The Art of Possibility

"We perceive only the sensations we are programmed to receive, and our awareness is further restricted by the fact that we recognize only those for which we have mental maps or categories."

- The Art of Possibility, Page 10

The Art of Possibility is about building a set of mental frameworks to create possibility. The 12 chapters are a progression of “practices” that build on each other and become more effective with time. Schools know their students will not remember the facts they learn for a lifetime. They teach a broad base of subjects because students will develop mental frameworks and a capacity to apply concepts to understand their experiences and effectively create solutions. This book does that. The reader can build frameworks in their mind by practicing these exercises to take advantage of and see the possibility in life as it presents itself.

Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander co-authored The Art of Possibility. Roz and Ben beautifully illustrate partnership throughout the book; their ideas are separate but woven together to complement the other. Ben is the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, and Roz has a private practice in family therapy and professional accomplishment groups. The reader benefits from seeing the application of these frameworks in both a dynamic public setting and on an intimate level. The book itself has fluency, an almost magical quality similar to music, and it maintains a logical structure with clearly defined actionable steps.

There are many useful concepts here to choose from but for this summary I want to focus on the idea of connection as a more powerful tool than competition in business. Competition is a win-lose proposition that creates exclusions, a sense of scarcity and it closes doors. Connection is an “everyone plays” proposition that creates acceptance, a sense of abundance, and it opens up possibilities.  Making people feel good about themselves and connected to others creates an atmosphere of attraction. An effective business maintains relationships with customers, clients and employees. It is important to project a vision of connection instead of competition to build solid relationships.

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

Passion Creates Connections and Fear Creates Division

"This new leader carries the distinction that it is the framework of fear and scarcity, not scarcity itself, that promotes divisions between people. He asserts that we can create the conditions for the emergence of anything that is missing. We are living in the land of our dreams. This leader calls upon our passion rather than our fear. She is the relentless architect of the possibility that human beings can be."
- The Art of Possibility, Page 163

The Zanders explore the differences between a typical “mission statement” and having a “vision.”  Mission statements are usually an expression of competition and scarcity, the idea conveyed is that the company is making a difference in a world of peril. This framework limits possibility rather than creating it.  A vision frames the possibility and lets us know when we are off track. To create possibility we need a vision instead of a mission. The vision knows the illusion of scarcity and competition are only stories we tell ourselves.

The Zanders use the illustration of a partially filled glass of water. The optimist describes it as half-full; simply a description of what is physically present, what we have. To describe the glass as half-empty we have to tell ourselves the story of how we could have more, that scarcity is an invention of the mind.  An optimist is just realistic. The vision then is that what we have is enough for all these possibilities.

To create a vision that says, “We can create the conditions for the emergence of anything that is missing. We are living in the land of our dreams”, we must build an effective framework. To learn how read on to the Insights.

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Have an Attitude of Abundance

"In fact, we are saying that, on the whole, you are more likely to extend your business and have a fulfilled life if you have the attitude that there are always new customers out there waiting to be enrolled rather than that money, customers, and ideas are in short supply."
- The Art of Possibility, Page 21

Survival-thinking is the ongoing attitude that life is dangerous and to make it through we need to look out for ourselves. Scarcity-thinking is similar in that we have to compete for a limited supply or a few quality prospects. The Zanders make the distinction between this type of thinking and actual scarcity or survival. I remember a salesperson telling me that “You have to be hungry” to be in sales and to be honest we were. We stayed hungry partly because the story of desperation we told ourselves was an echo of the story the company told us and it came through in our work. The buyers bought the things we sold from other people because they made better connections with them. Desperation drives people away.

I have worked with other companies that had a more optimistic framework. They were more successful with nearly identical resources. They were more realistic with the allocation of resources and did not create deficits but more importantly, they created a resonant attitude of abundance. It is important to remember this is not a manipulation strategy to make it appear the business is doing better than it is. Instead, we remain realistic, and a shift in attitude is the catalyst of change. The Zanders use a conversation between Heisenberg and Einstein as an example: Einstein said it was nonsense to found a theory on observable facts alone, saying “in reality the very opposite happens. It is the theory which decides what we can observe.” Telling the story of abundance opens up the mind to the possibilities that are already there. Optimism creates a framework for connections.

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Imagine Grace

"The only grace you can have is the grace you can imagine. An A radiates possibility through a family, a workplace, and a flowering of talent and productivity. Who knows how far it will travel?"
- The Art of Possibility, page 52

Giving an unearned A at the beginning of the course to his students is a practice Ben talks about throughout the book. He requires them to write him a letter explaining why they earned the A at the beginning of the course and date it for the end of the course. The letters he published are very moving, especially those written by students who have not earned an A before. The students think of themselves as better than they ever have thought possible. Now that it is possible, imagined and written by their own hand, they can live into it. The A created the possibility of an A.

Grace is unearned benevolence. The idea is that no matter what happened before you can do well now. It is finding the possibilities you create by maximizing your contribution. This is not evaluating success, failure, or about comparison, instead of doing better than the competition it is about outperforming yourself. Grace starts with believing you are a contribution and radiates outward. You have a “can do” attitude, and you believe others “can do” also and soon they believe it and grace spreads. You assume good intentions and talk about US and WE. This is the story of inclusion, sufficiency and connection that weaves its way into our lives and creates possibility.

One way I like to make simple, small, contributions is I try to make someone’s day. I look for an opportunity to do something unexpected and unnecessary but not unappreciated. We both win because the reward was the connection. Sometimes more possibilities open up and sometimes they do not but it does not close doors and everyone feels good. The small things build big things over time.

How do you create possibility?

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Ingrid Urgolites

ABOUT Ingrid Urgolites

I work for Citigroup in operations. I have a varied background, and I enjoy service-oriented work. In addition to business, I have a keen interest in food and nutrition, and I have been vegetarian or vegan my whole life...
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