Book Summary of ‘The Art of Possibility’​ by Benjamin Zander

Benjamin Zander is the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic and is one of the most passionate communicators you’ll ever meet. Watch his TED talk on the power of classical music if you haven’t already.

His wife, Rosamund Zander, is a psychotherapist who is a genius in creating distinctions that create change in people’s personal and professional lives.

Together, they’ve written a book that will show you the power of possibility to create changes in yourself and others that you previously thought impossible.

Let’s explore the 12 practices for creating possibility.

Practice 1: It’s All Invented

You’ve likely heard the parable before, but it bears repeating:

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,


The other writes back triumphantly,


Basically, there are the facts and then there is the story we make up about the facts. We do this without noticing and our minds have a very hard time figuring out the difference between the two.

If the stories we make up about the facts are invented anyways, Zander suggests, shouldn’t we invent a story or frame of mind that enhances our lives and the lives of people around us?

When you come to this realisation, things start to change. You can become more creative. Solutions to problems that previous seemed unsolvable suddenly appear.

Ask yourself the following question:

What assumption am I making, that I’m not aware I’m making, that gives me what I see?

And when you’ve answered that one, ask yourself the following:

What might I now invent, that I haven’t yet invented, that would give me other choices?

Practice 2: Stepping into a Universe of Possibility

Most people – almost everybody – wakes up in the morning with the unnoticed assumption that life is about the struggle to survive and that we need to get ahead in a world of limited resources. A world where success is measured in dollars and cents and other people’s definitions of success.

The alternative is to approach your business and life with the spirit of abundance. Where your approach to life is generous, inclusive and you engage the people surrounding you with your passion for life.

Here’s the major difference between the two world views. In the measurement world, you set goals and set out to achieve them. In the universe of possibility, you set the context and let life unfold.

Careful not to jump to the conclusion that this is a recipe for failure. As Zander points out, you are much more likely to achieve the traditional measures of success in the world of possibility than you are in the world of measurement, because you are focussed more on what “could be” rather than focussing on what you “don’t have.”

Ask yourself the following question:

How are my thoughts and actions, in this moment, reflections of the measurement world?

Practice 3: Giving An A

This practice is best explained by example.

When Ben Zander is teaching a class at the New England Conservatory of Music, he finds that his students carry a lot of stress and anxiety about their performances. Most of it due to their worry about their grades.

When you are teaching a class where creativity and being in the moment are key, that stress gets in the way. Big time.

So, to remove the stress, Zander gives everybody in the class an A before the semester even begins. In order to keep the A grade, the simply have to write a letter to him by the end of the semester detailing what they had done to earn the A, how they had grown throughout the year and what kind of person they had become.

For the students, this was transformative. They now had a bright future to live into, causing them to grow and develop in ways that they never thought possible.

This is kind of like the principle from How To Win Friends and Influence People – give people a fine reputation to live up to, but with a twist. As Zander says, this is not an expectation to live up to, it’s a possibility to live into.

Here’s the best part – you can do this with anybody in your life – including yourself. So give yourself an A. Give that coffee barista an A. Give your boss an A. And see them suddenly start acting like it.

Practice 4: Being a Contribution

Zander starts off this practice by describing the story of a young girl throwing previously stranded starfish back into the sea. A man walking down the beach stops to mock her by pointing out that the beach is littered with them and asks her what difference her efforts could possibly make.

Smiling, she says that “it certainly makes a difference to this one.”

Just as this girl invented a story where she was a contribution to the world, so too must we if we want to live in the world of possibility.

This practice, Zander says, involves inventing oneself as a contribution and others as well.

There are two steps:

  1. Declare yourself to be a contribution.
  2. Dive into life as somebody who makes a difference, with the realisation that you may not understand how or why right at this moment.

What this does is create a shift in our thinking – away from self-concern and towards a relationship with others. That’s where you are called to make a difference.

Practice 5: Leading from Any Chair

The conductor is not the only leader of an orchestra. No matter which chair you are in, in an orchestra or in a company, you can make a difference as a leader.

How do you do this?

As Zander points out, there are many ways to lead. You can energise the rest of the orchestra by showing your newfound appreciation for the tasks of the conductor. Or you can, almost immediately, change your mind about somebody and view them as somebody who desires to be a contribution.

There’s a quote from a student at the Walnut Hill School in the book that I think summarises this practice best:

“Today was exceptional in that I learned leadership is not a responsibility – nobody has to lead. It’s a gift, shining silver, that reminds people huddled nearby why each shimmering moment matters. It’s in the eyes, the voice, this swelling song that warms up from the toes and tingles with endless possibilities. Things change when you care enough to grab whatever you love, and give it everything.” Amanda Burr

Practice 6: Rule Number 6

This practice is very straightforward: Don’t take yourself so g–damn seriously.

Or, in other words, lighten up a bit. When you do, it releases yourself from your ego and all of your self-limiting beliefs.

Even better, you’ll find that if you put this practice into play, many of the other people in your life will start to do the same.

In the process, your true self (what the Zanders call the ‘central self’) comes out, and the world seems to be a lot more cooperative with your demands.

Principle 7: The Way Things Are

This practice is all about being present to your reality.

Most people approach their reality in one of two ways.

Some people practice accepting things they way they are. This is a resigned state that leaves you powerless to take action and change your circumstances.

Some other people try and achieve some higher plane of existence so that they can transcend negativity. This is simply ignoring the way things are, which also leaves you powerless to take action and change your circumstances.

There is a third way, and that is being present to the way things are, including your feelings about the way things are.

This practice is a search for reality, and it requires us to distinguish between our assumptions, our feelings and the facts.

There are three questions to ask yourself in this practice:

  1. What is here now?
  2. What else is here now?
  3. What do I want to do from here?

What this does is create the conditions for possibility. You can imagine multiple solutions to your problem, which is ultimately the only way you are going to change your circumstances.

Practice 8: Giving Way To Passion

In his wonderful TED talk, Ben Zander tells the story of the “two buttock” player. He noticed that one of his students sat straight as a rod on his piano stool, seemingly more concerned with his posture than the music he was playing.

Zander encouraged him to become a “one buttock” player, where the wave of music would flow through him, causing him to sway and eventually lift one buttock off of the piano stool.

This is a perfect metaphor for our lives. Most of us (including me) are far too concerned with how we look than letting ourselves go in the moment.

Here’s the key – most people are attracted to people with a zeal for life. This type of passion is contagious. There’s a voice in your head telling you that other people will think you are crazy for being a “one buttock person,” when in reality you’ll find that people will want to follow you wherever you go.

There are two steps to this practice.

  1. Notice where you are holding back, and let go of the barriers that keep you separate and in control. Let the passion surge through you.
  2. Participate wholly.

You’ll be amazed at the possibilities that show up in your life when you do.

Practice 9: Lighting a Spark

This practice is all about helping others find their passion and creating possibilities in their lives.

Sometimes, people will say no to your crazy ideas, no matter how much passion you put into your communication.

This practice has four steps:

  1. Imagine that people are an invitation for enrollment. People want to believe in possibilities – imagine that they are inviting you to enrol them.
  2. Be ready to participate – willing to be moved and inspired.
  3. Offer what lights you up.
  4. Believe that others are eager to catch the spark.

Practice 10: Being the Board

This practice involves taking 100% responsibility for everything that happens in your life.

The Zanders suggest that we declare “I am the framework for everything that happens in my life.”

This approach is much different than the one that most of us take most of the time – to decide who is to blame for our bad circumstances.

Instead, the question we want to ask ourselves is “how is it that I have become a context for that to occur?”

Ignoring the awkward language, the idea here is simple – the only thing you can control in any situation is yourself. By eliminating the automatic reaction of focussing on things and people outside your control – which offer no hope of possibility – you focus on yourself which immediately opens up new possibilities to change your circumstances.

The metaphor here is that rather than viewing yourself as a piece on a chess board, you view yourself as the board itself.

It’s a powerful approach to life.

Principle 11: Creating Frameworks For Possibility.

This practice is about setting frameworks that create environments that create possibility.

The Zanders quote Martin Luther’s “I have a dream” speech to set the tone.

Dr. King was creating a world of possibility for the millions of people who would hear his message.

Your role as a leader is to do the same – to create a framework of possibility that those around you want to help create.

There are three steps to this practice:

  1. Make a new distinction in the realm of possibility. For Dr. King it was “equality of opportunity… of a land where men no longer argue that the color of a man’s skin determines the content of his character,” among other things. What world of possibility are you opening for people around you?
  2. Enter the territory. Embody the person you would need to be if that possibility were true, today.
  3. Keep the possibility alive by continually distinguishing what is on and off track.

Principle 12: Telling the “We” Story

This principle is all about moving from “us and them” to “we.”

As the Zanders point out, history is basically one long record of conflict between an Us and a Them. Nation against nation, one political party against another, labour against management and so on.

However, in almost any situation, we have more in common than we do differences and when you focus on the WE, things immediately change and new possibilities emerge.

So ask yourself questions like:

  • What do WE want to have happen here?
  • What is best for US?
  • What is OUR next step?

Make that your default stance and you will be living in a world of abundance and possibility.

Hope you enjoyed this week’s book summary. As always leave me a comment if you did.

P.S. I need a business coach (willing to train [at my expense] the right individual with some get up and go / sales/ marketing/ business prowess) to facilitate demand for my coaching business. I will cover all start up costs for the right person. If you, or someone you know, is interested, please click for more information

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