Possibility: Part 6

This is the final part of the series on possibility and The Art of Possibility, by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander.

I can’t take my leave of this glorious book without discussing what Roz and Ben call the practice of  “Giving an A”.  The practice was born when Ben, the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic orchestra, was about to start a new 2-semester course teaching 30 graduate students at the New England Conversatory of Music.

After 25 years of teaching Ben realised he was about to start another class with the same old obstacle in the way: that the students would be in such

a chronic state of anxiety over the measurement of their performance that they would be reluctant to take risks with their playing.

This time he did something different. He sat down with Roz, a therapist, and together they speculated about how they could move the students from the world of measurement – the world of right, wrong, good, bad, better than, less than, success, failure – into the world of possibility.

Ben describes what they came up with. “Roz and I predicted that abolishing grades altogether would only make matters worse … The students would feel cheated of the opportunity for stardom and would still be focused on their place in the lineup. So we came up with the idea of giving them all the only grade that would put them at ease”; the only grade that could “finesse the stranglehold of judgement that grades have over our consciousness from our earliest days.”

He announced it to the students as follows:

Each student in this class will get an A for the course. However, there is one requirement that you must fulfill to earn this grade: sometime during the next two weeks, you must write me a letter dated next May, which begins with the words, ‘Dear Mr Zander, I got my A because … ‘, and in this letter you are to tell, in as much detail as you can, the story of what will have happened to you by next May that is in line with this extraordinary grade …

In writing their letters Ben tells them to “place themselves in the future, looking back, and to report on all the insights they acquired … I am especially interested in the person you will have become by next May.”

The practice is a dramatic success, and not just with the students giving themselves an A. Because in exploring the idea Ben and Roz see it can be used in many different ways, including giving an A to others. There is so much more to say about the power and magic of the practice, and I could go on for posts and posts. For now, I want to end by including the letters written by two of Ben’s students and my own letter to Ben, from six months in the future.


Dear Mr Zander,

I got my A because … I changed from someone who was scared to make a mistake in case she was noticed to someone who knows that she has a contribution to make to other people, musically and personally … Thus all diffidence and lack of belief in myself are gone. So too is the belief that I only exist as a reflection in other people’s eyes and the resulting desire to please everyone … I have changed from desiring inconsequentiality and anonymity to accepting the joy that comes from knowing that my music changes the world.

Giselle Hillyer


Dear Mr Zander,

I got my A because I became a great gardener to build my own garden of life. Till last year I was intimidated, judgemental, negative, lonely, lost, no energy to do what-so-ever, loveless, spiritless, hopeless, emotionless … endless. What I thought so miserably was actually what really made me to become what I am today, who loves myself, therefore music, life, people, my work, and even miseries. I love my weeds as much as my unblossomed roses. I can’t wait for tomorrow because I’m in love with today, hard work, and reward … what can be better?

Sincerely, Soyan Kim


30 June 2012

Dear Ben,

I got my A because I gave my leadership project everything I had – my passion, my joy, my commitment – and I discovered I had so much more to give than I knew. I also finally discovered what you discovered: that people are always more important than the project or task I’m involved in.  What I love about the person I’ve become is that I broke through the limit on my creativity and expression that I’d often come up against, and which was one of the reasons I started my blog years ago. Now the limit is no longer there and I have become to expression what Jacqueline du Pre was to music, “a conduit for music to pour through”. As you say of her, I have the

radical confidence about [my] own highly personal expression that people acquire when they understand that performance is not about getting your act together, but about opening up to the energy of the audience and of the music, and letting it sing in your unique voice.

Yours in possibility,

Narelle Hanratty


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4 thoughts on “Possibility: Part 6

  1. This is great motivation and allows the student to take responsibility at day one. I wonder how effective this would be for an unmotivated group of students. Would they even be able to see possibility beyond current circumstances? I thought, well, how would it turn out if they were given a choice as to what grade they wanted and wrote about it but then realized that giving a choice might be asking them to remain stagnant if they can’t envision beyond their reality, Hmmm,,,

    Now, for my letter…:-)


    • Oh yes, write a letter too. I want to read it.

      Maybe it could work with an unmotivated group of students too. For one, the students get a couple of weeks to think about it, and I reckon the moment the teacher proposes it the students would begin thinking about it (whether they intended to or not). You see there’s a kind of magic in it — like a subtle, powerful gravity — and by the time it comes to write the letter the magic will have done its work.

      Anyway, who can we try it on who’s unmotivated?


  2. Fantastic. I read this with a little bit of skepticism but actually think the approach could work in just about any aspect of human activity while also opening up peoples’ eyes to the potentiality (possibility) of how to do things in a more meaningful way. It is interesting to think about applying this idea to areas where the reward isn’t as well defined as an “A.” In the workplace would you have to make everything think of getting an A for their performance or could you link it to workplace rewards like raises and promotions?


    • Roz and Ben discuss how the A also works in a metaphorical way. It’s based on 2 ideas.

      First, that we’re giving “grades” to people all the time in life (to ourselves, and others). They say: “In the measured context of our everyday lives, the grades we hand out often rise and fall with our moods and opinions. We may disagree with someone on one issue, lower their grade, and never quite hear what they have to say again. Each time the grade is altered, the new assessment, like a box, defines the limits of what is possible between us.”

      Second … radical thought this: we’re “creating” the people we encounter at work, at school, in the orchestra, etc. We can “create” them as A’s, or we can “create” them as lower grades. For example, “you can give your sullen, lazy, secretive teenager an A, and she will still at that moment be sleeping the morning away. When she awakes, however, the conversation between you and her will go a little differently because she will have become for you a person whose true nature is to participate — however blocked she may be.”

      So Roz and Ben would say that in the workplace we have the choice to create our colleagues and employees as A grade, or not. And the resulting experience will be radically different.


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