If everybody has your attention, nobody does. That's a problem — but it also paves the way for 2021's new currency: meaning..

Join Paul Campillo, Typeform's Director of Brand, as he explores why becoming a meaningful brand is more critical than ever — not just for your business, but for society.

This time Paul visited Benjamin Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic at home. They got into managing people (remotely), Beethoven’s hardship, and the fundamental choice that is positive thinking. Here's a taste:

Want to watch the full interview? Head here.

If you're looking for the transcript, keep reading...


Paul Campillo (PC): I'm Paul, Director of Brand at Typeform and this is Meaningful. Today we're in Cambridge, Boston, and I'm going to be interviewing Benjamin Zander, Conductor of the Boston Philharmonic and co-author of the New York Times bestselling book, "The Art of Possibility."

PC: Benjamin Zander is renowned for his interpretations of Beethoven and Mahler's work. He's also a coach teaching executives how to be better leaders in their companies. Today's topic, "Possibility Thinking" and a few more surprises. Enjoy the conversation.

Crew: Okay, one second Paul, one second.

PC: Okay.

Crew: Clap for me and I'm ready.

[Paul claps]

Benjamin Zander (BZ): I usually get more claps than that-

PC: Hahaha, well, we're saving it for the end.

PC: Maestro, thanks for inviting us into your home.

Managing people (remotely)

BZ: This is my home, this is where I work, this is where I live, this is where I listen, this is where I dream, this is where I teach now because we're all on Zoom.

PC: What has that been like?

BZ: Well, it's been actually very fascinating because we can't make music, no orchestras can function, and we've given up any attempt to try and play on Zoom with different instruments. Doesn't work.

BZ: So what I've done is I've turned all my orchestra players into conductors. I said, okay, you're going to have to look at the whole, like a conductor, responsible for the whole, interested in everything, learning what every instrument is doing, just like a conductor has to do. And that'll take your attention away from yourself and your own needs and problems, and start paying attention to the whole thing.

BZ: It has had a very profound effect on their thinking, on their listening, on their excitement, and we've managed to keep a sense of buoyancy and engagement that I wouldn't have thought was very likely under these circumstances. We're all sitting in our little boxes, you know, but it's been really terrific.

Possibility vs. the downward spiral

BZ: There is no circumstance so bad that possibility isn't present, and there is no situation so good that the downward spiral-. I had this wonderful image. My go-to image, look, that's the downward spiral, right? You understand what it means?

(Models for 'possibility'(left) and the 'downward spiral' (right)

PC: Yes.

BZ: I mean you get the feeling of downward. And this is possibility, look at that. That's so fundamental and you always have a choice. You could choose this or you could choose this. Every time you open your mouth. 

BZ: I mean, it's just fundamental, a five-year old can understand that. Isn't that interesting? In fact, I've even tested a five-year old. I said, this is competition and fear, and winning and losing. And this is possibility, we choose it. And he pointed, he said, "This one."

PC: I get more options.

BZ: Right, well it's that, and also because it's open, and it isn't up and down, and it isn't bilateral. It's open. 

BZ: So that fundamental choice is always there. And realizing there, that it is the fundamental choice that every human being faces at every moment actually gives one an energy and the possibility, and engagement with life, which doesn't exist. If you think it's all about winning and losing and that battle of up and down.

PC: I did want to talk to you about, you know, you had an accident. Can you talk about that a little bit?

BZ: I have never been in hospital. I'm 82, I never been-

PC: Never?

BZ: Never been-

PC: Except when you were born?

BZ: Right. And I had my tonsils out when I was nine, I think that's all.

PC: Okay, alright.

BZ: And I'm very healthy. One day I was going out the back door, and I fell. And I fell, crashed to the ground, and it was concrete, and I smashed everything in the upper leg here. And it was raining, and it was 10:30 at night.

PC: Oh, wow.

BZ: And I couldn't move. And there was no way I could move. It was a very serious accident, but I managed to get back into the house, managed to get the ambulance, and took me off to the hospital. And that was in October, and now we're at the end of April. And I'm just about walking again.

PC: I've seen you walk.

BZ: Yeah, yeah.

PC: You have such an amazing vitality to you and energy to you. October wasn't that long ago. And I'm just, you know, someone at your age to recover in the way that you've recovered.

BZ: Well, it's very interesting, actually. My physiotherapist said something about that the other day. She said, "You know, all my other patients are basically going downhill and you're going uphill." She said, "You're basically going back to where you were before." And I said, "Absolutely, I'm not giving up now. I wouldn't say I'm just getting started, that's going a little too far. I'm intending to go on for a long time. 

BZ: Part of that is good luck because obviously you have to have the physical makeup that makes that possible. But the other is really, I think an attitude issue. It's a determination and it's a belief that you can do it. And it's the joy when you do, do it, because that's the greatest joy in life. It's communication and generating energy, and being with other people. 

BZ: It's making music together, and seeing the reactions of the audience, and knowing you're moving them to their core, and all of that. That is what it's really about. And since my life has always been about those things, it seems inexcusable to think about giving up.

PC: Yeah. Where does that come from though?

BZ: Well, yeah, of course. I say it comes from possibility. That's the name of the book, you know, "The Art of Possibility." That's the book, "The Art of Possibility." And that's a book of practices. It's practicing to be in possibility because it's easy to fall into the downward spiral, it's very easy. You don't have to do anything to fall into the downward spiral. It just comes automatically. Human nature is wired that way: to be competitive, to be fearful, to be angry, to be jealous.

Leaders everywhere

PC: You know, when I think of a conductor and when I think of an orchestra, I think of a very archaic, and I could be wrong, archaic and outdated leadership style.

BZ: Right, it is.

PC: I don't know if that's true, but that's what I imagined.

BZ: Oh, no. It's absolutely topdown. It's hierarchal, it's all those things.

PC: How did you break out of that? Because you're talking about making other people conductors? I think there's a note in the book that says, "Leaders everywhere." So, what created that shift? When did that happen?

BZ: In the world of possibility, when you're enlivening people, as I always say, awakening possibility in other people, what you find is their eyes shine. Whereas, if you're pushing them down and dominating them, not only their body language, but their whole demeanor goes down with that. So, the job of the conductor is to enliven, to awaken possibility, and the way you know you're doing it is if the eyes are shining.

PC: How do you get the eyes to shine?

BZ: Well, the eyes shine naturally in the domain of possibility. Like in our conversation your eyes are shining, and I'm willing to bet that the people watching us also are having shining eyes. 'Cause they're saying, "Yeah, that's right. Because when somebody talks to me with respect, and speaks to my dignity and to my capacity, and speaks to the best part of me, I always feel great." 

BZ: So, I do that with an orchestra. I never tell an orchestra they're doing something wrong or never say anything sarcastic, or put them down, or make fun of somebody that I know that'll do that. Not only will it diminish that person, but the whole group will go downhill. We have to watch very carefully all the time what words come out of our mouth 'cause that's how it's conveyed.

PC: It's watching the words, being careful about the words, but also like you said earlier, paying attention to the reaction that people are giving you.

BZ: Right. If you choose the words well, the reaction will be the good one.

Beethoven's lesson

BZ: The incredible thing about Beethoven because he suffered incredibly from his death. He was ill and he almost committed suicide. And he wrote about why he was committing suicide. Thank God he didn't, instead, he wrote the heroic. 

BZ: And he was ill, and he was alone, and he was in despair, he had to move house continuously, he was in conflict with everybody in the family, and he didn't have companionship, he didn't have a woman, you know, everything was wrong. And yet he managed to do-

[Benjamin Zander plays piano]

BZ: Imagine that incredible tune with all its joy, and confidence, and simplicity, out of such despair. So, Beethoven has a message for us, which is: there's always a pathway to triumph.

PC: Yeah.

BZ: Always. That's what makes him the most important composer for us. 

BZ: When I was at the Grammys with my Brooklyn, I had a Brooklyn Symphony in the Grammys, I was nominated. One of the pop singers said, "How long is your song?" I said, "It's about an hour and a half." He said, "Oh, mine's three minutes."

PC: And he probably won.

BZ: I don't even remember. But anyway, it needs time to deal with the big issues of life.

The importance of shiny eyes

PC: You're renowned for interpreting Beethoven and Mahler, right?

BZ: Particularly.

PC: Yeah, but you're not limited to that. 

PC: But there's a process there for you to kind of go in there and understand what they're trying to say. And you know, I like to liken this in business terms, you could talk to a customer and they're going to say certain things. But, how well is your ability to interpret and really get to the truth of what they're saying? Because they don't always say what's on their mind, right? And there's a process there that you really have mastered.

BZ: I'll tell you the differences and the similarities between business and music are fascinating. Because in the case of business, the important thing is the sell, right? You've got to sell the thing. In the case of music, it's enrolling them. You're not selling anything, they've already bought their ticket, right? They're in the hall.

BZ: Now the question is the shining eyes. How do you get to them? And I actually think that if the business world would think more in terms of enrollment and less in terms of selling, they would actually have a lot of happier sales people. 

BZ: Because the thing that we do, you're sitting in your chair, you bought your ticket, there's no more transaction, you didn't have to buy anything, right? So sitting there and you've got me in front of you saying, "This is what's happening here. Listen to this, listen to this." And the climax is here, and when you get to it, you'll feel it in the little hairs at the back, and then listen to this, and listen to that, and what you will get is probably some information, but mainly my enthusiasm for what I'm doing. And you'll get the energy that comes because I'm so excited about teaching you. 

BZ: And I think that if sales people would think of themselves as teachers, as people giving insight, pointing out the things. Not to trick people into buying, or control them, or manipulate them, that's all in the downward spiral. But to bring them into the world of the possibility, of whatever it is that you're engaged in selling.

BZ: The idea of enrollment to me is a beautiful idea and one in which there's no loser. And if in the end he doesn't buy the thing, it doesn't matter because in the model of possibility, it's not the buying, it's the enrollment.

PC: Right.

BZ: The bottom line is the result of good leadership and good atmosphere, and good working conditions, so that people produce wonderful results. So, if people thought that way and thought of the contribution that their company was making, then they'd be like us musicians. And we'd be looking for the shining eyes and so would they.

PC: Yeah, that's an important point. The shining eyes in your employees would naturally translate to-

BZ: Automatically.

PC: The shining eyes and the customers.

BZ: Absolutely, absolutely.

The responsibility of a leader

BZ: And I say that if the eyes are not shining, as a conductor, if the eyes in your orchestra are not shining, I don't say what's wrong with these people. I say, who am I being that the eyes are not shining. 

BZ: And we can do that with our children, and with our lovers, or with spouses, and who am I being that the eyes are not shining? When I teach, I feel as responsible for the spiritual growth of the people I'm teaching, as I do for the musical growth. They're absolutely identical.

PC: You're conscious of that. You're conscious of their growth.

BZ: All the time. And I give them assignments every week, I mean, these are musicians. Every week they get an assignment.

PC: You could play it like: well I just need you to get ready for this next performance.

BZ: Exactly.

PC: Or you can play it like: I'm responsible for your life.

BZ: Right, absolutely. And the leader takes that on when he steps into that role. He's not just producing the worker or a musician, he's producing a human.

PC: This is not common thinking.

BZ: No, no. It takes discipline to think that way because it's very easy to get disappointed with people when they don't do exactly what you hoped they would. And it's tempting also to give up because sometimes it seems too hard to ask.

PC: Yeah, but it's less so if I adopt that mindset that you're talking about, then I'm less concerned about the mistakes if I'm very conscious of my job is to help this person grow to be the best that they can be. If I have that mindset, then a mistake is just something that happens-

BZ: Along the way. And it's also an opportunity to learn because you don't learn unless you make a mistake, right? So, that's the only way you learn is from making mistakes. So we should say, oh great, you made a mistake. Or what we say is: how fascinating. Because it lightens everything up. The problem is the weight we put on failure and the weight we put on success, and it dominates our life, our psychology, and our relationships.

BZ: And the result is a very argumentative and distressing environment for people to grow up in. And so I think it's our job as parents to create an environment of joy and ease, so that people are drawn to learn because they want to, because it lifts the whole conversation. I don't call it optimism. It's certainly not positive thinking. Positive thinking is pretending things are good. Right?

PC: Right.

BZ: So that's why positive thinking is so annoying. It's very irritating. You know they're shitty. These guys are pretending that things are great. No. Things are terrible, right?

To be different or to make a difference?

PC: Michael Porter, and I'm paraphrasing here, he says, your job as a company or business is not to be better, right? It's to be different, it's to offer something unique and different to the world, and you can't think in terms of basically everything you've been saying, competition, 'cause that's what we tend to do. 

PC: We tend to look at, "Well, who else is in our category? Who else do we need to be like, oh, they're doing their pricing this way, we should do our pricing that way. They're doing their offer this way, we should copy that too." And everyone's just copying each other. But I think Mr. Porter's take on strategy is: yeah, you are competing, but you need to rethink it, and think in terms of what's different about you? What are you bringing to the market that is uniquely-

BZ: Well, let me just make a comment about Michael Porter's theory. I don't agree with it actually. I don't think the important thing is to be unique. I think the important thing is to be for something. Unique for what? In other words, just to be different, doesn't interest me. 

BZ: I remember there was a conversation, somebody said, "How can we be the best in the world?" And one of the women said, "How about: how can we be the best for the world?" Now that is a transformational shift. And from that moment on the whole conversation changed. So for me, the interesting thing is not unique in itself, just different.

PC: But difference-

BZ: Making a difference. That is important.

PC: But how do you get everyone to embody this vision or this direction?

BZ: That's the leader. You see, leadership is incredibly important. The job of the leader is to speak possibility and certainly not engage in downward spiral thinking himself, herself. But always look for what it is that will draw the group in a new way, into something new, and enlivening, and worthwhile. It's gotta be something that makes a difference. It's gotta be something that people will remember. 

BZ: I always say that life is about memories. Life is about making memories. I remember my daughter, she was about 16, and we were on holiday, And it was getting to the end of the day, and she said, "Let's have one more memory." I thought: she's got it, she's got it. Let's have one more memory. 

BZ: I love that idea that we're careful with relationships, we're careful with the time that we have, we're careful with what we say, careful with language so that we can create things that people can remember. And when it comes to music, I'm very, very devoted to the idea of great performances. Never casual, never ordinary, never every-day, never running on automatic pilot. 

Nobody wants to hear a bit of a symphony performed on automatic pilot. It's always gotta be new as if the person had just produced that manuscript at that moment, and they'd never heard it.

[Benjamin Zander sings]

BZ: Oh my God, you know that power. Who can resist that? You were sitting in that chair thinking, "Oh my God." That's energy and joy.

PC: I don't know the name of it, but you definitely like spark the tune in my head.

BZ: That's right, that's right. 

BZ: And then the other thing a leader must not do is doubt that people can't do it. Just think of Martin Luther King. If he'd said, "I have a dream," oh, I'm not sure they're going to be up to it, you know? So the leader has to have a voice, has to have strength, have some sense of, well, purpose. It's not about being right, there's nothing right about that, it's just a possibility to live into. That's all it is.

BZ: And if people could understand that, that we have that opportunity as parents, as teachers, as political leaders, corporate leaders, as conductors, it gives us a huge sense of purpose and value, and it generates love, and that's what I think.

What do we leave behind?

BZ: You know the thing about that which is very interesting: what do we leave behind? And that's really interesting. When my father died, I was walking down the corridor of the New England Conservatory, where I was teaching. And I saw one of my students. I said, "Katie, my father died today." And she started crying. I said, "Katie, you didn't know my father." She said, "Yes, I did. I knew him through you." It's just so perfect that he lives on because of me.

PC: Through you.

BZ: Through me. In my students. That's eternity. That means something to me and you could see, I mean, the memory of it just moved me so much because he doesn't need to be living in this ridiculous heaven, he's living in the people who he engaged with. That's something to live for. To live in such a way that your children and grandchildren carry that on. I don't know if that gives it meaning, but it certainly gives it value.

PC: Yeah, and it's not just children and grandchildren. It's students, it's anyone you potentially could interact with.

BZ: Absolutely. And in my case the privilege has been, that it has been thousands, and thousands, and thousands of people who I've been privileged to work with, and conduct, and train, and teach, and that it's a great sense of satisfaction. And that is what I think causes me to heal more quickly after an injury, because I want to get back to work. Back in there, to the shining eyes. 

[Benjamin Zander plays the piano][

You see it coming down here and coming down. Down and down and down, and finally, when he gets to the end- And it reaches the end. Before I play it, I say to the audience, after I've explained it, I say, "Think of somebody you love who's no longer there." So that when they finally come. 

[Benjamin Zander plays the piano][

BZ: Yes, that's the end of the journey. One page (of sheet music).

PC: That's loss and grief.

BZ: Yeah, everything is there.

PC: Tragedy.

BZ: Despair. Protest. So beautiful.

Define your brand

PC: The final question is, whether you like him or not, Jeff Bezos said that, "A brand is what people say about you when you're not in the room."

BZ: Oh, is that right?

PC: He said that. And so my final question to you is: what do you want people to say about you when you're not in the room?

BZ: Yeah. Well, certainly: he cared. He cares, I mean. I don't know whether it's in retrospect on my gravestone. I didn't realize that's the definition of a brand. That's very interesting.

PC: It's one definition.

BZ: Yeah, I didn't realize that. I think of love, that's very important. In fact, that would be enough if they thought of that. Of course, energy and not giving up, believing that things can be done, things that others seem to feel are impossible, or too much effort. I don't easily give up on ideas and things that I want to do. 

BZ: So, I don't have a good answer, I don't have a short answer, partly because I've never thought about it before. You know, when I think of Roz, who, as you can tell, I truly admire. And this is the woman I used to be married to. And now she calls me her "wasband".

PC: It's clever.

BZ: Yeah, it's clever because it means that I'll never be far away. She has a kind of discipline of almost never going off. No, I think I would say never going off track. I would love to be better at that, I'd love to be more reliable, more consistently dependable as a model, as a vehicle for possibility. But I never give up trying.

PC: Sounds great. I want to thank you, Maestro. It's been a pleasure.

BZ: Pleasure. It really was a pleasure. All of you, thank you.


PC: My takeaways from the conversation with the Maestro: find something you really care about and give it your all. Second thing that comes to mind, possibility thinking. Not just for yourself or your company, but for everyone around you: what's possible for them. And then the third thing is difference. Difference is more important than different. 

PC: So, focus on making a difference and everything else will take care of itself. Thanks for watching this episode of Meaningful and don't forget, let's make every interaction count.

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