your purpose is to cross the swamp, not to fight the alligators

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the people to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”
— Antoine De Saint-Exupery (Author of The Little Prince)

This quote speaks about the importance of vision and possibility to achieving a desired result and motivating others to do the same – simply assigning tasks and ‘cracking the whip’ does not get the desired result.  The book I just finished reading (‘The Art of Possibility’ by Rosemund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander) provides some very tangible ways to create a habit of ‘seeing’ possibility (professionally, personlly and otherwise) and using it to broaden your horizons.

The book is broken up into twelve ‘practices’ that we can use to continuously orient ourselves towards possibility; Roz and Ben do an excellent job of walking you through these practices and providing very rich examples. Ben provides examples in the context of music and the orchestra since he is a conductor, and Roz provides examples from working with counselling clients through her practice as a psychologist.

The opening practice that they speak about is the concept that ‘Its All Invented’. Each chapter is dedicated to a practice and they are each as profound and paradigm-shifting as this first one.

It’s All Invented

The idea with this practice is that we should constantly remind ourselves that everything in the world is ‘invented’; that we interpret situations based on a frame that has been ‘programmed’ into us, so if we occasionally question that programming, it opens up possibilities. The chapter opens with a short vignette that clearly illustrates this phenomenon”

A shoe factory sends two marketing scouts to a region of Africa to study the prospects for expanding business. One sends back a telegram saying: SITUATION HOPELESS STOP NO ONE WEARS SHOES

Both scouts are operating on exactly the same information, but come out with completely different stories – they both invent a viewpoint.

The caution here is that we can miss out on possibility, if we do not challenge our assumptions about how we perceive the world to be.

The Quote that Got Me

Despite the richness of the content by the authors, the quote that stuck the most with me from the book was not produced by either Roz or Ben but rather a NASA employee in one of the stories Ben told about ‘Creating Frameworks for Possibility’. In this story, Ben asks a group of teenagers to write a set of letters to NASA employees that will illustrate to them that music and space exploration are not as different as you would initially believe. The teenagers come up with some fascinating insights that are so motivating to the NASA employees that they recipricate with their own letters to the young people. In one of those letters, a NASA employee writes:

… Thank you for reminding me what I am here for. I will have to remember ‘I am here today to cross the swamp, not to fight all the alligators’ [emphasis mine]

What a powerful way to reorient ourselves towards the purpose of our work – to its vision and possibility. How often do we get caught up fighting alligators (obstacles, personal conflicts, issues etc.) – and lose sight of the overall vision that we are working towards. We all need a way to get ourselves back to that vision so that our work can remain invigorating and meaningful – thus allowing us to perform at our highest levels. We all need to remember the swamp that we are trying to cross and minimize the impact of the alligators on that mission.

Bonus Treat!: Ben Zander is a powerful public speaker and if you have a few minutes, check out his TED talk