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It’s All About the Story
At the beginning of many of his motivational lectures, Ben Zander tells the story of the two shoe salesmen who were sent to Africa in the 1900’s to assess the opportunities for selling shoes. They wrote separate telegrams to their boss. One said “Situation hopeless. They don’t wear shoes.” The other wrote “Glorious opportunity! They don’t have any shoes yet.” Within the same circumstances, one sees a problem and the other, possibility. This idea is at the heart of the book he co-authored with his partner in their inspiration business, Rosamund Stone Zander, The Art of Possibility. Together, they have dedicated their zest, passion and creativity to helping individuals and organizations radically shift perspectives on leadership and potential.
It’s All Invented
The underlying assumption is that “it’s all invented.” What’s all invented? Reality. The labels we give ourselves. Our explanations of why things happen to us. At this point some of you are probably thinking this sounds a little self-help-ish. True, The Art of Possibility focuses more on the practical than the metaphysics of reality. Nevertheless, the assumption rests on basic neuroscientific premises (For more on neuroscience and learning, see Kathryn Britton’s article: Training the Mind Changes the Brain.)
Citing neurobiologist Donald O. Hebb, the authors point out that much of what we think of as reality is a construct—invented by our perceptions. By constructing meaning in this personal way, we create our own reality. (For an expanded description of construction, see Louis Alloro’s article: Language and Reality Through Social Construction.)
The Zanders are proposing that since we’re inventing it anyway, why not intentionally practice choosing meanings that help us to create upward and expansive meanings, rather than downward and constricting meanings? Yes, The Art of Possibility is actually about neuroplasticity. Each chapter offers a different invitation to try on a new mental framework.
Giving an A
The book outlines several concrete “practices” for creating personal paradigm shifts. For instance, the practice of “Giving an A” is what Maestro Zander does at the beginning of each semester for his music students. He asks them to write a letter as if it’s the end of the semester, beginning with “Dear Mr. Zander, I got my A because…”
Several guidelines help this exercise to create possibility: it must be written in the past tense and it must tell the story in great detail, of not what they did, but what they became over the course of the semester to align who they are with the grade they received. Zander says that in the world of measurements that he and these students must operate within, the A “puts them at ease” by creating a new paradigm that “opens them up.” The result is that they are able release more of their musical skill and passion. The students are literally writing a new story for themselves—one filled with possibility and hope.
As a coach, I help my clients to create similar visions when I invite them into the world of their Best Possible Future Self, a positive intervention familiar to many coaches (Seligman et al, 2005; Sheldon & Lyubomirsky, 2006). Together we create the biggest, most positive vision for the change they want to make. While more is required than the vision alone to make change, it’s the first step on the road to transformation.
Hope and Leading from Opportunity
We can see the creation of the musicians’ agency in this exercise by connecting it to the four steps in Snyder and Lopez’s hope theory. The “A” letter helps them to find hope through the setting of a big, exciting goal, to bond it through their partnership with the teacher, to enhance it by defining clear pathways for achieving their goals and finally to remind them of it by revisiting the letter throughout the semester. This is the essence of “pathways thinking,” giving hope a starring role in creating change.
Another practice called “Leading from Any Chair” encourages leaders to see other potential leaders among the ranks, creating the conditions for people from any part of an organization or system, even the “11th chair” of an orchestra to see themselves as able to “lead every section in which I sit—whichever seat.”
Being the Board
“Being the Board,” empowers people to be the “framework for everything that happens” in their lives. I once had a coaching client who was frustrated by not receiving a promotion. She decided this meant that “I’m not cut out to be a senior manager.”
Meanwhile, she had been given a very complex project with potential for embedding a new product line for the company. At first she saw only a mountain of work with no reward, but once we explored what this project could mean for the future of the company, she saw that she had been entrusted with an initiative of great strategic potential.This helped her reframe her perception of her role into one of an entrusted, valued manager who had been given an opportunity to learn the next level of skills that would prepare her for a senior manager role. In the Zanders’ terms, she chose to see herself as the board in charge of her own fate. She proceeded to shine in her new project and received her promotion.
Rosamund Zander is an executive coach and a family systems therapist, while Benjamin Zander is the Principal Conductor of the Boston Philharmonic and teacher at the New England Conservatory of Music. Both are internationally sought-after speakers. They approach their work with their respective clients, students and musicians from a mental framework of facilitating positive visions to elevate and shift in a positive direction the personal stories and scripts that we use to create meaning for ourselves.
Kandel, Eric (2008). In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind. New York. WW. Norton.
Kegan, Robert (1982). The Evolving Self: Problem and Process in Human Development. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press.
Lopez, S. J., Snyder, C. R., Magyar-Moe, J. L., Edwards, L., Pedrotti, J. T. Janowski, K., Turner, J. L., & Pressgrove, C. (2004). Strategies for accentuating hope. In Linley, P. A. & Joseph, S. (Eds.), Positive psychology in practice (pp. 388-404). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60, 410-421.
Sheldon, K. & Lyubomirsky, S. (2006). How to increase and sustain positive emotion: The effects of expressing gratitude and visualizing best possible selves. The Journal of Positive Psychology. Special Issue: Positive Emotions. 1(2), 73-82.
Zander, R. S., Zander, B. (2000). The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life. New York. Penguin Books.
All images except the brain/head picture are from http://www.benjaminzander.com
Permission to use the brain/head picture was acquired from istockphoto.com by Eleanor Chin.