The Choice to Be an Artist at Work
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You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today my guest is Ari Weinzweig. Ari Weinzweig along with Paul Saginaw is the founder of Zingerman’s Community of Businesses based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. If you or anyone you know has ever lived in Ann Arbor, or maybe you’ve just visited Ann Arbor and you had the chance to go to Zingerman’s, then you’ll know that their food, their coffee beverages, their desserts at this point are considered legendary. Ari is also a writer and has published a series of books on the unique approach to business and leadership and organizational culture and transformation that you could call “the Zingerman’s way.” But it’s a Lapsed Anarchist’s way. Ari will also be a featured presenter in Sounds True’s Inner MBA program that begins in September. The Inner MBA teaches people the inner wisdom skills that are needed to both grow ourselves and grow our organizations. If you’re interested in learning more, check out InnerMBAprogram.com. now here’s my conversation with someone who knows how to pour his soul into business and life, Ari Weinzweig.
By way of introduction Ari, for people who are hearing about Zingerman’s for the very first time—they’ve never heard about Zingerman’s before, let alone Zingerman’s Community of Businesses—give us a proper introduction.
Ari Weinzweig: It seems like it ought to be a very easy question to answer but it’s probably less. I guess from the straightforward business construct—and then we could back up from there—we are, as you said, a community of businesses. We’re located in Ann Arbor, Michigan. We could say it’s the Boulder of Michigan, maybe. We, before the pandemic, collectively, within all our businesses, had about 700 staff members from a business standpoint. We would have been doing about $70 million in sales. Actually, our anniversary was March 15th, so we got a pandemic for our 38th anniversary. then a year later we have about 500 staff members, a little bit more, and we will do this year about $50 million in sales. But the good news is we’re still here and still trying to do good work.
Our community of businesses includes Zingerman’s Deli, which is the original business (which we can go back if you want to, the origin story); our Bakehouse; Zingerman’s Coffee Company, which does just what it sounds like; we have a little candy company; a creamery where we make fresh cream cheese and other goat cheeses, etc.; Zingerman’s Cornman Farms, where we do events; Zingerman’s Mail Order where we ship to folks all over the country; Zingerman’s Roadhouse, which is a sit-down restaurant with regional American food; Miss Kim, which is a little Korean restaurant serving traditional, regional Korean food; and ZingTrain is our training business; and then our little business—which is not a good one to have in a pandemic—is Zingerman’s Food Tours. I’ll just add that all of those businesses have managing partners in them, and we work with sort of a collective mindset. They’re semi-autonomous businesses in one holistic organization.
TS: Where did the investment dollars come to start all of these other businesses that are associated with the deli in some way or another?
AW: Well, it’s all one organization, so it’s not really centered around the deli, and maybe in a way there’s really no center, which we can probably come back to too. But they come from either me and Paul, my partner, who started the deli with me in 1982, all those years ago, with two employees and a little, tiny 1300-square-foot space; or they come from the managing partners who put some money in; and in a few cases we’ve taken on a few outside investors, but mostly we’ve invested our own money.
TS: Now, there’s so much, Ari, that I want to talk to you about. So, I want to get right into it, which is, with the success of the original deli, you could have approached things with more of a franchise model—“Let’s put a Zingerman’s in every college town in America”—and instead you followed this very different, unique—I’ve never seen it anywhere else—model of managing partners with other businesses, as you said, without a center, yet they’re connected. I don’t know what you would call this, some kind of tetrahedron or something. I don’t know all the connections between them—but my point being, why did you decide to go that direction and not the franchise direction?
AW: That’s a great question. I guess let me back up maybe and go to the beginning.
AW: Because that’ll give some context. My own history is I’m a history major. I came from Chicago to Ann Arbor to go to school at University of Michigan; I studied Russian history—and, as you know, a particular focus on the anarchists. After graduating from Michigan with my degree—of course, there’s nothing really one can do with a history degree except—I love it, but there’s nothing you can do with it other than go back and get more degrees, which is what I was supposed to do. although visioning is a huge piece of our work now (we’re going to get to that as the answer to your question) but I had no vision when I graduated, only what David Whyte—who, you, I’m guessing, know his work, W-H-Y-T-E—calls the via negativa. This is where you’re totally clueless about where you would like to go, but you’re very clear where you don’t want to go.
My via negativa was I did not want to go home to Chicago. I decided, in order to make that viable, I would stay in Ann Arbor, not so much because I loved it—which, I do love the town now—but at the time it was more just there’s nowhere else to go. Long story short, I ended up applying for a job as a server at a restaurant one of my college roommates was working in. They interviewed me and they said they’d call me if something opened. I waited two weeks; they still didn’t call me. I went back and reapplied as a busser. We went through the same scenario again; I waited an additional couple of weeks, and then I was completely running out of money. So, I went back and offered to pretty much do anything. They said, “Do you want to wash dishes?” I said, “Sure. Why not?” I started that night as a dishwasher.
Unlike many people out in the world, and some that I’ve heard you interview, I would have had no clue. I had no clue as a child that this is what I would end up doing, I had no particular interest in business. All my family members were teachers, doctors, lawyers, dentists, and psychologists. I was kind of the failure of the family. I had no particular interest in food. I really just lucked out. I came to love food and cooking. I still cook every night at home. my partner, Paul Saginaw was the general manager at that restaurant, so that’s how we got to know each other. That was 43 years ago next month. I started prepping and line cooking and then managing kitchens. Paul left about halfway through that and opened a little fish market here in town called Monahan’s Seafood Market. He and I stayed friends.
Fall of ‘81, I’d been there almost four years. I had reached a point that I’ve come to call—I had a good job, but not really good work. It wasn’t a vocation. It was perfectly pleasant, the pay was fine, people were fine, but I just decided it was time to move on and do something else. I gave two months’ notice on November 1, ‘81. Paul, not knowing I had given notice, called me and said, “Hey, there’s this little building coming open near the fish market.” he had grown up in Detroit where he could get good deli food, and in Chicago you could get it, but you couldn’t get it here in Ann Arbor. I don’t really know how but somehow in about a week we decided we were going to open a deli and somehow four-and-a-half months later, on March 15th, 1982, we opened.
When we opened, we did not know anything about the visioning process the way we now teach it, but I’ve come to realize that everybody, whether at Sounds True or almost everybody you interview or any business that you go to or nonprofit that somebody you know has started, everybody who does that and makes it work had a vision in their head; even if they didn’t document it, it was clear in their minds. They could visualize what they were going after. In hindsight, I could say we had one; we didn’t write it down, but we knew from the beginning we wanted something really unique and special. We didn’t want something to be a copy of New York or Chicago or L.A. or whatever. We wanted something that was true to us and true to Ann Arbor.
Secondly, we wanted really great food, of course, great service, of course, great place for the people we employed, which wasn’t that many at the time, to work. then from the beginning, we really wanted just one of them. My experience in the food world in particular, but really in business in general is, when you start getting the third, the eighth, what you described as the Zingermans in every college town, it’s fine; the people who go to it, it’s convenient for them; but it just never has the energy of that original. A couple of years ago, I wrote a pamphlet called “The Art of Business,” which is my belief that business and life are a lot like art or poetry or music, and that the more we’re creating an organization or a life that’s true to ourselves, just like a great musician is going to play from the heart or a great poet is going to write from the heart, the better it’s going to go.
I really had an aversion to doing that standard franchise model or just replication. It just was never that interesting. I always said, “If you go to the original, it’s always awesome.” When you’re frequently awesome, and when you go to the replica, it’s pallid by comparison. I tried to get it across by saying it’s a little bit like the difference between seeing Bob Dylan play live or hearing somebody play Bob Dylan covers at a bar mitzvah. It’s the same sheet music, but you just don’t get that same feel. Long story short, we got going—“We were a success.” We added onto the building a little bit, added on again in 1991.
One morning in the summer of 1993—we were about 12 years in business, and I’m going to guess we probably had about 150 employees by then, we’d been written up in New York Times or Bon Appétit, all those kinds of places, which is nice—Paul sits me down on this little bench that’s still out front of the deli. He looks me in the eye and he goes, “OK in 10 years, what are we doing?” I, unprepared for his question, looked at him funny and was like, “What?” He’s like, “In 10 years, what are we doing?” I’m like, “Paul, I don’t know, but I got work to do.” He’s like, “This is our work. We’ve got to figure this out. I mean, people are opening on campus because we won’t, and they’re eating into our market, and we’ve turned down all these offers from other cities that people have given us. Is this crazy? What are we doing?”
Anyway, what he was asking me, in hindsight, was, “What’s your vision?” He kind of dumped it on me in the moment. I wasn’t really ready. I needed to be getting that sandwich light ready for the lunch rush. But it was a great question, which, in hindsight, he probably couldn’t sleep for three months worrying about. In essence, what he had realized, I guess intuitively is that we had fulfilled that original vision. It’s a stage that now I would equate to organizational midlife, or finishing college, or your kids grow up and move out of the house—a spot that you never thought you might get to, but you actually got there and then you realize you’re not done. His question started a year-long conversation of where we were going to go. That conversation went through lots of eye-rolls and a fair bit of swearing and long walks, but continually coming back to the table until we finished writing, what became the first time we really wrote a vision—and we can talk more about vision later—but that vision was called “Zingerman’s 2009.”
If anybody’s doing the math, we wrote it in 1994, they’ll see we actually went 15 years into the future, not 10. We decided we could grow but keep the initial deli still as this unique, one-of-a-kind-in-the-world place that people would want to come to from all over the world to have amazing experience that couldn’t really be replicated anywhere else. Yet, at the same time, we could grow and provide opportunity for people in the organization, perhaps to become partners in their own Zingerman’s business, which would be wonderful and stay rooted in this town, in this community that we were such a big part of. That’s really where it came from.
TS: Now, I want to have you share with our listeners the essence of the visioning process, but in just a moment before we get there, I think part of the reason I wanted to start our conversation having you describe Zingerman’s Community of Businesses, and then understanding why you didn’t just go off and franchise the whole thing, is I find that the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses is one of the most—this is just my language for it—soulful, soul-filled set of businesses together that I’ve ever encountered. It seems very rare to me that most people who are looking at what the 10-year vision is, aren’t saying, “How do we make sure this is rooted in community? How do we make sure that there’s this one-of-a-kind experience when people come in, because that’s where this unique quality of excellence comes from when there’s just one?” It’s almost like this is against the stream of the business culture as a whole. I’m just curious what you think about that.
AW: Well, it’s a wonderful compliment, Thelonious Monk, the jazz musician, once upon a time said that “a genius is a person most like himself.” I would suggest that the visioning process, and what hopefully we’re doing—and a lot of people who are listening to this, I’m sure are doing the same—is to be true to who they are, which is easy to say, but hard to do. It’s really about being true to yourself. Regardless of what angle you look at it, whether it’s business or art or parenting or being a professor or running a program like you do, it’s really about creating something that’s true to your values and true to who you are and true to the dreams that you have. Again, it’s easy to say, but it’s hard to do. There’s so much pressure on all of us from our parents, from our peer group, from the news media, from whatever things we’ve internalized over the course of our life.
It’s not that easy to walk one’s own way. I mean, we all say that we want to, including me, but doing it can be challenging. I go back to that Rollo May quote that he said, “The opposite of courage is not cowardice; it’s conformity.” I don’t think anybody sets out and says, “I’m going to conform and I’m going to give up my dreams,” but I think it’s very easy as we all try to manage our way through the compromises that make up everyday life to do that and lose who we are, lose our soul, as you said. But I think in our hearts, we really believe in our hearts that we really know a lot about what we want to create for ourselves. It’s just the challenge is to honor it. If we do that well, then I truly believe that honoring is manifested in the energy. It’s manifested in the energy that you experience when you come in, but hopefully online, on the phone, hopefully through the business books or whatever other interaction you might have with us.
TS: OK. Let’s talk to that listener who says, “I appreciate the via negativa. I know what I don’t want in my life, but, Ari, I don’t know what I do. I don’t know what I want. I don’t. Here you are, you’re talking about having a 10- or a 15-year vision. Teach me how I’m going to come up with what’s true for me, what I do want.”
AW: Yes. that’s what’s interesting is that, I guess for openers, I started in my learning about this process, which would be in ‘93 when—shortly after Paul sat me down on the bench, I was pretty cynical about it when we first started to hear about it. We learned about it through a wonderful guy named Stas’ Kazmierski, who passed away four years ago next month, which is just a big loss for all of us here. But he, at the time, was a consultant for a group called Dannemiller Tyson. Kathy Dannemiller was one of the country’s leading experts on whole systems change, very progressive thinker. Stas’ before that had been, I guess they would call it, an internal consultant at Ford. He’d done a number of other things before that. He’d been part of a little group, formally and informally, that was run by this guy, Ron Lippitt, who had been part of the Institute of Social Research at the University of Michigan in the ‘60s, ‘70s and early ‘80s.
Ron had studied with Kurt Lewin and all sorts of other people. He trained Stas’ and these other folks on his work. One of the big pieces of his work is what he called “preferred futuring” or “positive futuring.” We’ve sort of evolved it, and we call it “visioning,” but it really came out of Ron’s teaching. The big piece of this work was—he was mostly doing work with communities, not with businesses—and what they would find in going into communities and trying to help people come to agreement about how to collaborate going forward constructively was that they might start with a conversation around how to fix what was wrong, and somebody would have an idea and somebody else would have an idea. But, almost inevitably, within the fourth, fifth, sixth person to speak, somebody would start with the, “Well, that’s not going to work. Where are you going to get the budget? We tried that; the mayor’s never going to go for it. City council’s never going to prove it.”
You can imagine the nay-saying that happens in all those problem-solving meetings. And people’s energy, that might’ve started high, almost inevitably ended up lower than where they had come into the meeting. Ron’s, what I’ll say, genius was to say: “Forget how it is now. Forget the problems, and forget about how we get there. We’ll deal with that later. Let’s just put our brains, put our minds, put our hearts and souls,” as you said, “into the future. Let’s imagine a future that we want together. Let’s imagine that we came up with the ways to get there, and let’s start to describe that preferred or positive future.”
What they found is people’s energy went up, the creative output went up and they very commonly would come to these exceptionally interesting and unique, creative, whatever, solutions or futures. We learned it from them and there’s a process that we learned from Stas’ about how to write it. There’s a recipe in the book, but essentially, it’s freewriting. I’m a history major, not an English major, but anybody who’s English major will know it as freewriting. But in essence, it’s about planting one’s mind in the future. You mentioned 15 years, but it could be for next week, because we use visioning for all sorts of different things. You imagine you’re already there and you describe what’s going on. A typical business—I didn’t go to business school, with all due respect—but the business school version of visioning is usually a one- or two-line statement, but this is a story. Marge Piercy the poet talked about—we’re trying to live as if we were an experiment conducted by the future. It’s really about telling the story of what you’re going to do as if it’s already happened. It’s about describing the life you want to lead.
Whereas a typical “strategic plan” —which isn’t a bad thing, but it’s going to have a lot of bullet points or some key elements—this includes that, but it also weaves in the emotion. How do the people who work in our organization feel when we get to that point? How does the community talk about us? How do we feel about our own work? Because there’s so many possible answers and none of them are right and wrong. The key of the work is that you’re doing what Stas’ taught us to call hot pen. Or I mentioned this freewriting, which is that you need to keep writing for the entire time. In a non-pandemic year, if you were to come to ZingTrain and go to a two-day ZingTrain visioning seminar (and now you can do a short version online), but you would come and you would sit in the room and we would teach you all the background, how we use it here, et cetera, et cetera. Then when it got time to write your organizational first draft, we would probably give you about 40 minutes of straight writing.
You’re going to end up with a lot. I’ve done this with thousands of people. I’ve done it myself. I’ve taught it in Ethiopia, Slovakia, Ireland. We’ve taught it to young people, older people, retirees. I know one woman who is a counselor at the Cancer Center here; she basically uses it with people who are in the final stages of their life with terminal cancer. It’s really about imagining the future of our dreams. In essence, it’s not what we can do or what we should do; it’s what we want to do.
TS: All right. It’s interesting hearing you describe the visioning process, because what comes up for me has to do with this question of our limiting beliefs. You have written a beautiful four-volume series A Lapsed Anarchist’s Guide to—and one volume’s on building a great business. One’s on being a better leader, on managing ourselves. Then there’s a volume on the power of beliefs in business. Of this four-volume series, for whatever reason, this was the volume that I was drawn to the most. I think it’s because I just haven’t heard people talk about the power of beliefs in business.
But now specifically to this visioning exercise and the power of beliefs, I’m imagining that person who says, “Look, of course I can envision what I want in 15 years; that’s not hard. The hard part is the part of me that says while I’m writing it, ‘That’s never going to happen. You don’t have the money to make that happen. You’re not this or that. You’re not young enough. You’re not this enough. You’re not that enough.’ What do I do with all of that negative self-talk that comes up while I’m doing my 40-minute hot-pen writing exercise?
AW: Yes. To be clear, I mean, for a smaller vision, you can knock it out in eight minutes. It’s not every time one writes a vision it has to take 40. But I guess in the specific context of the visioning, what I would say in my very literal personal experience, as well as working with so many people over what’s now, I don’t know, 25 years of doing this, the faster you write, the more you access what’s truly in your heart. We all, me included have dozens of voices in our heads: we got our mothers, we got our fathers, we got our significant others, we got our professors, we got whoever you look up to, we got the third grade teacher who yelled at you for spelling a word wrong. They’re all in there. The good, the bad, the supportive, the critical, et cetera.
When we let them run rampant without, I guess, facilitation one might say, they can take over the conversation. It becomes very hard to hear our own voice. if you’re like I am, and you’re filled with self-doubt, the doubts dominate. The faster we write, the less those other voices can get into the conversation. Part of the instruction in the hot pen is you need to keep writing. As I tell people, you can curse up a storm, you could write the Lord’s prayer, you could write whatever you want, the Colorado Rockies’ starting lineup, it doesn’t matter, but you need to keep writing. If you stop writing, it doesn’t work—a little bit like riding a bicycle: when you get anxious and you want to stop, you’ll fall off if you don’t keep moving.
That’s the literal moment of that. Clearly the beliefs discussion goes beyond that because that’s more a way to push past the beliefs. But as you could tell from the magnitude of the book, the subject kind of blew my mind and I started to do what history majors, many of us know how to do best, which is keep studying. The more I studied, as you said, I’d personally given it almost no thought, the subject of beliefs. To be clear, when I say beliefs, I’m not talking about religion, politics, etc., although those are also beliefs, but I’m focused much more on what we believe about human beings. What we believe about, as you alluded, about ourselves as leaders, what we believe about abundance in the world, what we believe about money, coffee, etc., etc. We all have thousands of those beliefs.
I’d really never thought about it, but the more I started to learn about it and to see that the self-fulfilling belief cycle that I learned from Bob and Judith Wright who have the Wright [Foundation] in Chicago, the more I started to realize this is going on all day long, it’s going on in my life. It’s going on in the life of everybody who works here; our customers have it; everybody has it, in this way that is challenging, as you alluded to; most people don’t even realize that it’s going on. That’s not an easy thing. There’s a quote from Carl Jung, who said, “Until we make the unconscious conscious, it will control our lives and we will call it fate.”
I realized when I read that, this is what’s happening in most of our lives. We don’t even know that we’re doing it, but the beliefs that we learned from our parents, from books, from others around us, or friends on the playground or teachers, etc., all those beliefs are in us. We’ve sort of grown up believing that they just were either reality or it’s “the way we are,” etc. All this work, again, blew my mind because I started to realize that beliefs aren’t genetic; no one’s born with those beliefs. Yet all of our conscious actions and a lot of our unconscious actions are shaped by what we believe.
I’m not talking about instinct. If you’re dying of thirst, you’re going to reach for water. But the way we respond in a meeting, the way we respond to somebody we’re interviewing, the way we respond when we’re in a disagreement with our significant other, all our beliefs are coming into play. This work really pushed me; it pushed me to explore my own beliefs and to create methodologies—really simple stuff—but methodologies that people could put to work every day in the organization, not-for-profit, for-profit, big or small, that would really help to realize we have those beliefs, A; and B, if they’re not working for us, we could change them.
TS: Right. Well, this is why I find this so interesting because I’ve met people who are aware of the beliefs that are holding them back. They’re aware of them. They’re aware. “I wrote down my visioning statement, but I don’t believe I really deserve to have a life that good when I described it, something in me doesn’t believe I deserve it.” There are aware of it, Ari; what they don’t know is how to effectively change it, really at the root to effectively change it. That’s what I want to hear from you, from your experience. What works?
AW: Here’s the thing—and the downside, I guess, is that we cannot change anyone’s beliefs by force. That’s pretty clear to everybody in the country over the last year. You could tell them all you want, but at the end of the day, we need to each decide. Some of us have had beliefs changed from all sorts of different places. I certainly have had beliefs—as you could tell, I read a lot. I’m an awkward introvert who likes books. I’ve had a lot of my beliefs altered by books. We have beliefs changed by experiences that are incongruous with the reality we start to experience. I’ve got friends who are very values-aligned, yet they’ll say they grew up in a family where there were a lot of racist beliefs—and, well, what happened? Because they’re clearly not in that place now.
They’ll just say, “My mom tells the story of when she grew up in a small town in rural Alabama,” or whatever, “and that’s just how everybody was, so it seemed normal. Then she went away to college and she realized it didn’t need to be that way.” All of a sudden, my friend’s mother was confronted with this incongruity that helped to lead her to change beliefs. But a lot of times in the personal sense that you’re asking about, it really comes down to if something’s not working. We want to go, as you said, towards this vision, but we’re not going.
It’s not for me to say what anybody should do, but I think I’ve learned that if we hold to negative beliefs, we will get negative outcomes. That when we understand that the belief we’re not good enough, or that we don’t deserve it—it’s a belief. I mean, I don’t believe it’s reality. It’s the reality we’re creating. I ended up looking at some exercises on how to get at what we actually believe, then, in the context that you’re asking, actually wrote a recipe (because we like recipes, we’re in the food world) but a recipe for how to change a belief. Ironically, early on, you need to choose the new belief before all the evidence is actually in, which is counter to what most people would, I think, believe.
TS: OK. Give me the recipe, lay it out for me.
AW: OK. Well, first I would suggest you start by looking at what the problem is, what’s bothering you. If your life is fantastic and things are going great, then I’m going to suggest your beliefs are probably working. On the other hand, if you’ve hired five managers and they all failed within the first four to six months, you can continue to blame who you hired. You can blame whatever—millennials; you can blame the work ethic—
TS: That sounds good.
AW: —or whatever you want. But at the end of the day, at some point we start to question, maybe some of our own beliefs are getting in the way. From there, we can start to backtrack. We know the issue: we’re hiring a lot of managers, but they repeatedly fail; let’s backtrack to what we believe about it. There are a number of ways in the book that people can do that. I mean, one is just to kind of become mindful, as per so many of the great podcasts that you’ve done, become mindful of our reactions, self-awareness and acceptance of just what’s happening. Another one is to see where we react really negatively, usually is showing us that we have a trigger point of sensitivity and that we might be able to figure out what the belief is underlying that.
A big one is this “This I believe” exercise that I started practice with, which is a simple, again, the freewriting or hot pen. Also “shoulds,” because “shoulds” are essentially, when we say, “I should,” it’s essentially an internalized belief that somebody gifted to us earlier in our lives. When we start to know what we believe, then we have the chance. The third step would be to do a little bit of homework. Where did we get the belief? I started to look in my own context at journaling, which is something that I do a lot of now. In fact, I do it pretty much every day of my life for the last 30 years. But when I started to go to therapy back 30-something years ago, and my therapist suggested I was very good at ruminating, and it’s kind of embarrassing, but I didn’t know what ruminating was. I say it’s embarrassing since we do so much with cow’s milk cheese—and cows ruminate, they chew their cud.
But anyway, essentially it meant I could go around and around in my head on the same subject without going anywhere. He suggested that journaling would really help me to move past this circular thinking or unproductive thinking. My initial reaction was a stereotypical kind of way: “I’m not going to do that. I mean, high school girls keep diaries. That’s not for me.” But he was right. A few months down the road, I started to actually journal, and it turned out to be really one of the most positive things in my life. I swear by it, it helps me stay grounded in so many ways, essentially by going back and looking, in this case, at not deeply held beliefs, but I had these beliefs that were sort of social norms for young men of my era and in the U.S. And so understanding where those beliefs came from could be huge.
The fourth step is that we go forward with that information and we choose, we’d start to balance our equations. I could say to myself, “Well, here’s the risk of journaling, what are the risks? I might feel awkward. It might be uncomfortable. What if my friends found out? They might judge me,” etc. I also look at, how am I doing on the other side of the equation? There’s a lot of pain, anxiety, uncertainty, self-doubt, as you mentioned before, that’s weighing on the other side. In my case, that far outweighed any fear of whatever social judgment or self-judgment. The fifth step is to actually choose the new belief. We need to pick the belief, like I said, before the evidence comes in, and decide that journaling is a good idea, because with the self-fulfilling belief cycle, once we start to do the journaling, we’re probably going to find out that it works.
Then the sixth step is to start to erode years of pattern. At that time, I was, whatever, 31 years old. I had at least 15 to 20 years of negative beliefs about journaling or keeping a diary. So, I need to go out and help myself by finding evidence that shows me that I’ve made a good choice. If we can do that, then we start to actually see the benefit of what we’re doing, which helps us hold course. In my case, sink new roots of beliefs that have stayed with me, as you can tell, for 30 years. I can go over those six steps again, if you want, real quick, would that help?
TS: Well, maybe you could go over them with an example, not the example of journaling, but the example from your own life of how you changed a belief that was clearly getting in your way and kind of how you’re in a new place today.
AW: Well, I think that was a small one. I think that other ones would be maybe a belief that you can’t “trust” people.
TS: Yes, that’s a good one. I think a lot of people have that belief.
AW: Yes, I don’t think for me it was a gigantic issue, but it definitely was getting in the way. Paul helped me to see that, because he, as long as I’ve known him, has always been a very open and trusting person. I don’t think I was extremely at the opposite end, but it definitely got in my way. How do I know it got in my way? Because people would comment that they didn’t feel like I trusted them because I tried to do too much on my own, etc., etc. Backtracking to my beliefs, with the benefit of all this work, now I can see—where did I get that belief? I started to understand that sometimes beliefs that we grew up with in our family settings, let’s say the beliefs that we learned were appropriate when our parents and grandparents learned them, but they might not be that helpful for us. In fact, it might be destructive.
I remember, just anecdotally, early years of opening the deli, this is when phones, as you can remember, I think we’re still attached to walls. I remember my grandmother calling, I think it was a Sunday from Chicago to say hello. I answered the phone at home. Of course, now when you call, you don’t know where the person is when they answer, but at the time she clearly knew where I was. She said, “Well, wait a minute. If you’re at home, who’s watching the store? Who’s watching the cash register?” I realized this is this belief that you can’t leave the money alone for a minute. You can’t leave the business alone for a minute. I wasn’t quite that extreme, but I started to back up in my family’s history to understand now where that came from.
My grandparents grew up in Eastern Europe, in an era when Jews were frequently—everything bad you can imagine. When social issues arose, frequently the Jewish community were the first ones to catch the flak. They grew up with that. They lived through World War I. My grandfather came from Belorussia during World War I, and [he] used to describe the stories of the bombs and how horrible it was. Then they lived through the Depression where they, I’m sure, barely scraped through. Then they lived through the Holocaust where any relatives they had still in Eastern Europe were killed. It’s really not hard to understand where, if you grew up in that kind of construct, that you would lose trust in human beings.
Fortunately for me, I’m not living through that era. Yet at the same time, I had learned a lot of those beliefs as a child. I mean, not out of malice; they were doing what they thought was the right thing by sharing them with me. So, learning to just believe the best is a conscious choice that I made. I mentioned that a lot of my beliefs have been changed or helped along by books.
I was reading the biography of Isaac Asimov, the science fiction writer who turned out—I didn’t know this when I was 16, reading his science fiction books—but turned out to be quite a progressive and interesting thinker. He said, “To me it seems to be important to believe people to be good, even if they tend to be bad because your own joy and happiness in life is increased that way, and the pleasures of the belief outweigh the occasional disappointment. To be a cynic about people works just the other way around and makes you incapable of enjoying the good things.” That really resonated. I think the cynicism feels like protection, but I believe that it actually creates more negativity around us, which becomes self-fulfilling. By choosing to go forward with positive beliefs, it’s just a positive belief. You had an early podcast, I think, about radical forgiveness?
AW: It resonated. I’m not going to speak for the speaker because he’s clearly put his life’s work into it, but just to really decide that we’re not going to hold it, that I’m not going to hold a grudge and that I’m going to believe that everybody’s intentions are good, regardless of how much I might disagree with them. I’ll tell you, my stress is lower from it and a lot more good things happen from it. That’s one example of a creative, meaningful shift for me.
TS: There’s a good example. Ari, in this book on The Power of Beliefs, you talk about beliefs as the root system of an organization and potentially the biggest single force at work in our organizational lives—which, both of these are strong statements—the single, biggest force in the room. If you had to summarize for me the beliefs that are at the root of Zingerman’s and the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses, what are those beliefs?
AW: Well, it’s funny that you ask, because we’ve just finished about two years of work to write a statement of beliefs to actually get that to print. It’s actually at the printer now. Soon we’ll be able to have it for people, both inside the organization and out. But we also have our guiding principles and values documented and we’ve had those, I guess it’s 30 years ago this year, that we wrote those, and there’s eight of them. I would suggest that values or guiding principles are also beliefs, but they’re ethically grounded ones, ones that we’re not really interested in changing. It’s just how we want to be out in the world.
But beneath that, there’s a lot of other beliefs that aren’t necessarily about ethics, but it’s what we, communally, collectively agree to believe within our own organization. It’s not to judge people outside of here for believing differently. But I started to realize, as per your question, that we’re really not being upfront and open with people that we hire with a lot of these beliefs. They need to find it out by, in essence, bumping into a figurative organizational wall to find out that they went in the wrong direction. One of them, just to be concrete, is, we believe, asking for help as a sign of strength.
I would say that, again, was counter to what I believe growing up. Even going to therapy, which I mentioned was kind of a big swing for me, I resisted it for many years, because the unconscious belief I had, which a lot of people have is that we shouldn’t “need” to ask for help. This is trying to be upfront with people that we bring into the organization, whether it’s a new baker, a new bus person or a new partner, is that here’s one of the ways we’re going to know you’re doing a good job: ask for help more, not less. Another one is back to what I brought up earlier. We believe leading with positive beliefs makes a positive difference. We’re asking everybody to start with positive beliefs. This seems simple, but the reality is most of us have been raised very regularly as per the root system, a metaphor you brought up.
We have a lot of negative beliefs in our root system. We believe that so-and-so’s not doing a good job. We believe that the person on our shift is very difficult to work with. We believe they don’t care. We believe they’re not committed. We believe the manager’s out to get us. I mean, there’s a whole series of them, and I’m not judging anybody for having them, but this is putting out there that this is part of the job expectation of coming into our organization. Just like this is how we make cappuccino, or this is how we make a sandwich, and it’s not to judge a different coffee place for making their cappuccino differently. It’s just, when you come here, this is the way we ask you to make it. This is what it looks like when it’s well made. when you come to work here, we’re going to ask you to choose positive beliefs. It’s not like people are just going to have the garden of their lives completely remade on the first day that they’re here, but at least we’re trying to be clear about it. I didn’t count them, but there’s probably twenty-five beliefs on the statement.
TS: You mentioned, Ari, that the pandemic has been difficult for Zingerman’s, as it has been for probably every restaurant, any restaurant across the country. How would you say being rooted in your beliefs—how did you have to turn to that during the pandemic? You wrote a small little book called Working Through Hard Times: Life and Leadership Learnings from 2020. I’m curious how you’re making it through this period, as you say being “positive” without being Pollyanna.
AW: Yes. Well, one of the things I learned about beliefs is that one can have positive beliefs about a problem, and I’ll explain this, and one can have negative beliefs about a problem. The problem remains the same. It’s just how we perceive it. Negative beliefs about the pandemic, essentially, or really anything, put us into what I—and many others who know more than I do—would call a victim mindset: “There’s nothing we can do. This is horrible. We’re stuck. We’re at the mercy of bad leadership, bad this—the country should have been prepared. This should have happened here. The governor this, the Senator that.” And there might be truth to all of those things, but at the same time they’re negative beliefs, which basically means we’re going to be stuck. We’re not doing the work to move through it.
A positive belief around it is, “This is very difficult.” I mean, this is essentially the beliefs that we worked hard to stick with: “This is very difficult; we were not prepared; seemingly hardly anyone was prepared. But if we stay true to who we are, we stay true to our values, we stay true to these beliefs that you just asked me about, we stay true to our vision and our mission—all of which outline that we work collaboratively, we work kindly, we treat each other with dignity, we believe in the spirit of generosity, etc., etc.—if we stay true to all those processes and all those beliefs that we can get through this. When you believe you can get through something and you have some skills around how to do that, and you have experience both individually and collectively, that shows you some evidence that you’ve gotten through it, then I believe you need to choose that positive belief about the future.
To your point, I’m probably not a whole lot different than everybody else. I have lots of anxiety. I grew up, as I alluded, in a very worrying family, so I’m quite good at it. Worrying, by the way, it turns out to be negative visioning, but that’s a different subject. Anyway, I’m filled with doubt and at any moment, I feel the urge to just run, hide, flee, whatever, but I’ve tried to train myself and I have trained myself, I guess over the years, just to take a deep breath and to go back to these beliefs, back to these processes that we stick with around visioning, around how to work together collaboratively and keep going forward.
I think you’ll see that in any setting, whether it’s as tragic as people in concentration camps or people trying to survive in tragedies, in warzones, it’s the people who hold to their beliefs and values and hold to a positive vision of the future, despite everything that’s happening around them that gets through most of the time. Edith Eva Eger, I think, is 92 or 93. She’s a Holocaust survivor who wrote an amazing book called The Choice. She tells a story in there: They were in the camps in the last year of the war. The rumor is going around the camp that the Allies would be there by Christmas, and people were trying to hold on and hold on, hold on. One woman was just, “I just got to get to Christmas. I got to get to Christmas.” The Allies weren’t there, and she died the next day. When we lose hope, when we lose a sense of where we’re going, when we stop believing that even though we’re surrounded and faced with a lot of adversity, if we don’t believe we can get through, we probably won’t.
TS: Ari, do you have a specific intervention that you do when you find yourself worrying?
AW: Yes, the journaling helps me a ton. My regimens, which I stuck with, and for me work beautifully—they’ll be different for different people—but I journal every morning. It helps me clear my brain. It helps me back away from the worrying because I can recognize it now all these years later, it took me a long time to get there. It still happens. It’s just less bothersome. I run every afternoon to clear my brain again. Then I come back to, as I said, to cooking with Tammie—T-A-M-M-I-E not T-A-M-I—my significant other. We cook dinner every night for our dogs and ourselves, and I like cooking. It’s grounding. those anchoring points helped me to reground. Then there’s other techniques too, just around energy management, which is a big piece of what we teach here, which I learned a lot from my friend Anese Cavanaugh, A-N-E-S-E, Cavanaugh with a C. [She] lives out in Sacramento and her books are great.
She taught us about energy management. We adapted it and we teach it as a job expectation, and it’s been a huge contributor. As I became more and more aware of that, I started to realize that if I wasn’t really on top of my own energy, I was sending negative, dissonant, critical energy out into the universe, or more literally into our organization, that was going to cause a lot of problems with everything from customer service, higher staff turnover, lower quality, because people were distracted from their work, etc. Two simple things I made up for myself: one is, I call SBA: Stop, Breathe—just take a deep, mindful breath, as per so many of the great teachers that you’ve interviewed would have us do—and then Appreciate.
Just find somebody—it has to be real; it can’t be made up—and appreciate that person for something. It can be a tiny thing that they do, how they made the display, the beauty of the espresso shot they pulled, or how gorgeous the crust was on the loaf of bread that we made at the Bakehouse, or the way they handled a difficult customer situation. Just appreciate them. I find without fail in under 60 seconds, my energy swings. The other one is almost as simple as if I feel my energy going in the tank—because things are going all the time. I mean, I can look at an email that’s wonderful, but the next email can be a bad customer complaint. I can see a financial statement from one business that’s wonderful. I can see the next one that looks terrible. I mean the emotional ups and downs of our lives, even not in a pandemic, can be incredibly challenging for everybody.
When I feel my energy starting to sink, I do this little thing I call “three and out.” I made it up from sports adaptation, but I just get up from wherever I am. I find somebody I’m working with—and in the pandemic, we’re still open, but still, it might be on the phone or text or email or whatever methodology people like to use—I appreciate them. Again, it has to be honest from the heart, not phony. I immediately go to a second person and appreciate them. Then a third. I have found, of course, I get back wonderfully positive energy from the person I appreciated, because we all like to have a heartfelt appreciation sent our way.
I found for myself, stubborn and determined as I am—and I’m pretty stubborn—I am unable to stay in a bad state of energy in the face of those three positive returns of good energy. Those two simple little things, I mean, it is a very down to earth, is very practical. I’m working in the businesses. I don’t have an office I’m out there with customers and trying to deal with real life, just like everybody listening. They’re really practical, but they’re literally a minute to three minutes to reverse my energy completely.
TS: I love those two examples. I’m curious when you said that you teach energy management to the staff at Zingerman’s, do you teach them those two examples or something else?
AW: I definitely share those two examples. Again, we adapted the work from Anese. It’s in part two of the book series that you referenced, that one’s being a better leader. There’s a couple of essays in there about what we teach. Real quickly, again, we’re very focused on teachable models. I come, as I said, from an academic family, and I clearly love to learn, but it’s very important in my mind and our mind, to be able to take that learning and put it into a teachable model that we can teach to somebody who might only be here for six weeks working at Mail Order for the holiday season and help them meaningfully within their work setting, but really also in their lives outside of work too, because that’s part of what makes this work so powerful, I think, is it’s identical to learn visioning at work and out of work. Energy management certainly fits that.
We teach three elements of energy. The first two won’t be shocking, but most people that one hires are not really thinking of them. The listeners to your podcast probably are more than most, but still our physical energy comes first, just helping them to become more mindful of that. Then the simple things that probably everybody listening already knows: regular exercise, nutrition, hydration, breathing, etc. The second one is what we call emotional energy. You could also say mental energy, spiritual energy, or intellectual energy. We talk about what goes into that: hanging around with positive people, because we know emotion is contagious. I believe strongly that active learning—and I like to read, but other people like books on tape or listening to podcasts or whatever setting works—but active, formal learning is essentially my belief, like working out for your brain, just like you may not want to work out when you start, but you feel more energized afterwards.
I really believe people who aren’t doing active learnings, emotional energy will flag. Music, etc., all those things can contribute. Then of course, any sort of spiritual activity that people resonate with. Whether it’s meditation, yoga, all the way through to organized religious practice, whatever connects for people, can help their energy in that sphere. The third one that we learned from Anese and this is the one that really kind of opened my mind, and I think really blows the minds of most of the staff, people that we teach it to, is what she calls vibrational energy. This is something we all know in our hearts or in our gut is happening, but it’s not the energy we believe we’re bringing; it’s the energy everybody else picks up from us.
So, helping people understand that, again, our breathing, our posture, our pace, smiling, meaningful eye contact. Then to the point of a lot of the podcasts that you air, generosity, kindness, humility, these are all things that contribute positively—there’s many more—but they contribute to our vibrational energy, physical, mental, and vibrational. Then we have a simple, four-step recipe. (As I mentioned, we like recipes.) First is to read it. We use a zero to ten scale. Super simple. Zero is horrible; ten is awesome, wonderful, grounded. Jenny Tubbs, who works here, pointed out, we should have called it “zero to Zen,” because ten energy is not running frantically from spot to spot, because that’s fast but actually very negative energy or dissonant energy. The second is that we vision it. At the end of a shift, where do you want to be? At the end of a difficult conversation? Where do you want to be? Because if we don’t set our intention, as Anese would say, or we don’t have a clear vision of where we’re going, the odds aren’t very good that we’ll get to where we want to be.
The first is read it. Second is division it. The third is to manage it. Everybody’s different. Self-awareness really helps. As an introvert, I schedule alone time. I schedule my time for journaling. I plan my time for running into my day. If I’m around people too much, I start to get on overload. My partner Paul’s the other way; he gets lonely and he wants to be in groups. I can go almost all day and barely eat. Other people got to eat every four hours. It’s not really good or bad, it’s just self-awareness. the fourth step is to repeat it, because things are happening all around us that are going to throw us off course. We need to be mindful of constantly going through this recipe. Read it, vision it, manage it and repeat it.
TS: All right, Ari. I have to ask, so this four-volume series, A Lapsed Anarchist’s Guide to these various things that we’ve been talking about, and that you go into quite a bit more depth in the books, exploring. I think there’s a lot of confusion about what the anarchist’s view is, a lot of misconceptions. I wonder if you could share with us, maybe just a couple of the biggest misconceptions and why an anarchist’s perspective is important to you.
AW: Yes. well, to be clear up front, I’m not the spokesperson for all anarchists, that would be incongruous anyway, based on what it’s about. But I can only share from my own experience and talk about what resonates for me and try to honor everybody else’s beliefs too. But I think it’s pretty clear, to your point, that the common conception—and this wouldn’t be coming from people who are studying it, but people out in the world at large—is that anarchism or anarchy means chaos. It means throwing rocks and violence and destruction, and that’s not really what it is. Has there been an anarchist who did that? Absolutely. But I think you can look at pretty much any group in the world of any political bent, religious bent, gender, race, whatever, you’re going to find people who have done those same behaviors.
What I would suggest anarchism is really about is—to be clear, it’s not a political system. Gustav Landauer was a very, very interesting German pacifist, anarchist, good friend of Martin Buber, late 19th century, early 20th century, who was kicked to death, sadly, by the German army in 1919. He said, “We have no political beliefs; we have beliefs against politics. I’m not discouraging people from voting, I certainly vote,” etc. But in the context of that, [it] helped me realize that anarchism, as I would view it, as a belief system, and everybody gets to have their own version, but mine is really, it’s a positive belief in people. It’s a belief that no one is better than anyone else—there’s a lot more to it than this short synopsis—and it’s a belief that the work I do is where it begins.
Rather than being critical of others, it’s really about how I treat you, to your earlier questions about self-reflection, how I treat myself, how I treat the newest employee in our organization, how I treat somebody that we terminated last week, how I treat a difficult customer, how I treat my significant other, how I treat the planet, that if I do all of those with dignity, freely choosing to do those, then that’s the beginning. In essence, I guess it’s Gandhi’s “Be the change that you want to see.” It really begins with us. Howard Ehrlich, another interesting anarchist said, “Who will make the anarchist revolution?” He said, “Each of us every day.” It’s not about waiting for others. It’s not about waiting for a new government. It’s not about electing a different president. I mean, not that those things don’t matter; clearly they do; but it’s about what I can do right now when I finished talking to you, when I go back to work and how I treat everybody there.
TS: Ari, what I want to call our conversation, I hope it’s OK with you, is “Becoming an Artist at Work.” I want to call our conversation that because I think even the choice to look at our beliefs and choose differently is a type of artistry. It’s the artistry of creating our lives with these positive beliefs. But I want you to address that person listening, who says, “I really don’t like my job. I don’t know if I can become an artist at work, doing what I’m currently doing.”
AW: I’m pretty rooted in reality. I mean, we got bills to pay, it’s the pandemic. We started the pandemic by doing a horrible thing, which is furloughing about 275 people. I mean, happily we’ve been able to bring most people back, but it’s a terrible thing to do. I mean, people that we’ve worked with for years. We’re all dealing with real life issues every day. I understand. I’m in a different position. Paul and I started the organization, etc., etc. Yet at the same time, I think it’s a personal choice for everybody, me included. If we’re OK with the way things are going, then keep going. I’m not here to judge anybody. It’s just if things aren’t working well and we’re not feeling good about ourselves or our lives, then doing some self-reflection and owning the work that we can do can make a big difference.
I really believe that E.F. Schumacher, who wrote Small Is Beautiful, which is amazing book from, I think, late 70s, he would say—he’d get asked all the time when he was speaking—“Yes, that’s all great, but that’s overwhelming—what can I do?” He just said, “Do three things. Start today.” If you do a couple small things every day to move in the right direction, it makes a big difference. If you write a vision for your life that’s ten years out, yes, you’ll still be in the same job tomorrow, but as you start to make decisions going forward, you’re clear on the life you want to create, it becomes easier to make decisions. If you share that vision with people that you love or care about, they can help you better. If they don’t know where you’re going, we’re all going to get a lot of free advice, I’ve lived it. Essentially people are guiding us towards the “vision” they have for our lives, but it may not be aligned with the artistic (in this context) vision that you have.
I think it’s really about that. I mean, look, people are living in poverty. People are victims of racial violence. People are caught in domestic abuse. I mean, there’s a lot of very difficult things people are living in Northern Syria; India right now is a tragic situation. I’m not trying to […] just say, “We can just make that go away by believing good things.” It’s a lot of work behind the beliefs, or that follows from the beliefs, but I have learned that I can choose positive beliefs like I said earlier about the problems that I face. It does make a positive difference, and small little things make a big difference. In the context of art, I’ll just say John O’Donohue, whose work really has inspired me over the last 10 years since I stumbled on it, the Irish philosopher, he said, back 15, 16 years ago, “I think that the world is suffering from a crisis of ugliness.”
He said that long before today’s current situation, so it wasn’t a response to what we’re dealing with today when we go out in the world. He said that the antidote to that is beauty. And Wendell Berry whose work also inspires me said much the same thing. He said, “When you go out in a world you can see where the problems are coming, because ugliness is appearing where once beauty existed.” And O’Donohue pointed out a really amazing thing that blew my mind. In the context of our earlier conversation, he changed the belief for me. He talked about the statement, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” He said, usually, and I would have agreed, when we hear that, that our interpretation is that everybody gets to decide what’s beautiful. I might like this band and you might like a different band, etc. You might like that poem; I might like a different poem.
But what O’Donohue said is that’s really only half of what it means, because it can be interpreted at the same time, in a very different way, and that’s that we can train our eye to see the beauty. When we start to see the beauty in things that we might’ve missed it in, the beauty in people even in tragic situations, to see the grace and dignity with which people have carried themselves through this pandemic and through such difficult times, it’s really amazing. I’ve come to realize, I mean, the beauty is out there every day. Part of my responsibility to myself and to our organization and to the world is to go out and try to find it, see it, and look for it and then actively appreciate it and try to make a little bit more.
I don’t have any massive solution that’s going to fix all the world’s problems, but if I can just help others to have slightly more beautiful, more rewarding lives, help from a practical standpoint, try to pay people as best as we can while still paying our bills, try to serve great meals and try to support our purveyors and try to contribute positively to the community in the way that you referenced earlier, then I think that’s a pretty good thing.
TS: Well, Ari, I want to take a moment to appreciate you, appreciate you for staying true, staying true all these years. I know you write your books under this Lapsed Anarchist’s Guide to—but I would call you a living philosopher, and one that is deeply inspiring to me. It’s been so much fun for me to commune with your written work and to learn from you. Thank you.
AW: Well, thank you. I listened to your podcast regularly, long before we agreed to do this interview. I have learned from many of the people that you have interviewed and from your thoughtful and insightful questions. I look at this as only one stopping point on what I hope is a long and constructive collaborative relationship to come. I’ll just share my email; it’s firstname.lastname@example.org. And anybody who has questions or thought is very welcome to email me anytime. I look forward to learning from them.
TS: I’d also like to let our listeners know that Ari Weinzweig will be featured in Sounds True’s Inner MBA program. He’ll be offering a CEO storytelling session and answering questions from participants. The Inner MBA program is a nine-month program that begins in September that’s a partnership with LinkedIn, Wisdom 2.0 and a division of NYU called MindfulNYU. If you want to learn more, check out InnerMBAprogram.com. Ari, thank you so much.
AW: Thank you, Tami.
TS: At Sounds True we have a saying—it happened over the holidays when our creative team wanted to make a t-shirt to send out to everybody to wish them happy holidays—someone came up with this model, “Here for the weird.” I thought, “Really? Sounds True: here for the weird,” OK, makes sense. To me it means, here for our uniqueness.
TS: Here for our freedom to be ourselves. so, I’m going to send you a “Here for the weird” t-shirt.
AW: I love it. I’m a XL.
TS: OK. Very good. Thank you for listening to Insights at the Edge, you can read a full transcript of today’s interview at SoundsTrue.com/podcast. If you’re interested, hit the Subscribe button in your podcast app. And also, if you feel inspired, head to iTunes and leave Insights at the Edge a review. I love getting your feedback, being in connection with you and learning how we can continue to evolve and improve our program. Working together, I believe, we can create a kinder and wiser world. SoundsTrue.com: waking up the world.