The Art of Possibility
Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander
One of the more entertaining, if inconsequential, arguments I ever entered into started about 10 PM one late-April evening in the final decade of the last millennium. What began as a simple disagreement on how to manage creative development soon expanded to encompass the entire advertising business. No cow was sacred and by the time my debating partner and I had worn ourselves out at 2 AM, a century’s worth of discarded advertising truths lay scattered about the office along with rejected layouts and revised copy decks.
One of the more contentious points, I recall, was the USP, a concept created and promoted by Rosser Reeves of the Ted Bates advertising agency. A variant of that approach states that every brand–personal or otherwise–can be reduced to one inarguable, ownable attribute. Timex offers an apt, though dated, example. The watch that takes a licking and keeps on ticking is durable.
None of this has anything to do with the book at hand, mind you. But I’d suggest it provides an explanatory framework for just how I came to be in possession of a book in a genre I typically avoid. I’ve come to believe, you see, that possibility lies at the heart of my personal brand.
Despite my encounter with this book, I see no reason to walk away from that belief. I’d suggest you run away fast, though, if someone recommends you read the book.
Why do we even have self-help books? From the supply side, the answer is simple: there’s money in misery. From the seeker side, well, it’s more complicated. Needs, we marketers believe, are never far from wants and the interplay of the two is where we work. In a nation that likes to fancy itself full of strivers, improving the self practically commands investment.
How about two other factors marketers love: fear and greed? What if the key to your material success is lying right before you, bound between covers? Fourteen bucks is nothing compared to the rest of your life. The ROI could be incredible.
If you think I’m being unfair here, remember that Penguin, the publisher, has a marketing department. And they considered everything from the visually arresting bright yellow cover to the price to even the category: business/creativity. Someone sensed a profit in sharing the Zander’s worldview.
My mind turns naturally to commerce as a social artifact. Yet my recurring thought as I made my way through this book had little to do with consumption and everything to do with social psychology. I realized, at a fundamental level, these books ask the reader to behave the same way members of cults or charismatic political movements do.
It’s a neat rhetorical trick, really. It also strikes me as self-serving and abusive of the very people all those entities are arguing they serve. But whether the venue is Jonestown, a Trump rally or this book, the initial transaction sets the terms of the deal.
Early on the Zanders present two dichotomous worldviews: survival/scarcity versus thriving/abundance. Almost immediately, they protest that interpretation of what lies right there on the page, saying “It may seem this chapter sets up a simple dichotomy between being successful and living a kind-hearted, feel-good life. Nothing could be further from our conviction.” (p. 21)
A bit further down the page, though, they introduce survival-thinking and scarcity thinking. Modes of thinking like these seem to abound in self-help writing, often serving the role of an internalized boogeyman who must be vanquished in the course of transformation ( a keyword in the genre and this book).
I’m not a fan of Abraham Maslow, but even he understood that survival and scarcity were so fundamental as to drive all other considerations understandably aside. Our authors reject that without ever even acknowledging it. Instead, they state Survival-thinking is an “undiscriminating ongoing attitude.” Scarcity-thinking, they helpfully note, is a “prevalent” “fatalistic outlook.” (p.21) Thus the trap is baited. On the next page, it’s sprung.
“You look for thoughts and. actions that reflect survival and scarcity, comparison and competition, attachment and anxiety.” (p. 22) So, the problem is you, too concerned with thoughts that are merely attitudes and outlooks. But wait, there’ s more.
“See how easy it is to argue that you are an exception, that you personally are not governed by any such set of assumptions. This, of course, is another example of the measurement world at work” (p.22)
There you have it: the great circularity of true-believerdom. A world, which may or may not be exactly how you experience the world, is posited. Steps are taken to explain why this is the way things are. Then you are promised release from this prison once you see clearly and accept the gift you’ve been offered by your guide. Having been freed you can never look back.
It’s exactly the same, every time. The People’s Temple. The Branch Davidians. Erhard Seminars Training. Even Make America Great Again rallies. What amazes me is that it works.
Though I had plenty of good reasons to walk away early on, I persisted. I didn’t want to negate the possibility that there might be some good here. That openness to possibility was not rewarded.
The work is a mess. The primary mode of instructing is the anecdote. I’ve nothing against that. The last time I looked, Christ did a pretty good job with the form. But the stories here are rarified, comprehensible on a deep level only by very privileged people. The Zanders are not just folks. He leads a symphony orchestra, she is a therapist, they attend Davos.
When they observe the form of seriousness, for example, using footnotes, it’s apparent doing so helps maintain a veneer of rigor. And then there are the leaps that defy reason. This book was published in 2000. After so much has passed, would any editor print this passage today?:
“If we want to increase the community’s strength against inhuman
forces, let’s include the terrorist in the discussion (emphasis added),
along with the families and the townspeople and the security forces
and the government. Let’s hear what he thinks about why this has happened…” (p. 191)
I have no truck with trying to understand yourself better. If you want great material success go for it. If you seek comfort and security I hope you find it. But the path to those things, I think, doesn’t lie in this book or any charismatic movement.
But what do I know? I’m. just a spirit in the material world.