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Book notes: The Art of Possibility

A brilliant book on redefining your perceptions and experience of what is possible in the world and in life. Absolutely shifted my experience of life.

Amazon book link.

Introductions / Premise

Our premise is that 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. 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 history of transformational phenomena—the Internet, for example, or paradigm shifts in science, or the spread of a new religion—suggests that transformation happens less by arguing cogently for something new than by generating active, ongoing practices that shift a culture’s experience of the basis for reality.


Our practices will take a good deal more than three minutes to master. Additionally, everything you think and feel and see around you will argue against them. So it takes dedication, a leap of faith, and, yes, practicing to get them into your repertoire.

When you are out of the boat, you cannot think your way back in; you have no point of reference. You must call on something that has been established in advance, a catch phrase, like “toes to nose.”

Practice 1: “It’s All Invented”

Experiments in neuroscience have demonstrated that we reach an understanding of the world in roughly this sequence: first, our senses bring us selective information about what is out there; second, the brain constructs its own simulation of the sensations; and only then, third, do we have our first conscious experience of our milieu.

We perceive only the sensations we are programmed to receive, and our awareness is further restricted by the fact that we recognize only those for which we have mental maps or categories.

Our minds are also designed to string events into story lines, whether or not there is any connection between the parts.

“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.”

The term it’s all invented points to a more fundamental notion—that no matter how objective we try to be, it is still through the structure of the brain that we perceive the world. So, if there are absolutes, we have no direct access to their existence. The mind constructs. The meanings our minds construct may be widely shared and sustaining for us, but they may have little to do with the world itself. Furthermore, how would we know?

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.

When you bring to mind it’s all invented, you remember that it’s all a story you tell—not just some of it, but all of it. And remember, too, that every story you tell is founded on a network of hidden assumptions. If you learn to notice and distinguish these stories, you will be able to break through the barriers of any “box” that contains unwanted conditions and create other conditions or narratives that support the life you envision for yourself and those around you.

The first practice

Two questions:

  1. What assumption am I making, That I’m not aware I’m making, That gives me what I see?
  2. What might I now invent, That I haven’t yet invented, That would give me other choices?

Practice 2: Stepping into a Universe of Possibility

The World of Measurement

We propose to call our familiar everyday world the “world of measurement” in order to highlight the central position held by assessments, scales, standards, grades, and comparisons.

All the manifestations of the world of measurement—the winning and losing, the gaining of acceptance and the threatened rejection, the raised hopes and the dash into despair—all are based on a single assumption that is hidden from our awareness. The assumption is that life is about staying alive and making it through—surviving in a world of scarcity and peril.

Virtually everybody, whether living in the lap of luxury or in diminished circumstances, wakes up in the morning with the unseen assumption that life is about the struggle to survive and get ahead in a world of limited resources.

How to step into possibility

  • How are my thoughts and actions, in this moment, reflections of the measurement world?
  • How are my thoughts and actions, in this new moment, a reflection of the measurement world? And how now?

You keep asking the question until you finally appreciate how hopeless it is to escape being shaped by the assumptions that underlie all of life. And then you may begin to laugh.

Practice 3: Giving an A

The secret of life

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 the people around us.

IN THE REALM of possibility, the literal or figurative giving of the A aligns teacher with student, manager with employee, and makes striving for a goal an enlivening game. Within the game, a standard becomes a marker that gives the pair direction. If the student hits the mark, the team is on course; if not, well, “How fascinating!” The instructor does not personally identify with the standard; nor does the student identify personally with the results of the game. Since the teacher’s job is to help her students chip away at the barriers that block their abilities and expression, she aligns herself with the students to whom she has given an A, and lets the standards maintain themselves.

The A Brings People Together Under A Common Purpose

In the absence of a vision, we are each driven by our own agenda, finding people whose interests match ours, and inattentive to those with whom we appear to have little in common. We automatically judge our players, workers, and loved ones against our standards, inadvertently pulling the wind from their sails. But with our new practice of granting an ongoing A in all our relationships, we can align ourselves with others, because that A declares and sustains a life-enhancing partnership.

Tanya’s Bow

The player who looks least engaged may be the most committed member of the group. A cynic, after all, is a passionate person who does not want to be disappointed again. Tanya, the Mahlerian par excellence, had decided to “sit out” that performance because it was going to disappoint her again. I learned from Tanya that the secret is not to speak to a person’s cynicism, but to speak to her passion.

The practice

THE PRACTICE OF giving the A both invents and recognizes a universal desire in people to contribute to others, no matter how many barriers there are to its expression. We can choose to validate the apathy of a boss, a player, or a high school student and become resigned ourselves, or we can choose to honor in them an unfulfilled yearning to make a difference.

Second Fiddle-itis

When I myself had the privilege of playing string quartets with Robert Koff, the founding second violinist of the Julliard String Quartet, I came away convinced that the real leader of the string quartet is the second violin. Not because Koff dominated the rest of us, but because in his part he had all the inner rhythms and harmonies, and he gave them such clarity and authority that we were all tremendously influenced by his playing. He was leading us from the “seconds.” In a truly great string quartet, all four players are doing that simultaneously.

GIVING AN A is a fundamental, paradigmatic shift toward the realization that it is all invented—the A is invented and the Number 68 is invented, and so are all the judgments in between. Some readers might conclude that our practice is merely an exercise in “putting a positive spin” on a negative opinion, or “thinking the best of someone,” and “letting bygones be bygones.” But that is not it at all. No behavior of the person to whom you assign an A need be whitewashed by that grade, and no action is so bad that behind it you cannot recognize a human being to whom you can speak the truth.

Reconstructing Our Past

How often do we stand convinced of the truth of our early memories, forgetting that they are but assessments made by a child? We can replace the narratives that hold us back by inventing wiser stories, free from childish fears, and, in doing so, disperse long-held psychological stumbling blocks. Usually the impetus for transforming your own past will come from a feeling of hopelessness in the present, a sense that you have been through the same frustrating experience time and again. Our analytic powers don’t seem to help, though some of us never weary of exercising them. The people we are involved with seem so fixed in their ways. How can we get them to change? We tend not to notice our own hand in this ill-starred situation, so rarely are we looking in a productive place for the answer. Why not give some attention to the grades we are handing out?

The rearrangement of meaning seemed to me more real, and attuned to a wiser part of me, than the story I had previously sworn by.

MANY OF US suffer from the conviction that our parents withheld from us an A. Often the advice we receive, delivered with an earnest, pitying look is, “You can’t change people,” though most of us will go to our graves trying. That adage is true, of course, in the world of measurement, where people and things are fixed in character. However, in the universe of possibility, you certainly can change people. They change as you speak. You may ask, “Who, actually, is doing the changing?” And the answer is the relationship. Because in the arena of possibility, everything occurs in that context.

THE ONLY GRACE you can have is the grace you can imagine.

Practice 4: Being a Contribution

Changing the game being played

The drive to be successful and the fear of failure are, like the head and tail of a coin, inseparably linked. They goaded me on to unusual efforts and caused me, and those around me, considerable suffering. Of course, the surprising thing was that my increasing success did little to lessen the tension.

Until the splash of cold water. My second wife walked away from the marriage midstream.

At the same time she asserted— though at first I did not listen— that we would always be in relationship, and that it was up to us to invent the form. Clearly the family had not been thriving under the arrangement we’d had. “Let’s invent a form,” she said, “that allows us to contribute to each other, and let’s set a distance that supports us to be fully ourselves.” Going down for the second time, I understood and grabbed hold. I saw the whole thing was made up and that the game of success was just that, a game. I realized I could invent another game.

I settled on a game called I am a contribution. Unlike success and failure, contribution has no other side. It is not arrived at by comparison. 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 by the joyful question, “How will I be a contribution today?”

When I was a boy playing the dinner table game, and later an adult playing the success/failure game, I constantly judged myself by what I believed to be other people’s standards. Nothing was ever quite good enough. There was always another orchestra—aside from the one I was conducting—that I suspected would bring me more success, and so I was never really present when I was on the podium. When I used to go out on dates, I would find myself looking over my shoulder for someone better. Too much of what I did was measured by the success that I might gain, so I rarely had peace, either professionally or in my private life.

As a conductor, I often drove the players and the administrators to realize my ambition, and no matter how much support I received, I still found myself distrustful. The game I was in was a competitive one, and in this game you can make alliances with people who are on your side, whose objectives are the same as yours; but you cannot rely on anyone who is aiming toward anything else, lest it detract from what you want for yourself.

When I began playing the game of contribution, on the other hand, I found there was no better orchestra than the one I was conducting, no better person to be with than the one I was with; in fact, there was no “better.” In the game of contribution you wake up each day and bask in the notion that you are a gift to others.

In this new game, it is not as though the question of where you stand disappears, or how important you are, or how much money you hope to make. However, just for the moment, those concerns are packed away in a box of another name, where life operates under a different set of rules.

The purpose of inventing a new game

The purpose of describing, say, your professional life or your family traditions as a game is twofold. You instantly shift the context from one of survival to one of opportunity for growth. You also have the choice of imagining other games you might prefer to play in these realms. Naming your activities as a game breaks their hold on you and puts you in charge. Just look carefully at the cover of the box, and if the rules do not light up your life, put it away, take out another one you like better, and play the new game wholeheartedly. Remember, it’s all invented.

The practice

The practice of this chapter is inventing oneself as a contribution, and others as well. The steps to the practice are these:

  1. Declare yourself to be a contribution.
  2. Throw yourself into life as someone who makes a difference, accepting that you may not understand how or why.
    The contribution game appears to have remarkable powers for transforming conflicts into rewarding experiences.

Like Ripples in a Pond

After I experienced the joy of redefining my work as a place of contribution rather than an arena for my success, I began to think about a way of introducing my students at the Conservatory to the game. I decided to give them another assignment during the first class of the year, in addition to writing the A letter. I now ask them to take a moment in that class to write down how they have “contributed” over the past week. They naturally assume that I mean musically, how have they contributed musically, but I explain that they should jot down anything they said or did that they are willing to call a contribution—from helping an old lady cross the street to setting their boyfriends straight.

This exercise has a startling effect on how the students think of themselves. There is no place in it for them to talk about how little they practice, or to tell a story of how irresponsible or unkind they have been. They are only to describe themselves in the light of contribution. The assignment for the week after is to notice how they are a contribution as the week goes by—they are just to notice, not to do anything about it—and then come back and share what they saw with the class. The third assignment is to cast themselves as a contribution into the week ahead, like a pebble into a pond, and imagine that everything they do sends ripples out beyond the horizon.

There is an aspect of psychological practicing in these exercises parallel to the technical practicing my students do on their instruments. It is a discipline of the spirit. In order to be a great performer, you have to be unfettered by stage nerves. These exercises in contribution are a way of oiling the machinery to make one a more effective vehicle to convey the message of Brahms or Beethoven.

As you get caught up in the excitement of explaining and sharing the music with your companion, would you have time to be nervous? Of course not! It wouldn’t occur to you. But this is exactly what you are doing when you perform—you are pointing to the beauty and artistry of the music.

Naming oneself a contribution & rewards

NAMING ONESELF and others as a contribution produces a shift away from self-concern and engages us in a relationship with others that is an arena for making a difference.

Rewards in the contribution game are of a deep and enduring kind, though less predictable than the trio of money, fame, and power that accrue to the winner in the success game. You never know what they will be, or from whence they will come.

Practice 5: Leading from any chair

I had been conducting for nearly twenty years when it suddenly dawned on me that the conductor of an orchestra does not make a sound. His picture may appear on the cover of the CD in various dramatic poses, but his true power derives from his ability to make other people powerful. I began to ask myself questions like “What makes a group lively and engaged?” instead of “How good am I?

Before that, my main concerns had been whether my interpretation was being appreciated by the audience and, if the truth be known, whether the critics liked it because if they did it might lead to other opportunities and greater success. In order to realize my interpretation of the work in question, it seemed all I had to do was to gain sway over the players, teach them my interpretation, and make them fulfill my musical will. Now, in the light of my “discovery,” I began to shift my attention to how effective I was at enabling the musicians to play each phrase as beautifully as they were capable. This concern had rarely surfaced when my position appeared to give me absolute power and I had cast the players as mere instruments of my will.

But how, actually, could I know what the players were feeling about my effectiveness in releasing their power? Certainly I could tell a lot by looking into their eyes—the eyes never lie, after all—and at their posture, their whole demeanor, and I could ask myself, “Are they engaged?


The conductor decides who is playing in his orchestra. Even when he comes in fresh to guest-conduct players who are already in their seats, he determines who is there. When he sees instrumentalists who look listless, he can decide that they are bored and resigned, or he can greet in them the original spark that enticed them into music, now dimmed to a flicker. He can say, “Of course! They have had to go against their passionate natures and interrupt the long line of their commitment on account of the many competing demands of the music profession. They want to be recognized as the true artists they really are.” He can see, sitting before him, the jaded and the disaffected—or the tender and ardent lover of music.

A monumental question for leaders in any organization to consider is: How much greatness are we willing to grant people? Because it makes all the difference at every level who it is we decide we are leading. The activity of leadership is not limited to conductors, presidents, and CEOs, of course—the player who energizes the orchestra by communicating his newfound appreciation for the tasks of the conductor, or a parent who fashions in her own mind that her children desire to contribute, is exercising leadership of the most profound kind.


Listening for passion and commitment is the practice of the silent conductor whether the players are sitting in the orchestra, on the management team, or on the nursery floor. How can this leader know how well he is fulfilling his intention? He can look in the eyes of the players and prepare to ask himself, “Who am I being that they are not shining?” He can invite information and expression. He can speak to their passion. He can look for an opportunity to hand them the baton.

Do leaders need a podium?

A leader does not need a podium; she can be sitting quietly on the edge of any chair, listening passionately and with commitment, fully prepared to take up the baton. In fact, to make reference to the Rabbi’s gift at the end of chapter 3, the leader may be any one of us.

Practice 6: “Rule Number 6”

“Rule Number 6 is ‘Don’t take yourself so g—damn seriously.'” “Ah,” says his visitor, “that is a fine rule.” After a moment of pondering, he inquires, “And what, may I ask, are the other rules?” “There aren’t any.

THE PRACTICE OF this chapter is to lighten up, which may well light up those around you.

REMEMBERING Rule Number 6 can help us distinguish (and hold at some remove) the part of ourselves that developed in the competitive environment of the “measurement world.” For the sake of discussion, we’ll call it our calculating self. One of its chief characteristics, as we shall see, is that it lobbies to be taken very seriously indeed. When we practice Rule Number 6, we coax this calculating self to lighten up, and by doing so we break its hold on us.

The calculating self

This calculating self is concerned for its survival in a world of scarcity.

Personality: suggests that we think of “personality” as a strategy for “getting out of childhood alive.”

The survival mechanisms of the child have a great deal in common with those of the young of other species, save for the fact that children learn to know themselves. They grow up in a medium of language and have a long, long time to think. A child comes to think of himself as the personality he gets recognition for or, in other words, as the set of patterns of action and habits of thought that get him out of childhood in one piece. That set, raised to adulthood, is what we are calling the calculating self.

No matter how confident or well-positioned this adult self appears, underneath the surface it is weak and sees itself as marginal, at risk for losing everything. The alertness to position that was adaptive at an earlier time in an individual’s life—and in the history of our species—is still conceptually operative in later years and keeps signaling to the self that it must try to climb higher, get more control, displace others, and find a way in. Fortunately, the perception of what “in” is, and where it is located, is likely to vary between individuals and groups. Long after any real vestiges of childhood threats remain, this built-in alarm system exaggerates danger in order to insure its life.

How do we learn to recognize the often-charming, always-scheming, sometimes-anxious, frequently conniving calculating self? One good way is to ask ourselves:

What would have to change for me to be completely fulfilled?
The answer to this question will clue us in to the conditions our calculating self finds threatening

The best sex ever

The instructions say, “Have it. Be fulfilled.

Resolving Conflict through the Central Self

The practice of Rule Number 6 gives the facilitator in a negotiation a unique perspective. For the facilitator versed in this practice, conflict resolution is the art of paving the way for the parties’ central selves to take charge of the discussion. In other words, the role of the facilitator is to promote human development and transformation rather than to find a solution that satisfies the demands of the ever-present calculating selves. In the story that follows, the assumption was made that the two men’s calculating selves would each be plotting to win out over the other, pulling the conversation into the downward spiral, while their central selves would know a more direct route to a productive and collaborative solution.

When you look to people’s central selves and conduct an honest conversation, a culture forms that is hard to resist. For the calculating self to emerge in this culture is as difficult as trying to hum a tune in B minor while the chorus around you is singing in C major.

The Central Self

Unlike the calculating self, the central self is neither a pattern of action nor a set of strategies. It does not need an identity; it is its own pure expression. It is what a person who has survived—and knows it—looks like. The central self smiles at the calculating self’s perceptions, understanding that they are the relics of our ancestry, the necessary illusions of childhood. Fine, if the child thinks there is such a thing as “not belonging,” so he can shriek and wail at the first hint of being forgotten at the grocery store. Fine, if he should think that he needs to be stronger or smarter than others to stay alive, so he will exercise mind and body, resist drowning, and get to the food first.

However, the central self knows that “not belonging” and “being insufficient” are thoughts both as native to us and as illusory as Santa Claus. It understands that the threatening aspects of what we encounter are often illusions that do not bear taking seriously. It sees that human beings are social animals; we move in a dance with each other, we are all fundamentally immeasurable, we all belong. What freedom! Unencumbered by the obstacles that the calculating self tackles daily, the central self can listen in innocence for who we are, listen for the whole of it, inquire into what is here. The calculating self will never hear the whispers of compassion between people on a busy street, never feel the complex rhythms of our breathing against the swaying of trees and the oscillations of the tide, never attune itself to the long rhythms that give us meaning. Its attention is on its own comparisons and schemes. But the central self is open and aware because it need only be the unique voice that it is, an expression that transcends the personality that got it out of childhood alive.

Transformation, for our central selves, is a description of the mode through which we move through life. A transformation is a shift in how we experience the world, and these shifts happen continually, often just beyond our notice. As soon as a person sets out on an adventure, or falls in love, or starts a new job, she is likely to find herself feeling and thinking and talking like a new person, curious as to how she could have felt the way she had just days earlier. From the perspective of the central self, life moves with fluidity like a constantly varying river, and so do we. Confident that it can deal with whatever comes its way, it sees itself as permeable rather than vulnerable, and stays open to influence, to the new and the unknown. Under no illusion that it can control the movement of the river, it joins rather than resists its bountiful flow.

WE FOLLOW Rule Number 6 and lighten up over our childish demands and entitlements, we are instantly transported into a remarkable universe. This new universe is cooperative in nature, and pulls for the realization of all our cooperative desires. For the most part it lies a bit above our heads. Angels can fly there because, as you may have heard, they take themselves lightly. But now with the help of a single rule, so can we.

Practice 7: The Way Things Are

The practice in this chapter is an antidote both to the hopeless resignation of the cow and to the spluttering resistance of the duck. It is to be present to the way things are, including our feelings about the way things are. This practice can help us clarify the next step that will take us in the direction we say we want to go. The calculating self is threatened by such an attempt: “Why hang around and feel like a sucker?” it asks. But the central self expands and develops with each new experience: “What is here now?” it asks, and then, “What else is here now?

Being present to the way things are is not the same as accepting things as they are in the resigned way of the cow. It doesn’t mean you should drown out your negative feelings or pretend you like what you really can’t stand. It doesn’t mean you should work to achieve some “higher plane of existence” so you can “transcend negativity.” It simply means, being present without resistance: being present to what is happening and present to your reactions, no matter how intense.

Presence without resistance: you are now free to turn to the question, “What do we want to do from here?” Then all sorts of pathways begin to appear: the possibility of resting; having the best food, sex, reading, or conversation; going to the movies or walking in the rain; or catching the next flight to Tucson. Indeed, the capacity to be present to everything that is happening, without resistance, creates possibility. It creates possibility in the same way that, if you are far-sighted, finding your glasses revives your ability to read or remove a splinter from a child’s finger. At last you can see. You can leave behind the struggle to come to terms with what is in front of you, and move on.

Mistakes are like ice

MISTAKES CAN BE like ice. If we resist them, we may keep on slipping into a posture of defeat. If we include mistakes in our definition of performance, we are likely to glide through them and appreciate the beauty of the longer run.

The level of playing of the average orchestral player is much higher than it used to be in Mahler’s day. So when Mahler wrote difficult passages for particular instruments, like the high-flying “Frère Jacques” tune for solo double bass in the third movement of the First Symphony, he was almost certainly conveying, musically, the sense of vulnerability and risk he saw as an integral part of life. For the orchestra and the conductor, playing Mahler’s symphonies means taking huge risks with ensemble, expression, and technique. We will not convey the sense of the music if we are in perfect technical control, so in a sense a very good player has to try harder in these passages than someone for whom they would be a strain, technically.

The risk the music invites us to take becomes a joyous adventure only when we stretch beyond our known capacities, while gladly affirming that we may fail. And if we make a mistake, we can mentally raise our arms and say, “How fascinating!” and reroute our attention to the higher purpose at hand.

When we dislike a situation, we tend to put all our attention on how things should be rather than how they are.

When our attention is primarily directed to how wrong things are, we lose our power to act effectively.

Being with the Way Things Are by Closing the Exits: Escape, Denial, and Blame

Among all the complexities that keep us from being present to things the way they are, one of the most potent is the confusion between physical reality and abstractions—creations of the mind and tongue.

This part of the practice of being with the way things are is to separate our conclusions about events from our description of the events themselves, until possibility opens up.

Abstractions that we unwittingly treat as physical reality tend to block us from seeing the way things are, and therefore reduce our power to accomplish what we say we want.

Downward Spiral Talk

The calculating self and the central self. When we are our calculating selves, we struggle onward and upward like contestants in an obstacle course, riveting our attention on the “barriers” we see in our way. Strengthening the concept of obstacles with metaphors, we talk about “walls” and “roadblocks,” their height and prevalence, and what it will take to overcome them. This is downward spiral talk, and it is part and parcel of the effort to climb the ladder and arrive at the top.

The catchphrase downward spiral talk stands for a resigned way of speaking that excludes possibility.

Downward spiral talk is based on the fear that we will be stopped in our tracks and fall short in the race, and it is wholly reactive to circumstances, circumstances that appear to be wrong, problematic, and in need of fixing. Every industry or profession has its own version of downward spiral talk, as does every relationship. Focusing on the abstraction of scarcity, downward spiral talk creates an unassailable story about the limits to what is possible, and tells us compellingly how things are going from bad to worse.

Why does it spiral downward, why do things tend to look more and more hopeless? For the same reason that red Dodge pickups seem to proliferate on the highways as soon as you buy one and that pregnant women appear out of nowhere approximately eight months before your baby is due. The more attention you shine on a particular subject, the more evidence of it will grow. Attention is like light and air and water. Shine attention on obstacles and problems and they multiply lavishly.

Radiating possibility begins with things as they are and highlights open spaces, the pathways leading out from here. Then the obstacles are simply present conditions—they are merely what has happened or is happening.

“Diminishing audiences,” like bogeymen, are never anywhere to be found except in someone’s story. You can shake hands, however, with the 700 people who attended the April concert, and while you’re at it, pass out fliers and say, “Can’t wait to see you at the next event!

Speaking in possibility

The so-called optimist, then, is the only one attending to real things, the only one describing a substance that is actually in the glass.

The practice of being with the way things are can break the unseen grip of abstractions created as a hedge against danger in a world of survival, and allow us to make conscious distinctions that take us into the realm of possibility—dreams, for instance, and visions. Imagine if we were to faithfully whisper the immortal words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “I have a dream…” as a preface to our every next remark. Speaking in possibility springs from the appreciation that what we say creates a reality; how we define things sets a framework for life to unfold.

“I would do the kind of work that Jane Goodall does, but I couldn’t face the horrors she sees everyday,” my daughter said as we walked together on a stony beach. Nothing about the moment could have been more perfect: the balmy fragrance of the air, the bright and warming sunlight, seabirds calling from cove to rocky point, while a slight breeze caused the bluest of blues to sparkle with light. It’s easy enough to be fully and passionately present on a rare day in Maine, when one is free of obligations and nothing is at stake. But how can we stand to be present in the face of pain, loss, or disappointments?

I had shared with my daughter, Alexandra, my response to hearing Jane Goodall speak at the State of the World Forum in San Francisco. Renowned for her research on chimpanzees in the wild, she has established sanctuaries in Tanzania and in other parts of Africa by working with the people of the areas to support themselves in harmony with the biologically diverse environment. Governments around the world now fund her brainchild, Roots and Shoots, which educates and helps children in at least fifty countries to care for the ecosystem. As she addressed the San Francisco assembly, her quiet speaking captivated the room, as it has so many heads of state. We heard about it all— the poaching, the carnage, the degradations of nature, the destruction of the habitat— but nothing she said stood as a barrier to possibility. Her compassionate gaze encompassed it all, the good and the bad, the painful outrages and the joyous signs of life. Never did she intimate that anything that had happened should have happened differently, not a hint of blame escaped her lips, while she related tales that were torturous for most of us. She simply told the whole story, and showed us the pathways leading out from where we are, while her face expressed only compassion and love. Jane Goodall’s transcendent power was rooted in being present, without resistance, to the world just as it is.

BEING WITH the way things are calls for an expansion of ourselves. We start from what is, not from what should be; we encompass contradictions, painful feelings, fears, and imaginings, and—without fleeing, blaming, or attempting correction—we learn to soar, like the far-seeing hawk, over the whole landscape. The practice of being with the way things are allows us to alight in a place of openness, where “the truth” readies us for the next step, and the sky opens up.

Practice 8: Giving Way to Passion

If I were to wish for anything I should not wish for wealth and power, but for the passionate sense of what can be, for the eye, which, ever young and ardent, sees the possible. Pleasure disappoints, possibility never. And what wine is so sparkling, what so fragrant, what so intoxicating as possibility?

The practice of this chapter, giving way to passion, has two steps:

  1. The first step is to 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.
  2. The second step is to participate wholly. Allow yourself to be a channel to shape the stream of passion into a new expression for the world.

A Leap

Yet standing stationary on the bank, utterly still, I took an existential leap. “Let its force run through me,” I allowed, not having moved an inch. “Let it turn all my molecules in its direction; trust it and surrender. Let it give me what it has to offer.

There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.
* Martha Graham, quoted by Agnes DeMille

Long Lines

Like the person who forgets he is related to the waves in the sea or loses continuity with the movement of wind through grass, so does the performer lose his connection to the long line of the music when his attention rests solely on perfecting individual notes and harmonies. Like the person who, mindless that she has all of nature in her fingertips, blocks the expression of the life force, so does the musician interrupt the long line of passion when she limits her focus to the expression of personal emotion, local color, or harmonic events. Her narrow emphasis can produce a dull and numbing performance.

Life flows when we put our attention on the larger patterns of which we are a part, just as the music soars when a performer distinguishes the notes whose impulse carries the music’s structure from those that are purely decorative. Life takes on shape and meaning when a person is able to transcend the barriers of personal survival and become a unique conduit for its vital energy. So too the long line of the music is revealed when the performer connects the structural notes for the ear, like a bird buoyed on an updraft.


“What happened?” I asked again, in amazement. He laughed. “I played the second way!” From then on we had another new distinction in the class, called “Beyond the Fuck It”

What’s the source of possibility?

WE POSE the question again: “Where is the electric socket for possibility, the access to the energy of transformation?” It’s just there over the bar line, where the bird soars. We can join it by finding the tempo and lean our bodies to the music; dare to let go of the edges of ourselves…participate!

Practice 9: Lighting a Spark (Enrollment)

Enrollment is the practice of this chapter. Enrolling is not about forcing, cajoling, tricking, bargaining, pressuring, or guilt-tripping someone into doing something your way. Enrollment is the art and practice of generating a spark of possibility for others to share.

The practice of enrollment is about giving yourself as a possibility to others and being ready, in turn, to catch their spark. It is about playing together as partners in a field of light. And the steps to the practice are:

  1. Imagine that people are an invitation for enrollment.

  2. Stand ready to participate, willing to be moved and inspired.

  3. Offer that which lights you up.
  4. Have no doubt that others are eager to catch the spark.
    A “no” can so often dampen our fire in the world of the downward spiral. It can seem like a permanent, implacable barrier that presents us with limited choices: to attack, to manipulate our way around it, or to bow to it in defeat. In other words, a “no” can seem like a door slamming instead of merely an instance of the way things are. Yet, were we to take a “no” less personally, and ourselves less seriously, we might hear something else. We might hear someone saying, “I don’t see any new possibility here, so I think I’ll stick with my usual way of doing things.” We might hear within the word “no” an invitation for enrollment.

The practice of enrollment, on the other hand, is about generating possibility and lighting its spark in others.

See what happens when you give the people around you an A, not as a judgement, but like a gift.


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. Sometimes the sparks ignite a blaze; sometimes they pass quietly, magically, almost imperceptibly, from one to another to another.

Practice 10: Being the Board

When the way things are seems to offer no possibility; when you are angry and blocked, and, for all your efforts, others refuse to move or cooperate, to compromise, or even to be halfway decent; when even enrollment does not work and you are at your wit’s end—you can take out this next practice: our graduate course in possibility. In this one, you rename yourself as the board on which the whole game is being played. You move the problematic aspect of any circumstance from the outside world inside the boundaries of yourself. With this act you can transform the world.

This new kind of responsibility is yours for the taking. You cannot assign it to someone else. It is purely an invention, and yet it strengthens you at no one’s expense. Ordinarily we equate accountability with blame and blamelessness, concepts from the world of measurement. When I blame you for something that goes wrong, I seek to establish that I am in the right—and we all know the delicious feeling of satisfaction there. However, inasmuch as I blame you for a miserable vacation or a wall of silence—to that degree, in exactly that proportion, I lose my power. I lose my ability to steer the situation in another direction, to learn from it, or to put us in good relationship with each other. Indeed, I lose any leverage I may have had, because there is nothing I can do about your mistakes—only about mine.

The Practice: Part One

So the first part of the practice is to declare: “I am the framework for everything that happens in my life.”

This is perhaps the most radical and elusive of all the practices in this book, and it is also one of the most powerful. Here is another way of saying it:

“If I cannot be present without resistance to the way things are and act effectively, if I feel myself to be wronged, a loser, or a victim, I will tell myself that some assumption I have made is the source of my difficulty.”

It is not that this practice offers the right choice or the only choice. We may want to make sure the intoxicated driver gets his due. We may want sympathy, and we may want revenge. Being derailed from our larger purpose, for a length of time, may be an acceptable option. However, choosing the being the board approach opens the possibility of a graceful journey, one that quickly reinstates us on the path we chose before the fateful collision intervened. It allows us to keep on track.

Gracing yourself with responsibility for everything that happens in your life leaves your spirit whole, and leaves you free to choose again.

At this point, when everything else has failed, that you might find it useful to pull out this new game, the game of being the board.

A game of chess

The purpose of naming yourself as the board, or as the context in which life occurs to you, is to give yourself the power to transform your experience of any unwanted condition into one with which you care to live. We said your experience, not the condition itself. But of course once you do transform your experience and see things differently, other changes occur.

When you identify yourself as a single chess piece—and by analogy, as an individual in a particular role—you can only react to, complain about, or resist the moves that interrupted your plans. But if you name yourself as the board itself you can turn all your attention to what you want to see happen, with none paid to what you need to win or fight or fix.

The action in this graceful game is ongoing integration. One by one, you bring everything you have been resisting into the fold. You, as the board, make room for all the moves, for the capture of the knight and the sacrifice of your bishop, for your good driving and the accident, for your miserable childhood and the circumstances of your parents’ lives, for your need and another’s refusal. Why? Because that is what is there. It is the way things are.

The Practice: Part Two

What’s the point of the game?

Then, in this game, you take your practice one step further: You ask yourself, in regard to the unwanted circumstances, “Well, how did this get on the board that I am?” or, “Now, how is it that I have become a context for that to occur?” You will begin to see the obvious and then the not-so-obvious contributions of your calculating self, or of your history, or of earlier decisions that landed you where you are, feeling like a victim. This reflection may bring forth from you an apology that will knit back together the strands of raveled relationships. And then you will be standing freely and powerfully once again in a universe of possibility.

Being the board is not about turning the blame on yourself. You would not say, “I should have been more aware of the loopholes in the laws…” or, “It’s my fault I didn’t look behind me when I stopped at the traffic light” or, “I know I brought this on myself.” Those would be sentiments from that other game, the game in which you divide up fault and blame.

In the fault game your attention is focused on actions—what was done or not done by you or others. When you name yourself as the board your attention turns to repairing a breakdown in relationship. That is why apologies come so easily.

“Couldn’t that apology have been a manipulation, just another technique for getting Cora to do what you wanted her to do?”—the answer is yes, it could have been. You can take almost anything and turn it into a strategy. Yet, from the way I felt, the lightness and wholeness, my complete lack of attachment to the outcome—I know it wasn’t.

Two “100 Percents” Make a Whole

Should she feel that the problem in the marriage was all “her fault?” No, that is not the game we are playing. Can she claim full responsibility for a breakdown in their partnership? Absolutely, as can he.

  • Love is neither about self-determination nor sacrifice. It is a context in which two people build the life they want together.
  • Strength and independence are qualities that can enhance a relationship.


WHEN YOU ARE being the board, you present no obstacles to others. You name yourself as the instrument to make all your relationships into effective partnerships. Imagine how profoundly trustworthy you would be to the people who work for 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.

Practice 11: Creating Frameworks for Possibility (Vision)

The foremost challenge for leaders today, we suggest, is to maintain the clarity to stand confidently in the abundant universe of possibility, no matter how fierce the competition, no matter how stark the necessity to go for the short-term goal, no matter how fearful people are, and no matter how urgently the wolf may appear to howl at the door. It is to have the courage and persistence to distinguish the downward spiral from the radiant realm of possibility in the face of any challenge.

Yet we do have the capacity to override the hidden assumptions of peril that give us the world we see. We can open a window on a world where all is sound, our creative powers are formidable, and unseen threads connect us all. Leadership is a relationship that brings this possibility to others and to the world, from any chair, in any role. This kind of leader is not necessarily the strongest member of the pack—the one best suited to fend off the enemy and gather in resources—as our old definitions of leadership sometimes had it. The “leader of possibility” invigorates the lines of affiliation and compassion from person to person in the face of the tyranny of fear. Any one of us can exercise this kind of leadership, whether we stand in the position of CEO or employee, citizen or elected official, teacher or student, friend or lover.

This new leader carries the distinction that it is the framework of fear and scarcity, not scarcity itself, that promotes divisions between people. He asserts that we can create the conditions for the emergence of anything that is missing. We are living in the land of our dreams. This leader calls upon our passion rather than our fear. She is the relentless architect of the possibility that human beings can be.

But the gravitational pull of the downward spiral is strong indeed; it is the milieu in which we dwell. How do we reliably bring forth possibility in this context and take to our wings?

Framing Possibility: The Practice

The steps to the practice of framing possibility are:

  1. Make a new distinction in the realm of possibility: one that is a powerful substitute for the current framework of meaning that is generating the downward spiral. (story: teacher shaving her head so that baldness was a possibility / game to play)
  2. Enter the territory. Embody the new distinction in such a way that it becomes the framework for life around you. (story: about King Christian X of Denmark entering the territory)
  3. Keep distinguishing what is “on the track” and what is “off the track” of your framework for possibility.
    In the realm of possibility, there is no division between ideas and action, mind and body, dream and reality. Leaders who become their vision often seem uncommonly brave to the rest of us. Whether from the middle of the action, or from the sidelines, they are a conduit for carrying the vision forward. Like Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr., they simply don’t resist stepping into the breach with everything they have if they see that is what is called for.

THE THIRD STEP of our practice, distinguishing the on-track and off-track, is about maintaining the clarity of the framework. Being “off-track” often signifies that the possibility of a venture is momentarily absent, or forgotten, or has never been clearly articulated. Perhaps people have been riding on their initial feelings of inspiration, which have begun to fade. Sooner or later things tumble into the dualistic structures of right and wrong and spiral downward.

Addressing problems with distinctions

We addressed the problem, as we always do, with the question, “What distinction shall we make here that will bring possibility to the situation?”

A broken contract points to the dualism of good and bad, and leads into the downward spiral, so we looked for another framework in which to consider the young people’s behavior.

Vision == framework for possibility

A VISION IS A powerful framework to take the operations of an organization of any size from the downward spiral into the arena of possibility. Yet, while most organizations use the term “vision” liberally, we have found that few have articulated a vision in such a way that it serves that purpose.

A vision has the impelling force of a long line of music.

What is a vision?

A vision releases us from the weight and confusion of local problems and concerns, and allows us to see the long clear line.

A vision becomes a framework for possibility when it meets certain criteria that distinguish it from the objectives of the downward spiral. Here are the criteria that enable a vision to stand in the universe of possibility:

  • A vision articulates a possibility.
  • A vision fulfills a desire fundamental to humankind, a desire with which any human being can resonate. It is an idea to which no one could logically respond, “What about me?”
  • A vision makes no reference to morality or ethics, it is not about a right way of doing things. It cannot imply that anyone is wrong.
  • A vision is stated as a picture for all time, using no numbers, measures, or comparatives. It contains no specifics of time, place, audience, or product.
  • A vision is free-standing—it points neither to a rosier future, nor to a past in need of improvement. It gives over its bounty now. If the vision is “peace on earth,” peace comes with its utterance. When “the possibility of ideas making a difference” is spoken, at that moment ideas do make a difference.
  • A vision is a long line of possibility radiating outward. It invites infinite expression, development, and proliferation within its definitional framework.
  • Speaking a vision transforms the speaker. For that moment the “real world” becomes a universe of possibility and the barriers to the realization of the vision disappear.

Vision-Led Goals and Objectives

Inside of the framework of a vision, goals and objectives spring from an outlook of abundance. A goal—even the goal “to be Number One in office design in America”—is invented as a game to play. Games call forth a different energy than the grim pursuit of goals in the downward spiral. They draw out the creativity and vitality of the players, without denying that the level at which they play may have something to do with whether the team qualifies for the next round. Under a vision, goals are treated as markers thrown out ahead to define the territory. If you miss the mark—”How fascinating!” Neither you nor the vision is compromised. In the pursuit of objectives under a vision, playing is relevant to the manifestation of the possibility, winning is not.

“Tonal” organizations

Complexity, tension, and dissonance can give life to an organization as they can to music, but they do not present a coherent structure unless you can hear the home key, or connect to a vision.


The person who rigorously maintains the clarity to stand confidently in the abundant universe of possibility creates an environment around him generative of certain kinds of conversations. We come to trust that these places are dedicated to the notion that no one will be made wrong, people will not be talked about behind their backs, and there will be no division between “us” and “them.” These environments produce astonishing results that can take people in wholly unexpected directions, perhaps because all their gates are open—inviting us to play in the meadows of the cooperative universe.


THE PRACTICE OF framing possibility calls upon us to use our minds in a manner that is counterintuitive: to think in terms of the contexts that govern us rather than the evidence we see before our eyes. It trains us to be alert to a new danger that threatens modern life—the danger that unseen definitions, assumptions, and frameworks may be covertly chaining us to the downward spiral and shaping the conditions we want to change.

But look what magical powers we have! We can make a conscious use of our way with words to define new frameworks for possibility that bring out the part of us that is most contributory, most unencumbered, most open to participation. And why not say that is who we really are?

Here is an example of a leader, framing possibility, offering a new way for us to define ourselves. Nelson Mandela is reported to have addressed these words of Marianne Williamson’s to the world at large.

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate,
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous—
Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.
Your playing small doesn’t serve the world.
There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people
Won’t feel insecure around you.
We were born to make manifest the glory of God within us.
It is not just in some of us: it is in everyone,
And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously
Give other people permission to do the same. * Marianne Williamson, spoken by Nelson Mandela

Practice 12: Telling the WE Story

The WE story defines a human being in a specific way: It says we are our central selves seeking to contribute, naturally engaged, forever in a dance with each other. It points to relationship rather than to individuals, to communication patterns, gestures, and movement rather than to discrete objects and identities. It attests to the in-between. Like the particle-and-wave nature of light, the WE is both a living entity and a long line of development unfolding. This new being, the WE of us, comes into view as we look for it—the vital entity of our company, or community, or group of two. Then the protagonist of our story, the entity called WE, steps forward and takes on a life of its own.

By telling the WE story, an individual becomes a conduit for this new inclusive entity, wearing its eyes and ears, feeling its heart, thinking its thoughts, inquiring into what is best for US. This practice points the way to a kind of leadership based not on qualifications earned in the field of battle, but on the courage to speak on behalf of all people and for the long line of human possibility.

The steps to the WE practice are these:

  1. Tell the WE story—the story of the unseen threads that connect us all, the story of possibility.
  2. Listen and look for the emerging entity.
  3. Ask: “What do WE want to have happen here?” “What’s best for US?”—all of each of us, and all of all of us. “What’s OUR next step?”
    The practice of the WE gives us a method for reclaiming “The Other” as one of us.

Traditional methods of resolving conflict, all the I/You approaches, tend to increase the level of discord because they attempt to satisfy the dichotomous positions people take, rather than providing the means for people to broaden their desires. I/You methods deprive people of the opportunity to wish inclusively. They do not give people the chance to want what the story of the WE says we are thirsting for: connecting to others through our dreams and visions.

While the WE practice can enhance any aspect of your life, it also poses a risk. It is not a technique for arriving at a decision based on known quantities; it’s an integrative process that yields the next step. It asks you to trust that the evolution you set in motion will serve you over the long line. What happens after that is not in your control, but springs spontaneously from the WE itself.

Practicing the WE

The practitioner of the WE starts by generating, for himself, the WE story: that people are their central selves, that communities are always seeking to evolve toward integration, that the enemy to conquer is never a human being. He encourages the expression of each thing that is pressing to be said in the group, not as a problem that must be resolved, but as a statement that can take its place with others. He does this until all that wants to be said is spoken, until all of all of us shows up. He holds the framework for the long line, and keeps the question alive, “What’s best for US?”


WHILE VISIONS GO IN and out of favor, the WE remains, holding our heartbeat, moving on the impulse of the long melodic line of human possibility. Transformation from the “I” to the WE is the last practice and the long line of this book: the intentional, ongoing dissolution of the barriers that divide us, so that we may be reshaped as a unique voice in the ever-evolving chorus of the WE. Each of us can practice it from any chair, every day, anywhere. The practice of the WE draws on all the other practices. And if you attune your ear, you will hear the voice of the WE singing through each one of them in harmony.


Uplifted, I returned to the stage and asked the young players to imagine that they had miraculously recovered their eyesight and still found themselves on the shores of this New World of listening. As we performed the first movement of the Dvorak once more, all eyes fully open and ears tuned to the finest nuance, I had the experience, so often sought, of wholeness of spirit. There was no leader, and there were no ones being led. Harmony was present. It was a high point not only of the tour, but also of the year, and it took place in a small town between the major engagements, where nothing of importance was likely to happen.

I am done with great things and big plans, great institutions and big successes. I am for those tiny, invisible loving human forces that work from individual to individual, creeping through the crannies of the world like so many rootlets, or like the capillary oozing of water, yet which, if given time, will rend the hardest monuments of human pride. —WILLIAM JAMES