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11. October 2022

The art of possibility

Original Book: Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander (2000). The art of possibility. Transforming professional and personal life. Penguin, New York.

The book at a glance. The book “Art of Possibility” is a longstanding bestseller from the authoring couple, Rosamund and Benjamin Zander, who creatively combine their perspectives as a family therapist and an orchestra conductor to unravel what it means to cultivate openness towards possibility – both in individuals but particularly in collectives. Based on the experiences of their own professional lives, they outline 12 practices about what it means to think and act from a space of openness and trust in possibility, instead of a space of fear, protection and deficit: 1) It’s all invented (acknowledging we create our world) 2) Stepping into a universe of possibility (going beyond a world of measurement) 3) Giving an A (approaching people from a space of potentials not deficits) 4) Being a contribution 5) Leading from any chair 6) Rule number 6 (lightening up yourself and your surroundings) 7) The way things are (being present to the moment) 8) Giving way to passion 9) Lighting the spark (creating a spark of possibility for others to share) 10) Being the Board (taking responsibility for our lives) 11) Creative frameworks for possibility 12) Telling the WE story. They evidence and illustrate those practices with very plausible and catchy anecdotes from their own professional lives. The carefully composed and reflected interwoven storyline, told by both authors, makes this book a very artful piece that encourages the readers’ mind and heart to tune into the vibrant power of being open to possibility.

What were my three most inspiring insights?

1) It’s all invented. The book begins with the story of a shoe factory that sends two marketing scouts to a region in Africa to study the prospects for expanding business. One comes back saying: “Hopeless – no one wears shoes.” The other one concludes: “Glorious business opportunity – they have no shoes!” The book reaffirms what we’ve known since Albert Einstein: What we see is a (self-constructed) map of the world, not the world itself. It’s not a fact of personality or attitude as to whether we see the world as a vessel of abundance and possibility or a place of scarcity and hopelessness. It’s the constructive nature of our brains. What appears or doesn’t appear to us is a matter of our basic framework of assumptions and beliefs we carry with us and that guide our perceptions.

2) What it means to act from a space of possibility. It’s not a matter of simply painting over everything that happens with a positive, rosy color. It’s about acknowledging that it’s not the challenges as such but how open we are for possible new perceptions that leads us to either solve or else repeat them. Acting from a space of possibility means to believe in the changeability of human beings, their unlimited capacity to evolve, learn and grow. Whereas acting from a space of deficit means to believe people, history or situations will never change. To seed the perception of possibility (and not fear) in young musicians, Bernhard Zander experimented very successfully with reversing our normal evaluation scheme: He gave all of his students an A grade at the very beginning of the year, and at the end, they needed to reflect on in writing why they deserved to get an A. It served them to perceive and open up to their own possibilities.

3) From a space of fear to a space of possibility. To shift from a space of fear to a space of possibility is the route of a traveler who moves from reacting to the challenges in life to designing the possibilities on which their life plays out. It is about a mindset- and belief-shift that needs a lot of practice. And above all, a lot of dedication, a leap of faith and a clear “yes”, as our society rather acts from a space of fear and deficit.


How does the content relate to today’s times?

The books wisdom is certainly timeless. However, in the face of todays’ 24/7 news cycle that so easily draws us into a lens of fear, scarcity, deficit, defense and hopelessness, its significance has dramatically increased. It has never been more important that we realize that our thoughts and beliefs form the possibilities or the limits in our lives. As much as we put conscious attention into what we eat, we should learn to consciously choose which thoughts we allow to enter our minds. On top of that, it reminds us that our individual openness is particularly critical if we would like to tap into the possibility of a group or collective.  

How did the book change my thinking?

It reminded me how important it is for our health to train not only our bodies but as well our minds to absorb, interpret and judge information very consciously, not only on an individual level, but as well on a societal level. It made me think how important it is that we increase the capacity of openness and mindful judgement and interpretation in our society and enter it in our educational school curricula, particularly in the education curricula of journalists. They are certainly at the forefront when it comes to flourishing the art of possibility. After all, in deciding what they report on or not, and how, they decide about our lens and the narrative of our reality. And by that, they strongly influence our perception, and thus, whether we act rather from a space of possibility or fear. As this can impact our societal coherence, peace and our individual health, I believe that we need to think about implementing something like a Hippocratic oath for journalists, bloggers, and media companies, to abstain from anything that harms a balanced information sharing (e.g. by incentivizing high click rates).

What did I appreciate most reading?

It’s a truly transformational book. However, it is not a classical self-help book. I am normally very much attuned to research-based books that are well structured, outlining an overarching model that is explained through relevant studies as evidence, coming to the point, avoiding too much storytelling, etc. This book is actually a refreshing opposite. And I was very much surprised by how much I fell in love with the anectodical way the content is presented. Both authors see their profession as an art, and thus, it seems to me that they composed their words and lines very carefully and artfully, so that they add not only information to the readers’ rational mind but seed a feeling of possibility in their hearts. That’s why the book has the power to leave us not only with more knowledge – it unleashes the desire to transform and live a life from the space of possibility.  

My most inspiring quote

The book is fully peppered with inspiring quotes. So, I choose one that seemed to me most inspirational for the leadership context: “The lesson I learned is that the player who looks least engaged may be the most committed member of the group. A cynic, after all, is a passionate person who does not want to be disappointed again.”

What wisdom in this book will I use in my daily life?

I will certainly be more mindful of the thoughts that program my lens that are biased to deficit, scarcity and fear, knowing that this frames my perception and possibilities to act. For example, not consuming news every day. Instead, I’ll seek larger pieces of high-quality documentation that balance my view more consciously. More specifically, the book inspired me to speak more mindfully from a space of possibility and mind my wording: E.g. instead of “I am (you are) bad in making decisions”, opt for “My (your) decision making gets stronger and stronger every day”. Instead of “This will never work out”, choose “It will require more time to figure out how it can work out”, etc.

Who should read this book?

Everyone who would like to understand, reflect or be reminded of what makes us perceive possibilities (or not) in our world, environments or in other people. Plus, for those who would like to get inspired - or reaffirmed - on what we can do ourselves to see and unleash more possibilities in others and the collective.  

Dr. Eva Bilhuber
Dr. Eva Bilhuber
Human Facts AG
Founder | Managing Partner
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