John Stepper

Discovering “Pathways to Possibility”

Have you ever read a book that you loved so much you read it several times? A book that made such a positive impact you bought copies for friends and recommended it many times?

For me, The Art of Possibility by Rosamund Stone Zander and Ben Zander is such a book. I included it in a list of suggested reading in my own book, and wrote how it “freed me to be more joyful and more open to the wonders in other people”

When I learned Rosamund Stone Zander had just written Pathways to Possibility, I couldn’t wait to read it. I also couldn’t help but wonder, “How could she top that?”

Pathways to Possibility

Soulful

This post isn’t meant as a book review or analysis. I’m moved to write it because, as with The Art of Possibility, I want to share the book, to have other people experience what I experienced having read it.

It’s not a sequel or more of the same, but rather it stands on its own. She weaves together threads of psychoanalysis, Buddhism, mysticism, and even organizational consulting into a beautiful, soulful book. Reading it, I realized the promise of the subtitle: “Transforming our relationship with ourselves, each other, and the world.”

Three levels

A simple summary isn’t appropriate. The book is too rich and the stories are too well-crafted. I can only recommend you read the book yourself, slowly and with an open mind. I’m looking forward to giving copies to friends.

But I can highlight a few things that made me think differently. The three levels in the subtitle form the basic outline of the book, and each section gave me a different “pathway to possibility.”

Our relationship with ourselves

The first section, full of personal accounts and those of clients, helped me frame some of my behavior as a set of recurring stories I tell myself, and offered me tools to rewrite them.

“I ask you to take your critical mind off-line for a moment and accept the following claim…you are living in a story made up by a child. I ask you to imagine that stories made up by the children in us, or handed down to us by the children in others, have quite different qualities and are based on fundamentally different assumptions from stories created by our integrated adult selves…”

The ‘adult’ is aware that appearances are not fixed, but subject to the story she is telling. When things go wrong for her, the place she turns to look is not out there, but inside herself, to the assumptions that are governing the way reality appears to her. She accepts that the source of change and transformation is in her narrative, not in the world at large.”

The way she writes about self-compassion reminds me of Thich Nhat Hanh and Pema Chödrön. It makes change seems less like an indictment and more like a gentle invitation, and I started to be more curious about why I do what I do.

Relating to each other

The section on relating to others made me think of my own work with organizations.

“When speaking of an organization: is it the type that is characterized by a culture where people are afraid to express themselves and engage in hidden and polarizing liaisons; or is it the kind that promotes generous, responsible, flexible, and authentic adult points of view?”

So many of her stories of change start with a single person, people who began to see things differently for themselves and so were able to attract others to do the same.“Keep in mind that creating freedom around your own patterns is key to others’ liberation from theirs.” You don’t change organizations, you help individuals change and that attracts others to do the same.

You and the world around you

The final section of the book talks about our interconnectedness, and how what we think and do affects others which in turns affects us. It brings together the many ideas in the book in a way that’s hopeful and also actionable.

“Stories truly are fields. They deal in probabilities or odds; they don’t operate in the certainty of cause and effect. They accomplish what they do by energetic interactions across space and time…The story we call possibility, in particular, creates a radiant, loving field of energy that facilitates an alignment between people and their circumstances.”

With this in mind, I decided to try one of the “open-ended games” she described towards the end of the book. You pick a quality and commit to making decisions in line with that quality over one to three days. I wrote about my “Three days of lightness.”

I’m still struck by how simply picking a word affected my thinking and behavior, which in turn changed how my children behaved, which led to new interactions and possibilities with people around us.

Like all good books on change, there is no judgment or failure, only openness and learning. Reading the book, you may well have a different experience than me, and that would be fine. I hope you enjoy it. As she writes in the final section:

“May you travel far, if only deep into your own backyard.”

Three days of lightness 

When I first read about the exercise, I knew I wanted to try it.

All you do is to pick a word that embodies something you want more of in your life, like courage or confidence, joy or lightness. Then, for three days, you keep that word in your mind. (The exercise recommends writing it on your hand or attaching it to your clothing.)

I chose “lightness.” If there’s something I want more of, it’s to be more relaxed, to treat the little things as little things, and to surf uncertainty with a smile instead of intense determination.

I was going to an amusement park with three of my children, so that seemed liked a good time to practice. I wanted it to be fun, and yet I could sense I was tense just getting out the door. So, throughout each day, I just kept asking myself, “What would it mean to be light in this situation?”

When there was traffic that made a three-hour drive much longer, I thought of lightness, looked at the beautiful surroundings, and talked with the kids.

When my plans to be at a certain place at a certain time fell through, I reminded myself that such things happen all the time. Instead of getting upset, I just made new plans.

When my youngest was complaining about something that seemed trivial to me but important to him, we came up with ways to make things better.

On the second day, I put my phone in a locker, and didn’t think about checking it.

We rode all the rides, with the kids taking turns choosing the next one. When it was a water ride and I didn’t particularly want to get wet, or a roller coaster I wasn’t fond of, I thought What would it mean to be light in this situation? Then I smiled and got on the ride. It felt liberating.

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On the last night, we stayed until the park closed. My pedometer said we walked for 12 miles, which must have been forty thousand steps for my little boy. We got ice cream afterwards to celebrate.

Of course, there were times when I forgot about lightness, and my habits took over. When it happened, I shook my head and committed to doing better next time.

I first discovered the exercise in a lovely, helpful book titled Pathways to Possibility and learned how apt the title was. Just keeping a word in my mind changed my perspective. Lightness was a choice, and it was a choice I made much more often throughout the three days.

I hope I remember that word. I hope you try the exercise too.

The Köln Concert

I have listened to the recording hundreds of times. It was the music that kept me calm and focused as I wrote a book.

While I knew “The Köln Concert” was the best-selling piano album of all time, I only recently heard the fascinating story of what happened the day of the concert. How it almost never happened, and how a critical mistake shaped the music.

When I was in Köln last weekend, I made a trip just to see where it all took place.

Keith Jarrett playing the Köln Concert

Arriving at the Opera House

It was a Friday in late January, 1975. The concert was scheduled to start at 11:30pm, after an opera. Despite the late hour and that it would be the first-ever jazz concert at the Opera House, the concert was sold out, and 1400 tickets had been sold. Jarrett was 29 years old.

He arrived at the opera house late in the afternoon after a long drive. Suffering from back problems, he had to wear a brace. He was led into the auditorium by the concert promoter, Vera Brandes, who was just 17 years old. She had specified “a Bösendorfer 290 Imperial concert grand piano” to be used for the performance. However, the opera house staff mistakenly selected a much smaller Bösendorfer piano that was backstage.

“The piano they had was intended for rehearsals only and was in poor condition and required several hours of tuning and adjusting to make it playable. The instrument was tinny and thin in the upper registers and weak in the bass register, and the pedals did not work properly.”

A young woman’s plea

Tim Harford, in his TED talk, describes Jarrett’s reaction:

“Jarrett looked to the instrument a little warily, played a few notes, walked around it, played a few more notes, muttered something to his producer. Then the producer came over to Vera and said … ‘If you don’t get a new piano, Keith can’t play.’”

Keith went outside and sat in his car, while Brandes scrambled to find a solution. But there wasn’t enough time to get another piano delivered to the hall. The concert was just hours away.

“So she went outside and she stood there in the rain, talking to Keith Jarrett, begging him not to cancel the concert. And he looked out of his car at this bedraggled, rain-drenched German teenager, took pity on her, and said, ‘Never forget … only for you.’”

Playing with constraints

Because the piano was small and because certain registers didn’t have the right sound, Jarrett played differently.

“Avoiding those upper registers, he was sticking to the middle tones of the keyboard, which gave the piece a soothing, ambient quality. But also, because the piano was so quiet, he had to set up these rumbling, repetitive riffs in the bass. And he stood up twisting, pounding down on the keys, desperately trying to create enough volume to reach the people in the back row.

It’s an electrifying performance. It somehow has this peaceful quality, and at the same time it’s full of energy, it’s dynamic. And the audience loved it.”

I still listen to the Köln Concert when I write, but it has a different effect on me since I heard this story. I see the creative act less as striving for perfection – as if you could even define that – than as making the most of what you have, using it in novel ways. When life hands you a bad piano, you can choose to walk away, or you can try to make art.

A stranger in a strange land

The story, written in 1959, takes place in an Ibo village Nigeria. I read it while traveling in Germany, where I’m working with new clients. I finished it today on a train to Köln.

My experiences on my trip and the experiences in the book could not be more different. Yet I was surprised that some of my reactions were similar.

A portal to another time and place

Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe, follows the life of Okonkwo and his clan. It’s a world completely foreign to me. Besides the words and names I couldn’t pronounce, everything was unfamiliar to me, from the food and customs to how they related to each other and their view of the world.

Each time I came across something new, I found my instinct was to judge it, to take comfort in labels. Their gods were “ridiculous.” Their food “disgusting.” Their ideas and customs “primitive.” It was a riveting story, and yet I felt the need to rationalize the differences.

Things Fall Apart

A modern business trip

My reactions were extreme because the differences were extreme. Yet on my trip I noticed the same need to label and value things. Good or bad. I like it or don’t like it.

Traveling in Western countries, the contrasts are more muted, and so are my reactions – to the language, the different foods, even to the prevalence of soccer and smoking. I had minor opinions on everything from the architecture to how people drive to how the trains and taxis work.

I have enjoyed meeting so many lovely people here, and had some wonderful experiences. But reading the book made me mindful that I still had a need to deal with the small differences somehow. Though I liked to think of myself as an open person, it was as if putting things in neatly labeled boxes was a strategy for making sense of the world.

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Something to practice

Towards the end of Things Fall Apart, a missionary arrives, trying to change what people believe and how they behave. He’s challenged by a group desperate to maintain the ways of the clan and fighting to keep their distance.

“He does not understand our customs, just as we do not understand his. We say he is foolish because he does not know our ways, and perhaps he says we are foolish because we do not know his. Let him go away.”

When I read that paragraph, I put the book down and thought about my own ways and habits. What if, instead of judging things that weren’t familiar, I just accepted things for what they are? Instead of labeling the differences and keeping a safe distance, what if I got closer and asked more questions?

Being more open and curious seems like a better way to live, and something I’m committed to practicing.

What Hamilton, an immigrant, thought of immigration

For a person as ignorant of American history as I am, reading the biography of Alexander Hamilton is like reading a thriller. I turn the page in rapt attention, unsure of what might happen next.

I was shocked, for example, when I read about the Founding Fathers’ vicious personal attacks in the press; the passing of outrageous infringements on free speech (“the Sedition Act”); the jockeying for power and influence in the government from the very beginning, when whole departments might consist of only one man and his desk.

One of the most surprising things was Hamilton’s view on immigration, and how that view changed over time.

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

In favor of immigration…

Alexander Hamilton was one of America’s most famous immigrants. He was born in Nevis, in the British West Indies, in 1755. Looking back, America was unimaginably small.

In 1790, there were only 32,000 people living in Manhattan. Today it’s about 500 times that. Two centuries later, over 50,000 people worked in the World Trade Center towers alone, with another 200,000 passing through as visitors. From 1790 to 1890, America’s population soared from 4 million to 63 millionClearly, America was and is a land of immigrants.

So it’s no surprise that Hamilton, both as an immigrant himself and someone who foresaw the growth of America, fought for immigration. For example, in 1776, at the Constitutional Convention, there was a debate on limiting membership to Congress to native-born Americans. Hamilton opposed it – “The advantage of encouraging foreigners is obvious…” – and a residency requirement was put in place as a compromise.

In 1790, Hamilton foresaw the need to shift from agriculture to manufacturing, and how Britain in particular had experts and expertise that the US did not. It was clear to him that the best way to achieve industrial parity with England was “to procure from Europe skillful workmen,” and as Treasury secretary he successfully commissioned plans to do so.

…until he wasn’t

Yet as America grew, and as Hamilton’s circumstances changed, his views on immigration shifted. And he wasn’t alone.

In 1798, as Hamilton’s Federalist felt it was losing power, the debates shifted to trying to preserve the current order. Once congressman declared America should no longer “wish to invite hordes of wild Irishmen, nor the turbulent and disorderly parts of the world, to come here with a view to disturb our tranquility.”

Hamilton went even further, and his biographer points out the striking irony.

“‘My opinion is that the mass [of aliens] ought to be obliged to leave the country’ – a disappointing stance from America’s most famous foreign-born citizen and once an influential voice for immigration…

He predicted that “the influx of foreigners” would “change and corrupt the national spirit.” Most amazing of all, this native West Indian published a diatribe against the Swiss-born treasury secretary, Albert Gallatin. “Who rules the councils of our own ill-fated, unhappy country? A foreigner!” Throughout his career, Hamilton had been an unusually tolerant man with enlightened views on slavery, native Americans, and Jews. His whole vision of American manufacturing had been predicated on immigration. Now, embittered by his personal setbacks, he sometimes betrayed his own best nature.”

It’s that last sentence that has stayed with me. Hamilton never forgot that he was an immigrant. (He was repeatedly reminded of the fact in scathing articles in the press.) He saw the value and necessity of bringing in people from other places to help America develop and grow. Yet, “embittered by his personal setbacks, he sometimes betrayed his own best nature.”

Knowing a bit of history makes me view current events with a different lens than I might have otherwise.