The Art of Possibility

"Consult not your fears but your hopes and your dreams.
Think not about your frustrations, but about your unfulfilled
potential. Concern yourself not with what you tried and failed in,
but with what is still possible for you to do."
-Pope John XXIII

One of my newsletter subscribers wrote to share how profoundly she was affected by thinking about three questions I asked in my last article, The Power of Acknowledgement.

Perhaps these questions deserve further reflection:

1. Are you affected by what happens to you?
2. Do you affect what happens to you?
3. Which would you prefer?

In The Art of Possibility, authors Rosamund and Benjamin Zander remind us of our tremendous ability to attract what we want in our lives by being purposeful. In addition to being co-author of this wonderful book, Ben Zander is also the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra and a teacher at the New England Conservatory of Music. After 25 years of teaching, Ben Zander recognized that students would be in such a chronic state of anxiety over the measurement of their performance that they would be reluctant to take risks with their playing. One evening Ben brainstormed with his wife, Roz (she is a therapist), to see if they could think of something that would dispel students' anticipation of failure. Here's what they came up with.

Ben had a class of 30 graduate students taking a two-semester exploration into the art of musical performance, including the psychological and emotional factors that can stand in the way of great music-making. He announced at the beginning of the semester that each student in the class would be getting an A for the course. However, they were asked to fulfill one requirement to earn this grade.

Sometime during the next two weeks, each student was asked to write him a letter dated for the following May, which began with the words, "Dear Mr. Zander, I got my A because...". In the letter they were to tell a detailed story of what would have happened to them by next May that was in line with them receiving an A in his class. In other words, Zander asked the students to place themselves in the future, looking back, and to report on all the insights they acquired and milestones they attained during the school year, as if those accomplishments were already in the past. He asked them to write about the person they would have become by next May. You'll have to get The Art of Possibility to read some of the amazing letters Ben Zander received from his students.

Zander tells us that "the A is an invention that creates possibility for both mentor and student, manager and employee, or for any human interaction. The practice of giving an 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 first instance, the instructor and the student, or the manager and the employee, become a team for accomplishing the extraordinary; in the second, the disparity in power between them can become a distraction and an inhibitor, drawing energy away from productivity and development."

Doing Things the "Right" Way

"You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way,
the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist."
-- Friedrich Nietzsche

Those in charge often fall into the trap of identifying their own agendas and standards, along with a message that "my way is the only right way." Virtually everybody wakes up in the morning with an unseen assumption that life is about the struggle to survive and get ahead in a world of limited resources. This limited view squelches innovation and creativity, and it also trains people to focus on what they need to do to please their superiors by doing things the "right" way -- whether that way works for them or not.

As a youth I had planned on a performance career as a coloratura/lyric soprano, so I was thrilled when I was offered admission to Eastman School of Music -- a very competitive and top-rated music conservatory in New York. I vividly recall one of my lowest moments during my freshman year at Eastman...

My roommate was a bassoonist, and we were both giving recitals near the end of our freshman year. She needed a scheduled break in the middle of her recital to rest her embouchure (the formation of the muscles in the mouth and lips, designed to create pressure on the reed), so she asked if I would perform something from my recital on her program. I agreed to do so, thinking it would also be good practice for me as I prepared for my own recital two weeks later.

The week before her recital, my voice teacher noticed a flyer advertising my roommate's recital program, with my name included on her program. That week when I entered my teacher's studio for my voice lesson, she pulled out a copy of my roommate's flyer and informed me that I would not be performing in her recital because I was not ready During the ensuing rage-filled lecture that followed, my teacher instructed me that I was never to perform in public without her permission. After all, her reputation was on the line! She could not believe I had the audacity to consider performing anywhere in public without first getting her permission to do so.

Recalling this most unpleasant outburst from my Prima Donna voice teacher 28 years ago, I have great appreciation for something that Ben Zander said: "It is dangerous to have our musicians so obsessed with competition because they will find it difficult to take the necessary risks with themselves to be great performers. The art of music, since it can only be conveyed through its interpreters, depends on expressive performance for its lifeblood. Yet it is only when we make mistakes in performance that we can really begin to notice what needs attention." You don't have to be a musician to appreciate the value of his wisdom.

Zander actively trains his students to celebrate their mistakes by lifting their arms in the air, smiling, and saying, "How fascinating!" As I read the book, I tried to imagine what it would have been like as an 18-year-old performer if I had studied with a teacher like Benjamin Zander.

You may be wondering what happened after my voice teacher ripped me to shreds. At the age of 18, I did not have the backbone to stand up to a person of such famed stature, so I did not perform in my roommate's recital. Just two weeks later I performed the same piece in my own recital...and my teacher was very pleased with my performance. After completing my freshman year, I transferred to Macalester College in Minnesota, where I got a great liberal arts education and studied with an outstanding and affirming voice teacher for my remaining three years. There I received encouragement and support in an environment where it was safe to take risks, make mistakes, and learn from them. Instead of feeling defeated, I flourished.

Carl Jung, the Swiss psychologist and psychiatrist who founded analytic psychology, sums it up by saying that "Criticism has the power to do good when there is something that must be destroyed, dissolved, or redirected, but it is capable only of harm when there is something to be built."

Zander suggests that mistakes and negative experiences can become great opportunities for growth. He tells the story about a tenor who came to him after losing his girlfriend. He was in such despair that he could hardly function. Zander was secretly delighted, because he knew that this heartbreak would enable the tenor to more fully express the heart-rendering passion of Schubert's Die Winterreise (about the loss of a beloved). Zander recalls, "That song had completely eluded him the previous week because up to then, the only object of affection he had ever lost was a pet goldfish."

In The Art of Possibility, the Zanders share a fundamental practice that is captured in the catch-phrase, "it's all invented." It's all a story you tell -- not just some of it, but all of it. And every story you tell is founded on a network of hidden assumptions.

Zander explains, "We do not mean that you can just make anything up and have it magically appear. We mean that you can shift the framework to one whose underlying assumptions allow for the conditions you desire. Let your thoughts and actions spring from the new framework and see what happens."

Here's a great example of the power of shifting your framework and assumptions: 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. No one wears shoes." The other writes back triumphantly, "Glorious business opportunity. They have no shoes!"

Perhaps you've applied limitations that were not given to you, but were assumed. So what happens if you open up the possibility of using the space beyond the dots rather than confining yourself to work within the square formed by the outer dots? If you are still struggling with this, scroll down to the end of this article to see what is possible when you invent a new point of view.

Here are some simple questions the Zanders suggest you ask yourself as you practice "it's all invented."

  • What assumptions 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?

Remember the three questions I began this article with?

Are you affected by what happens to you?
Do you affect what happens to you?
Which would you prefer?

Using the "it's all invented" practice, perhaps you can begin to see how you can profoundly affect what happens to you.

I invite you to take out a piece of stationery and write yourself a letter, dating it for June, 2006. Project yourself into the future as you write a letter about all the insights you will have acquired and the milestones you will have attained during the year, as if your accomplishments for the next twelve months were already in the past.

"In the realm of possibility, we gain our knowledge by invention. Language creates categories of meaning that open up new worlds to explore. The pie is enormous, and if you take a slice, the pie is whole again. " --Benjamin Zander

What is possible when you invent a new point of view?

"When you change the way you look at things,
the things you look at change."
--Wayne Dyer

Kathy Paauw helps busy executives, professionals, and entrepreneurs de-clutter their schedules, spaces and minds so they can focus on what's most important. She is an organizing & productivity consultant, certified professional & personal coach, and speaker. Contact Kathy via email: [email protected] or visit her website at http://www.orgcoach.net and learn how you can find anything you file or store in 5 seconds?guaranteed!

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