Charlie Houston made history scaling some of the world’s most towering mountains, became one of the world’s foremost authorities on high altitude medicine, and helped developed a prototype for the artificial heart. As one of America’s pioneering mountaineers, a prominent physician and naval flight surgeon, Houston’s hunch about high-altitude flying would give America’s pilots an edge and help defeat the armies of Hitler and the warlords of Japan. Bill Moyers goes back to the mountains with Charlie Houston, whose quiet life of achievement has made the world a better place for countless strangers. Houston’s telling of an early, harrowing attempt to scale the world’s second highest mountain, K-2 in the Himalayas, illustrated with rare film footage, resonates as a poignant metaphor for his approach to life. “Whatever you can do or think, you can begin it, boldness has power and magic and genius in it,” he tells Moyers. “We were doing something that’s beyond our reach, and trying to do something bigger than ourselves.”
Benjamin Zander, world renowned conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, is a sought-after speaker to major organizations for his presentations on leadership and creativity. Zander uses his passion for music to talk to students, musicians, and business leaders around the world about the infinite possibilities in all of our lives. David Brancaccio speaks with Zander, along with his wife, psychotherapist Rosamund Stone Zander, are the authors of THE ART OF POSSIBILITY, which coaches readers on transforming their professional and person lives. You can access the original Web page for this program at the archived NOW with Bill Moyers website.
BRANCACCIO: Welcome to NOW. Little do we know of the many people in this country who have lived lives of achievement largely unrecognized. No cover stories in celebrity magazines. No bells, whistles, or parades. No interviews with Barbara, Diane, or Katie. But undeterred by the absence of adulation, they go about setting one new marker after another for themselves and for those of us who know them. Sometimes their accomplishments rearrange the world to make it a little more hospitable for countless strangers.
MOYERS: Take my friend Charlie Houston. Pass him on Ledge Street in Burlington, Vermont as he and his dog Pooh Bear take their daily walk and you’d never know this 91-year-old had scaled some of the world’s towering mountains, to become one of the world’s foremost authorities on high altitude medicine. You’d never guess what he did to help defeat the Japanese warlords and Hitler’s Luftwaffe or that he had been a fine teacher and pioneering physician who helped invent a forerunner of the Jarvik artificial heart. You wouldn’t know he’d led the first Peace Corps project in India, where I met him over 40 years ago, or that he never fails to fill the bird feeder at his home overlooking Lake Champlain.
Charlie’s almost blind now, although you’d never know that either. It’s not in his nature to complain or boast except of Dorcas, with whom he lived for 58 years, and their three children. For Charlie Houston, life has been one continuing exploration and it began a long time ago.
Charlie Houston is losing his sight, but he tells me his memories fill in where he can no longer see. And what memories they are. He was drawn again and again to forbidding and dangerous heights, where the world looks different, and life is never again the same. Lucky for us, he took along his camera and filmed it all.
What drew you to climbing?
HOUSTON: It’s a beautiful thing to do. You’re surrounded by beauty. No matter whether it’s a storm, or a sunny day, or clouds, or not, the mountains are simply beautiful. I just liked climbing. I like the feel of the rocks.
MOYERS: The feel of the rocks?
HOUSTON: Rock feels good, yes.
MOYERS: How? I mean, you’re talking to somebody who doesn’t climb.
HOUSTON: Well, rock climbing, you have a sense of the rock. Almost as though it were a living thing under your hands and you learn to explore… I’ve never been a great climber. I’m just a competent climber and I know my limits. But I love getting out and doing it.
MOYERS: And he’s been doing it since he was twelve years old. On a trip to the Alps with his adventuresome parents, he begged to climb a small peak.
HOUSTON: I was sick the whole time. I was scared to death. Came back and I said, “Oh, I’ve got to do this.”
MOYERS: You were scared, but—
HOUSTON: But that’s when I started climbing.
MOYERS: Although you were scared to death, you wanted to climb?
HOUSTON: Totally, yeah.
MOYERS: While an undergraduate at Harvard he was exploring the Alaska range, including, in 1934, the knife-edge ridges and steep steps of Mt. Foraker.
Why did you want to go higher and higher?
HOUSTON: Ooh, that’s a hard question. I suppose it wasn’t so much the matter of going higher and higher as it was going where nobody had gone before. So, my urge was not so much to get to the higher mountain, but to go where no people had been.
MOYERS: In 1936, after one year in Columbia Medical School, he and three friends mounted an expedition to Nanda Devi in northern India. At 26,660 feet, it was the highest summit ever climbed at the time. They invited four Brits to go along, including the veteran climber, Bill Tilman, a skeptical Brit who wasn’t sure Yankees were up to the task. Just getting to Nanda Devi’s base they had to travel on foot for 175 miles across daunting territory. Tilman was impressed.
TILMAN: The Americans and ourselves do not always see eye to eye, but on those rare occasions when we come together to do a job of work, we seem to pull together very well.
MOYERS: And it was the Brits who almost turned back.
HOUSTON: We had a tragedy which almost ended the expedition. The entire supply of tea fell off the cliff and disappeared into the snow. We spent several days looking for it. The Brits said they were going home, they said you couldn’t have an expedition with out tea. We persuaded them to try our drinks, Horlick’s malted milk and so forth and they stayed, maybe because the sun came out again and we could see these wonderful mountains which rim the sanctuary around Nanda Devi.
MOYERS: You didn’t make it to the summit. What happened?
HOUSTON: Well, we went up and we came probably within 300 feet. Got late in the day. It was rather difficult climbing.
We knew we could do it the next day, easily. We went back to our tent. Opened up a tin of corned beef hash to celebrate. I gave the top of the tin to Odell. I took the bottom. It was a punctured tin. The food was poisoned. And about two hours or an hour later, I was so sick I hoped I would die.
I crawled out of the tent, apologizing to Odell every half hour, standing on those tiny platforms vomiting, having diarrhea. Just thinking, “This is the absolute end. It couldn’t be any worse.”
No. I was glad to get off the mountain.
MOYERS: You call that a holiday!
HOUSTON: It was a holiday. Absolute holiday. You have to have a sense of humor. Almost the most important thing is sense of humor. You have to be able to laugh. Especially at yourself. And I always when I found somebody who couldn’t laugh at himself, didn’t have a sense of humor, didn’t take them. I think that’s very important.
We did not look for stars. We never took superstars.
Superstars are temperamental. They want to be the winner. And we wanted a team.
MOYERS: Just two years later in 1938, Charlie would put together a team for one of the biggest challenges in mountaineering. He and his friend Bob Bates were asked by the American Alpine Club to see if they could find a way up the world’s second highest mountain, K2 — the “great mountain,” as the Chinese called it — five miles high, and more perilous to climb than Mt. Everest. Again, just getting to the jumping off place required endless grit and gumption this time during a trek of 350 miles.
HOUSTON: We came to the first rope bridges, so called rope bridges, a euphemism for twisted vines and twigs and branches.
MOYERS: Below those rope bridges, slippery rocks. Icy waters. I mean, what would have happened if the bridge had—
HOUSTON: You’re dead. You’re dead. It’s ice water. Fast water. You’re gone. Rope bridges make Christians out of mountaineers.
MOYERS: And then, the payoff — their first view of the summit.
HOUSTON: It was awesome. I think all of us thought, “Ooh, we’ve got to go up that mountain?” And yes, yes we did. It was spectacular.
It’s perfectly symmetrical. Beautiful pyramid of white and black. Big glaciers. It’s just immense and it stands alone.
MOYERS: What made K2 so challenging to the climber?
HOUSTON: It had never been explored.
MOYERS: So you didn’t know a way up. You had to find a way up.
HOUSTON: We had to find the way. We were sent out to find a way by which a stronger party could go out the next year and climb it. We looked at three different ways up. We went as far as we could go on two different routes and finally decided on the third route which looked the least good, but actually turned out to be the standard route. It’s now the common route.
MOYERS: They set new records, going higher on K2 than anyone before them and finding a ridge from which an assault on the summit seemed feasible.
HOUSTON: And we kept climbing, and climbing, and climbing. We got higher and higher. When we got up to a little over 25,000 feet, we were in good shape, well-acclimatized. But, believe it or not, we ran out of matches.
HOUSTON: Can’t believe it. We ran out of matches. And without matches, you can’t make a stove. And without a stove, you can’t make water. And without water, you don’t live very long. And in those days, you didn’t push the envelope the way they do now. The weather was turning bad. We had a ring around the sun. And the storm was coming. So, having found the way up, and getting within a few thousand feet of the summit, we said, “Mission successful.” And turned around and went home.
And we celebrated with the Hudson Bay Demerara rum and as we started back on the 350 mile walk to Kashmir, we looked at those glorious mountains and I think most of us knew in our hearts that we would be coming back there again.
MOYERS: Reaching those heights as both a climber and doctor, Charlie learned a lot about how the body reacts to thin air. It couldn’t have been more timely, because America soon found itself at war. In 1941 he volunteered for the Navy and became a flight surgeon. Aircraft cabins weren’t pressurized in those days, but Charlie had a hunch that with special training pilots, could be acclimatized to fly higher than was thought possible. His landmark Operation Everest research climaxed the training of over 50,000 pilots and air crew in high altitude flying.
MOYERS: So this enabled American planners to send our bombers higher than the enemy might reach them. Knowing that the pilots could survive that height.
ANNOUNCER: The attack was made at a height of something of 20,000 or 30,000 feet. And the clear weather allowed the camera to get conclusive evidence at the time of the plastering of the target.
HOUSTON: We proved that acclimatization would add 5,000 feet to the altitude ceiling of a pilot breathing oxygen. That was a great project. Great project.
MOYERS: When the war was over, Charlie returned to his private practice but his mind was still on the mountains. In 1950 he and his father, Oscar, whose passion was hiking, became the first westerners to sight the south face of Mt. Everest, the world’s tallest mountain. Charlie returned with the first 16mm films of the region. But K2 still commanded his imagination, and in 1953 Charlie and Bob Bates returned to K2 with a new team. This time they brought plenty of matches, but their gear was simple by today’s standards, and there were no oxygen tanks. They did have Charlie’s camera and a tape recorder and one member of the team who brought his artist’s palette. Little did they know at the time, but they would be recording one of the most gripping sagas in the annals of mountaineering, a story of survival on what became the savage mountain.
MOYERS: I looked at the footage you took of that 1953 expedition. The avalanches that kept thundering down around you. The knife edge of ice and snow along which you made your way. The bits of stone that came tumbling down. The ice blowing down the mountain all the time. The wind lifting the fragile little tents you have. I mean, I cannot imagine what goes through a man’s mind under those elements. And against those circumstances.
HOUSTON: I can’t say it’s fun. We struggled. It’s cold. And you’re uncomfortable. And, you’re always hungry and you’re always thirsty. And there are all kinds of problems. But there is that overwhelming sense of being engaged in a great adventure with some good people.
MOYERS: No obstacle was more forbidding than House’s Chimney.
HOUSTON: House’s Chimney is a barrel crack about two feet wide at the top. And about eight, ten feet wide at the bottom. It goes up this black wall. And it tapers up like that. And you have to get into that chimney. And first, you put your back on one side, and your feet on the other where it’s wide.
And then you push up and get to where it’s more narrow. Then you can do it with your arms and then, finally, you just climb on the rocks. It’s a very difficult piece of work at 22,000 feet. I’d always been afraid of that chimney, because it’s a dangerous place. Several very distinguished climbers has said it’s the hardest climbing at altitude in the Himalayas.
MOYERS: You were making good progress, though, until you came to what you called a black pyramid.
Black pyramid is a pyramidal shaped area, where the stone and ice have largely peeled away, and it’s just rock. Very smoothly-polished rock. And it’s very steep, and it’s very difficult to find holes and it’s a very dangerous place.
MOYERS: You were within striking distance of the summit.
HOUSTON: We were getting close.
MOYERS: And you were getting ready—
MOYERS: To make that last assault. This would have been the triumph—
MOYERS: —that you had been hoping for all this time.
MOYERS: For seven days a blizzard pinned them down at Camp VIII below the summit. They couldn’t leave their tents, couldn’t sleep, had little to eat or drink. Immobilized, they were dehydrated and weak. Then—
HOUSTON: Art Gilkey got out of his tent, in a lull in the storm and fainted. And I examined him and he had blood clots in his leg. And he couldn’t walk. And we were now— we’d come over this horrendous climb up the black pyramid, House’s Chimney. How were we gonna get him down?
MOYERS: Art Gilkey was 27, from Iowa, a geologist, one of the country’s most promising scholars. Everyone knew that if they didn’t get him down, Art would die. Bob Bates later wrote that all of them knew that they were beginning the most dangerous day’s work of their lifetime.
HOUSTON: I thought our chances were one in ten of surviving. But there was no choice.
I mean, looking back on it, we’ve been very roundly criticized, by risking the lives of five people to save one. But we, as far as we were concerned, there was no choice. We were gonna try to get him down or else. We were gonna do it.
MOYERS: It was a nightmare descent. Inch by inch they crept down. Until—disaster.
STREATHER: Well, George had been frozen fairly badly, I remember looking up and seeing him climb across, but I remember seeing him appear to take a hand hold and then begin to slip—
HOUSTON: One of the party slipped and fell, and pulled each of us off in turn. Pete Schoening is up here. Art is hanging by a rope from underneath Pete.
And we’re down here, and we fall in such a way that the ropes got tangled. So here’s Pete up there, holding all six of us on a rope. Nylon rope. Which he said stretched and then stopped.
MOYERS: They were all injured. Charlie was knocked unconscious, with a concussion. Somehow miraculously, as they would remember it, they managed to regroup. But bundled in his sleeping bag, and anchored by two ice axes, Art Gilkey was separated from the group. They had to bring him over.
HOUSTON: Three people went back to try to bring Art across this ice slope to us. And he was gone. There was no trace. And at the time, we assumed— we believed that an avalanche had taken him. And we hadn’t heard it, we hadn’t seen it. We were only 150 feet away. But we hadn’t heard it or seen it.
But we believe that an avalanche had taken him away. But whatever it was, we were then free. And as I look back on it, and I haven’t said this before, as I look back on it, I think it’s more than likely that Art Gilkey, knowing that we were hurt, knowing that we would never leave him, and knowing that we probably couldn’t get him down, I believe that he wiggled himself loose, and gave up his life to save ours.
MOYERS: Traumatized, hurt, and beginning to experience frostbite, the survivors still had to get down.
CRAIG: Then began, I think, one of the most desperate parts of the trip because we were by no means out of danger and the mountain fought us all the way down to Camp 2.
MOYERS: It would be 5 days before they reached base camp.
HOUSTON: And what got us down that mountain was that we were a team bonded together.
MOYERS: In your film, you use an expression I’ve never heard before. You talk about the “fellowship of the rope.” What is that?
HOUSTON: Herman Melville, in MOBY DICK, speaks about the monkey rope. It’s a fascinating story. On a whaling ship, there’s a bow man, who rows bow in a whaling, in the whale boat, that goes and kills a whale. And there’s the man who shoots, the harpooner. The harpooner, once a whale is tied up, the harpooner climbs down from the ship, stands on the dying whale, in this rolling, rocking ocean, with the sharks gathering around.
And he has a big leather belt around his waist, and it’s attached to a rope. And that rope goes up to the ship, to the bow man who is standing on the deck of the ship with another belt. And the rope attached to that. Tradition says that if the harpooner falls into the ocean that the bow man goes with him and they both die, by sharks or drowning.
Tradition says that when you’re bound with the monkey rope to the harpooner, they both go.
MOYERS: You certainly experienced that on that mountain.
HOUSTON: Yes. You knew that your life was in the hands of somebody else, and his was in your hands. And it made you climb perhaps more carefully. You didn’t push the envelope quite so hard.
But it also gave you a feeling of— I don’t think people spoke about this. Maybe even didn’t think about it. But we did realize that there was an emotional or a psychological bond between us. That was at least as important as the physical bond. And that’s why climbing with rope is— To some extent, it’s more dangerous, because if one man pulls, slips and pulls you off, you’re both gone. But on the other hand, as happened in our case, the fact that we were roped together saved all our lives.
HOUSTON: This is base camp. It’s August 16th, and our badly battered expedition is down here again, and we’re going to talk over the events of the last three weeks.
MOYERS: At base camp they treated their injuries, held a service in memory of Art, and started the long trip home across those 350 miles of rugged terrain.
HOUSTON: I just sat down and thought, “I don’t want to do that again. I’ve got a wife and three kids I love. I’ve got my practice of medicine, which I love. I’m done with that.” Off with it.
MOYERS: Just like that?
HOUSTON: I went cold turkey, gave it up. And I just came to the point where I really didn’t want to take that risk again. Turned to other things.
MOYERS: He would take all he had learned on those mountains and put it to the service of medicine, founding a new clinic in the Rockies, teaching community medicine at the University of Vermont, writing scores of articles and books, including the BIBLE OF HIGH ALTITUDE MEDICINE. Each week, at his home in Burlington, he spends some time mentoring young people.
MOYERS: What do they want to know about?
HOUSTON: I usually set them up with something. One of my favorite things is to ask them whether they’d be willing to risk their life to save somebody else’s? And I quote the Air Florida crash, when the plane crashed into the bridge.
MOYERS: In the Potomac River some years ago?
HOUSTON: Yes. And the young man dived into the river and saved the stewardess and then disappeared. And I say to Josh, would you do that? And he said, yea, I guess so. I can swim. And I say to Aida, would you do that? And she said, yes, I can swim. And then I say well, what would happen Aida if you had a baby at home? Would you still do it? No. Josh, would you do it if you had a baby at home?
No, I don’t think so. So I say, well, why are we talking about this? And the reason is that this kind of question could come up almost any time in your everyday life.
So, I want them to have the feeling that we’re tied to other people, how much we are tied to other people.
MOYERS: The fellowship of the rope.
HOUSTON: Yes, something like that.
MOYERS: For five years now, ever since the death of Dorcas, his wife of 58 years, Charlie has lived alone, here on Ledge Road in Burlington, with Pooh Bear.
MOYERS: How do you deal with being lonely?
HOUSTON: I’m not lonely. I have a lot of friends. I have people that read to me.
MOYERS: What are you reading right now?
HOUSTON: Right now we’re finishing up TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. We’ve read three books about the American Revolution. Three biographies. Two novels about the Revolution. Two novels about the Civil War. Two biographies about the Civil War. And the four-volume set called the Raj Quartet. THE JEWEL IN THE CROWN, about India.
MOYERS: I never will forget, some years ago you called me and said you’d just finished reading something you thought I ought to read. And I said, “Well, send it to me.” So a week or so later, this package arrived at home. And I open it up, and there are the three volumes of Gibbon’s RISE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE.
HOUSTON: Well, I read that when I could read.
HOUSTON: That was— yes, I read it all. And it’s worth reading. But—
MOYERS: Why was Gibbon worth reading at that particular time? Three volumes on the decline of the Roman Empire.
HOUSTON: Well, because it gives you a perspective on the past that you don’t get unless you read a lot. And the first 100 pages of Gibbon, I have to admit, were hard going. But the more I read, the better I got used to it. Because it shows over and over again, civilizations rise, grow, peak, flourish, and then crash. And it happens over and over and over again. And there are lessons in that that we should be learning now. All living things rise and decay.
MOYERS: Let’s go back to the mountain. I mean, I know it’s not the only thing you did with your life, but it’s—
HOUSTON: The best.
MOYERS: The best?
MOYERS: Why was it the best?
HOUSTON: This was a great adventure for all of us. We all went there, not that we were gonna get rich or fat or famous or anything like that. We went there because this was an exciting challenge.
This was reaching beyond your grasp. This is basically— it’s the— even pygmies standing on the shoulders of giants can reach, can see further than the giants can. And it’s part of the— whatever you can do or think you can begin it, boldness has power and magic and genius in it.
So, we were doing something beyond our reach, and trying to do something bigger than ourselves.
MOYERS: You write in the forward to your book, “No one on the mountain tried to answer the question then why? Why climb mountains? The answer cannot be simple. It is compounded of such elements as the great beauty of clear, cold air, of colors beyond the ordinary, of the lure of unknown regions beyond the rim of experience.
“The pleasure of physical fitness, the pride of conquering a steep and difficult rock, the thrill of danger, danger controlled by skill are also there. How can I phrase what seems to me the most important reason of all. It is the chance to be briefly free of the small concerns of our common lives, to strip off non-essentials, to come down to the core of life itself: food, shelter, friends. These are the essentials. These plus faith and purpose and a deep and unrelenting determination.
“On great mountains, all purpose is concentrated on the single job at hand. Yet the summit is but a token of success. And the attempt is worthy in itself. It is for these reasons that we climb. And in climbing, find something greater than accomplishment.”
HOUSTON: Hey, that’s pretty good. Who wrote that? Did I write that, really?
MOYERS: Yes, he really did. But that’s not all. Some forty years ago in Nepal, when I was a young Peace Corps official out on a visit from Washington, I became suddenly and desperately ill, and I knew I was about to die. I had flown from Katmandu to New Delhi on an old DC-3 loaded with goats and boxes, and there Charlie took me in, figured out what was wrong and nursed me back to health.
But no good deed goes unpunished, and ever since he’s had to suffer my life-long gratitude and friendship.
BRANCACCIO: Of course, as you know, the noise of modern media doesn’t usually quiet down enough to hear the voices of people like Charlie Houston. I’ll be back in a moment with another of those voices, a world famous conductor who uses music to talk about the art of possibility.
Benjamin Zander will join us shortly. But first, if this public television station is going to continue to bring these voices to you, we need your support.
Here’s your chance to vote for the programs you can’t find anywhere else.
BRANCACCIO: For those of you staying with us, we turn now to the environment.
Over the past 4 years, the Bush administration has used legislation, the courts, executive orders and administrative rule changes to unravel many environmental protections that have been in place for decades.
Now there is a new target: California’s Sierra Nevada mountains. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has just approved a threefold increase in the amount of lumber that timber companies can harvest there, as compared to 2001 levels.
The aim, according to the administration, is to reduce the risk of wildfires. Critics call it a giveaway to the timber industry.
California Attorney General Bill Lockyer plans to file suit, saying the Bush administration’s quote, “continued willingness to sacrifice California’s natural resources has forced my office over the last four years to divert countless taxpayer dollars from fighting polluters to fighting the federal government.”
As we first told you last summer, the White House push to open up unspoiled lands bucks the bipartisan direction set by the last 7 presidents to preserve our natural heritage.
LYNDON JOHNSON: This reflects a new and a strong national consensus to look ahead, and more than that, to plan ahead.
BRANCACCIO: Forty years ago, President Lyndon Johnson put his signature to the Wilderness Act. Congress had passed it with a huge majority, and then in a bipartisan affair at the White House, a few strokes of the presidential pen made it official.
Nine million acres in the U.S. got the designation “wilderness” — land to remain untrammelled by humans forever. We could visit, but we couldn’t mess.
Here’s a piece: California’s John Muir Wilderness. In the heart of the Sierra Nevada, the peaks rise up to 14,000 feet. Montana’s Cabinet Mountains, some of these grand trees are 500 years old.
Every President since Johnson has added to America’s wilderness. Jimmy Carter brought the most land under protection, 66 million acres.
Ronald Reagan added the most areas, 267 pieces of wilderness in all. Today 106 million acres of land are designated wilderness and across the country there are efforts underway to add more.
But change is in the wind. The Bush administration has re-written the rules affecting how land becomes part of the federal wilderness.
Now, state and local interests have a bigger say in the fate of those lands, making it easier to cut, build on, or drill them before the protective wilderness label is applied.
Visit any of these targeted places and you see the stakes. Utah’s Fisher Towers and Red Rock Canyons, stark and alien and ancient. Six million acres of unspoiled land here were candidates for inclusion in the national wilderness; now they are open for oil and gas drilling.
New Hampshire’s White Mountains, the first national forest in the northeast, have also been opened, no longer protected by rules against new roads.
So savor the serenity of Wyoming’s Red Desert, one of the few high-deserts in North America. 50,000 acres of proposed wilderness here may become a gas well field. And 500 gas wells are also proposed for the eastern side of New Mexico’s Carson National Forest, a place the early Spanish pioneers called Valle Vidal, “the valley of life.”
The changes in policy mean that across the country, the destiny of tens of millions of acres of public lands are at stake.
So soak this in. What you’re looking at isn’t as immutable as it looks. Once trees are cut, roads built or the wells drilled, lands like these can no longer be added to the national wilderness.
From forever wild to never wild, reversing the trend of 40 years.
BRANCACCIO: Bill Moyers and Charlie Houston were just talking about the fellowship of the rope. The next person we are having through here uses a metaphor from the world of the classical orchestra. He calls it “leading from every chair,” meaning it’s not just the first chair violinist or oboe player who pulls the enterprise forward. Benjamin Zander is here to talk about the music of possibility. We could use a conversation about possibility given all the negative energy left around after the bruising political campaign that defined this year. It’s a cynicism I’ve detected in people regardless of whether their guy won or lost on Election Day.
Zander has a career talking about the art of possibility to students, musicians, and business leaders around the world. He’s written a book called THE ART OF POSSIBILITY with his wife, psychotherapist Rosamund Stone Zander. But he also has a day job, one that keeps him busy a lot of evenings, too.
Benjamin Zander is the world famous conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra. His recordings of Mahler and Beethoven symphonies include a bonus CD explaining the music to lay listeners — and are credited with expanding and deepening appreciation for classical music worldwide. I spoke with Zander during a visit to New York this week.
I was reading this book recently and I thought of you. The book is called EXUBERANCE. And the theory is that exuberant personalities, those are the people who drive mankind, humankind forward. That we would not have gotten to the moon, we wouldn’t have spent so much in the life of imagination if it weren’t for exuberant people. I don’t want to embarrass you, but are you one, do you suppose?
ZANDER: Of course I am. And teachers have to be exuberant because, first of all, they have a very privileged role to bring people out. But the other thing is, I think more than exuberance, it’s passion that drives people who make a difference. And it can be quiet passion, certainly, people like Gandhi and Mandela are not loud people. But they’re people that are driven by great passion.
And it’s the passion to make a difference. They have a vision. They see something that can be done. They believe that people can be transformed. And that belief drives them forward. And it sometimes comes out in the form of enormously outgoing personalities, energy, passion.
BRANCACCIO: Exuberance also has this infectious quality, that it has to somehow bring other people along.
BRANCACCIO: My understanding is you’ve seen that happen around you?
ZANDER: Right. Yes. I had an enormously important breakthrough in my own life at the moment I realized that the conductor of an orchestra doesn’t make a sound. My picture may appear on the front of the CD with all kinds of gestures and so on, but the conductor doesn’t actually make a sound. So he gets his power, which is considerable, from his ability to make other people powerful. So my job becomes to awaken possibility in other people.
Now if that’s the case, my role is to do so through my own energy, exuberance as you call it, joy, sense of possibility. And by putting it out in the world, other people catch that and discover their own. My interest is in their exuberance, their joy, their passion, their excitement, their capacity to make a difference in their lives.
So it’s a conduit, a job of a conduit. And the word conductor comes from the same source as conduit: to lead through example, through releasing of energy.
BRANCACCIO: What accounts for your interest in doing that? I mean, I could have introduced you solely as— not as a conductor but as a teacher. That almost describes everything you do in a more holistic way.
ZANDER: Well, you know, the word maestro, which is often used sarcastically by orchestra players to refer to their conductor, and is thought of as a term of reverence, in fact means teacher. That’s what maestro is.
BRANCACCIO: Well, in Italian, maestro.
ZANDER: Maestro. Every teacher is called maestro. So that’s a lovely idea. And I think of all leadership being essentially about teaching, whether you’re a teacher in a school or you’re a political leader or you’re a parent or you’re running a company or you’re conducting an orchestra. And incidentally, every interaction between two people is an opportunity for leadership. Now, I’m a symphony conductor. Symphony means the sounding of all the voices. Now that means that the job of the symphony conductor is to enable all the voices in the orchestra to be heard, right?
Now that’s a new image, a new metaphor for leadership.
BRANCACCIO: Well, what’s interesting is that your idea of leadership is really quite radical.
BRANCACCIO: You’re not just talking about the CEO or the president.
BRANCACCIO: You’re talking about… what’s your phrase?
ZANDER: Everybody leading from every chair.
BRANCACCIO: From every chair. Well, it’s empowering. But I’m very concerned about democracy, which empowers everybody. But you go to a city council meeting and if everybody’s leading from whatever chair they’re sitting in, you get this kind of pandemonium.
ZANDER: The person who will lead is the person who offers an opportunity and possibility that was not available to people before. If you speak in the language of possibility, you will enroll people around you. And if you get two or three people speaking in possibility, you’ve got a string quartet. I mean, then you’ve got a whole lot of people.
But it’s enough for one to speak in any community or in a family or in a school. And you’ll notice that the people all the leaders, the great leaders and the people we turn to and revere with awe, the Gandhis and the Martin Luther Kings. I mean, “I have a dream.” You know, it wouldn’t be a bad idea as a kind of discipline to begin every sentence we say with the words, “I have a dream,” silently and then speak.
Because if you spoke those words before you opened your mouth, you would automatically be in possibility.
BRANCACCIO: So how’s this work. Big corporations, McDonald’s, pharmaceutical companies, NASA, they bring you in to do what?
ZANDER: To transform the conversation in the company. And that can be from the biggest thing to the littlest thing.
BRANCACCIO: Are you trying to just persuade their employees that life is better than it really is?
ZANDER: No, I don’t think so. I think they’ve discovered something very profound. Which is in general people play better when they’re loved, when they are valued, when they’re admired, when what they say and do is received with joy.
BRANCACCIO: Among the many things that fascinates me about you is there’s a duality. Yes, you have this exuberant personality that looks for possibilities. But it’s not like you shy away from men and women’s darker side.
ZANDER: No, not at all.
BRANCACCIO: I was listening to you conducting Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. And, you know, I don’t have to tell you that thing is dark.
ZANDER: Very dark.
BRANCACCIO: What is it about you that allows you to embrace both those sides?
ZANDER: Well, this is very important. There’s a huge difference between possibility and positive thinking. Positive thinking actually is a downward spiral. Because in positive thinking you’re trying to pretend that everything’s positive. And you don’t want to look at what’s negative. That’s a downward spiral.
The beauty of possibility is it contains everything. All of life, death, sorrow, illness, everything that happens is contained in that. And then the question is now what? That’s the question. You experience some dark huge— my father, for instance, was interned in a camp in England after the Holocaust in Germany. And he lost his mother in Auschwitz and he lost all his belongings and family members and everything and came to England with four children. And now he goes to an internment camp where he sees a lot of very gloomy people looking at the barbed wire thinking they’ll never get out of there. What does he do? He looks around and says, “I see a lot of very intelligent people here. Let’s have a university.”
So he starts a university in the interment camp. No paper. No books. No pen. No blackboard, nothing. Just people talking. Forty classes they had. Forty classes. Now it’s not as if that Holocaust didn’t happen. It’s not as if the misery and the suffering and the loss and the anguish and the despair wasn’t there. The question is what do we do about it?
Now Gustav Mahler in the Sixth Symphony where he faced his own death and faced great tragedies in his own life. The eight brothers and sisters who died when he was young. The brutal father and the mother who was an invalid. And then the loss of his own daughter, four years old. I mean, one catastrophe after another. What does he do? He writes a great symphony. And the symphony brings us together. It brings human beings together to both experience the tragedy and, through art, to be transformed.
So we come into it in a state of openness. We experience the despair of the sorrow even the Sixth Symphony which is the darkest of them all. And we’re left like at the end of King Lear. However, we don’t come out in despair. We come out, maybe not exuberant, but certainly elevated. Elevated in a state of openness joined together to all other human beings in a common understanding of our place in society. And knowing that we can build something from there.
BRANCACCIO: Maestro, you know, forgive me but my clock radio goes off at 5:30 in the morning and the radio says there’s been another beheading, there’s been another bombing somewhere. It is a world that does lead one to despair. How do you move forward from that?
ZANDER: Well, there’s plenty of evidence for that sense and most people play into that. And of course the newspapers and the television and everybody plays into that, what I call the downward spiral. The feeling that it’s all going downhill, or even upward spiral. Because it’s always about winning and losing.
In the world of possibility things don’t work that way. A grand example would be what happened in South Africa. I mean, it’s certainly true that all of us, there isn’t probably anybody listening to this program who is old enough who didn’t think that that was gonna end up in a blood bath.
But because one man was sitting in jail for 27 years with a powerful vision, unwilling to be pushed off that path even by the invitation for freedom. You know that after 15 years, they opened the door and said to Mandela, “You may leave.” And he said, “What’s the condition?” And they said, “You have to give up your vision for South Africa.” He said, “Close the door.” For another 12 years.
Here was a man so convinced and so passionate about that vision that he caused the door to be closed rather than give up his vision. And out of that process which took 27 years, he not only shifted South Africa but he shifted the conscience of the world.
Now, you might say, “But that doesn’t happen every day. And where do we find Mandelas?” I say there are Mandelas in every single human being. And that is called the art of possibility.
BRANCACCIO: Well, help me apply the art of possibility to something very big. You had about half the population optimistic that their candidate would win in the recent election. And their optimism was in fact apt, and it paid off.
But the other half of the population was doing the same thing. They abandoned, in a sense, their cynicism for this brief moment going into the campaign. And they were terribly disappointed. And they don’t see much possibility around the bend.
ZANDER: Well, I think there’s a huge opportunity in this country which is being missed right now. There’s a very fascinating interpretation of the situation on the part of the President, who says, “I got a mandate. Namely I got more votes than the other person.” That’s not looking at the situation as a possibility, it’s looking at it in a win-lose situation. “I won the election,” or “I won the election and therefore I have the mandate to do whatever I want, or whatever the people on my side want.”
The possibility way of thinking is, “I have this incredible passion available, this incredible intellect, these deep thinking people who voted for another viewpoint. And I have all the people on the side of the party who won.” What an unbelievable combination. If we could put these two together and make them work together. I had a wonderful experience. I was in Davos at the World Economic Forum, where all the leaders of the world are gathered.
BRANCACCIO: The great captains of industry—
ZANDER: Captains of ind—
BRANCACCIO: —government officials… come together.
ZANDER: It was a great event for Mandela, and I wanted to go to that, a dinner for him. So I went. And I couldn’t find a seat. And there was one seat, only one, and it was at the table, and I looked up and there were nine Arab leaders. And I sat down and I immediately introduced myself. I said, “My name is Benjamin Zander and I’m a Jew.”
So I said to them, “You know, in 1948 my father wrote a little pamphlet called ‘Is This the Way?’ and it was addressed to the Jewish people. And it said essentially we are about to build our homeland in the state of Palestine. And that’s an appropriate and understandable thing to do. But in order to do this, we are asking of the Arab people the ultimate sacrifice, which is to give up their land. If we remember that in every conversation and in every interaction we have with them, we will find them the most courteous of people. If we forget it, we will be doomed to eternal conflict.”
The end of this evening, when we finished and went home, each one of these nine leaders came to me, hugged me, gave me their card, and said, “My home is your home.” Now in that tiny little anecdote is the whole story. We just forget when we’re sitting in places of power what it feels like for other people. And I think if we lose sight of that for a moment, we will lose sight of the incredible possibility that we have in this world.
I say that the next 30 years in this world will be the most exciting 30 years in human history. If we remember the opportunity we have now to understand that for the first time in human history, we’re all connected.
BRANCACCIO: Well, Ben, thank you. Ben Zander, along with his wife Rosamund Stone Zander, wrote the book THE ART OF POSSIBILITY. Thank you.
ZANDER: It’s been a pleasure.
BRANCACCIO: That’s it for NOW. I’m David Brancaccio.
MOYERS: We’ll be back next week when I’ll say my farewell to NOW. But before moving on I want to return one last time to a subject you know is close to my heart: media consolidation and democracy.
Regular viewers of this broadcast have seen our reports on how the news business is at war with journalism. But in this recent election we experienced the full force of a new reality, partisan propaganda masquerading as news and insisting on an adherence to the party line.
GOYETTE: Management directed me to shut up about the war. I mean they simply told me to, you know, to shut up about the war.
MOYERS: Big media and democracy, next week.
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I’m Bill Moyers. See you next week.
This transcript was entered on August 20, 2015.