The Art of Possibility, Part II

I hope I was successful in the The Art of Possibility, Part I in enticing some of you to begin reading The Art of Possibility (Rosamund Stone Zander and Bernard Zander, Harvard Business School Press, 2000; Penguin Books, 2002). I will be touching on many concepts and practices from the book, while you are hopefully delving deeper into your personal copy on your own.

As the Zanders warn (or promise) in the introduction, this is not a book like many other self-help books that promise remarkable success and transformation in one sitting. The thinking behind the life coaching advice in “the Art” is based in neuroscience research and the original experience of the Zanders with real students in business and the arts. The Art requires adopting a complex set of “practices” designed to help thinking with possibility instead of thinking with long-established and mostly unconscious biases and habitual thinking patterns that serve to block possibilities.

Here is a quote from Soren Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855, Danish philosopher and theologian), embedded on page 113 of the book, that speaks to possibility thinking:

If I were to wish for anything I should not wish for wealth and power, but for the passionate sense of what can be, for the eye, which, ever young and ardent, sees the possible. Pleasure disappoints, possibility never. And what wine is so sparkling, what so fragrant, what so intoxicating as possibility? (from Either/Or)

The thing is, most people, in my own Career/Life Coaching experience over the years, and according to the Zanders, do not think with possibility. Most people tend to think toward the future with more fear and trembling than with minds wide open to incredibly dazzling possibilities. This appears to be the result, quite simply, of our biology, which is rooted in evolution and the scientific realities of self-preservation and survival of the fittest. Our minds, throughout evolution, have been “wired” to look out for threats and danger with extreme caution. While this is completely understandable, on the one hand, it does not exactly pave the way for thinking with the kind of possibility that can and does move mountains for some people. In other words, my own words, it is understandable, but not powerful. Fear and cynicism cause us to think small, with caution and limitation, rather than with possibility.

When it comes to matters of career choice, change and development, or of finding oneself in a major life transition, fear looms large. In the course of my own work, my clients and I work through a series of homework assignments together that are designed to help them begin to think with possibility rather than remain stuck in various fears about the future or with an overall attitude that is self-limiting and that actually prevents new possibilities for the future. Together, we work through at least two concepts that at first appear to be entrenched opposites—The Vision and the Voices.

This, too, tends to produce a sometimes transformation result in which the client is able to resolve their negative inner voices and reach a place where a new “wise, determined voice” appears that sounds a lot like this: This is who I am, this is what a want, and this is how I am going to get there. The “homework” that I do with my clients is, to borrow a phrase from Ben Zander when he introduces the “practices” described in the book, “simple, but not easy” (p.5). Simple and profound, I would say.

Anything described as a “practice,” rather than a rule, implies that as you practice, e.g., a musical instrument, ballet, cooking, meditation, centering, you get more adept. Practices are not intellectual concepts to memorize and eventually learn once and for all. As you practice them, you begin to learn and change in a fundamental way, and then you practice some more.

Here is a list of the practices presented by the Zanders in The Art of Possibility and a few words quoted from each chapter, which I hope will create curiosity and new thinking. Simply knowing about the practices will not create automatic change or transformation, although, I suppose you never know.  After all, anything is possible

The First Practice: 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, ‘Situation Hopeless STOP No one wears shoes’. The other writes back triumphantly, ‘Glorious business opportunity STOP They have no shoes’.” (p. 9)

The Second Practice: Stepping Into a Universe of Possibility
“Once you have begun to distinguish that it’s all invented, you can create a place to dwell where new inventions are the order of the day. Such a place we call the ‘universe of possibility’.” The authors call the world in which we are in the habit of living, the “world of measurement.” (p. 17)

The Third Practice: Giving an A
“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 were to apply this visionary concept to education, it would be pointless to compare one child 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 child’s developing skills, mastery and self-expression.” (p. 26)

The Fourth Practice: I am a Contribution
“Unlike success and failure, contribution has no other side. It is not arrived at by comparison . . .” The questions “. . . Am I loved for who I am or for what I have accomplished? could both be replaced by the joyful question, How will I be a contribution today?” (p. 57)

The Fifth Practice: Leading from Any Chair
“I (Ben Zander) had been conducting for nearly twenty years when it suddenly dawned on me that the conductor of an orchestra does not make a sound. His picture may appear on the cover of the CD . . . but his true power derives from his ability to make other people powerful.” (pp. 68, 69)

The Sixth Practice: Rule No. 6
The only Rule:  “Don’t take yourself so g__ damn seriously.” (p. 79)

The Seventh Practice: The Way Things Are
“From the film Babe: The scene:  Christmas day on the farm. The pig, cow, hens and Ferdinand the duck crowd by the kitchen window, craning their necks to see which unfortunate one of their kind has been chosen to become the main course at dinner. On the platter is Roseanna the duck, dressed with sauce l’orange.
Duck (Ferdinand): Why Roseanna? She had such a beautiful nature. I can’t take it anymore! It’s too much for a duck. It eats away at the soul . . .
Cow: The only way to find happiness is to accept that the way things are is the way things are.
Duck: The way things are stinks!” (p. 99)

The Eighth Practice: Giving Way to Passion
“The practice of this chapter . . . has two steps:
1) The first step is to notice where you are holding back, and let go. Release those barriers of self that keep you separate and in control, and let the vital energy of passion surge through you, connecting you to all beyond.
2) The second step is to participate wholly. Allow yourself to be a channel to shape the stream of passion into a new expression for the world.” (p. 114)
(Editorial comment from Bonnie: Now that one is a lot to swallow at this point. Don’t let it stop you from learning from the other practices and tackling this when you’re more open to the practices, if you are.)

The Ninth Practice: Lighting a Spark
Enrollment is the practice of this chapter. Enrolling is not about forcing, cajoling tricking, bargaining, pressuring, or guilt-tripping someone into doing something your way. Enrollment is the art and practice of generating a spark of possibility for others to share.” (p. 125)

The Tenth Practice: Being the Board
“When the way things are seems to offer no possibility; when you are angry and blocked and, for all your efforts, others refuse to move or cooperate, or even to be halfway decent; when even enrollment does not work and you are at your wit’s end — you can take out this next practice: our graduate course in possibility. In this one, you rename yourself as the board on which the whole game is being played. You move the problematic aspect of any circumstance from the outside world inside the boundaries of yourself; with this act you can transform the world.” (p. 141)
(Editorial comment from Bonnie: Don’t worry too much about this one, although it is worrisome. It’s the graduate course and beyond most of us, it would seem.)

The Eleventh Practice: Creating Frameworks for Possibility
“The practice of this chapter is to invent and sustain frameworks that bring forth possibility. It is about restructuring meanings, creating visions, and establishing environments where possibility is spoken – where the buoyant force of possibility overcomes the pull of the downward spiral.” (p. 163)
Thank you for sticking with me, if you could or did. There’s a lot to swallow here, but it’s all practical Career/Life Coaching advice.   

Next time, in The Art of Possibility, Part III, the final part of this blog series, you will hear some heartening success stories from the Zanders and also stories from me about some of my own clients who benefitted from learning to think differently in the course of our work together and who discovered brand new and surprising possibilities in their careers and lives.

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