Rosamund Stone Zander is a family therapist and a landscape painter.
Benjamin Zander is the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra and a professor at the New England Conservatory of Music. Based on the principles developed through the authors' unique partnership, Mr. Zander gives presentations to managers and executives around the world and Ms. Zander conducts workshops for organizations on practicing the art of possibility.
The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life. R.S. Zander and B. Zander, 2000.
What is going on at the Harvard Business School Press these days?" The venerable publishing house is behind The Art of Possibility, which seems to me a very atypical Harvard book. I think Harvard tends to publish formal books that usually pronounce sweeping “view from 30,000 feet” perspectives. But the Zanders' book is nothing like that. Rather, it is passionate, inspirational, personal, and filled with real life anecdotes and storytelling. I am delighted to have my view of the Harvard Press expanded, and to see them taking a chance—and sco'ring a huge hit—with an unusual offering.
Benjamin Zander, the much-loved conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, and his wife Rosamund Stone Zander, a psychologist and painter, created the book together, combining his much-touted talent as a teacher, motivator, and communicator with her experience helping people create new definitions of personal fulfillment. In a wonderful point-counterpoint narrative they bring to life their simple yet penetrating message. The book is a bubbling mix of therapy, motivational messaging, artistic expression, and practical advice—a how-to book on steroids, set to an inspiring orchestral score. As the Zanders tell us,
“Unlike the genre of how-to books that offer strategies to surmount the hurdles of a competitive world and move out ahead, the objective of this book is to provide the reader the means to lift off from that world of struggle and sail into a vast universe of possibility. Our premise is 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. Draw a different frame around the same set of circumstances and new pathways come into view. Find the right framework and extraordinary accomplishment becomes an everyday experience.”
Each chapter develops a specific practice for bringing the power of possibility into our lives. Relayed in anecdotal stories and warm parables, the practices are simple, deceptively so. But as the Zanders point out repeatedly, the practices are transformative, and not only directly enhance the individual, but also the organizations and relationships that individuals belong to. The Zanders say the practices are equally “relevant to corporate management as they are to a marriage; as relevant to acts of diplomacy as to the settlement of family disputes.”
So what are these transformative practices? Each of the book’s 12 chapters describes one practice, all of which are interdependent and build upon each other. One of my favorites is the concept of "Giving an A." Every fall, on the first day of class at the New England Conservatory of Music, Zander announces to his class, "Everybody gets an A." There's only one condition—students have to submit a letter, written on that first day but dated the following May, that begins: "Dear Mr. Zander, I got my A because…" In other words, the students have to define at the beginning of the course who they will have become by the end that will justify the A grade. As Zander relates, that A changes everything.
The A recognizes that there are two sides to people. There's the "A" self, the part that's all possibility. Then there's the self of “Rule Number Six.” Rule Number Six is a great one: “Don’t take yourself so goddamn seriously!” The self that takes itself too seriously is in a battle with the world, worried about approval, grades, “measuring up” to others. By giving someone an A at the outset, the playing field is suddenly leveled, which allows people to communicate freely and easily—uninterrupted by the anxiety and fear of failure. The grade is no longer an expectation (obsession) to live up to. Rather, it becomes a possibility to live into, a much more powerful approach. Zander offers compelling evidence for the amazing affect of this simple practice on his classes.
Both “Giving an A” and “Rule Number 6” tie directly to another practice, "Leading from Any Chair.” This is an account of Benjamin Zander's realization that the conductor/leader's power is directly linked to how much greatness she is willing to grant to others. In other words, by investing energy in people and making them as happy and powerful as possible, the conductor/leader’s (and the group’s) success will soar. Can you imagine the impact if this philosophy were embraced by even a fraction of organizational leaders today?
This wonderful little book is extremely powerful. Simple, yet penetrating. Widely applicable in all aspects of individual and organizational life, yet relayed in a fun, engaging, story-telling manner. Throughout the book, I had the eerie feeling that the Zanders were speaking directly to me, and to my work and personal life. I suspect the power of the book lies in that individual appeal for all readers.
“The practice of framing possibility calls upon us to use our minds in a manner that is counterintuitive: to think in terms of the contexts that govern us rather than the evidence we see before our eyes. It trains us to be alert to a new danger that threatens modern life—the danger that unseen definitions, assumptions, and frameworks may be covertly chaining us to the downward spiral and shaping conditions we want to change.
But look what magical powers we have! We can make a conscious use of our way with words to define new frameworks for possibility that bring out the part of us that is most contributory, most unencumbered, most open to participation. And why not say that is who we really are?”
Beth Garlington Scofield, managing editor of LiNE Zine, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. She’d love to hear your thoughts on great books for future reviews.