The Art of Possibility

Rosamund Zander & Benjamin Zander
-min read
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Inspiring, thought-provoking and packed with actionable life advice and feel-good stories.

The practices:

  1. It’s all invented — life is a story that we tell ourselves
  2. Stepping into a universe of possibility — looking beyond the world of measurement
  3. Giving an A — have instant respect for someone else, don’t measure them against yourself
  4. Being a contribution — How will I… be a contribution today? Make a difference today?
  5. Leading from any chair — a leader does not need a podium he/she can be on the edge of any chair
  6. Rule No. 6 — ‘Don’t take yourself so goddamn seriously.’
  7. The Way Things Are — being present without resistance
  8. Giving way to passion
  9. Lighting a spark — of possibility in others
  10. Being the board — rename yourself as the board on which the whole game is being played
  11. Frameworks for possibility
  12. Telling the WE story — look for the story that connects us all, tell the story of the 'WE' not the 'Other’.

1. It’s All Invented

Experiments in neuroscience have demonstrated that we reach an understanding of the world in roughly this sequence:

  • First, our senses bring us selective information about what is out there
  • Second, the brain constructs its own simulation of the sensations; and only then
  • Third, do we have our first conscious experience of our milieu.
Our minds are designed to string events into story lines, whether or not there is any connection between the parts.

In this practice, what we mean is, “It’s all invented anyway, so we might as well invent a story or a framework of meaning that enhances our quality of life and the life of those around us.”

When you bring to mind it’s all invented, you remember that it’s all a story you tell—not just some of it, but all of it.

The practice

  • What assumption am I making, that I’m not aware I’m making, that gives me what I see?
  • What might I now invent, that I haven’t yet invented, that would give me other choices?

2. Stepping into a Universe of Possibility

The world of measurement

  • All the manifestations of the world of measurement
  • The winning and losing
  • The gaining of acceptance and the threatened rejection
  • The raised hopes and the dash into despair
  • All are based on a single assumption that is hidden from our awareness. The assumption is that life is about staying alive and making it through—surviving in a world of scarcity and peril.

We grow up in a world of measurement, and in this world, we get to know each other and things by measuring them, and by comparing and contrasting them.

You are more likely to be successful, overall, if you participate joyfully with projects and goals and do not think your life depends on achieving the mark because then you will be better able to connect to people all around you.

That is not the same as survival-thinking, which is the undiscriminating, ongoing attitude that life is dangerous and that one must put one’s energy into looking out for Number One.

The practice

  • How are my thoughts and actions, in this moment, reflections of the measurement world?
  • How are my thoughts and actions, in this new moment, a reflection of the measurement world? And how now?
  • You keep asking the question until you finally appreciate how hopeless it is to escape being shaped by the assumptions that underlie all of life.

3. Giving an A

It is a shift in attitude that makes it possible for you to speak freely about your own thoughts and feelings while, at the same time, you support others to be all they dream of being.

When you give an A, you find yourself speaking to people not from a place of measuring how they stack up against your standards, but from a place of respect that gives them room to realize themselves.

The practice of giving the A allows the teacher to line up with her students in their efforts to produce the outcome, rather than lining up with the standards against these students.

In the realm of possibility, the literal or figurative giving of the A aligns teacher with student, manager with employee, and makes striving for a goal an enlivening game.

The secret is not to speak to a person’s cynicism, but to speak to her passion.

The answer to the mystery of stage nerves turned out to be the same as the secret of life: it’s all a matter of invention.

When we give an A we can be open to a perspective different from our own. For after all, it is only to a person to whom you have granted an A that you will really listen, and it is in that rare instance when you have ears for another person that you can truly appreciate a fresh point of view.

Each time the grade is altered, the new assessment, like a box, defines the limits of what is possible between us.

Giving yourself an A is not about boasting or raising your self-esteem. It has nothing to do with reciting your accomplishments. The freely granted A lifts you off the success/failure ladder and spirits you away from the world of measurement into the universe of possibility.

An A radiates possibility through a family, a workplace, and a community, gaining strength, bringing joy and expression and a flowering of talent and productivity.

4. Being a Contribution

I settled on a game called I am a contribution. Unlike success and failure, contribution has no other side. It is not arrived at by comparison. All at once I found that the fearful question, “Is it enough?” and the even more fearful question, “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?”

In this new game, it is not as though the question of where you stand disappears, or how important you are, or how much money you hope to make.

It is the nature of games to provide alternative frameworks for engagement and expression and growth, whisking us away from the grimmer context in which we hold the everyday.

  • The purpose of describing, say, your professional life or your family traditions as a game is twofold.
  • You instantly shift the context from one of survival to one of opportunity for growth.
  • You also have the choice of imagining other games you might prefer to play in these realms.
  • Naming your activities as a game breaks their hold on you and puts you in charge.
  • Just look carefully at the cover of the box, and if the rules do not light up your life, put it away, take out another one you like better, and play the new game wholeheartedly. Remember, it’s all invented.

The Practice

  • Declare yourself to be a contribution.
  • Throw yourself into life as someone who makes a difference, accepting that you may not understand how or why.

5. Leading From any Chair

A monumental question for leaders in any organisation to consider is: How much greatness are we willing to grant people?

The silent conductor — a leader does not need a podium; she can be sitting quietly on the edge of any chair, listening passionately and with commitment, fully prepared to take up the baton.

6. Rule No. 6

Don’t take yourself so goddamn seriously.

Rule Number 6 can help us distinguish (and hold at some remove) the part of ourselves that developed in the competitive environment of the “measurement world.”

The Calculating Self

For the sake of discussion, we’ll call it our calculating self. One of its chief characteristics, as we shall see, is that it lobbies to be taken very seriously indeed. When we practice Rule Number 6, we coax this calculating self to lighten up, and by doing so we break its hold on us.

The alertness to position that was adaptive at an earlier time in an individual’s life—and in the history of our species—is still conceptually operative in later years and keeps signaling to the self that it must try to climb higher, get more control, displace others, and find a way in.

The ladder refers to the worldview that life is about making progress, striving for success, and positioning oneself in the hierarchy.

What would have to change for me to be completely fulfilled?

The Central Self

Such is the nature of the central self, a term we use to embrace the remarkably generative, prolific, and creative nature of ourselves and the world.

We might even describe human development as the ongoing reconstruction of the calculating self toward the rich, free, compassionate, and expressive world of the central self.

In other words, the role of the facilitator is to promote human development and transformation rather than to find a solution that satisfies the demands of the ever-present calculating selves.

When we follow Rule Number 6 and lighten up over our childish demands and entitlements, we are instantly transported into a remarkable universe. This new universe is cooperative in nature, and pulls for the realisation of all our cooperative desires.

7. The Way Things Are

The practice in this chapter is an antidote both to the hopeless resignation of the cow and to the spluttering resistance of the duck. It is to be present to the way things are, including our feelings about the way things are.

It doesn’t mean you should work to achieve some “higher plane of existence” so you can “transcend negativity.”

It simply means, being present without resistance: being present to what is happening and present to your reactions, no matter how intense.

However, there is another choice: letting the rain be, without fighting it. Merely exchanging an and for a but may do the trick: We are in Florida for our winter vacation, AND it’s raining.

The practice of being with the way things are calls upon us to distinguish between our assumptions, our feelings, and the facts—that is, what has happened or what is happening.

Being with the way things are by clearing “Should's”

When we dislike a situation, we tend to put all our attention on how things should be rather than how they are.

Being with the way things are by closing the exits: escape, denial, and blame

Closing the exits means staying with the feelings, whatever they are.

But feelings can be likened to muscles—the more intensively you stay with the exercise, closing the door on escape, the more emotional heavy lifting you can do.

Being with the way things are by clearing judgments

When a splendid osprey eats a beautiful fish, it is neither good nor bad. Or, it’s good for the osprey and bad for the fish. Nature makes no judgment. Humans do.

When we are our calculating selves, we struggle onward and upward like contestants in an obstacle course, riveting our attention on the “barriers” we see in our way. Strengthening the concept of obstacles with metaphors, we talk about “walls” and “roadblocks,” their height and prevalence, and what it will take to overcome them. This is downward spiral talk, and it is part and parcel of the effort to climb the ladder and arrive at the top.

Focusing on the abstraction of scarcity, downward spiral talk creates an unassailable story about the limits to what is possible, and tells us compellingly how things are going from bad to worse.

The more attention you shine on a particular subject, the more evidence of it will grow.

The so-called optimist, then, is the only one attending to real things, the only one describing a substance that is actually in the glass.

Being with the way things are calls for an expansion of ourselves. We start from what is, not from what should be; we encompass contradictions, painful feelings, fears, and imaginings, and—without fleeing, blaming, or attempting correction—we learn to soar, like the far-seeing hawk, over the whole landscape.

8. Giving Way to Passion

The practice

  • 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.
  • 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.

The access to passion gives momentum to efforts to build a business plan, it gives a reason to set up working teams, it gives power to settling individual demands, and it gives urgency to communicating across sections of a company.

We pose the question again: “Where is the electric socket for possibility, the access to the energy of transformation?” It’s just there over the bar line, where the bird soars. We can join it by finding the tempo and lean our bodies to the music; dare to let go of the edges of ourselves … participate!

9. Lighting the Spark

Enrollment is the art and practice of generating a spark of possibility for others to share.

1. Imagine that people are an invitation for enrolment
2. Stand ready to participate, willing to be moved and inspired.
3. Offer that which lights you up.
4. Have no doubt that others are eager to catch the spark.

Persuasion works fine when the other person’s agenda matches yours or when the transaction somehow benefits them as well. We call that “aligning interests.”

10. Being The Board

In this one, you rename yourself as the board on which the whole game is being played.

Ordinarily we equate accountability with blame and blamelessness, concepts from the world of measurement.

The Practice — Part 1

So the first part of the practice is to declare: “I am the framework for everything that happens in my life.”

“If I cannot be present without resistance to the way things are and act effectively, if I feel myself to be wronged, a loser, or a victim, I will tell myself that some assumption I have made is the source of my difficulty.”

However, when you declare yourself an unwilling victim of a known risk, you have postured yourself as a poor loser in a game you chose to play. Out of a sense of self-righteousness, you will have given away your chance to be effective.

Gracing yourself with responsibility for everything that happens in your life leaves your spirit whole, and leaves you free to choose again.

The purpose of naming yourself as the board, or as the context in which life occurs to you, is to give yourself the power to transform your experience of any unwanted condition into one with which you care to live.

But if you name yourself as the board itself you can turn all your attention to what you want to see happen, with none paid to what you need to win or fight or fix.

The Practice — Part 2

“Well, how did this get on the board that I am?” or, “Now, how is it that I have become a context for that to occur?”

Instead, you might look around, and say, “It’s not personal that my car was totaled. It’s a certain statistical probability that someone would have been there, waiting at the stoplight.”

Being the board is not about turning the blame on yourself.

Whereas “should haves” are commonplace in the fault game, apologies are frequent when you name yourself as the board.

In the practice of being the board, you are not concerned that the other person examine her own assumptions. You see that the “stumbling blocks” that stand in your way are part of you, not her, and only you can remove them.

When you are being the board, you present no obstacles to others. You name yourself as the instrument to make all your relationships into effective partnerships.

Imagine how profoundly trustworthy you would be to the people who work for you if they felt no problem could arise between you that you were not prepared to own.

Imagine how much incentive they would have to cooperate if they knew they could count on you to clear the pathways for accomplishment.

This practice launches you on a soaring journey of transformation and development with others, a completely different route than the one of managing relationships to avoid conflict. It calls for courage and compassion.

Among the rewards are self-respect, connection of the deepest and most vital kind, and a straight road to making a difference.

11. Creating Frameworks for Possibility

Martin Luther King Jr. — He sought to awaken an underlying desire in all people: in the perpetrator and in the wronged, in whites and in blacks.

The Practice

1. Make a new distinction in the realm of possibility: one that is a powerful substitute for the current framework of meaning that is generating the downward spiral.
2. Enter the territory. Embody the new distinction in such a way that it becomes the framework for life around you.
3. Keep distinguishing what is “on the track” and what is “off the track” of your framework for possibility.

In the realm of possibility, there is no division between ideas and action, mind and body, dream and reality. Leaders who become their vision often seem uncommonly brave to the rest of us.

The third step of our practice, distinguishing the on-track and off-track, is about maintaining the clarity of the framework.

Being “off-track” often signifies that the possibility of a venture is momentarily absent, or forgotten, or has never been clearly articulated. Perhaps people have been riding on their initial feelings of inspiration, which have begun to fade. Sooner or later things tumble into the dualistic structures of right and wrong and spiral downward.

What distinction shall we make here that will bring possibility to the situation?

Vision — a powerful framework to take the operations of an organisation of any size from the downward spiral into the arena of possibility.

A vision fulfills a desire fundamental to humankind, a desire with which any human being can resonate. It is an idea to which no one could logically respond, “What about me?”

Vision-Led Goals and Objectives

A goal—even the goal “to be Number One in office design in America”—is invented as a game to play. Games call forth a different energy than the grim pursuit of goals in the downward spiral. They draw out the creativity and vitality of the players, without denying that the level at which they play may have something to do with whether the team qualifies for the next round.

Games call forth a different energy than the grim pursuit of goals in the downward spiral.

When a vision is leading an organization, it is instantly and steadily accessible to all members of the group. A vision is the organization’s own toes to nose. It becomes the source of responsible, on-track participation.

In his concern for the stockholders, this CEO had forgotten that the company was formed around the idea of making a toy that children would love to play with. And, in fact, that distinction may never have been clearly articulated as a vision, so it was the more easily lost, and with it the framework of possibility it could have provided.

Often the experience of a personal crisis or a failure will constitute a basis for the creation of a personal vision, which in turn becomes the framework for a life of possibility.

The person who rigorously maintains the clarity to stand confidently in the abundant universe of possibility creates an environment around him generative of certain kinds of conversations.

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.

12. Telling the WE Story

The practice

  1. Tell the WE story—the story of the unseen threads that connect us all, the story of possibility.
  2. Listen and look for the emerging entity.
  3. Ask: “What do WE want to have happen here?” “What’s best for US?”—all of each of us, and all of all of us. “What’s OUR next step?”

It is an ongoing choice for all of us—when a lover neglects to call, a colleague lets us down, or someone surpasses us, we can choose to tell the story of the WE or the story of the Other.

The practice of the WE offers an approach to conflict based on a different premise. It assumes there are no fixed wants nor static desires, while everything each of us thinks and feels has a place in the dialogue.

The practice of the WE gives us a method for reclaiming “The Other” as one of us.

I/You methods deprive people of the opportunity to wish inclusively. They do not give people the chance to want what the story of the WE says we are thirsting for: connecting to others through our dreams and visions.

We don’t have to restrict ourselves, and we don’t have to compromise. With our inventive powers, we can be passionately for each other and for the whole living world around us. We need never name a human being as the enemy.

Transformation from the “I” to the WE is the last practice and the long line of this book: the intentional, ongoing dissolution of the barriers that divide us, so that we may be reshaped as a unique voice in the ever-evolving chorus of the WE.