A Look Back at Natural Law #11

A note from Ari

I’ve been working a lot of late, as many of you know, on a “new” list of additional Natural Laws. So far I’ve shared #13 (It’s all out of control)#18 (Everything is naturally related and interconnected), and #19 (Everything—and every one of us—is imperfect). Although many of these organizational laws of nature started coming clear to me years ago, it’s taken me a long while to be ready to write about them in public. Which, I realize as I start this piece, is most certainly in synch with today’s subject—a look back at Natural Law #11 from the original list of twelve:

It generally takes a lot longer to make something great happen than people think

Natural Law #11 is on my mind in part because of a couple of conversations I’ve had with leadership teams in organizations around the country of late. They’re uniformly, I believe, good people whose hearts and minds are definitely in the right places. They know the kinds of positive cultural changes they want to help make happen. But in all three cases, I feel in their energy (if maybe not in their words) that they’re not quite yet ready to accept just how long it’s going to take to make those changes happen. I can relate. Like many leaders, I’m impatient for progress to be made once it seems clear what needs to be done. And yet, with Natural Law #11 in mind, I remind folks that making meaningful change in organizational culture, whether we like it or not, takes a long time. Even here in our imperfect organization where we regularly teach our change management recipe, it still takes about three years for a cultural change to really sink roots.

While we don’t have to like them, Natural Laws, I believe, are simply true. And as environmental historian Donald Worster writes, “We can no more get out of a relationship with nature than we can get out of history.” Here’s a small bit of what I said on the subject of Natural Law #11 in Secret #1 in Part 1:

Early on in our work together Paul [Saginaw] taught me that, in his view, “Professionalism means sticking with something long after the glamour has worn off.” …Companies start stuff all the time. But few stick with a change or innovation long enough to really make it work. I don’t mean that longevity alone is enough to make something succeed—just that even the best ideas take a long time to really get going.

Later, working on Part 3 it became clear to me that the Natural Laws weren’t just about organizations—they applied to each of us as individuals as well! Here’s a bit of what I wrote on the subject in Secret #36:

People who are committed to achieving amazing things in their lives understand that they aren’t going to get to greatness quickly. While they may be impatient, they learn to embrace that impatience, and stick with their work for the long haul. Giving up may cross their minds any number of times, but they continue on in the belief that they’re going to eventually get to where they’ve committed to going.

It’s not hard to understand why most of us have a hard time making peace with this. The popular press likes to play up the moments at which stars burst successfully onto the scene, brilliantly changing the landscape of their chosen field. The reality is that this moment of glory almost always comes only after a whole lot of hard work and diligent self-improvement. Good things, whether we like it or not, usually take a very long while to develop. Even Albert Einstein, a generally acknowledged genius, embodied the import of this natural law. “It’s not that I’m so smart,” he said, “it’s that I stay with problems longer.”

Over the years, it has become very clear to me that, in line with this Natural Law, in nature, big things that happen quickly are almost always bad. Floods, tornados, and hurricanes. Pandemics. While small bits of beauty are happening every minute—a new bud on a branch, the sun sneaking out from behind the clouds, a puppy playing—lasting, long term, positive change almost always takes a lot longer to take hold. To attain mastery in any field—cooking or conducting an orchestra—simply takes a long time. I know that Anders Erickson’s research on “10,000 hours” (famously written up by Malcolm Gladwell) has been, at times, misrepresented, but my hands-on, real-life experience tells me that it’s essentially accurate. People who are truly getting to sustainable, meaningful achievement have done about 10,000 hours of work towards a vision of greatness of their own choosing. The same goes for groups. It’s true with basketball players and it’s true in business.

Ironically, people often hold up Zingerman’s as an example of a business “rocketing to overnight success.” But honestly, our history shows anything but. We started super small—me and Paul and two staffers with $22,000 in loans. We worked for four years in our tiny 1300-square-foot space. Most of the 39 years we’ve been in business we’ve grown organizationally at about 8 to 10 percent. While people in 2021 see us as insightful or even prescient for putting out products that are now so widely popular, it took many years to get meaningful traction with most all of them.

The news, I know, generally leads one to believe the opposite—I remind myself regularly not to be fooled by headlines that promote overnight successes. One example of this of late is the work on Covid vaccines. Deep, deep appreciation to all the scientists who worked countless hours to come up with them within a year! That said, if you read more about their work, it turns out that there’s more to the story than what we’ve heard about in the last twelve months. Many of the key players like Dr. Katalin Karikó have been working on the technology behind the vaccines for decades. Dr. Karikó is a Hungarian immigrant to the U.S. The daughter of a butcher in the small town of Kisújszállás, she got her PhD at the University of Szeged, in the heartland of paprika country and has been working at the University of Pennsylvania for decades now. CNN said:

She was demoted, doubted and rejected. Now, her work is the basis of the COVID-19 vaccine… Through multiple setbacks, job losses, doubt and a transatlantic move, Karikó stood by her conviction: That mRNA could be used for something truly groundbreaking. Now, that work is the basis of the COVID-19 vaccine… Karikó’s idea that it could be used to fight disease was deemed too radical, too financially risky to fund.

I don’t understand the science behind her work, but I am vaccinated, which makes me one of the millions who are benefitting from Dr. Karikó’s commitment to stay the course. Her willingness to embrace what we’re referring to as Natural #11 is, without exaggeration, helping to save the world. Most of us will not have the impact of Dr. Karikó. But living in harmony with Natural Law #11 does make a meaningful difference. Embracing, freely, that the work we’re about to undertake is likely to take a very long time to really come to fruition has a significant impact on our day-to-day lives. A small shift in acceptance and understanding, applied over an extended period, can make a big impact.

  • It fits our visioning process

    Years after we wrote our 2009 vision in 1994, Stas’ Kazmierski, who had generously taught us how to do it, said he couldn’t believe that we had gone fifteen years into the future. I asked why. “Most folks, I can barely convince them to do five years. You guys went for fifteen!” Three months ago, we formally rolled out our vision for 2032, which will put us in the year in which we will celebrate our 50th anniversary. Committing to a long term future helps us hold course, and avoid the tendency to change direction every time someone promotes a hot new trend or throws us some offer that’s “too good to turn down!”

  • It can boost our energy

    You might think that taking the long view would exhaust you, but it turns out to be the other way around. Ellen Langer, in her book Mindfulness, wrote that when we knowingly approach the “end” of something, humans have a natural tendency to lose energy. Which helped me understand one reason (there are many others; see Secret #20 and #21) why I’m able to sustain high energy over long periods of time—I plan to be working hard and contributing to our world for a long time to come. In the best possible way there’s “no end in sight,” and my energy for learning and contributing is honestly as high now as when we started out 39 years ago. Maybe higher. Committing to long term mastery makes a difference. As Daniel Coyle writes in The Talent Code, “when we envision ourselves doing it far into the future, we are tapping into a massive evolutionary energy source.”

  • It helps us be more mindful in the moment

    It may sound counterintuitive, but I believe it’s true—understanding that we have years of meaningful, freely chosen, hard work ahead of us gives us mental space to be more present in the moment and appreciate tiny bits of beauty and loveliness as they unfold. If you understand that it will take a long time for the forest to really come to fruition, then your mind may likely be freed to appreciate the magic of a single flower popping up in the spring.

  • It helps focus us on small meaningful steps forward

    When we’re looking for quick success, we try to find superstars, and we seek out headlines. We try to be the hare in the old fable. When we understand this is a long process, we take more notice of the tortoise. It’s helped me to stay patient with people who continue to make slow, steady, positive progress in their learning and the quality of their work. Or as John Lewis said, “…If you’re a pilot light, you’re going to be around. A firecracker coming along in you, and just—go off. You’re here one moment and you’re gone in the next moment.”

  • It helps us think more holistically about the impact of our actions

    When we know we’re going to stick with things for a long time to come, we’re much more willing to invest energy and other resources that may not show short term returns. Some organizations keep searching for world changing superstars. I’m not opposed, but Natural Law #11 leads me to look first to improved systems design, better training, more consistent coaching, clarifying expectations, caring conversations, etc. As poet Gary Snyder (who will celebrate his 91st birthday on May 8) says, “The best way, maybe the only way, to change a situation is to imagine, even to declare that you will stay where you are, in your locale, the rest of your life.” When we do that, we think a lot more carefully and act much more respectfully, of our surroundings. If we’re here today and gone tomorrow, most of our actions may appear to make no difference. By contrast, if we’re committed to sticking with things for the long haul, we’re likely to pay a whole lot more attention to everyday activities.

  • It helps us reshape the beliefs of those we hire

    Many people you hire are likely to hold beliefs that are not aligned with Natural Law #11. I’m not blaming them—they’ve merely listened to what they hear from friends, family, and the alerts they get on their phones. Unfortunately, they’re a bit like a runner who’s been led to believe they’re about to do a 100 yard dash, only to find out they’ve signed up for a marathon. If we can help our staff understand that people who get to greatness stick with whatever they’re doing and bust their butt with lots of practice in pursuit of the beauties and benefits of long term mastery, they might just take a few deep breaths, recenter their expectations, and start the mindful steady progress towards their goals that’s required to really make headway.

Hazim Tugun, who’s worked at the Bakehouse for over 4 years now, shared this lovely story that illustrates the point:

One of the most rewarding (and challenging) parts of my job is to create new breads. I simply love it. The creativity of it goes hand-in-hand in a balanced kind of way with my science loving/facts-based, engineering-trained brain. So, you can imagine how blissful it was for me when I pulled out the first test loaves of Country Miche from the oven. It takes quite a bit of work to translate these bits of creativity into production. It’s still a work-in-progress after four years. At the beginning, there were many times when I would feel down because a batch would not turn out, or those that did turn out would not sell well. I would compare it to our other breads, like Farm, and say to myself, ‘So much work to get 10 proper loaves of Miche and we are not even selling all of them, while Farm is selling by the 100s!’

When I would share my frustration with [co-managing partner] Frank, he would gently, in his reassuring way, tell me that the Miche is still in its infancy, that we should let it grow, that after only a couple of years of baking it, that we would get good (not great yet!) at it and we would start selling more of it. So, we stuck with it and kept tweaking it too slightly along the way to make it even better. Now, I am happy to say, there are days that we may not have enough lined proofing baskets to bake a day’s order! We have come so far, and we still have far to go. Like Frank would remind us, the Miche is the future in our bread world. Reflecting on it, it just shows me that getting to that greatness really takes longer than one thinks it would or should.

Hazim has helped make Natural Law #11 come alive in such lovely ways. I should add that, while commercial breads can rise in just 3-4 hours, it takes nearly 20 hours for the Miche dough to rise properly! Toast a slice of that marvelous Country Miche bread (one of my favorites) and make a toast to Hazim, Dr. Karikó, Gary Snyder, and so many others whose determination to continue to develop their craft long, long after any glamour had gone, has added so much beauty to our world. Their patience, persistence and pursuit of excellence—usually in the face of much naysaying and resistance—has contributed enormously to all of our lives.

I’ll leave you with this lovely bit from poet Amanda Gorman who seems at first glance to be another young phenom, an overnight success from her reading at the Inauguration in January. But if we pay her the respect she—and I believe every person—deserves, it’s worth looking deeper into her story. If you do you will find that although she’s only 23, it’s actually a testament to Natural Law #11. Amanda Gorman, it turns out, started writing stories at the age of five. At 16 she applied to be the L.A. Youth Poet Laureate. Is she talented? Totally. But I’m going to bet there were many other 5-year-old poets around the county who might have had comparable talent. While most gave up, Amanda Gorman kept going. And by the time she went to Washington a few months ago, she had invested 17 years of hard work in mastering her craft. Amanda Gorman, of course, is not that one poem. She has done a great deal of other wonderful work that’s well deserving of our attention. And she will, I forecast, do much more in the many decades to come. Yes, she’s young. But don’t forget that she’s worked hard at her freely-chosen field or work for nearly two decades now! As Ms. Gorman writes:

When day comes we step out of the shade,
aflame and unafraid
The new dawn blooms as we free it
For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it
If only we’re brave enough to be it

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You’ll find more on the Natural Laws in Secret #1 in Part 1 and Secret #36 on Part 3.

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