Book Summary: "The Art of Possibility" by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander

Ever wonder why some people seem to achieve more and more everyday? Have they discovered some revolutionary technique to find themselves in situations with an abundance of possibility? How can you do the same? Life-Life Balance explores The Art of Possibility by Rosamund Zander and Benjamin Zander.

Rosamund Zander and Benjamin Zander, both from musical backgrounds, argue that life is composed as a story and that with new definitions, people can achieve more of what they previously deemed impossible.

The book is divided into 12 chapters or practices – each illustrated with anecdotes, quotations and questions to challenge the reader’s current mindset. Each practice is coherently linked to the previous one helping the reader to slowly build a framework of possibility. Below is a list of the 12 practices:

  1. It’s All Invented
  2. Stepping into a Universe of Possibility
  3. Giving an A
  4. Being a Contribution
  5. Leading from Any Chair
  6. Rule Number 6
  7. The Way Things Are
  8. Giving Way to Passion
  9. Lighting a Spark
  10. Being the Board
  11. Creating Frameworks for Possibility
  12. Telling the WE Story

The Most Valuable Chapters
Here I summarise chapters one, three and ten as these were the chapters that I felt best illustrated the central ideas in the book.

It’s All Invented
The world comes into our consciousness in the form of a map already drawn, a story already told, a hypothesis, a construction of our own making. We see a map of the world, not the world itself.

Our innate desire to survive means that we seek out the immediate dangers and obstacles around us. We have been programmed to view the world with a set of assumptions that will require conquering and subsequently do not see the world as itself. In the same way that we invent dangers and obstacles around us, we have the power to invent a different story or framework of meaning that enhances our quality of life and the lives of those around us.

Towards the end of this section, Zander prompts the reader with two questions. One confirms our current thinking that restricts possibility and the second reframes the question to alter your thinking to one of possibility.

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

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

Giving an A
From an early age at school, we recognise that we’re ‘in competition’ with others to achieve the best grade. Zander argues that this competition puts a strain on friendships and limits your ability to truly fulfil your potential. As an experiment, in his class of musicians, he declared that each student had received an A at the start of term. All he asked of them, was that they write a letter a few months later stating why they got an A grade. As a result, the ‘A’ is no longer an expectation to live up to, but rather a possibility to live into.

Shifting the emphasis from what they need to do to impress teachers to what they have the potential to do (when grades are no longer the objective) removes fruitless competition and tension amongst students. Students look beyond the grade to discover how much more they can achieve musically. Zander concludes that grades can define the limits of what is possible between us. Zander is careful here not to wholeheartedly criticise the academic system but chose to adjust it in a way that released more potential in his students.

Being the Board
The strongest analogy in the book is ‘defining yourself as the board’ on which life plays out. Zander uses the example of a chessboard. When people so often refer to themselves as the chess pieces being ‘played’ in life – Zander demands you rename yourself as the board on which the whole game is played. In plainer terms, the reader is the framework for everything that happens his or her life. The purpose of naming the reader as the board, is to provide the power to transform the reader’s experience of any unwanted condition into one with which he or she cares to live.

Overall, this is book is a worthwhile and motivational read. The book’s heavy emphasis on Benjamin Zander’s background as a conductor means the book spends a lot of time discussing classical music which may put off readers who don’t share this interest. Still, Benjamin works hard and mostly succeeds in making the stories relevant. Despite the authors’ best intentions there is nothing distinctly new in what they say about adjusting your thinking, but the book is so clearly put together as an accessible narrative it’s hard to criticise the framework they have created for practising the art of possibility. If you’re not one for self-help books this may prove a challenging read because, in spite of many reviews saying the opposite, it is without a doubt a how-to self-help book.