art-of-possibility-picThis post is part of “On the Same Page,” a blogging book club led by life coaches Kayce Stevens Hughlett, Betsy Pearson, Kanesha Baynard and myself.  We’re reading The Art of Possibility, by Rosamund and Ben Zander.  If you’d like to purchase the book, click on the cover graphic below, left.

It’s both ironic and thrilling that I was assigned the chapter of The Art of Possibility that had to do with grades.  Specifically, with “A’s.”

Now we’re talking my language.

From my first day of elementary school through college commencement day, I was addicted to the dopamine rush that came from seeing a bright red “A” at the top of my tests and papers.  Even now, remembering the “A+” I got in third grade, for an assignment to create a Kipling “Just So” story (mine was entitled “How the Zebra Got its Stripes” and followed a story line recognizable to any fan of Pepé Le Pew) gives me a pleasant feeling of satisfaction, accomplishment and superiority.

Yes, it’s true—a long, long time ago my ego identified “A” with superiority, and I never thought to question it.  However, the Zanders’ Chapter Three contention that the “A” is an invention (see Chapter One, “It’s All Invented) turns this understanding of “A” on its head.  Our grading system makes the “A” a measurement that says some students are better than others.

However, the metric behind the “A” can be as arbitrary as the practice of instructing a professor to give one-third of the students in a leadership course for 50 of the most outstanding students at the University of Southern California an “A”, one-third a “B” and the rest a “C,” even though, the Zanders write, “the work of any member of this class was likely to surpass that of any other student” in the 27,000-student population.

Seriously?  They hand picked the top .1% of the student body, then felt the need to assign relative values to their achievement?  How meaningful was that “A?” or the “C” for that matter?

I believe those randomly assigned “C’s” stood for “Crushed!” in the minds and hearts of the high-achievers selected for this class. The lone “C” that tarnished my academic career lives in infamy in a shame-filled corner of my own memory, never to be spoken of aloud.

The Zanders spent some time pondering this practice, and, using the metaphor of Michaelangelo, who saw sculpting as a process of chipping away at whatever was not part of the handsome figures trapped inside the marble, determined that a teacher’s job is to focus on “chipping away at the stone, getting rid of whatever is in the way of each child’s developing skills, mastery, and self-expression.”

By getting rid of the measurement tool, which only measures how the students perform against an individual teacher’s standards, students can be seen for the luminous human forms they really are.

I like this.

Ben Zander brought the concept to life one September by telling the students in his musical performance class that he was giving them all an A in the class.  He did this not on the last day of the two-semester exploration of the psychological and emotional obstacles to full expression of musical artistry, but on the first.  His only requirement was that they write a letter, due within two weeks, from the perspective of the future.  The letters were to be dated as of May, and had to outline, using the past tense, what the student had done that was “in line with this extraordinary grade.”

The results were remarkable, and the letters poignant and prescient.  All of their fears—of making mistakes, of being somehow “less-than,” melted away, allowing them to stretch the boundaries of their own skills, confidence, and artistic expression.

Mistakes became indicators of that which needed attention, and no longer carried any stigma.  Painful comparisons to others melted away.  Rather than focusing on pleasing the teacher, each student explored their own talent, and expanded their own artistry.


In a universe of possibility, we can grant others an “A,” allowing them to be fully themselves, and offering them the respect we give high achieving people.

In a universe of possibility, we can grant ourselves an “A,” which “lifts [us] off the success/failure ladder…It is a framework that allows you to see all of you are and be all of who you are, without having to resist or deny any part of yourself.”

We can, says Zander, “replace the narratives that hold us back by inventing wiser stories, free from childish fears, and, in doing so, disperse long-held psychological stumbling blocks.”

Imagine the Possibilities: An Exercise in Giving an “A”


Just thinking of giving myself that “A” brings back a happy flood of dopamine.  What does it do for you?  How does giving yourself an “A” change how you perceive yourself?   What can you let go of, knowing that you’ve already earned an “A?”  What might you now embrace, knowing that you have your “A?”

Are there people in your life to whom you haven’t granted an “A?”  What would change about you if you did?  How might they respond to those changes in you?

Who, in your life, has withheld the “A” from you?  What if you gave them an “A?”




9 Responses to Giving An “A”

  1. Fascinating, Amy — especially your exercises for us. In theory, they are interesting, but I just found out how TRULY wild they are when I sat down and actually wrote out my answers (why is that so much more powerful???).
    I started with something greatly occupying my mind right now (literally — as in, all my brain cells are used up just with the memorization): the play Wit. I’m in our local production; it’s my first time on stage since high school; and it’s re-baptism by total immersion. If I got an A right now (1.5 weeks before dress rehearsal!), how would it change things? I tell you, the pre-dated letter I wrote (like Zander required of his students) surprised me. I would be braver, yes, but also some specifics came to me as to HOW(so after I send this I’ll be going out for a walk by the creek and then more yoga) and WHY. And not just why I am afraid. More importantly: why we are doing this show and why determining the grade of the performance is a nonsensical question. What matters to me is how “IT” makes us — the crew, cast, and audience — feel. Giving or wanting a “grade” — even/especially an “A” — on anything that’s important to our essential selves catapults us and “IT” into The World of Measurement and out of A Universe of Possibility. And to quote my character, Vivian Bearing: “In this case, I think ‘it’ signifies ‘being alive.'” Thanks, Amy, for the provocative post.

    • amysteindler says:

      Beautifully said, Betsy. I’m in the process of planning, and in some respects redefining, my coaching practice. Giving myself the “A” allows me to take the risks I’ve been avoiding, and gives me permission to be fully immersed in the process, letting go of my preconceived picture of what the outcomes look like. I am free to ‘fess up to my fears about fully owning everything I’ve been creating, and then to actually being to step into that ownership role.

      I do know that there are many, many people out there to whom I am miserly with my “A’s”–and sometimes it’s a cycle that I start (I withhold the “A” from you, therefore I don’t fully see or hear you. As a result, why would you want to give ME the “A” and hear/see me fully?). Sometimes I tell the story that the other person withheld the “A” first, and I’m hanging on to the misery of accepting judgment from someone else. What would happen if I became more conscious of the “not-A’s” I’ve been giving? Could I change the energy and responses of those others, and would it create a new, more fulfilling circumstance in which I can exist, explore, and expand?

      You’ve hit on another important point in the book, which is that of meaning and purpose. The “WHY” piece–why are we doing the show–why are any of us doing whatever it is that we’re doing? If there’s no connection to meaning or a purpose larger than the task itself, we need to ask that question and either find the deeper purpose or meaning that we’ve been ignoring or afraid of, or move on to more meaningful activities that ultimately involve creation, connection and compassion.

      Thanks for your comment, Betsy, as it opened a door for me in this moment.

      • Yeah, Amy — the most shocking of your questions are those regarding “where do I withhold A’s from others?” And “how do I interact those whom I believe are withholding A’s from me?” I’m still processing those, which is why I left them out of my comments!

  2. Kanesha says:

    This is JUICY, Amy, and I’m totally giving you an A for AWAKENING.

    As a veteran educator and known for breaking of lots of rules – even though I really try to following them (in hopes of getting an A) – I’ve never really liked the grading scale of school, love, worthiness, approval…and all that other stuff.

    I believe in the body of work – body of evidence. Now, I’ll be honest and confess that I couldn’t have expressed all of this so clearly about 10 years ago because I was trying to get an A+ in every aspect of what I was doing.

    You know what? It didn’t work, I was exhausted, it sucked, and I wasted too much time.

    My new grading scale is all about mindfulness, showing up, and doing the best I can. And when it comes to others – I’m open to “grading them” the same way. This may sound too passive – but it’s the complete opposite. When I’m mindful and paying full attention – it’s easier to see and quickly know if something is or is NOT for me. That includes situations, decisions, energy use, AND people. So I can be gracious in taking an “incomplete” as a grade with a person when it’s just not working.

    So in my ramblings here – after chugging my smoothie – everyone can have an A if it’s given for AWAKENING and living boldly on a daily basis.

  3. Lynn Hess says:

    This was hugely powerful for me, Amy! Like you, I was hooked on As throughout my school years. (Still am, if I’m honest — in anything that can be quantified and evaluated, I still secretly want my high score!)

    When I pondered the exercises, there was definitely a sense of relief and joy at the thought of giving myself an A..and not only an A for any activities, goals, or actions I have taken or will take — but just an A in LIFE. A great feeling.

    However, I was truly surprised at how much I relaxed and softened when I thought about giving an A to everyone else in my life. What surprised me was that I consider myself a very forgiving, accepting person — but thinking of this made me realize in just how many areas I am more judgmental and withholding than I ever realized. It was really profound when I thought about my kids, and how often I subtly and subconsciously express to them that, though they’re doing great, they could always be doing just a little bit better….

    I have just been thinking the past few days about how I seem to carry an underlying tension that I usually don’t realize is there until something happens to point it out to me. I’ve wondered how I can drop that. And I think THAT’S what would change about me if I gave everyone (and myself) As. Just grace, grace, grace, for everyone and for myself.

    What a wonderful and thought-provoking post! Thank you!

    • amysteindler says:

      Lynn, this is so poignant–especially when you talk about your children. The chapter tells a story about “Mahler and Katrine” that illustrates the power of giving children an “A,” so if you haven’t read it, skip right to that section of the chapter and prepare to be changed by what you read! Ben Zander writes, “…It reminds me how seldom we pay attention to, or even look for, the passionate and the extraordinary in children–how seldom we give children an A.”

    • I know exactly what you mean about that underlying tension Lynn — as soon as I read those words of yours, mine eased a bit! I agree with your assessment of its origins! Huge revelation!

  4. Lynne says:

    Brilliant! I too was an outstanding student, however, there were areas of my life where I was not an “A” student, and yet I received such pleasure from pursuits like sewing, artwork and singing. These were activities that my Father did not value. I would invite my parents to a choral concert and my Father would say “we will come when you are singing a solo,” this followed telling his 4 children that he would only sign report cards with straight “A’s”. Good thing he at least had 4 very smart kids!
    Isn’t it wonderful that as adults, we are past having to deal with our defective parents and while we make our own share of mistakes with our offspring, we can embrace what we love to do and carry on with living! So Blessed.

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