the opposite side of the coin? Even “Dr” Joe Vitale cannot deny that there is pain, disease, poverty and suffering in the world but this must be due simply to the way that these suffering people think. If all those people who are starving to death in the Third World would simply lighten up, stop thinking about the agony of their slow starvation and attract a McDonalds or two to themselves then their poverty would be over. Hey presto. If children who are enduring the harrowing agonies of wars which they didn’t start and don’t understand would just stop cowering in basements as rockets fly overhead and get over the fact that Mummy and Daddy have been reduced to pulp, then everything would be fine. It would be Christmas every day. All they need to do is to leap out from wherever they are sheltering, ignore the silly old bullets, land mines and warlords who want to shoot them in the head, and just skip around imagining week long trips to Disneyland. And then – who knows? Maybe they will get a VIP pass, just like Colin. Hey presto.

Here, then, is the rub. If the “secret” is true, if the world around us is merely the product of your own thoughts and feelings, if everything which happens to us has been “attracted” to us by our own thoughts, then we have no one to blame for our misery, suffering and illness but ourselves. The happy and successful need to insulate themselves from such self-harmers as victims of war, famine, poverty and disease. Those wealthy, happy people deserve their millions and their property and all their possessions. Those who haven’t got those things have only themselves to blame. Why should rich (and therefore “good”) people bail them out by paying higher taxes for welfare safety nets, schools and hospitals and so on? They don’t deserve help because they brought it all on themselves.

The Secret is a neo-conservative, wish-fulfilment wet dream. It is one of the most pernicious books I have ever read.

Hey presto.

There is a baby languishing in this foul and reeking bathwater. Let us fish it out and pour some disinfectant over it.

Positive thinking is beneficial and self-love is key to a life of happiness. And by “self-love” I don’t mean the toxic near-narcissism of Bob Proctor, on p 121 of the book, who tells us that he loves himself so much that he wants to kiss himself. Ugh! No – I mean loving yourself as you would love those nearest and dearest to you. Looking after yourself, treating yourself with respect, making the most of what you can do and accepting what you can’t – that is self-love, properly understood. And it is my belief that once it truly takes hold it transforms your view of the world. The world is no longer one great big shopping mall. Happiness does not consist in what you are able to buy. The sight of a sunbeam pouring through bare autumn twigs can seem more valuable than any luxury high-definition home cinema, a few lines of Shelley infinitely more pleasurable than the latest loud Hollywood blockbuster which cost millions but which will be forgotten in a decade. But most importantly, it is an attitude which spills over into our relationships with others. To truly love yourself is to see yourself as part of something infinitely greater but something which is not there to gratify your every whim. It takes you away from the shopping mall mentality and places you somewhere quieter and more humane.




A Comprehensive Guide?

March 25th, 2013

James, T. (2003) Hypnosis: A Comprehensive Guide: Producing Deep Trance Phenomena, Crown House Publishing.

This book is by an American author and therapist. The approach to therapy outlined in this book is eclectic, to put it mildly. As a therapist, the author uses TimeLine therapy, Ericksonian hypnotherapy, and NLP. As this book is about hypnosis and hypnotherapy the main emphasis is on Erickson. Yet this book also contains a chapter on George Estabrooks and Dave Elman, whose work stands in marked contrast to that of Erickson. There is also mention of the eye-fixation techniques of James Braid, a 19th century pioneer of hypnotism.

The inclusion of such diverse figures and approaches in such a modest-sized book suggests that the author isn’t committed to any fixed theoretical framework when it comes to hypnosis. This is the first of two main problems with this book, and with so many similar books.

The bottom line is that this author, in common with so many other NLP and Ericksonian practitioners, believes – and wants us to believe – that there is no such thing as objective reality. What we regard as “reality” is really something which is mind-dependent. There may be some good philosophical reasons for taking such a view, but not for taking it so literally and simplistically as to imply that absolutely everything can therefore be changed if we only believe hard enough, or that everything bad that happens to us is somehow self-inflicted – our own fault. The subject of cancer is touched upon in the book, along with the suggestion that if we believe that our cancer can be cured then it will be cured. Therefore people who die of it simply don’t believe enough. The author doesn’t state this explicitly but the implication is clear enough. The author may believe this wholeheartedly. I find such suggestions dishonest, misleading and cruel. Dishonest because there isn’t a shred of hard scientific evidence to suggest that belief or faith, whether religiously or hypnotically induced, can have any impact on terminal cancer. Misleading because it suggests that hypnosis is a miraculous cure-all panacea – the language of magic crops up with depressing frequency in books about NLP and Ericksonian hypnotherapy. Cruel because it implies that people with terminal cancer have only themselves to blame for their condition.

For James, hypnosis and hypnotherapy seems to be about turning off the critical faculty. The argument seems to be that if nothing is “real” then anything which undermines the perception of the world as “real” will be sufficient to induce trance. James quotes Erickson’s statement that ambiguity in any representational system is sufficient to induce “trance”. Maybe there is some truth in this, but it is not the whole story. If it were, then trance would be induced by telling subjects that two plus two equals pink, or showing them some of Dali’s pictures of floppy clocks. The book included an “induction” which merely consists of a series of simple questions. I have been a hypnotherapist for long enough to know how utterly ineffectual such an approach would be with most clients one sees on a day-to-day basis.

Related to this is the other main problem with this book. Books about hypnosis and hypnotherapy inevitably contain “scripts” – sequences of suggestions which the hypnotist says to the subject. For an experienced hypnotist / hypnotherapist, reading such scripts can be tooth-grindingly boring. But these scripts have been compiled by an American therapist with American subjects in mind. Does this matter? Yes, because what is perfectly natural and effective for an American therapist and client will probably seem hopelessly false and phoney if delivered by a British hypnotherapist to a British client. Americans are often more emotional and expressive than British people. Inductions which might seem compelling and convincing to an American subject might well seem embarrassing, importunate or even repellent to a British or European client.

What the reader needs, then, is a clear explanation of the principles upon which the induction methods are based, and this is what is largely missing here. Why is it supposed to be effective to ask certain questions, to omit certain words or to phrase things in a certain way? With Erickson, such questions are very hard to answer because, consummate communicator as he was, one can be pretty certain that much of what was effective in Erickson’s own inductions was non-verbal – body language, tone of voice and verbal nuance, personality, charisma and a whole host of other things.

At the end of the day, it is not all about text and script. The poetry of Shakespeare or Keats may move us to tears if delivered by a great actor or speaker, or it may bore us to distraction or make us squirm with embarrassment if recited by someone with no talent or feel for the words at all. The same is true with hypnosis. The same text, script or induction methods may be supremely effective if delivered by person X and totally ineffective if delivered by person Y. Any experienced hypnotherapist knows this to be true but you will find nothing in this book to enlighten you as to why this is the case.

That said, the book is by no means without value. Anyone interested in Erickson might find this a useful introduction. It certainly contains a clear and concise summary of his methods, at least at the verbal level. Reading this book has reawakened my own interest in both Erickson and Elman and it has also reminded me of the power and importance of self-hypnosis and self-suggestion. For that alone the book was worth reading.

Horsham Hypnotherapy: serving clients from Horsham, Crawley, Burgess Hill, Haywards Heath, Guildford, Redhill and all parts of West Sussex, East Sussex and Surrey. Contact us today.

Hypnotherapy Made Simple?

April 18th, 2012

To write a review of a book which was first published in 1967 and is no longer in print might seem a rather unusual thing to do. But this is rather an unusual book.

When the book was written, the author was a practicing hypnotherapist based in the West End of London. It offers basic instruction in hypnotic induction and trance deepening and also offers ideas and suggestions regarding the therapeutic applications of hypnosis. The book is rather like a highly condensed course in hypnotherapy – or, maybe, a condensed outline of a course. The book gives no instruction as to the treatment of specific issues, but neither do many “official” training courses in hypnotherapy. A huge amount of ground is covered in a mere 95 pages. Inevitably a huge amount is excluded.

This was the first book on hypnosis I had ever read. I was in my late teens when I came across this book, and its equally slim companion volume on self-hypnosis, quite by chance, while browsing through second-hand bookshops in Charing Cross Road. At the time, I had no thoughts whatsoever of becoming a hypnotherapist. The books were cheap and they excited my curiosity so I bought the pair of them.

Hypnosis is surely an interesting phenomenon, whatever one’s views of the subject may be. At that time, my interest in hypnosis had been aroused by a novel I had read. As a teenager I used to enjoy the novels of Dennis Wheatley (a taste which I quickly outgrew, I hasten to add). In one of these novels – I think it was The Haunting of Toby Jugg – the disabled hero was being held captive by a Satanist and he managed to escape by teaching himself hypnosis out of a book, hypnotizing a servant, and getting the servant to push him and his wheelchair to safety. I never regarded the occult elements in Wheatley’s fiction as being anything other than amusing “Hammer Horror” style entertainment. But the hypnosis element intrigued me. Was it really possible to use such techniques to gain such a level of control over another human being? Maybe Ousby’s book would contain the answer?

Ousby’s self-hypnosis book did prove to be of some practical value. I may write about that book later so I’ll leave the details for now. But I found The Theory and Practice of Hypnotism simply bewildering. It was too simple, too straightforward, maybe even too banal. There simply had to be more to it than that!

Well – there is more to the theory and practice of hypnotism than is contained in Ousby’s tiny book. But before discussing it further, I will give an overview of the book and its contents.

The book was devised as a practical course of instruction and was originally circulated privately – presumably issued to therapists and health-care professionals of one sort or another. It is not a book about hypnosis. The book says virtually nothing about how hypnosis actually works. It is essentially an instruction manual. Do what it says on the tin and you will become a competent hypnotist. Whether such an aim is actually achievable will be discussed later.

The first chapter of the book outlines some of the practical and therapeutic uses of hypnotism. Hypnosis can help with habit problems, confidence issues, pain control, and the usual issues which a practicing hypnotherapist will deal with. But Ousby also touches on some wider applications. Hypnosis can enhance performance and therefore can be of use in the professional sphere. Hypnosis can also be used in a domestic context, helping children with school or study issues, and so on. I fully agree with this. Hypnosis has so many uses. Possible applications in schools, universities, workplaces etc are almost limitless. Mention is also briefly made of the potential of hypnosis as a research tool.

Chapters two and three get down to the practicalities. These chapters are devoted to suggestibility tests – the swinging pendulum test which one can perform oneself, and tests such as “posture sway” test in which the body of a standing subject will be made to sway involuntarily by means of verbal suggestion alone. The purpose of these tests is two-fold: to give the fledgling hypnotist practice and experience in the offering of suggestions and to help to “condition” the subject to respond positively to suggestions offered by the hypnotist.

Chapter four deals with the preparation of the subject for hypnosis. The subject will probably have preconceptions or misconceptions about the whole process. A few works of advice are offered about the environment in which hypnotism is to take place. Even fewer words are offered about contra-indicators to hypnosis. Ousby’s advice is not to hypnotize people who are epileptic or hysterical.

Chapters five to seven outline – very briefly – some basic induction methods. Chapter five deals with eye-closure methods, chapter six discusses other methods such as arm levitation and limb catalepsy. Chapter seven touches on methods which no professional would ever use, such as “instant somnambulism” through physical disorientation, induction of trance-like states through drugs or pressure on nerves or veins.

Chapters eight and nine deal with trance deepeners. Ousby suggests that trance depth can be both “assessed” and enhanced by direct challenges – suggesting to the subject that they cannot open their eyes or that they cannot lower their arm. Chapter nine offers a script for a purely verbal deepener.

Chapter ten offers some very brief comments about demonstration and stage hypnosis. Chapter eleven contains instructions for formal trance termination and chapter twelve deals with the question of post-hypnotic suggestion, concentrating mainly on the sorts of suggestions to avoid.

Chapters thirteen and fourteen offer some comments on the subject of self-hypnosis. There is little here that is of practical value to the student and this subject is dealt with in greater depth by the author in the companion volume to this book.

The book ends with a brief chapter which returns to the issues of the therapeutic applications of hypnosis.

So – will this book turn you into a competent hypnotist? In theory, yes – in practice, highly unlikely. The suggestibility tests and most of the induction methods in this book are only suitable for people who have a fairly high level of suggestibility and who are able to respond positively to non-hypnotic suggestions. OK – suppose you, the fledgling hypnotist, manage to find such a person. You then have the problem of what you say to your subject and how you say it. The book contains very little by way of script to give you a helping hand. People learning hypnosis get tongue-tied, they forget what to say, their mind goes blank. Or they get the tone and the pace all wrong. They may speak too fast – a very common problem for student hypnotists. They may speak too softly, and the subject may not hear them. Or they may speak too loudly and come across as bossy and controlling. Nerves, uncertainty and lack of confidence come across very strongly in the voice of someone learning to hypnotize. I know – I’ve been there!

This is the main stumbling block. Hypnosis is all about practice and experience. An experienced hypnotist or hypnotherapist can use just about any induction method because they know what to say and how and when to say it. It is more like an art than a science or a technique. Different approaches are required for different subjects, and one really only finds this out by trial and error.

The techniques contained in this book also contain many dangers for the inexperienced hypnotist. With posture-sway or somnambulism the subject might lose balance or become disorientated. Nothing is said about abreaction. The advice on contra-indicators is woefully inadequate.

A book for the dustbin, then? Not at all. Although the whole approach as outlined in this book seems, to the modern practitioner, very outmoded and authoritarian, yet often many a baby is thrown out with the bathwater. Suggestibility tests are little used these days but re-reading this book makes me wonder whether this whole aspect of hypnotic induction requires a serious re-think. After all, suggestibility is the very essence of hypnosis. The suggestibility tests included in this book are rather crude and blunt, but surely more powerful and refined ones could be devised?

An experienced practitioner will find many stimulating ideas in this book. It was written with good intent and in the certainty that hypnosis is potentially a powerful force for good in the world. Shorter inductions, suggestibility tests, greater use of the post-hypnotic cue and self-hypnosis are all versatile tools – easy, practical and, for the most part, quite safe to use.

This is an interesting and (potentially) useful book for those with enough experience to derive use from it and to avoid so many unmentioned pitfalls. A do-it-yourself comprehensive course in hypnotherapy it is most emphatically not!

Ousby, W. J. (1977) The Theory and Practice of Hypnotism, Thorsons Publishers.

Horsham Hypnotherapy: serving clients from Horsham, Crawley, Burgess Hill, Haywards Heath, Guildford, Redhill and all parts of West Sussex, East Sussex and Surrey. Contact us today.

As a gesture of courtesy, I sent my article on the book The Art of Possibility to the two authors. I did this simply to give the authors the opportunity to respond to, and comment on, any aspect of my review. I was delighted to receive the following response from Roz Zander which picks up on a number of points I raise in my article and which I therefore felt appropriate to post here.

Many thanks Roz and Ben!


Dear Neil,

I am honored that you took the time to write about the practices in the Art of P., and pleased to tell you that Ben has just recorded a magnificent Mahler 2, after having scrapped the first recording of the symphony two or three years ago. He will finish the series, I am certain.

Because you raise the point about the relatively comfortable middle-class point of view, I hope you won’t mind my jumping in to suggest how you can give an “A” to someone who has raped your child, and continue to see that it’s all invented at the news that you have three months to live, and how you can practice being the Board as the marauding armies advance. It’s important to me that the practices themselves are seen as applicable no matter what circumstances befall us.

Even mentioning the 3 months-to-live scenario implies certain assumptions on your part of a tragic nature, but there are so many other ways of holding that news, which I actually experienced–(as you can see the prediction did not pan out.) I found myself extremely present and happy, to my great surprise. I didn’t tell people about it, because my thought was that they would become anxious and upset–but I wasn’t. My vision altered. I saw Cezanne in a row of trees down an alley in Boston (how middle-class) and then I saw the same trees as they were, in a way I had never seen them before. On passing a bin for the donation of Christmas toys to needy children, I understood at once why it was important–because they would feel that someone cared. I had to wait exactly three months for the final verdict and I have to say I did not experience a shred of anxiety, perhaps because i said to myself you are alive until you aren’t, and then it doesn’t matter (an invention.)

How can you give an “A” to someone who raped your child? The way you do to an axe murderer, by inventing that they have lost all their humanity under the impulse, and you invent that in some dark place they have the horror of knowing so. And how can you be the Board as the troops advance? You can perhaps ask yourself, “What was it that kept me from seeing things develop in this direction long ago? How is it that I have remained here so helplessly?

I gave a seminar for business leaders at the State of the World Forum the year it was held in NYC, and I got from them the same reservations that you had. They thought the model was elitist, and too intellectual. When I went back to my room in the hotel I walked in on the woman cleaning it. I told her that I had been teaching people that life is a story you tell, so you might as well tell stories that make you and others both kind and powerful. I told her that the business people thought that you had to have a graduate education to understand this. This woman shook her head. ” They don’t know because they have never been so poor that they couldn’t put lunch in their child’s lunchbox. It’s what you tell the children about themselves and the world that will make or break them” or something close to that. She felt it was the business people who were the ones who were unable to grasp what I was saying because they had never been forced to the extremities that call on human creativity.

When I was in South Africa a couple of years ago, a gentleman told me I had saved his life. It turned out that he had read the book and was sharing it with his wife, when later in the night some thieves broke into their house and tied them up in their beds, perhaps, as he thought, in preparation for killing them. He whispered to his wife “The Art of Possibility” and found himself making authentic eye contact with his persecutors. He motioned to one to take off the duct tape from his mouth and asked for a glass of water as though it would be granted out of the kindness of the man’s heart. He said he knew then that they would not be killed.

I accept his invention relative to the Art of P and am grateful for it.

Thanks so much for your responses.

Warmest Regards,

Roz Zander


Horsham Hypnotherapy: serving clients from Horsham, Crawley, Burgess Hill, Haywards Heath, Guildford, Redhill and all parts of West Sussex, East Sussex and Surrey. Contact us today.

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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