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  • Writer's pictureMike Cobb

Doing the Work with an A: Lessons from Belisarius and "The Art of Possibility"

Recently I was incredibly blessed to spend time with incredible thought leaders at the annual Sand Flea Event this year hosted by Tom Thorpe in Denver, Colorado. Tom Thorpe, an incredible visionary who leads the authentic learning happening at the R.E.D.I. Lab with Colorado Academy shared a book that has served as a great extension of the Sand Box conversations and some previous stirrings. This inspiring book, "The Art of Possibility" by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander, has offered profound wisdom and has helped me make deeper connections with my previous reflections from the blog "Doing the Work is Enough."


Before diving into the connection between these two narratives, let me remind you of the tale of Belisarius, a once-forgotten military genius of history. Belisarius, Rome's celebrated commander during the Byzantine era, achieved unparalleled triumphs and safeguarded the empire from ruin on multiple occasions. Despite his significant contributions, Belisarius was met with suspicion, ill-treatment, and ultimately stripped of his wealth and dignity by a paranoid emperor. The profound lesson from Belisarius' story lies in his unwavering dedication to his duty and personal ethics, despite the lack of recognition or rewards. He understood that while he could control his actions and efforts, he couldn't dictate how others would receive or appreciate them.


Now, let's delve into the principles from "The Art of Possibility," with a focus on the chapter on “Giving an A”. The concept revolves around the idea that in life, we tend to judge others and ourselves based on preconceived notions or expectations. The authors encourage us to adopt a transformative perspective where we see everyone as possessing an "A" within them, representing the untapped potential for greatness. This is a philosophy I employed as a classroom teacher going way back though without much depth of understanding. Even though I was not much older than the students in my class during my early career, I always tried to foster a classroom environment where students felt seen, valued, and empowered. Partly because of my past experiences in school, I sought to instill an understanding of the untapped potential for greatness within all of us. I attempted to move beyond conventional teaching methods and offer inspiration and empowerment. I firmly believe that every student possesses inherent brilliance, waiting to be unleashed with the right guidance and encouragement.


Combining the essence of Belisarius' story with the philosophy of "Giving an A" presents a powerful and transformative perspective on our work and life's endeavors. Like Belisarius, we should do our best and strive for excellence, not for the sole purpose of seeking validation or recognition, but as an expression of our inner potential.


1. Accepting the Lack of Control: Belisarius understood that, beyond his actions, the outcomes of his efforts were beyond his control. Similarly, when we work on projects or pursue goals, we must recognize that external validation, rewards, or recognition are not guaranteed. Instead of being attached to outcomes, we should focus on doing our best work and trust that it will make a positive impact. Therefore, adopting the mindset of accepting the lack of control is crucial for maintaining a healthy and productive approach to our pursuits. Instead of fixating on the end results, we should shift our focus to the process itself and the quality of our work. By doing our best and staying committed to excellence, we can take pride in the journey rather than being solely driven by the destination. Trusting in the positive impact of our efforts is another essential aspect of this principle. When we invest ourselves fully in our work and genuinely strive to make a difference, we increase the likelihood of creating something meaningful and valuable. While external recognition and rewards can be satisfying, placing too much importance on them can lead to disappointment and frustration if they don't materialize as expected. By embracing the lack of control and emphasizing intrinsic motivation over external validation, we liberate ourselves from the burden of constant pressure and anxiety. This mindset fosters resilience and creativity, allowing us to adapt and find new opportunities even in challenging situations. Moreover, by focusing on doing our best work, we can continuously improve and grow, which, in itself, is a reward.


2. Defining Success on Your Terms: "The Art of Possibility" urges us to redefine success based on our intrinsic values and personal growth. Much like John Wooden's advice to his players, true success comes from finding peace of mind in knowing that we have done our best to become the best version of ourselves. When we redefine success based on our intrinsic values, we open ourselves up to a broader spectrum of possibilities. Instead of limiting success to a specific outcome or circumstance, we find value in the learning experiences, challenges, and personal growth that occur along the way. This perspective allows us to view setbacks as opportunities for learning and growth rather than as failures. Moreover, measuring success on our own terms frees us from the constant comparison to others. Every person's journey is unique, and comparing ourselves to others often leads to feelings of inadequacy or discontent. Embracing our individual paths and progress enables us to appreciate the accomplishments of others without feeling threatened or diminished by their success.


3. Disconnecting from External Validation: The story of Belisaurius and the “Art of Possibility” emphasize the danger of seeking external validation to determine the worth of our work. When we become too reliant on others' praise or approval, we set ourselves up for disappointment. Instead, by cultivating focused humility, we learn to value our work for its own sake, independent of external judgments. In “Art of Possibility” they discuss the work of acknowledging our skills and achievements without arrogance, and also recognizing that we have room for improvement. By nurturing focused humility, we develop a balanced perspective on our work, embracing both our strengths and weaknesses. This mindset allows us to celebrate our successes while remaining open to constructive criticism and growth. In detaching from external validation, we begin to understand that true worth comes from within. Our work possesses intrinsic value because it reflects our efforts, passion, and dedication. When we create or pursue something with authenticity and commitment, it becomes an expression of our unique identity. By learning to appreciate our work for its own sake, we liberate ourselves from the constant need for validation, finding freedom in the autonomy of self-assurance.


As I reflect on the story of Belisarius and the profound wisdom of "The Art of Possibility," I am reminded of the importance of doing our best work and embracing the "Giving an A" philosophy. It is through detaching from external validation that we will find fulfillment and strength in our journey, no matter the obstacles or unmet expectations we encounter.


So, let us walk forward with Belisarius' resilience and the transformative power of "The Art of Possibility." Let us revel in the joy of doing the work, for in that very act, we find our truest selves. Remember, doing the work is enough, and it is within our grasp to create infinite possibilities.


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