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Book review: Art of Possibility

The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life

Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander

Penguin Books,$21

I apologize in advance. I don't mean to be rude, disruptive or disrespectful. But the next time you inflict death by PowerPoint and drone on and on and on about 101 slightly interesting and not so relevant facts and stats, I may jump up and shout out "enough". Spare us the pain and anguish. Stop talking. Leave us be. We can't take it any more.

I blame TED for my intolerance. Or more specifically, TED.com. It's a website with more than 200 videotaped presentations from 24 years worth of Technology Entertainment Design conferences. Folks pay $6,000 to go to this annual conference and, before whipping out your MasterCard and booking a flight on WestJet, you should know that the 2009 get-together in Long Beach is already sold out and wait-listed.

So what's the appeal? The TED conference organizers assemble all-star lineups of deep thinkers with big ideas and doers who've done remarkable things. Researchers and rock stars, entrepreneurs and educators, trailblazers and mavericks take to the stage and have just 18 minutes to deliver the talk of their lives.

And they deliver. No death by PowerPoint here. No 101 slightly useful stats and facts. Just unadulterated and inspired storytelling that connects with your head and your heart. If you want to experience presentations done right, check out TED.com.

My favourite TED talk, and the best presentation I've yet to experience, is delivered by Benjamin Zander. The conductor of the Boston Philharmonic since 1979, Zander is world renowned as a guest conductor and guest speaker on leadership. A champion of classical music, Zander packs the house with his preconcert talks.

According to his TED.com bio, Zander has two passions — classical music and helping the rest of us realize our untapped love for classical music and for all new possibilities, experiences and connections.

"Imagine Martin Luther King saying, 'I have a dream … But I don't know if the others will buy it," Zander tells the audience early on in his talk. Watching Zander work his magic on the crowd will inspire you to read the book he co-authored with spouse Rosamund Stone Zander.

In their book and in his TED talk, Zander leads off with a story about a shoe factory in the early 1900s that sends two marketing scouts to a remote African village. The scouts are searching for new markets to grow the business. One scout sends back a telegram saying "situation hopeless, no one wears shoes". The other scout fires off a telegram declaring "glorious business opportunity, they have no shoes." The first marketer believes the situation is hopeless. The second marketer sees abundance and possibility. Why the difference? And who would you rather have working for your organization?

"Each scout comes to the scene with his own perspectives; each returns telling a different tale," say the Zanders. "Indeed, all of life comes to us in narrative form; it's a story we tell."

It's an invented story that we can rewrite at any time. "Many of the circumstances that seem to block us in our daily lives may only appear to do so based on a framework of assumptions we carry with us," say the Zanders. "Draw a different frame around the same set of circumstances and new pathways come into view. Find the right framework and extraordinary accomplishment becomes an everyday experience."

The Zanders outline a series of possibility-expanding practices that'll make the extraordinary an ordinary part of our day. Here's one practice to mull over before rolling out the next round of performance appraisals at work.

At the New England Conservatory where Zander teaches, every student automatically gets an A to start the year before any tests or assignments are handed out.

"After 25 years of teaching, I still came up against the same obstacle," says Zander. "Class after class, the students would be in such a chronic state of anxiety over the measurement of their performance that they would be reluctant to take risks with their playing."

So Zander, in consultation with his wife, decided to start the school year in September by giving every student an A. In return, students wrote Zander personal letters dated next May that began with "Dr. Mr. Zander, I got my A because…". Students then had to tell, in as much detail as possible and in the past tense, how they earned their extraordinary grade. What were the insights gained, lessons learned and milestones reached? And Zander told students he was especially interested in the person they became next spring. What were the attitudes, feelings and world view of someone who's done all they wanted to do and become all they wanted to be?

Zander recalls a Taiwanese exchange student at the conservatory who was ranked 68 out of 70 in his music class back home. Zander gave the student an A. This initially confused the student. But then the student decided he was far happier being an A than a 68 out of 70.

"This student, in a brilliant flash, had hit upon the secret of life. He had realized that labels he had been taking so seriously are human inventions. It's all a game. The number 68 is invented and the A is invented, so we might as well choose to invent something that brightens our life and the lives of people around us."

Giving an A brings people together under a common purpose and recognizes that everyone wants to contribute and make a difference.

Without that shared vision, we're driven by our own agendas, sticking close with folks who think like us and ignoring anyone who seems to have nothing in common with us.

"When you give an A, you find yourself speaking to people not from a place of measuring how they stack up against your standards, but from a place of respect that gives them room to realize themselves. An A is not an expectation to live up to, but a possibility to live into. The A is an invention that creates possibility for both mentor and student, manager and employee, or for any human interaction."

And here's one other practice worth paying attention to. The Zanders tell a story about two prime ministers who are deep in a conversation about matters of state. Suddenly, a bureaucrat bursts into the room, stamps his feet and bangs his fists. One of the leaders tells the apoplectic bureaucrat to remember Rule Number Six. The bureaucrat immediately calms down and leaves with a bow and an apology. The other prime minister asks about the secret of Rule Number Six. "Very simple," says his colleague. "Rule Number Six is don't take yourself so goddamn seriously." When asked about the other rules, the prime minister says there are no other rules.

Lighten up, say the Zanders. "Humour and laughter are perhaps the best way we can get over ourselves. Humour can bring us together around our inescapable foibles, confusions and miscommunications, and especially over the ways in which we find ourselves acting entitled and demanding, or putting other people down, or flying at each other's throats."

So if you're stuck with a possibility-limiting you win, I lose scarcity mindset, spend some time at TED.com and then read what the Zanders have to say about transforming our professional and personal lives.

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