Book review: The Art of Possibility

The Art of Possibility
by Roz and Ben Zander, Harvard Press (c) 2000.

In my life there have been a handful of books that made a major, lasting impact on me.  A couple of them truly changed my life-they altered my thinking at fundamental levels.  This is one of them.

Book cover, Art of PossibilityIs this a book for you?
In the introduction, the authors state their belief that this book could benefit virtually everyone. I agree with that, but I don’t think it will work that way. It came close to doing nothing for me and explaining why might help you judge whether it should be on your reading list and, perhaps, also help you better appreciate what you’re getting into if you do read it.

The first issue with this book is that it’s hard to put a category label on it. You’re likely to find this book on the “Self Improvement” shelf and while I don’t have a better label, that’s an uncomfortable fit. As Roz puts it, “This isn’t any of the usual kinds of self-improvement books.”

Perhaps that’s part of why I found it so hard to get ‘into’ this book. On my first attempt, I got through the introduction and the first chapter. I didn’t get much out of it and put it down. Weeks later, I threw it in my bag because I had nothing else to read on a cross-country flight. On the flight I started over. This time I connected with the first chapter, parts of the rest, and finished the book. One big difference was the fact I had just finished Brain Rules (Medina). Suddenly, the first chapter, It’s all invented, made complete sense.

Photo of Roz Zander

Roz Zander

Zander and Medina were, in different ways, making the same point:  we don’t experience reality, we can only experience the version our brain constructs for us. Two authors making essentially the same point but from very different perspectives really helped me. Having read Medina’s neuroscience angle moved my reaction to the Zanders’ perspective from “I don’t get it” to “It’s obvious.”  Yes, it was that dramatic.  Now, I cannot imagine how I couldn’t connect with that 1st chapter.

Once I’d connected with that piece, somehow that stretched my brain enough that most of the entire book hit home. The Zanders’ It’s all invented contribution is, in essence, this: not only do our brains construct that experience-the thing we call reality–but we can be in active, conscious control of our experience and how we feel about it. Perception really is reality and you have the ability to alter that perception. That’s one aspect of the ‘possibility’ in the title—opening your world view up to see possibility in the world, not limitation; doors, not walls.

The point of the above isn’t that you have to read Medina’s book before this one (it wouldn’t hurt though), or that this is an esoteric, hard-to-read volume. No, just that if you choose to read this book, don’t be surprised or discouraged if you have difficulty getting “into” it. I did, and so have others I’ve talked to. Stick with it, some of the concepts are likely to take some “brain stretching” to fit.

What can you expect in the book?
So, what can you expect if you do set off into this realm of possibility? Structurally, the book is set up as a series of 12 practices–Roz uses that word both in the sense of ‘habit’, something you do that’s a normal part of your life, and in the sense that these are things that you’ll need to practice, i.e., consciously do until they become a part of you. They are:

  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

In a post on my other blog, I talked about one of them: Rule #6: Don ‘t take yourself so $#% seriously.  I briefly described the first:  It’s all invented above. Each practice represents an aspect of living, a way of looking at life, and a context for viewing yourself and those around you.

The common thread running through all twelve is that powerful word in the title: possibility. It’s hard for me to easily explain it, but the essential element here is being able to be mentally and emotionally open to the world, and to see it as a world of abundant opportunity. Each of these 12 practices is a facet of that, a specific way of looking at things that opens up possibility in ways, places and circumstances you might not expect it.

Ben Zander on the web

photo of Ben Zander

Ben at TED 2009

Ben’s profession and passion is music, but he also does powerful talks on leadership, creativity and communications in the workplace (link). A search using Ben’s name will turn up videos of some of Ben’s talks to various groups. All I’ve seen were worthwhile, but I’d especially recommend his TED talk.

In fact, both authors have given TED talks, but so far as I can find, only Ben’s is available on the web site.  And what a talk it was! Independent of the book, it’s a favorite on the site and well worth your time. Personally, I think it’s a “must see.” Ben’s topic for the TED talk was music, but you’ll get a unique insight into this book by listening to him–we’re watching him put the lessons of this book to work and show us what it’s about. In a way, Ben’s talk is a better way to understand the book than anything I can write, unforgettable really does apply.

Bottom line
So, am I recommending the book?  Well, so far I’ve purchased 14 copies and given away 12 (I’m keeping the one I marked up and the one they signed for me) to friends and family. Get it, read it, stick with it to the end.

Possibility and change
Unless you’re Roz or Ben, I suspect that you’re not going to live all of these–I know I can’t. But that’s not the point, this book will be of huge benefit if you truly absorb and adopt even one of these. Let some of this book sink in and change you. Live the possibilities and it will change your life and the lives of those you touch.

(Note: in the TED video the woman in front the camera frequently pauses on is Roz.)


About Dick Knisely

Science-guy, engineer, father, grandfather, husband -- yeah, I'm all of those things. I author this blog to share things I care about and you might care about, too. I hope you do and that you'll join in to share things you care about.
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One Response to Book review: The Art of Possibility

  1. Pingback: Is perception reality? …really? | What I think about that

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