How to End ‘Downward Spiral’ Thinking

Photo of spiral staircase

Benjamin Zander, the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic and author of The Art of Possibility, began waving his arms and skipping across the stage in the auditorium where I was attending his talk. His energy was contagious. He seemed to be having the time of his life. About 450 people filled the auditorium, including the world-renowned leader of the multilateral institution that had invited him to speak. Within minutes, we were all singing happy birthday to a perfect stranger standing on a chair at the front of the room.

How did he do it? How did he get us to play along?

Zander is expert at being an invitation. You cannot resist when he asks you to consider experiencing, even if only for an hour or two, what it is like to live fully ‘in possibility.’
That is, living in the opposite of inside-the-box, neck-up, who-is-to-blame/where-is-the-threat thinking, aka the ‘downward spiral.’

For someone who has lived inside of the Washington DC beltway for over 25 years, it was breathtaking. We are so used to the blame game now, and it is easy to overlook what is really at stake when we give up our vision and creativity and get caught in the spiral.

Zander next snuck alongside an audience member in the front row, and pretended to be The Voice. You know, that’s the Gremlin in your head who tells you that whatever wild idea you might have, it’s probably been tried before, won’t work, has been done better and besides, you don’t have time for that. You have GOALS. You need to GET AHEAD. Playing the game of success means there is no time for possibility.

Among many wonderful ideas he shared, I loved most the one about making it a practice to give an A to people – not only your students, but also your waitress, parking attendant, secretary, the guy who cuts your lawn or your teenage son. Zander says it is transformational because that A creates a possibility for someone to live into rather than a requirement for them to live up to, “lifting you off of the success/failure ladder and spiriting you away from the world of measurement into the universe of possibility.

He described telling his students, many of whom come from other countries and face tough competition to sit in his class, that they will all be getting A’s. Then he enrolls them in an adventure where mistakes are allowed and even encouraged, since, according to Zander, you cannot learn anything unless you make a mistake.

Zander also says that giving an A in relationships is transformational, because once you give an A to someone, you can tell them the truth.

What a profound thought. What you want to say then becomes about you, not them, because you are no longer grading them on anything. They got an A already. And that’s why you can say what you really believe. Just imagine the possibilities!