June 24, 2016
Editor's Choice: Pathways to Possibility: Transforming Our Relationship with Ourselves, Each Other, and the World
Pathways to Possibility: Transforming Our Relationship with Ourselves, Each Other, and the World by Rosamund Stone Zander, Viking, 272 pages, $26.00, Hardcover, June 2016, ISBN 9780670025183
I was either three or four years old when it happened. My brother and I found some old harvesting tools in the barn. In my memory, they now look like torture implements—let’s say a scythe and something that looks like a metal flail. Anyway, we had good intentions. We wanted to help. We were going to cut the corn for mommy and daddy. And we were proud that we were big enough to help, until we saw the look on our mother’s face when she found us, and we realized something had gone terribly wrong. I came to learn that day that there’s a very specific time to reap what’s sown, and we had gotten the time very wrong. Not only that, we didn’t own the land we were on and the crops we cut weren’t ours. We were already living rent free there in exchange for the labor we provided, and well… you get the point; it wasn't good.
Is that the reason that I still find it terrifying to begin large projects? Does that explain why I'm never really happy, and always a little nervous, with the result? Does that fear that I'm going to get it all wrong, and nervousness that I have when it's done, stem from the time I strutted out into the fields full of confidence, and came out of them so full of shame and fear?
It’s a problem for all of us: we are not trained to think of ourselves as governed by stories made up by younger iterations of ourselves, frozen in time. Most of us are only remotely aware that we may be living out patterns that extend back beyond us to our ancestors. But even if we had an inkling, how would we set about to change them? The answer, of course, is to uncover the story and tell a new one.
Pathways to Possibility tells us that we are all born into a story in progress, and that the story evolves as we grow into, respond to it, internalize it, and alter it in response to our upbringing and environment. We all absorb our family’s collective memory and history to some extent. Those feelings and stories come to define our understanding of who we are and our patterns of behavior; they're a part of our inheritance. But they are not necessarily who we are, or who we have to be. We can change. We can rewrite our own stories and change the behavior sourced in them.
Stone Zander is trained as a family systems therapist, so she has an understanding of the individual not as an island, but as a part of an interconnected emotional unit. That is where we all start from. And achieving true maturity from that point isn’t simply the ability to internalize, and pass along the patterns and tendencies we grew up with; it requires the ability to rewrite the stories you inherit and develop as a child so that they benefit you instead of sabotage you and those around you. That all begins with the power of recognition and self-examination. And that examination requires us to go deep.
We all developed certain “safety patterns” in childhood that unconsciously govern our behaviors well past their usefulness—right into the present day. They served us well as children, but there is a problem with those if you continue relying on them in adulthood:
Safety patterns are not adaptive; they are as resolute and single-minded as the child who first fashioned them.
Now you know why your spouse, your boss, your co-worker or co-owner can be so stubborn. There is a part of them—a pattern in their behavior—likely sourced in their three- or four-year-old self. Stone Zander tells the story of individuals whose safety patterns play out in negative ways that, and rather than protecting them (the very reason they were developed them as children in the first place), end up causing real harm to themselves and others. She then explains the process they go through (sometimes as simple as a single conversation) to learn to rewrite the stories, recognize and end those unconscious reactions and patterns of behavior.
It takes quite some skill to be able to recognize which parts of your worldview are the brilliant but rigid inventions of the three- or four-year-old within you, and which parts have the characteristic flexibility and multiple viewpoints of a story born from your accumulated wisdom.
This applies not only to the patterns we inherit from our family life, but from our work life. Changing those patterns is not easy work, but there are six specific practices that Stone Zander provides that will aid you in that work.
Jack Covert wrote of Rosamund Stone Zander’s first book, The Art of Possibility, that it “taught [him] to look through a different lens, one that leads to a more humane and satisfying, passion-filled life.” That word, humane, is often seen as at best soft, and at worst a weakness, in business.
That book was all about changing your approach to life from a “downward spiral” in which you’re concentrated on mere survival, on winning and losing, to “radiating possibility.” So, instead of being focused on winning or losing a supposedly zero-sum game, you learn how to rewrite the rules for yourself and create new opportunities to do things differently and create the world you want to see and create more possibility for everyone around you.
Pathways to Possibility is about rewriting our stories to find our way there. What Rosamund Stone Zander offers in her new book is the ability to gain some authorial distance from our life stories, the clear understanding that we are writing those stories ourselves, and the agency to change them. With this help and understanding, perhaps some day I'll be able to feel good when I come out of the fields of a project.
About Dylan Schleicher
Dylan Schleicher has been a part of the 800-CEO-READ claque since 2003. Even though he's stayed on at the company, he has not stayed put. After beginning in shipping & receiving, he joined customer service and accounting before moving into his current, highly elliptical orbit of duties overseeing the ChangeThis and In the Books websites, the company's annual review of books and in-house design. He lives with his wife and two children in the Washington Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee's West Side.