-by Krista Taylor
If someone had told me that I would discover my favorite book of all time at a school sponsored professional development training, I would have laughed out loud. No way. Simply not possible. But it’s true, I did. During the summer of 2011, among the three books assigned as pre-reading for the Ascend Leadership Institute was The Art of Possibility, written by Rosamund and Benjamin Zander. The text on the back of the book says, “In the face of difficulty, we can despair, get angry . . . or choose possibility,” and from the very first pages I was hooked. Jack was also deeply impacted by this book – it served as the impetus for the Giving an A teacher evaluation process that he implemented shortly after reading it, and when discussing who would get to write this post, we had a bit of a scuffle. I won.
The Art of Possibility is a life-changing work. I have recommended it to others more often than any other book I’ve ever read, and rather than loan mine out, I purchase new books for those who want to read it. I love my copy so much that I consider it a kind of talisman . . . or perhaps a blankie. It is underlined and annotated, and has been so well-loved that the pages are beginning to separate from the binding.
So what is this book actually about?! It’s about life. And leadership. And perspective. And hope. I would like to say that reading this book opened my eyes and elicited such great changes in me that I am now . . . well . . . that I am now perfect. Unfortunately, that would not be a true story. Instead let me say that reading this book opened my eyes, and now, sometimes, I can see with a different perspective. Other times, I forget entirely, and for every two steps forward I take, it seems that I take one step (or sometimes even two) backward. Just as I say about my students, progress does not happen in a straight line, and surely mine has not. This book, however, has served as a catalyst for change, and it continues to provide grounding and reminders when I feel that I have lost my way.
The content of this book seems impossible to summarize, so rather than trying to do so, I want to share the ideas I have found most impactful. I know that these sections have such resonance with me because they are the areas with which I struggle the most. While it is tempting to tell you stories of how I courageously implemented these practices and mindsets, the truth is I don’t have many of those stories – I ask that you view those that I share here as the exception for me, rather than the rule. I continue to be a work in progress.
The Myth of Scarcity
In the first chapter, Zander and Zander discuss the myth of scarcity. The idea that when we believe that there is not enough of an important thing, it leads to competition, judgment, mistrust, and fear, but that ultimately, this way of understanding the world is false. Here is how they describe living with a scarcity focus. “On our path to achieving a goal, we inevitably encounter obstacles. Some of the more familiar ones, aside from other people, are scarcities of time, money, power, love, resources, and inner strength. . . . The assumption is that life is about staying alive and making it through – surviving in a world of scarcity and peril.” They write that a better model is found in seeing the world as “A Universe of Possibility.” “Let us suppose, now, that a universe of possibility stretches beyond the world of measurement. (p.19) In this reality, the relationship between people and environments is highlighted, not the people and things themselves. Emotions that are often relegated to the special category of spirituality are abundant here: joy, grace, awe, wholeness, passion, and compassion.” (p. 20)
We no longer live in a world in which “survival of the fittest” makes sense. While neuroscience has taught us that the human brain remains wired to scan our environment for threats in order to trigger the “fight or flight” response when necessary, we no longer have to live this way in order to survive. Instead of seeking out the threats, or problems, what if we embraced possibility? The Zanders note that living “in abundance” brings greater abundance — that when you give up competition and scarcity thinking, greater connections and resources follow. We don’t have to succumb to the temptation of constant comparison, or that what you have takes from me. The thought that if you are an incredible teacher, it makes me less of one; that your creativity reduces the uniqueness of my work, or that your success threatens mine. We live in a society where we are regularly pitted against one another in competition. This is true, even in education. Over a year ago, out of 20 finalists, I was named the Hawkins Educator of the Year. I rarely talk about this honor, and the official plaque with my name on it sits at the bottom of my desk drawer where it has been since I first brought it to school. I simply cannot bring myself to hang it up because, you see, in my mind, if I am the Educator of the Year, it somehow seems to imply that those around me are less, and that is simply not true. Why not 20 winners? Why not 200? Why not all of us? Ultimately, it is only in giving up the idea that there isn’t enough to go around that allows us to “step into a universe of possibility.” (p. 23)
Being a Contribution
Without the inevitable competition that scarcity thinking necessitates, we can let go of the notions of success and failure, and instead focus on the more achievable concept of being a contribution.
“The drive to be successful and the fear of failure are, like the head and tail of a coin, inseparably linked.” (p. 56) It seems nearly impossible to let go of the importance of success. Isn’t this the whole purpose of living – to be successful? Perhaps not financially per se, but to be successful in each of our roles – as a spouse, parent, friend, colleague, teacher, doctor, lawyer, etc? This list could go on and on. Just thinking about being successful in all the possible ways feels exhausting, but, without that, what is it all about? Isn’t success the whole point? The Zanders say no. They suggest that we replace that entire concept. “All at once I found that the fearful question, ‘Is it enough?’ and the even more fearful question, ‘Am I loved for who I am, or for what I have accomplished?’ could both be replaced with the joyful question, ‘How will I be a contribution today?’” (p. 57) How much easier it is to think about simply being a contribution each day, rather than getting it all just right. I wish I could tell you that I have mastered this perspective shift, but I have not – I’m not even close. That’s why my book is falling apart; I have to keep returning to it to remind myself that there’s a different way. As the book notes, it is a “discipline of the spirit” (p.62) that is transformative. The one thing that I have discovered is that there is great joy is saying yes – in making myself a contribution to others. So often, I come across the advice to “set boundaries,” “know your limits,” “learn to say no.” Each time I hear this, I want to say, “Why?” Why on Earth would I say no to something that will help? What would happen if we all just said yes to one another?” I get teased about this socialist-type philosophy of relationships, but why not “from each according to his ability; to each according to his need?” Beau said it best on a summer evening when I was overwhelmed by a time-sensitive and monumental work task that had nothing to do with him. He offered to come and help. I protested, until he clearly and firmly said, “Shut up, Krista. We’re a team. We help each other.” Being a contribution allows us to use our ability to meet another’s need. It leads to relationships that are rooted in the premise of “I’ve got you” – when you have a need, I am there to contribute.
Being a contribution, to individuals or to the world in general, occurs most easily through calling on our Passion. This is how the Zanders describe the process of giving way to passion: “Notice where you are holding back, and let go. Release those barriers of self that keep you separate and in control, and let the vital energy of passion surge through you connecting you to all beyond.” (p. 114)
Please allow me to be the first to say that the idea of “letting go” sounds utterly terrifying. And yet, I know how it feels when I have done it. It feels like flying – like being lifted by an ever-present current, so that no matter what risks I take, I cannot fall. Why is it so hard to trust that process? And while I don’t believe in magic – I only believe in hard work – tapping into passion seems to elicit a kind of timeless magic. “The life force for humankind is perhaps nothing more or less than the passionate energy to connect, express, and communicate. Enrollment is that life force at work, lighting sparks from person to person, scattering light in all directions. “ (p. 139) I don’t believe that we can do this unless we say yes to one another. Let’s give up the concepts of balance and limits in favor of “scattering light in all directions.” We need more light.
And yet sometimes Passion eludes us. Sometimes we get seduced by the siren song of the downward spiral. It is easy to fall into this trap as it can feel so much safer to assume failure. “Downward spiral talk is based on the fear that we will be stopped in our tracks and fall short in the race.” (p. 108) The downward spiral occurs by focusing on the negatives – that same scanning the environment for threats. This leads to a sense of helplessness and hopelessness, which can be paralyzing. This is my great Achilles’ Heel. During the first five weeks of this summer, I compulsively walked the equivalent of several marathons while engaged in countless hours of obsessive rumination on the challenges Gamble was facing at the end of the school year. In the process, I mentally catastrophized the situation such that I had myself nearly convinced that things would never get better, I was powerless to effect change, and that the best recourse was simply to quit trying. I allowed myself to become fully entranced by Downward Spiral Self-Talk.
The Zanders strategy for addressing the Downward Spiral is through taking responsibility, or what I would call “owning your part.” As comfortable as it is to point fingers and assign blame, responsibility for every conflict and every challenging situation is held by all impacted parties. “You can always grace yourself with responsibility for anything that happens in your life. You can always find within yourself the source of any problem you have.” (p. 152) While on the surface, it may seem that taking personal responsibility might only result in greater discomfort, this is not, in fact, the case. As I frequently tell my children, my students, and myself, “You can only be responsible for you, but you are always responsible for you.” You cannot force anyone else to change, but you have the power to make choices that influence every situation you are a part of. This dispels the feeling of powerlessness that the downward spiral elicits and allows for the emergence of glimmers of hope. Ultimately, this is what knocked me out of my early summer Downward Spiral stupor. What was my role in the situation and what corrective actions did I need to take? Once I was able to answer those questions, I was able to see how I could get the things I was responsible for back on the right track.
I reflect often on the Zanders’ question, “Who am I being that they are not shining?” (p. 74) They being anyone you are engaged with – students, employees, colleagues, friends, family. Essentially, when there is a problem, what is my part? I am ineffective, helpless, and hopeless when I find myself stuck in the blame game – focusing on who is at fault. I open up to possibility and to change when I can see the steps that I need to take to impact the problem. This attitude extends far beyond personal benefits. “Imagine how profoundly trustworthy you would be to the people who work for (with) you if they felt no problem could arise between you that you were not prepared to own. Imagine how much incentive they would have to cooperate if they knew they could count on you to clear the pathways for accomplishment.” (p. 158-9) The benefits of combating the downward spiral through personal responsibility are far reaching and generate a deep-seated trust that is powerful and inspiring.
Rule #6/How Fascinating
While I certainly acknowledge that the perspective shift the Zanders propose is challenging and requires difficult internal self-reflection and work, they are light-hearted in their approach, providing just one rule, which they call Rule #6. Rule #6 is very simple – “Don’t take yourself so damn seriously.” (p.79) They prevail upon us to “lighten up,” saying, “Humor and laughter are perhaps the best way we can get over ourselves. Humor 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.” (p. 80) Ummmmm . . . guilty as charged . . . I don’t do Rule #6 so very well. One strategy for getting closer to not “taking yourself so damn seriously,” is the procedure they provide to their students when a mistake has occurred. Fortunately it is simple, humorous, and nearly pain-free. “When they [students] make a mistake, they are to lift their arms in the air, smile, and say, ‘How fascinating!’”(p.31) So, next year, if you see me briskly walking through the hall, with my arms in the air, muttering “How fascinating,” under my breath, understand that this is progress for me. Just continue about your business knowing that I have not lost my mind, I have just screwed up yet again, and am practicing embracing possibility and Rule #6 .
An Invitation to Possibility
I highly recommend that you read this book. It is challenging in the best possible ways. As for me, I’m waiting on the incantation, magic pill, or snake oil that will transform me. Until then, I will keep my trusty copy by my side and continue re-reading the underlined and dog-eared pages, each time trying to get a little closer to living within The Art of Possibility.