The Art of Possibility

A great lecturer and mentor of mine, John Steinhart, recently recommended the book The Art of Possibility. John specifically mentioned its audio recording. Although I have a reasonably lengthy list of books to read already, a recommendation from John no doubt sets me into motion to check both the audiobook and paperback out. The Art of Possibility, written by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander, is my book of this week. The audiobook is also read by both authors. It is fascinating that the audiobook includes many pieces of music that were intimately relevant to the context. I am very fond of classical music, even more so when the music is intertwined with the stories and discussions in this book. I am grateful to John for suggesting this book.

It takes certain mindset to settle into this book. The shift from last week’s Information Retrieval to this was not a comfortable one. My very analytical mind initially responded quite badly to the vagueness of its writing and its light-weight philosophical discussions. I was constantly battling with my inner voice: Why is this the case? How did we derive this point? Is this a single instance? Do we have a sufficiently large data set to draw this kind of insights/conclusions? How do we know that we have attributed to the right causes for the effect observed? Then suddenly one sentence opened the door for me to enter this book: “do not take yourself so goddamn seriously.” Did not Oscar Wilde have a similar line: “Life is too important to be taken seriously”? It reminded me also of a piece of advice that my friend Jay Owen gifted me last year: “do not take yourself too seriously”. That sentence was very powerful. In this particular circumstance, I told my inner self off immediately, “Just shut up! Be open-minded and see what the authors have to say!” I subsequently experienced the wonder of this practice. I was curious enough and wanting to learn all the rest of the practices covered in the book such that I started again from the beginning.

This book is about possibility. The message resonates with what I learned some time ago that I am only limited by my own thinking. As the authors put it: much, much more is possible than people ordinarily think. The authors wrote this book with the objective to provide us the means to lift off from the world of struggle and sail into a vast universe of possibility.

“Our premise is that many of the circumstances that seem to block us in our daily lives may only appear to do so based on a framework of assumptions we carry with us. Draw a different frame around the same set of circumstances and new pathways come into view. Find the right framework and extraordinary accomplishment becomes an everyday experience. Each chapter of this book presents a different facet of this approach and describes a new practice for bringing possibility to life.”

Here is a short summary of a selectively few out of the 12 practices included in the book. I include the steps to get there from the book too. Some are direct quotes. Some are paraphrased by me. Purely for readability purpose, I do not use italic font to mark the quoted phrases or passages, but I happily acknowledge that all messages below are read or learned from the book.

  • It’s All Invented. Ask these questions: what assumptions am I making, that I am not aware I’m making, that gives me what I see? And ask: what might I now invent, that I haven’t yet invented, that would give me other choices?
  • Stepping into a Universe of Possibility. How are my thoughts and actions, in this moment, reflections of the measurement world? You look for thoughts and actions that reflect survival and scarcity, comparison and competition, attachment and anxiety. Recognising that your measurement mind is at work, you ask again: How are my thoughts and actions, in this new moment, a reflection of the measurement world? And how now?
  • Being a Contribution. Life is a place to contribute and we as contributors. Unlike success and failure, contribution has no other side. It is not arrived at by comparison. How will I contribute today? 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.
  • Lighting a Spark. Ben told a story that his father said “Certain things in life are better done in person”, when Ben asked him why not making a phone call instead of making a train journey. That answer bewildered Ben in a wonderful way. Many years later, Ben made a day trip by air to persuade the world’s greatest cellist Mstislav Rostropovich to play in a concert. Rostropovich agreed to play. To light a spark, the authors suggest to practice enrollment: imagine that people are an invitation for enrollment, stand ready to participate, willing to be moved and inspired, offer that which lights you up, have no doubt that others are eager to catch the spark. It is similar to the “yes, and” practice in improv.

I would like to highlight a few passages that relate the practices in this book to a much broad world.

When one person peels away layers of opinion, entitlement, pride, and inflated self-description, others instantly feel the connection. As one person has the grace to practice the secret of Rule Number 6 (do not take yourself seriously), others often follow.

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.

The foremost challenge for leaders today, we suggest, is to maintain the clarity to stand confidently in the abundant universe of possibility, no matter how fierce the competition, no matter how stark the necessity to go for the short-term goal, no matter how fearful people are, and no matter how urgently the wolf may appear to howl at the door. It is to have the courage and persistence to distinguish the downward spiral from the radiant realm of possibility in the face of any challenge.

The term mission statement is often used interchangeably with the word vision in business and political arenas but, by and large, mission statements are expressions of competition and scarcity…A vision releases us from the weight and confusion of local problems and concerns, and allows us to see the long clear line. A vision becomes a framework for possibility when it meets certain criteria that distinguish it from the objectives of the downward spiral.

 

The book has a list of criteria as what is a vision in the universe of possibility, which I do not list here for the sake of brevity. That said, I do think they are very relevant to any organisation.

After reading this book, I understand why John recommended this book. The views and methods advocated here can be very powerful in searching for good solutions to resolve conflicts and even better in transforming the conflicts to profoundly rewarding experiences.

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