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Giving Yourself an A December 8, 2009

Posted by Jason Hirschhorn in The Art of Possibility, Uncategorized.
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I had the opportunity to read Rosamund and Ben Zander’s “The Art of Possibility” recently and one of the lasting messages from the book came across through an exercise entitled “Giving an A.”   The book is all about how we can lead more meaningful, productive and purposeful lives.  In the “Giving an A” exercise, Ben Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra and a professor at the New England Conservatory has all of his students write a letter to themselves at the beginning of his class every year.  Many of his students have practiced their musical instruments for hours each day to reach a state of near perfection.  Many of his students are hard on themselves, don’t tolerate mistakes, are highly skilled musicians and, in Zander’s view, need to rediscover a passion for their craft by moving beyond recitals that are technically correct towards playing music with heart and meaning.  Because many of his students are concerned about their grade, he asks each student to write a letter to him or herself, dated for the end of the semester that begins, “I got my A because…”  Zander tells the students to look deep in side themselves to identify the barriers that they will overcome in his class.  This takes pressure off his students so that they can focus on personal growth, collaboration and risk taking in a way that they may not felt able to if they were worried about their grade.  Many of the letters are about overcoming a fear of mistakes, rediscovering passion or influencing others through their music, not about playing every note right.  Through the letters, the students have a self-defined possibility to live into rather than a standard to live up to. 

This is an exercise in possibility, in imagining what could happen if we removed barriers, voices in the head, pre-conceived notions of what is possible.   This type of thinking aligns very well with design thinking, especially the initial brainstorming.  The “Yes and” culture of design thinking promotes the idea that ideas should be built upon instead of challenged for their lack of realism.  Eventually, the design process moves to consider limitations of various ideas, but the stage of imagining what is possible in a world without barriers is critical to developing new ideas.  What barriers could we overcome collectively using this type of thinking? The possibilities await us.

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