What it really means to be the change you seek

Seven years ago I first read Ben and Rosamund Zanders’ wonderful book, The Art of Possibility. I had just heard Ben speak at the IBM Rational conference in Orlando, Florida, where he captivated a room of software engineers and other IT professionals with his talk on the power that comes with living fearlessly, selflessly, and presently. You might not think Zander, an orchestra conductor, accomplished concert pianist, and inspirational speaker, would be a natural fit for an audience that had gathered to hear about the latest IBM software development methodology and technology. But he held the attention of the two or three thousand in attendance in a way no one else did that week. He spoke with a beautiful rhythm and in tones that reflected the musician that he is.

Weeks later, I had the privilege of interviewing Ben Zander along with his wife and co-author, Rosamund Zander, for the developerWorks podcast. It is still my favorite interview out of the hundreds I’ve done to date, and I’ve linked to it below. The message of the book is timeless and as needed today as it ever has been. It fuses discussions on leadership, relationship, and creativity into a singular consideration about how we choose to live and the essential fuel of love. It’s a quick, immensely worthwhile read and is filled with powerful stories that you’ll want to return to, as I often do.

One of my favorites comes under a discussion of what the Zanders refer to as The Central Self.

Inscribed on five of the six pillars in the Holocaust Memorial at Quincy Market in Boston are stories that speak of the cruelty and suffering in the camps. The sixth pillar presents a tale of a different sort, about a little girl named Ilse, a childhood friend of Guerda Weissman Kline, in Auschwitz. Guerda remembers Ilse, who was about six years old at the time, found one morning a single raspberry somewhere in the camp. Ilse carried it all day long in a protected place in her pocket, and in the evening, her eyes shining with happiness, she presented it to her friend Guerda on a leaf. “Imagine a world,” writes Guerda, “in which your entire possession is one raspberry, and you give it to your friend.”

As the authors continue,

Such is the nature of the central self, a term we use to embrace the remarkably generative, prolific and creative nature of ourselves and the world. If we were to design a new voyage to carry us from our endless childhood into the bright realm of possibility, we might want to steer away from a hierarchical environment and aim for the openness and reciprocity of a level playing field–away from a mindset of scarcity and deficiency and toward an attitude of wholeness and sufficiency. We might even describe human development as the ongoing reconstruction of the calculating self toward the rich, free, compassionate and expressive world of the central self.

The Zanders contribution to my life is ongoing, as I continue, in spite of regular failings, to ponder, re-ponder, and seek to live the inspiration I’ve gleaned from their book, and others like it. Every day I feel a little more kinship with their message, which for me is boiled down to its essence in the William James quote that closes their book.

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.

Here’s my podcast interview with Benjamin and Rosamund Zander in 2006.


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