Give Me an A

"Comparison is the thief of joy." Theodore Roosevelt


I recently learned of Benjamin Zander, the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra. Ben Zander was wanting to get more out of his orchestral students musically. He wanted them to take risks and experiment as players. The problem was that many students were living in the grip of fear, stressed out and struggling with anxiety as they navigated the competitive world of music performance.

In response, he decided to do something unexpected. He decided to experiment. He gave every student an A for the course. There was one requirement. In order to earn the grade, students had to write him a letter saying, “Dear Mr. Zander, I got an A because…”. In the letter they were to place themselves in the future and look back on what they had acquired and accomplished. In the letter they were to tell, in as much detail as possible, what will have happened to them by the end of the class that made them deserving of an A. He stressed, “I am especially interested in the person you will have become.”

There is something about human nature that prompts us to compare. We compare our abilities, accomplishments, values, choices, habits, lifestyles and more. We now have a new category of comparison — life before and after Covid.

There can be positive effects of comparing. Organizational behavior expert, Thomas Mussweiler, explains, “It’s one of the most basic ways we develop an understanding of who we are, what we’re good at, and what we’re not so good at.”

However, comparing can also be unfair, misguided and lead us down an unhealthy path. We are really only able to understand our own situation. We can easily overlook another’s talent or miss the years of hard work, suffering, or angels unaware at work in another’s life and situation. Comparing can distract us, clouding the truth of what we do have and what we can do.

Comparing can distract us, clouding the truth of what we do have and what we can do.

In The Message, Eugene H. Peterson writes, “Make a careful exploration of who you are and the work you have been given, and then sink yourself into that. Don’t be impressed with yourself. Don’t compare yourself to others. Each of you must take responsibility for doing the creative best you can with our own life.” (Gal 6:4-5)

After some time passed with his class full of A students, Mr. Zander received a letter from a student from Taiwan saying,

“I was Number 68 out of 70 student. I come to Boston and Mr. Zander says I am an A. Very confusing. I walk about, three weeks, very confused. I am Number 68, but Mr. Zander says I am an A student … I am Number 68, but Mr. Zander says I am an A. One day I discover much happier A than Number 68, So I decide I am an A.” *

There is a power in naming. We can name ourselves Number 68 out of 70 or an A. Ben Zander says, “The A is an invention that creates possibility… It is a framework that allows you to see all of who you are and be all of who you are, without having to resist or deny any part of yourself.”

What if we looked ahead to see all we could acquire and accomplish this year? What if we gave ourselves an A? What if we gave those around us an A? How would it make things different?

* From The Art of Possibility by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander