The Bigger Self

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” – William Shakespeare, Hamlet 

“It’s all invented anyway, so we might as well invent a story or a framework of meaning that enhances our quality of life and the life of those around us.” – Rosamund Stone Zander & Benjamin Zander from The Art of Possibility

Once in a while it helps to remember that it’s all invented. It’s easy to lose perspective, to get wrapped around the axle of circumstances and conditions that are completely made up in the first place. (Think of things like grades or performance reviews being valued OVER learning and contribution and you’ll be in the ballpark.)

There are two things I easily forget and I bet you do, too:

1) I’m a great storyteller. Human beings are gifted with this lightning fast limbic brain that puts emotion before reason. When emotion leads the way, justified by the insistent survival mechanisms of the brain stem (Seth Godin’s lizard brain) we masterfully create fictions too rich for publication. Dragged into the light of day they crumble to dust but in the fantasy factories of our minds they couldn’t be more real.

2) It’s not about me. The world is not waiting with bated breath for my next move. The people around me are not extras in the film production of my life. Everyone is fighting their own battle, making their own way. The sooner I get to an attitude – and supporting actions – of making it even the slightest bit easier for others to make their way, the sooner I will receive the support I need to do the same. It is the cosmic truth of the universe.

With a little practice – and the discipline of self-awareness – we can turn these common pitfalls to our advantage. The great storyteller can tell a new story. That means investigating our assumptions about what’s going on and shifting our thinking to the possibility of the new story that can take its place. As for the second one, we can start from a place of humility (literally, coming to ground) that is born of a commitment to create space for others rather than take it up for ourselves. The fact is, if it’s all about you and it’s all about me and it’s all about him and it’s all about her then, by default,   it must be all about…all of us.

Chances are, when it all starts to feel like too much, when the overwhelm is creeping in and the window of opportunity appears to be closing fast, that we are telling ourselves an old story. That story is based on old assumptions and rooted in our self-centeredness.

Each of us can live into the possibility of a bigger self. In a beautiful paradox, that bigger self emerges only when we redefine “bigger” in a way that isn’t quite so big.

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” – Viktor Frankl


Do not ask someone to be something you are unwilling to be yourself. Leadership is living your vision so completely that others cannot help but do the same.

There are easily hundreds of things I could say about the experience my family had last night. I am only going to focus on one. Consistently in my career I have seen this one quality demonstrated by a small number of leaders to great effect but never more powerfully or totally than in the language, body and presence of Ben Zander.

Mr. Zander is the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic and the co-author of “the book authored by Roz Zander” (his words), The Art of Possibility. I read this book ten years ago. I have taught its principles, attempted to live its precepts, recommended it to countless individuals and groups, and referenced it in some way in every talk I have given and every class I have taught. Further to that I have watched video of Ben Zander speaking, both on Ted

and elsewhere and have become deeply familiar with his style, his stories, his patter and his expressions. Until last night I had never seen him in person and it was exhilarating.

Without overstating it it’s important to say that quite literally there was nothing he said that was new to me. I’ve been paying attention to his work for ten years and the trunk of his tree, along with all of the primary branches are almost precisely the same as when I first read and heard him. He is a living monument to the extraordinary power of redundancy done right.

And the only way to do redundancy that way and that well is by bringing an energy to it that is born of a vision so clear that he cannot help but to shout, sing, cajole, laugh, conduct, clap, dance, contort and otherwise give over his entire physical and emotional presence to the manifestation of it. That vision, simply put, is this: that we will all live from the place of possibility.

My kids were stunned by him. “What is this thing we are going to?” “Why are we doing this on a Tuesday night?” “I have homework. A LOT of homework?”

My fifteen year old: “that wasn’t so bad.” (HUGE praise!)

My nine-year old: “that was awesome.”

And while they were certainly talking in some way about his content they are really talking about the infectiousness, the piercing arrow of his energy.

For a seventy-six year old man to take an audience of that demographic range from laughter to reflection to tears, turning us into a serenading birthday choir in the early going and into a master chorale singing “Ode to Joy” in shattered phonetic German at the top of our lungs later on – all from the compelling force of his vision – is a model so profound that one is left with only one option: to do the very thing he asked of us.

To imagine what else is possible.