Book Review: The Art of Possibility | Rosamund & Ben Zander

What do you get when you combine an orchestra conductor with a family therapist who also coaches business executives on leadership? You get Benjamin Zander and Rosamund Stone Zander — visionary partners whose strong relationship and unique approach to living a creative life is on full display in the best-selling book, The Art of Possibility.

This book is brimming with positivity and emotion. It brought tears to my eyes several times, which is saying something for a grumpy former skeptic such as myself.

What’s this book about?

Let’s start with what this book is not about:

  • It’s not a “how-to” book of hacks for creative thinking.
  • It’s not about discovering and pursuing a particular creative talent.
  • It’s not a self-help book or a book about music, being an artist, or being a business leader.

The Art of Possibility is about reframing the way you think about life and the way you interact with the people and the world around you. It’s not about making things. It’s about making a difference.

Co-authors, Ben and Roz, as the former couple refers to themselves throughout the book, use their personal and professional life experiences to show readers how truly amazing things are possible when you adjust your point of view.

Ben and Roz Zander (Courtesy: benjaminzander.org)

Throughout the book, Ben and Roz switch off telling stories that reflect their 12 “practices in possibility.” But again, these aren’t quick tips or little nuggets of wisdom for creative types. As they explain in the book’s beginning:

“So the practices presented in this book are not about making incremental changes that lead to new ways of doing things based on old beliefs, and they are not about self-improvement. They are geared instead toward causing a total shift of posture, perceptions, beliefs, and thought processes. They are about transforming your entire world.”

Ben and Rosamund Zander, The Art of Possibility

I’ll do my best to summarize each of the 12 practices described in this book in my own words.

1. It’s all invented

Everything in life is an invention or a story we tell ourselves about the way things are. Too often we put things into a predefined box, which limits the possibilities. Build a bigger box, or tell a different story, and it all changes.

2. Stepping into a universe of possiblity

We live in a “wold of measurement,” and we’re wired to think we need to focus on survival and overcoming scarcity. But we’re more likely to experience success by believing in abundance and possibility. We love to place things into categories, but entering a universe of possibility means creating new categories that can’t be measured.

3. Giving an A

Things such as grades are used to measure both the success of student and teacher, mentor and mentee, boss and employee. Giving an A at the start of such relationships increases the likelihood of bringing out the best in both sides. Like Michelangelo chipping away at marble to reveal a masterpiece, begin with the assumption that there’s an A-student inside everyone.

4. Being a contribution

Rather than trying to advance and measuring everything you do in live as a success or failure, change the game and wake up each day looking for ways to be a gift to others. We can also give others the opportunity to be a contribution.

5. Leading from any chair

Because anyone can make a significant contribution, true leaders won’t hesitate to “pass the baton.” Ask yourself the question, How much greatness am I willing to grant? Those of us who don’t hold traditional leadership titles can still step up at any moment and act as leaders.

6. Rule number 6

Rule number 6 is “Don’t take yourself so damn seriously.” There are no other rules. Look for the humor in life and be willing to laugh at yourself. The calculating self sits on a high horse and is part of the measurement world. The central self is not self-centered. It is collaborative, creative, and compassionate.

7. The way things are

Sometimes, the way things are suck, but we don’t have to settle or focus on the way things should be. It’s up to use to approach challenges with a mindset of possibility rather than a downward spiral of negativity. Being “with the way things are” means accepting what is and looking for the next step.

8. Giving way to passion

Notice where you are holding back in life and instead choose to participate with passion, throwing yourself into everything you do — believing it in your mind and feeling it with your heart.

9. Lighting a spark

Light sparks of possibility by enrolling others in an inspirational vision for what could be. Instead of assuming we need to persuade and convince others to see things your way, give them the chance to join you in pursuing something significant.

10. Being the board

Stop seeing yourself as just a player or pawn in a game and see yourself as the board instead. When you’re the board, you have to take responsibility for what happens, but you can also change the rules of the game. Own the decisions you make and risks you take in life. Don’t play the blame game.

11. Creating frameworks for possibility

Redefine the way you and others think about the way things are. Create new frameworks and then “embody” them by being the change you want to see. Then, establish the framework by defining what keeps you on track and what could steer things off course. Corporate mission statements are not visions.

12. Telling the WE story

WE stories uncover the threads that connects us to possibilities and reveal win-win situations that are best for everyone rather than compromises in which we all lose. Missions and visions are fluid and change over time. WE stories, however, reflect the “long line of human possibility” and will break down the walls that divide us.

Who is this book for?

This book is for human beings living on planet Earth. I know that sounds ridiculous, but I think it can teach us to be better humans.

One of the things that most impressed me about this book was how the Zanders’ stories from the world of classical music, academia, and therapy were very inclusive. Their inspirational insights can easily be applied to anyone’s life.

If you are in a leadership position or looking to lead and inspire others, The Art of Possibility is

What did I think about it?

Seth Godin is someone for whom I have a lot of respect. He recommends lots of books. This spring, just as I was looking for some pandemic lockdown reading, I noticed he mentioned in a blog post that The Art of Possibility is the book recommends more than any other — and it’s already been around for 20 years!

While I’ve given a synopsis of the 12 practices laid out in The Art of Possibility, those words fail — miserably in fact — to capture the full impact of what the authors have to say. That’s because they are missing the stories that helped bring the Zanders’ practices of possibility to life.

Each chapter has at least a few real-life examples that illustrate these practices in action. Some come from history and legend, but many of them are from the two authors’ life experiences.

One of my favorites came in Chapter 10 “Lighting a Spark,” in which Ben Zander tells a story I think demonstrates many of the practices at work. It’s about his work with Eastlea Community School — a “failing school” in a rough area of London. Ben Zander found himself involved in a government-run education program that seemed doomed from the start. Yet, by reinventing the game, being a contribution, and giving an A to unruly kids – something extraordinary happened.

The story of Anthony from Eastlea School stood out for me. Ben literally passed the baton to this ten-year-old student and allowed him to conduct the orchestra in performing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

“Astonished looks on the faces of the orchestra players made it evident that they were being led, inspired, and energized by this ten-year-old who had never before seen a symphony orchestra.

For a minute and a half on the podium, this young man was a dynamic artistic force with powerful gestures and an ecstatic countenance. A few moments later, he was a small child again, covering his face in embarrassment as his schoolmates roared and stamped their excited response.”

The Art of Possibility

This is the kind of book that really could change your life if you let it. I realize that many of these practices might sound like somewhat simplistic positive thinking fluff that you’ve heard before, but I think it goes much deeper than that. You’ll have to decide for yourself.

I’m looking forward to checking out Rosamund Zander’s follow-up to this book Pathways to Possibility, and I’m going to try putting these practices into action in my daily life.

More information:

Watch Ben Zander’s TED Talk

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