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The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life is a book about how a change in your perception can change what you experience in the world. It’s written by Benjamin Zander and Rosamund Stone Zander, who take turns talking about how they have helped people open up to possibility.
Benjamin Zander is the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic, and has been since its formation in 1979. He frequently gives talks on leadership to groups of children and executives around the world. His wife Rosamund is a practicing family therapist who contributes her insights and patient stories to the narrative.
The authors say “the objective of this book is to provide the reader the means to lift off from that world of struggle and sail into a vast universe of possibility.” We’re often limited by our own thinking, they say. Most of our struggles come from the way we perceive the situation – our framework of assumptions. “Draw a different frame around the same set of circumstances and new pathways come into view,” they write.
One of the guiding principles in the book is the fact that “It’s all Invented.” I’ve written about this idea before; what happens to us is neither positive nor negative – it just is what it is. It’s the story we tell ourselves about what happened that shapes our opinions and our emotions. In fact, Shakespeare wrote about it over 400 years ago: “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” (Hamlet, Act 2.)
The authors put it this way: “Indeed, all of life comes to us in narrative form; it’s a story we tell… a hypothesis, a construction of our own making.” In fact, they say, we don’t even see much of what happens around us. We only see what we’re programmed to see, and we only recognize what we have the mental map or reference point to recognize. In other words, we create a hypothesis as we travel through the world, and spend our time validating that hypothesis. If you believe the world to be a cold, cruel place, you’ll see plenty of evidence to confirm what you think. Another person could travel the same path as you and see a completely different picture.
Einstein told Heisenberg in 1926 it was nonsense to found a theory on observable facts alone: “In reality the very opposite happens. It is theory which decides what we can observe.”
The Zanders tell this story:
“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, SITUATION HOPELESS STOP NO ONE WEARS SHOES. The other writes back triumphantly, GLORIOUS BUSINESS OPPORTUNITY STOP THEY HAVE NO SHOES.”
And they were both right.
As you go through your day at the office, what stories are you choosing to tell yourself? Did your boss snap at you because he’s a jerk who doesn’t respect you? Or did he snap because he’s a good guy who’s under a lot of pressure to perform right now?
The story you tell determines how you feel about a situation and how you react. When challenged, you’ll find all kinds of “evidence” to support your decisions and your actions. To open up to the possibility that you’ve made it all up is revolutionary – and frankly, terrifying.
But once you get used to the idea, your life can change dramatically. The Zanders write: “It is these sorts of phenomena that we are referring to when we use the catchphrase for this chapter ‘it’s all invented.’ What we mean is, ‘It’s all invented anyway, so we might as well invent a story or a framework of meaning that enhances our quality of life and the life of those around us.’”
From the book: “Every problem, every dilemma, every dead end we find ourselves facing in life, only appears unsolvable inside a particular frame or point of view. Enlarge the box, or create another frame around the data, and problems vanish, while new opportunities appear.”
What if that were possible for you? What might change?