The Art of Possibility:
Transforming Professional and Personal Life

Reviewed by: 
Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander
Harvard Business School Press
Gill McKay, Director, Extensor Limited

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Amazon opens its description of The Art of Possibility by Benjamin and Rosamund Zander as follows:

…“The lure of this book's promise starts with the assumption in its title: The Art of Possibility. 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 practice, 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 simply transform its readers into "nicer" people. Instead, it's a collection of illustrations and advice that suggest a way to change your entire outlook on life and, in the process, open up a new realm of possibility.”…

The Art of Possibility is a great title for helping to realise how possibility can open up new paths in our lives and can be used to approaching any situation in a positive light – ultimately to become more satisfied and successful. The Zanders' deceptively simple practices are based on two premises: that life is composed as a story ("it's all invented") and that, with new definitions and a new way of looking at life, much more is possible than people usually think. The book shifts the reader’s perspective with uplifting stories, examples, and anecdotes from their personal experiences as well as from famous and everyday heroes.

Benjamin Zander is the conductor of The Boston Philharmonic and is well known for his orchestra's passionate performances. Rosamund Stone Zander is an executive coach, family therapist, and private practitioner who brings enormous psychological experience to enhancing human behaviour. They have written a fascinating book in which they alternate as storytellers in sharing principles and examples in the form of compelling stories in their lives. I wondered as I approached the book if I would find their self-reflection arrogant and without real application, however that was not the case at all. Each chapter unveiled useful ideas and concepts with a delightful and compelling use of the English language and artful, clever storytelling. As Amazon state, this is indeed no mere self-improvement book!
Each of the 12 chapters communicates an idea - a new way of opening up possibility within your life, providing an evolving and additive view as the reader progresses through the book.

First, the Zanders talk about “It’s all invented” where humans tend to focus on very few things, missing most of what is going on around them. By shifting focus, you will see many opportunities for the first time. You will examine the nine dot square (not new for most readers I would guess) and be reminded that connecting all of the dots in four lines without lifting your writing instrument from the paper requires you to go outside the box that we mentally draw at the circumference of the dots. The message of course is to be careful about your assumptions - they can fence you in!

Second, measurements can cause us to focus too narrowly on where we are today and encourage “scarcity thinking” - the glass is half empty. The Zanders encourage thinking about the glass as half full, citing the well-known perspective of optimism as being empowering. This can help you to 'step into a university of possibility.'

Third, if you assume that people will do well and help them to see how they can, they will. Mr. Zander gives every student an “A” in his class, and simply requests that the student write a paper to tell what they will do to deserve that A. This gets the students focused on excellence, and takes away the tension that gets in the way of real results.

Fourth, as a mindset, think of your role as “being a contribution - you are a gift to others”. How could that change what you do – to focus on the external perspective?

Fifth, lead from any chair. This is a reference to involving everyone. Benjamin Zander asks his players to write down how he could improve practices and performances, and pays attention to the suggestions genuinely viewing leadership from all levels

Sixth, follow rule number six - “don’t take yourself so seriously – to lighten up”. Examples show, how in taking this on in organisational settings, a new culture can emerge, enabling fabulous creativity and new ideas.

Seventh, be present to the ways things are. Many of us are disconnected from reality. By getting back to it, we can see more possibilities.

Eighth, give way to passion. Going with your strong feelings allows you to be more authentic, and to go to new heights of accomplishment. Allow yourself to let go.

Ninth, light a spark. See you role as creating a spark of possibility to be lit that others can see. Act as a catalyst for yourself and others.

Tenth, be the board of the game you are playing. Instead of defining yourself as a playing piece or even a strategist in the game you are playing, see yourself as the framework for the entire game.

Eleventh, create a vision that generates “frameworks of possibility” for others and work on enrolling them into what is right for them.

Twelfth, tell the WE story. Focus on being inclusive and considering what is best for all. Move from I to We, from independence to interdependence.

You could say that the principles are similar to those in many other books about improving performance and creativity. What is different about this book are the unique ways that the principles are expressed, the exciting examples in beautiful stories from music and business and the passion with which the Zanders write. 

For me, this book had a high energy throughout and the ideas discussed were useful and engaging. The Art of Possibility can be as uplifting or self-improving as you choose and I am sure you will gain from some, if not all of the 12 chapters. Highly recommended.

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