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When I was in high school and then at university, I viewed good grades as something to be earned.  If I worked hard enough and had a little luck, I could get A’s.  This view carried over to Decurion.  In my early days at the company, we were debating whether or not “respect” was one of the company’s core values.  I argued that respect was something one earned, not something we should simply confer on one another.  My focus remained on the outcome, not on the process; on the achievement, not on the person.  All changed utterly ten years later when I attended a rehearsal of the USC Symphony Orchestra led by Benjamin Zander, the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic.

Zander teaches at the New England Conservatory of Music.  Each fall, on the first day of class, he gives all of his students an A.  There is only one condition.  Within the first two weeks of term, each student must write a letter from the point of view of the following May.  He must describe what he has done or who he has become over the course of the year to receive such a remarkable grade.  The students then “live into” the A.  That is, they invent a possibility and then live into it.  Zander’s approach allows his students to realize what they truly want to be.  They can describe it without barriers, without the internal voice of judgment, because they already have the A.

One year, Zander taught a Chinese boy who was initially confused by this approach.  “In Taiwan,” he said, “I was number 68 out of 70 students.  Then I come to Boston, and Mr. Zander says I am an A.  It is very confusing.  I walked around confused for some time until suddenly I discovered much happier A than number 68, so I became an A.”  As Zander observed, this student had discovered the secret of life:  the whole thing is invented.  We invent ourselves; we invent others; and, most important, we invent or decide what games we play.

Most of us play the Success Game.  We slot certain people as successes and others as failures.  We celebrate our successes but worry about the outcomes of future endeavors and the reactions of others.  While we do one thing we wonder if we shouldn’t really be doing another.  Failure can never be separated from success.  We ask, “Is it good enough?  Will I fail next time?”  Receiving the A in advance allows us to avoid the Success Game.  Indeed, we can dump this game altogether and play another:  the Contribution Game.  When we play this game, we don’t judge and question each activity as we do it.  Instead, we get up in the morning, contribute all day, and then go to bed.

Fixed expectations of ourselves and of others limit us, shut us down.  They are always fulfilled or unfulfilled.  There is no middle ground.  Instead of expectations, we can think in terms of possibilities, for there is always one possibility after another.  Full engagement rests on finding and creating new possibilities.  What about mistakes?  Zander suggested that our response to mistakes should be, “How fascinating!”  If we don’t make mistakes, we will not learn anything.

Attitude matters too.  Zander told us the following story.  Two prime ministers are meeting.  Suddenly, the doors burst open and a man enters, frantic, apoplectic with fury, his clothes askew.  The home PM looks over to him and says, “Peter, remember Rule number 6.”  The man immediately calms down, apologizes, and leaves the room.  A few minutes later, a woman bursts into the room, papers flying, and begins banging the table.  Again the home PM looks over and says, “Marie, please remember Rule number 6.”  She immediately relaxes, gathers her papers, and exits.  After this happens one more time, the visiting PM turns to his host and asks, “Tell me, please, what is this Rule number 6?”  “Very simple,” replies the resident PM.  “Rule number 6 is ‘Don’t take yourself so goddam seriously.’”  “Ah,” says his visitor, “that is a fine rule.  If I may ask, what are the others?”  “There aren’t any.”

Giving others an A, playing the Contribution Game, looking at every endeavor as a new possibility, being fascinated by mistakes, not taking ourselves too seriously:  all of these increase our chances for greater self-expression.  Zander quoted Martha Graham, the creator of modern dance:  “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique.  And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost.  The world will not have it.”  He then asked us to identify the key word in Graham’s statements.  Years later a friend gave me the quotation’s next sentences:  “It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions.  It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.  You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work.  You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you.  Keep the channel open.”

According to Zander, the key word is “block.”  He and Graham are talking about removing the blocks to self-expression.  The internal voice (“I’m not good enough”) gets in the way.  Zander replies, “Thank you for sharing, but I’m busy.”  Opinions get in the way.  Desired and dreaded self-images get in the way.  Even our hopes and fears can get in the way.  To live under the shadow of doubt is not to live fully.

When Jacqueline du Pre was six years old, someone saw her skipping down the corridor at her first competition.  “I see you’ve just played,” he said.  “No,” she replied, “I’m just about to.”  When we play the Contribution Game, we free ourselves to approach every activity with this attitude.  By looking for the highest possibility in any situation, we can create it.  And by speaking to the highest in a person, we can help him to achieve a breakthrough, to see a possibility he did not see before.

Decurion’s purpose is to provide places for people to flourish, that is, to contribute to our employees, our customers, and our communities.  Zander’s talk gave me new ways of enacting our purpose.  I do my best to give everyone an A, to speak only to the highest in people.  I have identified my desired and dreaded images, and I try not to let them inhibit my self-expression.  And I attempt to remember Rule number 6.  When I manage all or even some of this, I am able to avoid the Success Game and to play the Contribution Game.  Instead of the burden of earning respect, I experience freedom and fullness in life.


  1. Johnny Milton

    Christopher, great article. I think you will like writter Mortimer Adler
    ‘A Vision Of The Future’ great thinkers. Keep up the great creative work.
    Johnny Milton

  2. John Galligan

    Thank you for this article. I have passed it along to my Son Joe as he searches for a higher meaning to life, work, and the support of friends and family. I gave myself an A for today, and will repeat this one day at a time.

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