Secret to Life Revealed—by Orchestra Conductor at FPA NorCal

Benjamin Zander of the Boston Philharmonic inspires financial planners with unconventional arguments, humor

Who knew the secret to life would be revealed during an afternoon keynote at a conference for financial planners in San Francisco on Tuesday?

Benjamin Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic, delivered a humorous, inspiring and at times madcap presentation titled “The Art of Possibility” at the FPA 2013 NorCal Conference. The session employed a love and appreciation for classical music as a metaphor for the joy of life itself.

“I love financial planners, and the reason is I have a terrible one,” he said to laughter. “So I’m hunting for a new one.”

He claimed the greatest compliment he was ever given was from his father, late in the latter’s life.

“He was 94 years old, in a wheelchair and blind,” Zander related. “I brought him to a class I was teaching and afterward he said, ‘Now I understand, you’re a member of the healing profession.’ You too, are concerned with the happiness, well-being and comfort of your clients, just like doctors with their patients. So I come to you today as a fellow member of the healing profession.”

Calling the role of the orchestra conductor “the last bastion of organized totalitarianism in the civilized world,” he went on to note that a survey in Harvard Business Review found orchestra members ranked just below prison guards in terms of their career satisfaction.

“I was rehearsing for a concert at Carnegie Hall and a woman walked up to me. She thanked me for reminding her of why she went into music in the first place, something she hadn’t remembered for 25 years. She wasn’t mad at me, she was mad at the lost decades of her life. It is my job to remind people of why they originally went into their chosen profession.”

Employing musical interludes throughout to illustrate his points, Zander noted that the world has tamed the work of Beethoven and in particular his famous fifth.

“He meant it to be played hard, and to be an attack,” he added. “It was an attack on complacency, the status quo and hierarchy.”

He then turned to a discussion of leadership, noting “the old leaders were male and top-down, and it worked pretty well for 75,000 years. But that will no longer work for what we are up against. I predict the next 30 years will be some of the greatest in human history.”

He explained that nothing is learned unless the student has a stake in the outcome, and he said new leaders will “be masterful at gaining and holding distinctions. The will be able to gradually reduce impulses and allow people to see possibilities.”

With any challenge, there are three possibilities, he claimed: Resignation and an attitude of “that’s just the way the world is;” anger, and possibility.

“I did not fly all the way Boston to San Francisco on my way to London to talk to you about resignation and anger.”

He described the “nine dot game,” where nine dots are drawn on a piece of paper and the challenge is to connect the dots without lifting the pen or doubling back over previously drawn lines.

“The only way to do it is to go outside the implied box, which is where the term ‘outside the box’ originates. It isn’t even a box; people just see it that way because we have to frame our challenges; it’s really just nine dots on a page. But that’s the point. We make assumptions that aren’t there that impede our progress.”

He noted that Michelangelo once said that every piece of marble has a beautiful statue inside; you just need a hammer and chisel to clear away what’s not needed.

“This is not meant to be motivational, it’s meant to be transformational. Once you have a transformational experience, it cannot be unlearned or forgotten, like when you first learned to ride a bike.”

As for the secret to a happy life?

Zander concluded by noting 1). It’s all invented. If you don’t like your life, invent a new one; 2). Don’t take yourself too seriously, and 3). Avoid negativity to stand with possibility.

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