Fits & Fugues

Education can be so much more.

Possibility vs Scarcity Thinking with Ben and Roz Zander

The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life

I’ve just finished Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander’s book The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life. This book caps of a trio of books I’ve “read” since January 2009. (Note: I have placed “read” in quotations because I actually listened to two of the books and some of my English-teacher friends would say that doesn’t really count as having read them. That’s their problem, not mine. I’m all the better for my auditory or visual interaction with them anyway and I’ll use read to signify both kinds of interaction here.) The other two books are Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip Heath and Dan Heath and The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything by Ken Robinson with Lou Aronica (listed in reverse order read.)Made To Stick

First of all, Zander’s The Art of Possibility and Robinson’s The Element represent the books I purchased because I watched related videos on TED. TED, by the way, if you have never heard of it is “riveting talks by remarkable people, free to the world.” For all you corporate, copyright, intellectual control, 19th-century business model, knowledge-hoarding authoritarians, you might want to notice that the free media on TED directly contributed to the purchase of two additional, possibly three items -the Zanders’ physical book and Robinson’s audio recording, which I may also purchase in hard copy for future reference. Additionally, after listening to the Heaths’ book, I purchased the hard copy…I’m just sayin’.

The ElementI didn’t intend to read the books in the order I did. In fact I didn’t intend to read them at all other than The Element. After watching Robinson’s TED talk and Zander’s TED talk, I had to learn more. Additionally, reading Made To Stick and The Art of Possibility were a result of recurring recommendations by those I follow on Twitter and those whose blogs I read.

…Meanwhile, back to the books themselves. They all have a similar “long line” as Zander calls it, “a theme upon which each [book] is a variation.” That theme is simply to make a difference our own lives and the lives of others. Each author (or groups of authors) present rather compelling and impassioned ways to do this. But each does it in almost the same way; they tell stories -lots of them. In fact stories are one of the six principles in the Heaths’ “SUCCESs” model. Each book speaks to the transformative power of Story. In testament to this, The Zanders have a section at the end of their book called “A Guide to the Stories.” The Heaths include story references from their chapters also in the end section “The Easy Reference Guide.” Robinson focuses often on “epiphany stories,” those stories that “involve some level of revelation, a way of dividing the world into before and after.” For this post, I’ll focus on the Zanders’ The Art of Possibility.

In using stories told from each of their perspectives, Ben and Roz (as they identify themselves in the book) illustrate in concrete ways we can make a difference in our own lives and of others. Of the three books, theirs provides some of the most practical thinking for transformation -well, duh, it is in the title. One of the most compelling thoughts comes early on in the book as they reframe the context of world from one of scarcity to one of abundance. Here are some examples from the book. While note set against each other for a direct comparison, some do flow that way. Some may make immediate sense, while other may necessitate your reading the book.

Scarcity Thinking

Abundance Thinking

A world of measurement: assessments, scales, standards, grading, and comparisons Beyond the world of measurement to include all worlds: infinite, generative, and abundant
Obstacles show up as a scarcity of people, time money, power, love, resources, and inner strength We gain our knowledge by invention
Acceptance and Rejection Action may be characterized as generative, or giving, in all senses of that word -reproducing new life, creating new ideas, consciously endowing with meaning, contributing, yielding to the power of contexts. The relationship between people and environments is highlighted, not the people and things themselves.
Surviving in a world of scarcity and peril
Responses: alertness to danger, a clever strategic mind, an eye for assessing friend and foe, a knack for judging strength and weakness, the know-how to take possession of resources, a measure of mistrust, and a good dollop of fear
Resisting challenges to our personal viewpoint Resources are likely to come to you in greater abundance when you are generous and inclusive and engage people in your passion for life
We know each other and things by measuring them, and by comparing and contrasting them A passionate energy to connect, express, and communicate
Children are compared to each other Children contribute meaning and are passionate
Life arranged in hierarchies Taking a long view without being able to predict the outcome
People, ideas, and situations can be fully known and measured When you are oriented toward abundance, you care less about being in control, and you take more risks
Some groups, people bodies, places, and ideas seem better or more powerful than others
Some people, races, and organizations are safer and more desirable than others All are contributors
There are only so many pieces of the pie The pie is enormous, and if you take a slice, the pie is whole again.
A world of struggle Setting the context and letting life unfold
Competitive sports and war metaphors apply to almost any situation A cooperative universe
Conversations chronicle personal trials and triumphs A wiliness to be moved and inspired
Fear, anger, and despair at losing A humane, charitable world
…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. Unimpeded on a daily basis by the concern for survival, free from the generalized assumption of scarcity, a person stand in the grate space of possibility in a posture of openness, with an unfettered imagination for what can be.
Seek more for ourselves no matter how much we have and treat others as competitors no matter how much they have Lighting a spark in others
Questions of assessment Questions of inquiry
Persuasion Enrollment
What’s best for me What’s best for all of us
Expectations to live up to Possibilities to live into
Reality is fixed No guarantees
Winning and Losing Life appears as variety, pattern, shimmering movement, inviting us in every moment to engage.
Overcoming odds and prevailing
Being acknowledged and included
Competition is the vehicle to success
Exhilaration of coming out on top
Supplies are fixed and limited
The frenzied accumulation of resources by some leaving others without enough


Further in the book the context for these ideas are framed in the illustration of “downward spiral” and “possibility” talk/thinking. The define the downward spiral talk as “a resigned way of talk [thinking] that excludes possibility…[f]ocusing on the abstraction of scarcity…creat[ing] an unassailable story about the limits to what is possible, and tells us compellingly how things are going from bad to worse” (p. 108). They introduce possibility earlier on page 20, but it stands contrast:

“The action in a universe of possibility may be characterized as generative, or giving, in all senses of that word -reproducing new life, creating new ideas, consciously endowing with meaning, contributing, yielding to the power of contexts. 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.”

PopTechSee the video on Pop!Tech to hear from Zander himself on the topic -and many others from the book. Zander is one of those teachers we all wish we could have. He walks his talk absolutely graciously. It has some similarities with his TED talk, but this one has a kid! Stay for the end. The 30 minutes is completely worth it.

The above quote from the the book, published in 2000, resonates with me as an educator (and I suspect others also). It’s what we strive for as educators it speaks to our passions and best hopes. It’s often how we define our educational reform efforts.

This is one of those must-read books for educators. It has so much more than a blog post can do justice.

If you’ve read this book or have feedback on the post, I welcome your comments.


July 10, 2009 - Posted by | Education | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. You did a great job bringing the ideas from three great books together in one post. I’ve read Made to Stick, have been wanting to read The Element, and just heard of The Art of Possibility from you. I’ll be picking up both unread books now – thanks!

    Comment by steve cunningham | July 11, 2009 | Reply

    • Thanks, Steve. Let me know what you think when you’ve finished them.

      Comment by Rick Tanski | July 12, 2009 | Reply

  2. the art of possibility is one of my favs. yes – please do it steve.

    rick – brilliant post. i read the art of possibility a few years back – and just this year was directed to ben’s ted talk. most incredible.

    thank you for your insight.

    Comment by monika hardy | July 24, 2009 | Reply

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