Celebrating “The Art of Possibility” In Honor of Ben Zander’s 70th Birthday

Sometimes inspiration comes from strange places.


On March 9, 2009, two tweets from @DianeHessan caught my eye:

Ben Zander is the Conductor of the Boston Philharmonic, a teacher, popular TED Talk presenter, and author of “The Art of Possibility,” an inspirational book he wrote with his wife,  Rosamund Zander, a family therapist and executive coach. The book presents 12 “practices” by which you can reframe your present situation to better achieve your goals. Basically, “The Art of Possibility” is about learning to take charge of your life instead of letting your life take charge of you.

Prior to seeing @DianeHessan‘s tweets I was thinking about my life and the challenges with which I had been dealing. The first practice, “It’s All Invented,” was particularly poignant for me, both for my personal situation and the larger economic situation. While there are still many unresolved issues with which I am dealing, reviewing the practices feels like a sensible way to make sense of a very nonsensical world.

I originally wrote the following summaries of the 12 practices on October 23, 2006 in EDOL 740, Personal Leadership, helmed by the always inspiring Robert C. Paull, PhD in the Pepperdine University EdD program in organizational leadership. I likewise hope you find some inspiration in my thoughts:

Practice One – It’s All Invented: Life is what I make it – because everything is about attitude. Although some events are beyond my control, the way I respond to them is within my grasp. This practice encourages me to realize that a scenario is just as likely to be positive as it is to be negative and, since being positive is healthier, why not look for the good?

Practice Two – Stepping into a Universe of Possibility: It is easy to live in a word of measurement in which everything is finite. However, beyond this world of limitations is a universe of limitless possibility. While recognizing the occasional necessity for measurement, I must endeavor to live in the universe of possibility as often as possible.

Practice Three – Giving an A: When I worry about being graded or judged on something, I focus more on only doing what it takes to ensure a good score. This mentality prevents me from learning and throws me into the world of measurement. While getting an “A” honors the potential in people, it doesn’t remove responsibility. It is a possibility to live into, rather than a standard to live up to. It also rests heavily in the concept of forgiveness.

Practice Four – Being a Contribution: A contribution is a gift of my insights, intellect and intention to other people or their gifts of the same to me. Becoming a contribution requires constantly contributing to the lives of those around you. However, being a contribution doesn’t mean I should shy from confrontation as that might be my necessary contribution.

Practice Five – Leading from any Chair: Where I am in an organization doesn’t limit or entitle me: I am more than my position, I am my possibility. As a leader I should listen to those who usually follow and invite them to share their ideas and implement their initiatives.

Practice Six – Rule Number 6: Life is a about learning, love and laughter. Don’t sweat the small stuff because it’s all small stuff! Through this practice I must learn to lighten up my calculating self and avoid the downward spiral of inadequacy, blame, resentment and frustration. By doing so, my central self – the generative, prolific and creative nature in the world and myself – can shine through like a light of hopeful possibility.

Practice Seven – The Way Things Are: I must be present to the way things are, both around me and within me. However, I cannot allow my expectations and assumptions about how things “should be” cloud my awareness of their existence in the present tense. Once I accept things the way they are, I can open myself up to my possibility and seek out solutions.

Practice Eight – Giving Way to Passion: Energy is the essence of life and passion is the conduit through which I can experience it. Being passionate requires realizing barriers are all invented and I must boldly engage my universe of possibility to realize the power of life.

Practice Nine – Lighting a Spark: If I want to enroll others in my vision I must energize people to follow me as a leader by igniting a spark of possibility within them. The key to lighting a spark is physical presence: being with a person and sharing in their energy is the only way I can demonstrate your commitment to them and ensure they become committed to me. I might also find that they light a spark in me as well, making the relationship reciprocal.

Practice Ten – Being the Board: I am the board on which the game of my life is being played and I can control the rules by which everything happens. So, when I start feeling like I am a victim and bad things in life are happening “to me” I need to stop and realize that things in life are happening “because of me.” In the event that things literally happen beyond my control, I must take responsibility for how I act and avoid “shoulds” and “oughts.”

Practice Eleven – Creating Frameworks for Possibilities: I must endeavor to live in a universe of possibilities by creating frameworks in which doing so can happen and the energy of possibility overcomes the downward spiral. Visions that speak to that which is fundamental to humanity enable dreams to make a difference. A vision can become a framework for possibility when it articulates a possibility, fulfills a desire fundamental to humankind, makes no reference to morality or ethics, is stated as a picture for all time no metrics, points to neither a rosier future or a past in need of improvement, is a long line of possibility radiating outward, and just speaking it transforms the person saying it.

Practice Twelve – Telling the WE Story: Life is not about “us” against “them” but about “WE,” the togetherness created by the union of a shared melody running through the hearts of all the people on earth. WE is about inclusion and cohesion – about finding what we have in common and working from that rather than looking for ways to separate us as different from one another. WE is the embodiment of symphonia – the sounding of all voices together, in unison as one living, breathing entity.

I hope you find as much inpiration and guidance in these practices as I have. I know that reconnecting with them has already begun to help me think more clearly. Happy birthday, Ben!