The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life

The Art of Possibility by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander.

The lure of this book’s promise starts with the assumption in its title. Possibility–that big, all-encompassing, wide-open-door concept–is an art? Well, who doesn’t want to be a skilled artist, whether in the director’s chair, the boardroom, on the factory floor, or even just in dealing with life’s everyday situations? Becoming an artist, however, requires discipline, and what the authors of The Art of Possibility offer is a set of practices designed to “initiate a new approach to current conditions, based on uncommon assumptions about the nature of the world.”

If that sounds a little too airy-fairy for you, don’t be put off; this is no mere self-improvement book, with a wimpy mandate to transform its readers into “nicer” people. Instead, it’s a collection of illustrations and advice that suggests a way to change your entire outlook on life and, in the process, open up a new realm of possibility. Consider, for example, the practice of “Giving an A,” whether to yourself or to others. Not intended as a way to measure someone’s performance against standards, this practice instead recognizes that “the player who looks least engaged may be the most committed member of the group,” and speaks to their passion rather than their cynicism. It creates possibility in an interaction and does away with power disparities to unite a team in its efforts. Or consider “Being the Board,” where instead of defining yourself as a playing piece, or even as the strategist, you see yourself as the framework for the entire game. In this scenario, assigning blame or gaining control becomes futile, while seeking to become an instrument for effective partnerships becomes possible.

Packed with such examples of personal and professional interactions, the book presents complex ideas on perception and recognition in a readable, useable style. The authors’ combined, eclectic experience in music and painting (as well as family therapy and executive workshops) infuses their examples with vibrant color and sound. The relevance to corporate situations and relationships is well developed, and they don’t rely on dry case studies to do it. Indeed, this book assumes the emotional intelligence and desire to engage of its reader, promising access to the rewards of that door-opening notion–possibility–in return.

In a lively, sensible manual for turning life’s obstacles into possibilities, the Zanders introduce various “tools” for transformation, drawing on their extensive experiences with musicians, students and patients in therapy (Rosamund is a psychotherapist and painter; Benjamin is the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic). In a chapter entitled “Giving an A,” for example, Benjamin relates a classroom technique that allows students to envision their own futures: all students in his class receive an A if they write him a postdated letter relating “the story of what will have happened to you by next May that is in line with this extraordinary grade.” Other chapters emphasize practices such as thinking in terms of making a personal “contribution” rather than stark “success or failure”; “lightening up” in order to see a problem from a new perspective (e.g., a patient of Rosamund’s was able to have a sensual experience with her husband even though she was angry at him); and reassessing “frameworks for possibility” (e.g., a teacher shaved her head in order to “reframe the meaning” of a hairless class member who had leukemia). The authors’ emphasis on “practice,” the importance of “flow” and the joy in creation and expression is apt and often truly inspiring. Although not groundbreaking, the Zanders’ suggestions constitute sound, practical advice that has much in common with Zen concepts of holism, balance and grace.