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The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life


Filled with the inspirational stories that made the book a global success.

Possibility is prevalent?and can be found in everyday actions.

The Art of Possibility, first published in 2000 and now in an updated paperback edition, offers 12 breakthrough practices for bringing creativity into all human endeavors.

The book combines the experience and talent of Benjamin Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic ...

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The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life

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Filled with the inspirational stories that made the book a global success.

Possibility is prevalent—and can be found in everyday actions.

The Art of Possibility, first published in 2000 and now in an updated paperback edition, offers 12 breakthrough practices for bringing creativity into all human endeavors.

The book combines the experience and talent of Benjamin Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic and lifelong teacher, with the vision of psychotherapist Rosamund Stone Zander, a pioneer in the field of leadership and relationship coaching. Through the use of uplifting stories, parables, and personal anecdotes, the authors present an interwoven perspective that offers a glimpse of the powerful role that possibility can play in every aspect of life.

The Art of Possibility provides a life-altering approach to fulfilling dreams large and small. The Zanders invite us all to become passionate communicators, lovers, and performers whose lives radiate possibility into the world.

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Editorial Reviews

. . . those looking to rethink their lives may find that the Zanders have hit just the right note.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In a lively, sensible manual for turning life's obstacles into possibilities, the Zanders introduce various "tools" for transformation, drawing on their extensive experiences with musicians, students and patients in therapy (Rosamund is a psychotherapist and painter; Benjamin is the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic). In a chapter entitled "Giving an A," for example, Benjamin relates a classroom technique that allows students to envision their own futures: all students in his class receive an A if they write him a postdated letter relating "the story of what will have happened to you by next May that is in line with this extraordinary grade." Other chapters emphasize practices such as thinking in terms of making a personal "contribution" rather than stark "success or failure"; "lightening up" in order to see a problem from a new perspective (e.g., a patient of Rosamund's was able to have a sensual experience with her husband even though she was angry at him); and reassessing "frameworks for possibility" (e.g., a teacher shaved her head in order to "reframe the meaning" of a hairless class member who had leukemia). The authors' emphasis on "practice," the importance of "flow" and the joy in creation and expression is apt and often truly inspiring. Although not groundbreaking, the Zanders' suggestions constitute sound, practical advice that has much in common with Zen concepts of holism, balance and grace. (Oct.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781625276209
  • Publisher: Harvard Business Review Press
  • Publication date: 12/22/2015
  • Pages: 224

Meet the Author

Benjamin Zander is the conductor of The Boston Philharmonic Orchestra and a guest conductor around the world. He is one of the most sought after speakers in the world.

Rosamund Zander is a pioneer in her field. She has created a leadership model that coaches individuals to create a life of vision, passion and contribution. She works with corporations, institutions and teams worldwide.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


It's All Invented

A shoe factory sends two marketing scouts to a region of Africa to study the prospects for expanding business. One sends back a telegram saying,
The other writes back triumphantly,

    To the marketing expert who sees no shoes, all the evidence points to hopelessness. To his colleague, the same conditions point to abundance and possibility. Each scout comes to the scene with his own perspective; each returns telling a different tale. Indeed, all of life comes to us in narrative form; it's a story we tell.

    The roots of this phenomenon go much deeper than just attitude or personality. Experiments in neuroscience have demonstrated that we reach an understanding of the world in roughly this sequence: first, our senses bring us selective information about what is out there; second, the brain constructs its own simulation of the sensations; and only then, third, do we have our first conscious experience of our milieu. The world comes into our consciousness in the form of a map already drawn, a story already told, a hypothesis, a construction of our own making.

    A now-classic 1953 experiment revealed to stunned researchers that a frog's eye is capable of perceiving only four types of phenomena:

    · Clearlines of contrast

    · Sudden changes in illumination

    · Outlines in motion

    · Curves of outlines of small, dark objects

    A frog does not "see" its mother's face, it cannot appreciate a sunset, nor even the nuances of color. It "sees" only what it needs to see in order to eat and to avoid being eaten: small tasty bugs, or the sudden movement of a stork coming in its direction. The frog's eye delivers extremely selective information to the frog's brain. The frog perceives only that which fits into its hardwired categories of perception.

    Human eyes are selective, too, though magnitudes more complex than those of the frog. We think we can see "everything," until we remember that bees make out patterns written in ultraviolet light on flowers, and owls see in the dark. The senses of every species are fine-tuned to perceive information critical to their survival—dogs hear sounds above our range of hearing, insects pick up molecular traces emitted from potential mates acres away.

    We perceive only the sensations we are programmed to receive, and our awareness is further restricted by the fact that we recognize only those for which we have mental maps or categories.

    The British neuropsychologist Richard Gregory wrote, "The senses do not give us a picture of the world directly; rather they provide evidence for the checking of hypotheses about what lies before us." And neurophysiologist Donald O. Hebb says, "The `real world' is a construct, and some of the peculiarities of scientific thought become more intelligible when this fact is recognized ... Einstein himself in 1926 told Heisenberg it was nonsense to found a theory on observable facts alone: `In reality the very opposite happens. It is theory which decides what we can observe.'"

    We see a map of the world, not the world itself. But what kind of map is the brain inclined to draw? The answer comes from one of the dictates of evolution, the survival of the fittest. Fundamentally, it is a map that has to do with our very survival; it evolved to provide, as a first priority, information on immediate dangers to life and limb, the ability to distinguish friends and foes, the wherewithal to find food and resources and opportunities for procreation. The world appears to us sorted and packaged in this way, substantially enriched by the categories of culture we live in, by learning, and by the meanings we form out of the unique journey each of us travels.

    See how thoroughly the map and its categories govern our perception. In a famous experiment, the Me'en people of Ethiopia were presented for the first time with photographs of people and animals, but were unable to "read" the two-dimensional image. "They felt the paper, sniffed it, crumpled it, and listened to the crackling noise it made; they nipped off little bits and chewed them to taste it." Yet people in our modern world easily equate the photographic image with the object photographed—even though the two resemble each other only in a very abstract sense. Recognizing Pablo Picasso in a train compartment, a man inquired of the artist why he did not paint people "the way they really are." Picasso asked what he meant by that expression. The man opened his wallet and took out a snapshot of his wife, saying, "That's my wife." Picasso responded, "Isn't she rather small and flat?"

    For the Me'en people there were no "photographs," although they lay in their hands as plain as day. They saw nothing but shiny paper. Only through the conventions of modern life do we see the image in a photograph. As for Picasso, he was able to see the snapshot as an artifact, distinct from what it represented.

    Our minds are also designed to string events into story lines, whether or not there is any connection between the parts. In dreams, we regularly weave sensations gathered from disparate parts of our lives into narratives. In full wakefulness, we produce reasons for our actions that are rational, plausible, and guided by the logic of cause and effect, whether or not these "reasons" accurately portray any of the real motivational forces at work. Experiments with people who have suffered a lesion between the two halves of the brain have shown that when the right side is prompted, say, to close a door, the left side, unaware of the experimenter's instruction, will produce a "reason" as to why he has just performed the action, such as, "Oh, I felt a draft."

    It is these sorts of phenomena that we are referring to when we use the catchphrase for this chapter it's all invented. What we mean is, "It's all invented anyway, so we might as well invent a story or a framework of meaning that enhances our quality of life and the life of those around us."

    Most people already understand that, as with cultural differences, interpretations of the world vary from individual to individual and from group to group. This understanding may persuade us that by factoring out our own interpretations of reality, we can reach a solid truth. However, the term it's all invented points to a more fundamental notion—that it is through the evolved structures of the brain that we perceive the world. And the mind constructs. The meanings our minds construct may be widely shared and sustaining for us, but they may have little to do with the world itself. Furthermore, how would we know?

    Even science—which is often too simply described as an orderly process of accumulating knowledge based on previously acquired truths—even science relies on our capacity to adapt to new facts by radically shifting the theoretical constructions we previously accepted as truth. When we lived in a Newtonian world, we saw straight lines and forces; in an Einsteinian universe, we noticed curved space/time, relativity, and indeterminacy. The Newtonian view is still as valid—only now we see it as a special case, valid within a particular set of conditions. Each new paradigm gives us the opportunity to "see" phenomena that were before as invisible to us as the colors of the sunset to the frog.

    To gain greater insight into what we mean by a map, a framework, or a paradigm, let's revisit the famous nine-dot puzzle, which will be familiar to many readers. As you may or may not know, the puzzle asks us to join all nine dots with four straight lines, without taking pen from paper. If you have never seen this puzzle before, go ahead and try it ... before you turn the page!

    If you have never played this game before, you will most likely find yourself struggling to solve the puzzle inside the space of the dots, as though the outer dots constituted the outer limit of the puzzle. The puzzle illustrates a universal phenomenon of the human mind, the necessity to sort data into categories in order to perceive it. Your brain instantly classifies the nine dots as a two-dimensional square. And there they rest, like nails in the coffin of any further possibility, establishing a box with a dot in each of the four corners, even though no box in fact exists on the page.

    Nearly everybody adds that context to the instructions, nearly everybody hears: "Connect the dots with four straight lines without taking pen from paper, within the square formed by the outer dots." And within that framework, there is no solution. If, however, we were to amend the original set of instructions by adding the phase, "Feel free to use the whole sheet of paper," it is likely that a new possibility would suddenly appear to you.

    It might seem that the space outside the dots was crying out, "Hey, bring some lines out here!"

    The frames our minds create define—and confine—what we perceive to be possible. Every problem, every dilemma, every dead end we find ourselves facing in life, only appears unsolvable inside a particular frame or point of view. Enlarge the box, or create another frame around the data, and problems vanish, while new opportunities appear.

    This practice we refer to by the catchphrase, it's all invented, is the most fundamental of all the practices we present in this book. When you bring to mind it's all invented, you remember that it's all a story you tell-not just some of it, but all of it. And remember, too, that every story you tell is founded on a network of hidden assumptions. If you learn to notice and distinguish these stories, you will be able to break through the barriers of any "box" that contains unwanted conditions and create other conditions or narratives that support the life you envision for yourself and those around you. We do not mean that you can just make anything up and have it magically appear. We mean that you can shift the framework to one whose underlying assumptions allow for the conditions you desire. Let your thoughts and actions spring from the new framework and see what happens.


A simple way to practice it's all invented is to ask yourself this question:

What assumption am I making,
That I'm not aware I'm making,
That gives me what I see?

    And when you have an answer to that question, ask yourself this one:

What might I now invent,
That I haven't yet invented,
That would give me other choices?

    And then you can invent spaces, like the paper surrounding the nine dots, where four lines can do the work of five.

    We now move on to the second practice, which entails inventing a new universe to live in, a universe of possibility.

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Table of Contents

An Invitation to Possibility ix
Launching the Journey 1
The Practices
1 It's All Invented 8
2 Stepping into a Universe of Possibility 16
3 Giving an A 24
4 Being a Contribution 54
5 Leading from Any Chair 66
6 Rule Number 6 78
7 The Way Things Are 98
8 Giving Way to Passion 112
9 Lighting a Spark 122
10 Being the Board 140
11 Creating Frameworks for Possibility 160
12 Telling the WE Story 180
Coda 199
Acknowledgments 201
About the Authors 205
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Interviews & Essays

What does the "art of possibility" mean for business leaders?

Roz: The Art of Possibility relies on all the arts to develop a framework for transforming the way we define ourselves, our connections to others, and the environment we live and work in. For business leaders, it offers refreshing insights into many of the challenges people routinely face in organizations in the areas of leadership, management, motivation, teamwork, creativity, and personal and professional fulfillment. Success in today's business environment relies almost completely on an organization's ability to invent and innovate. This book shows how leaders can overcome limiting assumptions about what is possible—to reinvent obstacles that appear to be holding them back—whether a difficult customer, a competitor's product, or the defection of a talented employee—into new pathways for possibility.

What lessons can today's leaders take from the world of the symphony orchestra and the role of the conductor?

Ben: The world of the symphony orchestra has traditionally been a maelstrom of competition, survival, backbiting, subservience, and status seeking. Many would say the same of today's business culture. Yet this is not an environment from which we can expect performances—in music or in business—that resonate with nobility, playfulness, inventiveness, brilliance. The idea of the all-powerful leader has given way to the belief that in order to innovate successfully, to perform beautifully, we need leaders in every chair. This book guides leaders in enabling every individual to recognize the leader in themselves, and to perform with passion, energy, and flair.

You suggest that measurements of any kind—job titles, salary levels, performance assessments—hamper possibility. Why?

Roz: We've been conditioned to live in a world driven by what we call "survival-thinking." We are so concerned with personal advancement that we fail to take in the big picture, and either hold back in fear from taking exactly the kind of risks that would optimize an organization's chances to develop its contribution, or make moves that favor some at the expense of the whole. The Art of Possibility aims instead to provide the means to break away from an individual focus, which centers on measurements, comparisons, and competition as an end in itself—to focus on the visionary aspect of an organization: to enhance relationships, and bring out constructive forces for possibility.

But isn't this an overly simplified way of looking at things? Don't we need some form of assessment in life—particularly in professional life?

Roz: Assessments are important for seeing where things stand at any given moment. They can show, for example, what an employee has accomplished and what is still left to be done to get a project off the ground. We are not against assessment—we are suggesting that ranking an employee against others is generally not a good method for empowering her to do her job with passion and commitment.

As a leading family therapist (Rosamund Zander), and the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra (Benjamin Zander)—you bring unique perspectives to how business leaders can resolve problems and explore possibility in the workplace. How does your partnership work?

Roz: Ben's public presence conducting orchestras around the globe, teaching generations of music students, and speaking to major corporations, often brings him face to face with challenging situations that call for new kinds of leadership and new conceptual frameworks. When these challenges appear to have broad implications, Ben brings them to me, and I then call on a lifetime of work with family and organizational systems to sketch out innovative new approaches for resolving these dilemmas. Ben then takes the new designs into the public arena to try them out. That is the essence of our dynamic, constantly moving partnership—and it is through this "team work" that the practices we outline in the book evolved.

The stories you tell in the book really bring the practices to life. Can you talk a little bit about what the stories represent?

Ben: Arthur Andersen's sponsorship of a major orchestral performance before live television crews for thousands of underprivileged, troubled students. The woman in the nursing home who discovered that it is never too late to take a step, however small, for it can alter your experience of life. The Asian music student who was "number 68 out of 70" in his homeland, who saw suddenly that "it's all invented" and that you might as well invent a story that lights up your life and the lives of those around you. The stories illustrate how our common everyday assumptions give us our sense of what is real, and limit what we will try to accomplish. The situations these people find themselves in represent universal dilemmas: the fear of taking a foolish risk, the feeling that we don't make a difference, the pressure of competition and being compared to others. Each story shows the moment when the character suddenly sees something new, and bypasses his assumptions about impossibility, giving the reader a map for doing the same.

Can you explain the story of the Silent Conductor?

Ben: I had been conducting for nearly twenty years when it suddenly occurred to me that the conductor is the only person on stage who doesn't make a sound. His picture may appear on the cover of the CD in various dramatic poses, but his true power derives from his ability to make other people powerful. This realization was so profound that it dramatically changed the way I conducted orchestras from that point forward, asking questions like "what makes a group lively and engaged" rather than "how good am I?" The focus shifted to how effective I was at enabling the musicians to play each phrase as beautifully as they were capable. In the world of business, as in the world of the symphony orchestra, a leader who feels he is superior is likely to suppress the voices of the very people on whom he must rely to deliver his vision.

Can you explain the practice of "Giving an A"?

Roz: Michelangelo is often quoted as having said that inside every block of stone or marble dwells a beautiful statue; one need only remove the excess material to reveal the work of art within. If we apply this visionary concept to the workplace, it would be pointless to compare one employee to another. Instead, all the energy would be focused on chipping away at the stone, getting rid of whatever is in the way of each individual's developing skills, mastery, and innovative self-expression. We call this practice "Giving an A." It's a way of moving beyond measuring people against our expectations and helping them to realize themselves. When you give an A—to your boss, your colleague, even your competitor—your eye is on the statue within the roughness of the uncut stone. This A is not an expectation to live up to, but a possibility to live into.

What is a "one-buttock player" and how can this concept transform companies?

Ben: We tell a story in the book about a young pianist playing a Chopin prelude in one of my classes. While he was playing the piece technically correctly, he was unable to convey the emotional energy of the piece. Noticing that his body was firmly planted in an upright position on his chair, I blurted out to him "The trouble is you're a two-buttock player!" Once the pianist allowed his body to flow sideways, really catching the wave of the music and giving himself over to it, his performance was markedly different: he'd become an energized, impassioned, "one-buttock playe." In the same way as it did for this musician, the access to passion gives momentum to efforts to build a business plan, it gives a reason to set up working teams, it gives power to settling individual demands, and it gives urgency to communicating across sections of a company. Leaders who are "one-buttock players" speak so passionately and surely to the people they lead that they enroll them in their vision, and create passionate performers.

You say that in the realm of possibility, competition isn't as important as contribution. How can that be true in such a ruthlessly competitive business environment?

Roz: The competition game is all about success and failure. We judge ourselves by other people's standards, or by previous accomplishments—whether by how our competitors are doing or by how we performed this year versus last. So competition, like measurements, in many ways actually sets limits on what is possible. On the other hand, the contribution game is not arrived at by comparison. By focusing only on the aspect of contribution in what you do—to others, the company, and the world—you can transform from a person who is "out for himself" to a person who is out to make a difference. Leaders who view their colleagues, employees, and competitors that way can help transform the workplace into a vibrant, vision-led environment where people are energized by having a voice, and the world is inspired by the product.

What is "second fiddle-itis"—and how can leaders help others avoid this feeling?

Ben: This is a disease that runs rampant in the world of the orchestra—popularly known as "playing second fiddle." Players whose parts are duplicated by many others (second violins, for example) often perceive their role in the group to be of little significance. A string player just entering a new position in an orchestra will often start out with great enthusiasm, but once it begins to dawn on him that the conductor doesn't seem to care or even to hear when players are out of tune, he quickly beings to show signs of the onset of the disease. Leaders must take great care to ensure that all employees—especially those at the front lines, who are particularly vulnerable to the ravages of "second fiddle-itis"—recognize that they, too, are a leading player, an integral voice, and that the company cannot "make its music" without that voice.

Why is Rule #6 a good guiding principle for business leaders?

Ben: Many leaders still tend to believe that the company cannot succeed unless they are in charge of everything. This is also a hard belief to resist, since shareholders often hold CEOs directly responsible when a company's fortunes start to fall. But Rule #6, which states simply: "Don't take yourself so goddamn seriously!", helps us remember that taking the trials and triumphs of life too personally actually drags us down to a place where things just go from bad to worse. Even—and perhaps especially—in business, humor and laughter can be extraordinarily effective tools in helping us to "get over ourselves" rather than acting entitled and demanding, putting other people down, or assigning blame. Once we learn how to "lighten up," we learn how to see the essential value of mistakes, to view problems and situations differently. By doing so, we can find ways to turn seemingly impossible problems into opportunities for possibility.

Many of the practices seem, at first glance, rather simplistic. But you say they are extremely challenging to implement. Explain.

Roz: The practices presented in this book are not about making incremental changes that lead to new ways of doing things based on old beliefs, and they are not about self-improvement. They are geared instead toward a total shift in our posture, perceptions, beliefs, and thought processes. They are about transforming our entire world. So while the practices are simple to understand, they are not easy to implement. Like learning to play an instrument, these practices require constant and thoughtful repetition to get them into our repertoire. Those who embrace these principles discover that much more is possible than most of us ever imagine.

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