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The Art of Possibility — Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander

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Ben Zander is an exuberant orchestra conductor and teacher whose infectious energy and positive approach inspire his young students and musicians and their audiences. A video of his youth orchestra’s tour of Latin America was a favorite in our house for years. Rosamund Stone Zander is an executive coach and family therapist. The two of them pooled resources to create a primer for living a positive life—a life that proceeds on an upward track, not a downward spiral.

The Art of Possibility is clear, pragmatic and optimistic. It is stuffed with examples of how a shift of mind, a slant view of events, can change the direction of a life and the experience of every incident. The examples illustrate ten practices for transforming any occurrence or pattern. It’s really good. This is no self-help-for-the-couch-potato tome. The Zanders begin with the assumption that the life we regard as inevitable and immovable is, in fact, entirely an invention. The way we see, the way we feel, the memories deeply buried that inform our vision—those are the parameters of the invention. When we wave them away like so much mist, we might glimpse a new possibility and a path to reach a completely different destination.

Music is the metaphor for many of the suggestions of how to see differently, act differently and welcome positive change. Ben Zander hopped on a plane on a morning when Mstislav Rostropovich had ten minutes for a telephone appeal to appear in an upcoming benefit concert. Zander knew that the chance for agreement was less than slim but the famous cellist’s appearance was important to him. He showed up in person for his appointed “phone call,” to the executive assistant’s dismay. The musicians greeted each other warmly and sat down to a discussion of the composer Zander wanted Slava to play. He left with an enthusiastic promise and wound up with a stellar concert with a surprise attendance by the composer and rave reviews. Win-win-win from an initial “no.”

This is the ninth practice, Lighting a Spark. The idea is not to strong-arm, seduce or guilt someone into agreeing with you. It is to search for the spark of passion about a subject and introduce with it the glimmer of possibility. Rostropovich was booked solid years into the future. He had only time for a brief rehearsal and a plane to catch immediately after the concert. The music was challenging and the orchestra was young. No matter. Passion won the day—Zander presented the possibility that it could work and mutual desire made it happen.

Giving an A is the third practice. Rather than setting up situations for people to prove themselves—a class with grades at the end, for instance—both Zanders counsel to give everyone an “A” at the outset. Then challenge them to write, as if the event or semester is over, how they earned that “A.” This frees each individual to examine their performance and goals in advance, set parameters for “A” behavior and outcomes, and meet the challenge from an internally imposed discipline. You are no longer being judged and found wanting at your job, or in competition with your peers for a place on the grading curve. You are engaged in succeeding at the work which is consuming your attention and time. And you can use your experience, intelligence and imagination to find unique ways to fulfill that challenge. You own the work and your success so it becomes a launching pad for future efforts and experiences.

The book is high-energy talk and inventive solutions. Most of it is an “aha” moment kind of a read—a why-didn’t-I-ever-think-of-that-but-I’m-glad-they-did experience that offers a wealth of ideas for creating positive transformation in your own life. The Zanders are literate, lively and unafraid to expose their own learning process. Very instructive are the initial failures that, after close examination and a shift in perspective, turn into triumphs. It’s a great collection of exercises for launching a new year with infinite possibilities for success. And Ben Zander loves Mahler—one of my favorite classical composers. So I was open from the beginning to accepting the brilliance of the theories in the book and I wasn’t disappointed.  

The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life   Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander | Penguin Books  2002