The Art of Possibility

— Transforming Personal and Professional Life —

In a previous life (the world as we knew it, say, twenty years — or twenty minutes! — ago), I first read a book with a title I recall as being very similar, if not the same, as this one. Recent searches of Amazon, Google, and even the Library of Congress catalog didn’t turn it up, however. And while I think my old paperback copy of that latent memory-tripper is deep in the bottom of a box somewhere, I haven’t a clue where to start digging. So I won’t.

The only hindrance such circumstances present is the fact that I won’t be able to make direct comparisons with an earlier work on this subject, memory being what it is these days. Suffice it to say, though, I’ve been a “cock-eyed optimist” for a very long time. And I’m heartened to read the Zanders’ perspective on the value of this approach to being in the world, even (especially?) a world filled with fear and terror and a myriad of things that go bump in the night — and in the daytime, too.

By no means do I make light of difficulty. Every day brings me a basket full of challenges to handle. But after acknowledging it — and maybe even holding a brief pity party — dwelling on the negative never seems to help. With this book, the authors debunk the Pollyanna myth of positive thinking around the concept of possibility by presenting a series of “practices” that are meant to be just that — activity-oriented processes that benefit from repetition — and which can set you on a more forward-oriented heading than if you remain mired in what has been called “stinkin’ thinkin’.”

As a musician, composer, teacher, and conductor for the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, Benjamin Zander knows a thing or two about practice. The book contains illustrative examples from his musical career, including many highlighting his work with children and teens from less-than-perfect backgrounds and his experiences of collaborations between orchestras around the globe. If you think your job is tough, consider hauling 400 adolescents, as many musical instruments, a gaggle of chaperones, and cartloads of luggage from Boston to Brazil. Then, you must rehearse, play multiple concerts in and around São Paolo, and get everyone home safely. Whew! But musicians know that rehearsal (i.e. practice) is required if they are to learn the score, perform at peak, and keep their skills sharp. Like athletes, musicians know you can’t just wish your way to game day or the stage at Carnegie Hall. You must take action every day to make that happen and remain in top form.

Roz (Rosamund) Zander, a family systems therapist and Ben’s wife, provides the yin to his yang. Her focus on interior practices that complement exterior actions and behaviors makes for a fruitful collaborative relationship and a masterful approach to problem-solving. Again, using examples from her personal life and her work, Roz delves into the somewhat quieter confrontations we make with ourselves on the path toward discovering that we have many more options than we might think.

The twelve chapter headings in the book correspond to the practices. While I’m providing a list, I won’t reveal what some of them actually mean, so you can have the pleasure of discovering their sense within the context of the narrative. The practices include:

    1. It’s All Invented
    2. Stepping into a Universe of Possibility
    3. Giving an A
    4. Being a Contribution
    5. Leading from Any Chair
    6. Rule Number 6
    7. The Way Things Are
    8. Giving Way to Passion
    9. Lighting a Spark
    10. Being the Board
    11. Creating Frameworks for Possibility
    12. Telling the WE Story

The Zanders work from the premise “that many of the circumstances that seem to block us in our daily lives may only appear to do so based on a framework of assumptions we carry with us.” Their intent is to help us draw new frameworks so we can do a better job of dealing with the world we actually live in.

For obvious reasons, music is the metaphor used throughout the book. However, anything — used in the appropriate context and spirit — could work to trigger possibility. Examples from all the arts are used, say the authors, because “art, after all, is about rearranging us, creating surprising juxtapositions, emotional openings, startling presences, flight paths to the eternal.” They suggest their twelve practices because they recognize that “transformation happens less by arguing cogently for something new than by generating active, ongoing practices that shift a culture’s experience of the basis for reality.”

Ben says: “We in the music profession train young musicians with utmost care from early childhood, urging them to achieve extraordinary technical mastery and encouraging them to develop good practice habits and performance values. We support them to attend fine summer programs and travel abroad to gain firsthand experience of different cultures, and then, after all this, we throw them into a maelstrom of competition, survival, backbiting, subservience, and status seeking. And from this arena we expect them to perform the great works of the musical literature that call upon, among other things, warmth, nobility, playfulness, generosity, reverence, sensitivity, and love!”

Sounds like what happens the day any kid starts school, what you faced the last time you changed jobs, or what happened to you yesterday at work, right? How much more creative, innovative, and productive we could all be if we worked from a perspective of possibility instead of fear.

Although we may not be able to overturn the outside world completely, we can reinvent our internal environment, and Ben provides the context and a “practice” for doing just that: “It is dangerous to have our musicians so obsessed with competition because they will find it difficult to take the necessary risks with themselves to be great performers. The art of music, since it can only be conveyed through its interpreters, depends on expressive performance for its lifeblood. Yet it is only when we make mistakes in performance that we can really begin to notice what needs attention. In fact, I actively train my students that when they make a mistake, they are to lift their arms in the air, smile, and say, ‘How fascinating!’ I recommend that everyone try this.”

With this approach, perhaps it’s not surprising that the Zanders (especially the outgoing Ben) have become a much-sought-after consultants to businesses and organizations that know their survival depends on creating an environment where workers feel safe and free enough to be innovative. Even if the culture of a large company changes only at glacial speed, the ice is always moving and the rock-hard attitudes are being worn away. As the Zanders show, whether the situation is personal or professional, key factors are patience, persistence, practice — and the framework of possibility.

Author: Rosamund Stone Zander, Benjamin Zander
Published: Boston, Massachusetts: Harvard Business School Press ©2000

Copyright ©2013 Jill J. Jensen | Clarity from Chaos