A Loving Look at Natural Law #14

From Ari’s Top 5

Acknowledging love as an essential element of ecosystem health

Like anyone who can slip into a small bit of procrastination, I often need a little push to get myself going. Deadlines certainly help. More inspirationally though, the coming together of coincidences can be a compelling motivation for me. It was a series of odd occurrences that pushed me to put out my thoughts about grief in the ecosystem a few weeks ago and compassion last month. I take these kinds of coincidental coming-togethers as a sign from the universe that it’s time for me to get myself moving. They certainly make me smile, as does G.K. Chesterton’s observation that “Coincidences are spiritual puns.” As someone who likes riffing on words, Chesterton’s short snippet of a statement seems about right for what I’m sharing here. It’s an essay about how a handful of seemingly unrelated incidents came together to inspire me to write what I’d been putting off for a while now—another look at the essential nature of love in the workplace, building on what I wrote late last year, and continuing my efforts to turn good intentions into real life, day-to day actions.

I didn’t go out looking to write about love. To the contrary, it’s kind of like love came calling; initially in the final lines of a New York Times op-ed, followed soon thereafter by a casual on-shift chat with a staff member, a phone call to a friend, and when teaching one of the “Welcome to the ZCoB” orientation classes. Quite simply, as Janisse Ray writes in her wonderful book, The Seed Underground, “The story is about love.”

Let me start with the Times. Margaret Renkl wrote a great piece the other day in which she recommended that we buy the bulk of our gifts this year at local shops. In her essay she described the experience at her local bookstore, Parnassus, where it seems they love both books and dogs (I’ve already ordered a couple copies of the book The Shop Dogs of Parnassus). Renkl closed the piece with:

That’s how it works at any local bookshop. The love goes in all directions—circling back and forth between writers and readers and booksellers and even old dogs … What more could a person want this holiday season than to shop in a place surrounded by love?

I’m familiar with the feeling that Ms. Renkl is writing about. It’s what we aspire to do here at Zingerman’s every day. I’ve felt it, too, in any number of other restaurants, retail shops, and for that matter at creatively-caring schools, offices, and museums as well. It’s a bit of a below-the-surface glow, something that you can feel almost as soon as you walk in, a feeling that usually stays with you long after you’ve left. It’s a feeling that can be experienced online as well—there are locally owned and run, loving, mail order businesses as well. I certainly hope and believe that we’re able to make love happen from afar with our own Mail Order, and I know of many others that I order from with whom I have this experience. It’s a feeling that nearly everyone I know enjoys, and one that, consciously or not, nearly every human being is quietly drawn to a feeling that often brings us back over and over again for more. While these sorts of spots rarely make the front page of the business section, there are shops like these, like Margaret Renkl’s bookshop, where love is in the air.

(On the flip side, I’ve come to see, this kind of love has more often than not gone missing in mass market box stores, giant online retailers, and other places that, as Wendell Berry says, “are now all too likely to measure their success in terms of size and number.” Unfortunately, it can be lacking in local businesses as well—small size alone cannot create a loving organizational ecosystem. And when love is absent, I’m convinced that ill health is likely to follow.)

If one wants to see how an organization is doing from a financial standpoint, we can peruse its P & L, scan its balance sheet, and take a quick look at cash flow projections. These are, we all know, very important indicators. They are not enough, though, to really assess organizational well-being, any more than a copy of our blood work, body weight, or data on our percentage of muscle mass will tell us how happy we are. All of these numbers matter, but there’s more to the picture than a sheet of statistics. If you want to know how an organization and the people who are a part of it are feeling, one quick and surprisingly accurate way to assess it is to look for the love. Because as bell hooks writes, “When we work with love we renew the spirit; that renewal is an act of self-love, it nurtures our growth.” I’ve come to feel so strongly about it that I believe, after all my procrastination, it’s time for me to say out loud what I’ve anxiously avoided; love needs to be added to the list of Natural Laws. We’ll call it:

#14: Love’s presence is a sign of a healthy organizational ecosystem, and we each need to bring love into all we do to sustain that healthy ecosystem

Love is not a subject that is generally discussed in business settings, but I started to explore it in writing a year or so ago. By talking about it openly here, and actively honoring it as a Natural Law, we can begin to help change that unhealthy reality. As the late John Lewis said:

I think in our culture, I think sometimes people are afraid to say I love you … in public life, many elected officials or worldly elected officials are afraid to talk about love. Maybe people tend to think something is so emotional about it. Maybe it’s a sign of weakness. And we’re not supposed to cry. We’re supposed to be strong, but love is strong. Love is powerful.

Framing love as a Natural Law will lead us to start assessing our “success” in different ways than most businesspeople are taught, to do more of what Wendell Berry believes when he writes, “Suppose that the ultimate standard of our work were to be, not professionalism and profitability, but the health and durability of human and natural communities.” This is clearly the question that underlies what Margaret Renkl wrote about in her Op Ed. And it’s definitely what we’re trying to do here at Zingerman’s as well. My belief, my learning, my observation over all these years, is that the more love emerges in our lives at work—love for people, place, and products, all the while still making a profit—the more positive the answer to Wendell Berry’s question would be. I agree with him in his conclusion that, “we would certainly have a healthier, prettier, more diverse and interesting world.”

My look at love came into even clearer focus after I taught our orientation class for new staff last week. In that class (which remains, all these years later, one of the most inspiring parts of my work), I go through, among other things, our 2032 Vision. The discussion includes a good bit on love, which is the twelfth and last section of the vision, a section which starts with the statement that, “Every act in the ZCoB is an act of love.” (If you want a copy of the vision, email me). In the class, one of our new colleagues commented on how the part of the vision about love really connected for him: “It’s completely different from any other place I’ve worked,” he said, and then went on to share three or four examples of the sort of love and support he had experienced in his first six weeks or so on the job. “I’ve never worked anywhere that I felt this kind of care and support,” he concluded.

Two days after the class, we had, as we often do, a guest come in who was having a hard day. She’d come to Zingerman’s, she told me later, seeking a bit of solace, calm, and comforting energy. Her decision to have dinner with us was, in hindsight, a testimony to the quiet power of love. While love wasn’t on the menu, it was in the best possible way, part of what she wanted, and I was beyond delighted to see our new staffer deliver. He gently and humbly picked up on her sadness, and I watched quietly from a few feet away, how he responded with love and care, just the way we had talked about in the class.

Coming back to coincidence, a few days later, I had the thought on Thursday evening to call my friend Gabriel Acosta to say hello. As often happens when I make those sorts of random phone calls, he didn’t pick up, so I left a voicemail. Even if we can’t connect in the moment, the message can offer some quick kindness, and let folks know that someone was thinking about them. I woke up the next morning to find a message: “It’s incredible that you called when you did. I was dealing with some health issues. Things are going fine now. Your timing couldn’t have been better. Love you!” It’s through Gabriel that I learned about the work of biologist Humberto Maturana with whom Gabriel studied for fifteen years; the two men are inextricably linked in my mind. Maturana sadly passed away last spring, but his legacy—which includes some huge lessons for us all about love and laws of nature—will likely live on as long as there are loving people on the planet to preserve them. If Dr. Maturana’s wish comes true, that will be a reality for many millions of years still to come:

Love is our natural condition … We humans are loving animals, and our intelligence and creativity in the domain of human well-being depends on our being loving animals.

While, as Maturana says, love is our natural state, he makes clear that we are not guaranteed to stay that way forever into the future. Evolution, he says, is not necessarily a process of perpetual “improvement.” We evolve in ways that will respond to the environment we’re in, so that it becomes more likely we will survive. If we live in antagonism all the time, Maturana warns, we will adapt to become more antagonistic. If that continues for too long, he suggests, the inherently loving nature of humans—i.e., human nature—will likely be lost. This is a potential catastrophe that clearly is on par with the ecological problems presented by climate change.

Why, if love is our natural state, isn’t it already a daily reality in every workplace? One big reason is that many of us didn’t grow up with it. I was raised in a well-educated, middle class setting in which I’m sure that everyone meant well. Still, said caringly and respectfully, I learned a lot of dysfunctional ways to be with, and around, love. I believe from the heart that the work I can do now—writing about and actively bringing love into our workplace in healthy ways—will help many people. It will, at the same time, help me turn a few decades of self-reflection, reading, therapy, and recovering well from failures, into a more rewarding and regenerative way to bring love alive in my own life. On top of these childhood challenges which, like procrastination, nearly everyone I know is working through, it’s safe to say that we are hardly surrounded by a loving society. Although many politicians seem to love power and society pages are loaded with “love stories,” the hard work behind healthy grounded long-term love in working relationships is only rarely written about. Brian McLaren and Gareth Higgins share this on the subject in The Seventh Story:

We see how negative imitation has trapped people in cycles of violence, and we are eager to model nonviolent living and leadership for positive imitation. We believe that many of our neighbors haven’t yet chosen a nonviolent story because their imaginations are still held captive by stories of domination and fear, stories that have dominated human societies for thousands of generations.

We have the chance to start to change these stories in both inspiring and strategically sound ways. We can, as McLaren and Higgins have recommended, make love into a lead actor in our organizations. It’s both a beautiful thing to do for our co-workers and our communities, and it’s also good business. The more we make love a part of our daily reality, the more I believe it will attract great people to work with us, and draw in caring customers for us to serve. As McLaren and Higgins write, humans are “yearning for a new story, a story of love rather than hate, of creativity rather than destruction, of win-win cooperation rather than win-lose competition, of peace-craft rather than warcraft.” If we embrace all of this, then our work here isn’t just a business story, or even a tasty culinary tale. It’s a love story.

The key is to turn this uplifting inspiration into an on-the-ground reality at work. In the spirit of bell hooks’ beautiful observation that “Love is an action, never simply a feeling,” I’ve been working hard to move myself from idea to meaningful, day in, day out, implementation. To help make that happen, I’ve begun work on a personal regimen. It’s not yet ready to release as an organizational recipe; it’s more a challenge for myself to test out. I figured I’d take the leap and share it with you here because as adrienne maree brown writes, “We learn to love by loving. We practice with each other, on ourselves, in all kinds of relationships.” Try it out and let me know what you learn. Here are seven things I believe would really help us all to do, all day, every day, in every interaction:

  • Learn to love ourselves. I learned the hard way that until I made peace with myself and began to treat myself in the same kind and loving way I was advocating to others, my life would not go well. As Brené Brown says, “I now see how owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing that we will ever do.” If we don’t, the odds are low that we will successfully create the kind of loving organizations to which we aspire.

  • Admire the uniqueness and beauty of everyone we interact with. Chloe Valdary, who created the inspiring program “The Theory of Enchantment,” wonders, “How do we practice love? The answer lies in honoring what it fundamentally means to be human.” That means beginning every interaction with the belief that everyone—regardless of age, gender, job title, race, experience, religion, or anything else—is capable of doing, and in fact likely to do, great things in their lives. To steer clear of lumping people into statistically assigned stereotypes or burdening them with a series of unspoken and ungenerous assumptions and biases. Ultimately this means looking, lovingly, into the eyes of each person we deal with. How do we look past faults and flaws? I’m working hard to have the grace and humility to remember that we have all erred and that, as Bryan Stevenson has said, “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” It seems clear that we feel loved when those we interact with look at us lovingly. (In part, this may be one reason we are so drawn to babies and dogs, who often look at us like we’re about to make their day by doing something wonderful.) As John O’Donohue writes, “Love is an affair between reflection and its object.”

  • Begin with positive beliefs. If we start every interaction by believing the best about individuals and their intentions, we are far more likely to be loving. This is in essence about what Julia Cameron so memorably called, being a “believing mirror,” to go into every situation as best we can, believing that everyone’s intentions are good, and that if we work together, we’re likely to end up with positive outcomes. I’m not suggesting naive optimism; we can approach a situation with caution but still act caringly, and start with the assumption that everyone is doing the best they can. Anne Lamott said, “Hope is not about proving anything. It’s about choosing to believe … that love is bigger than any grim, bleak shit anyone can throw at us.”

  • Work to do the best for all involved. When we consider our impact on the whole, not just act in our own self-interest, we stand a much better chance of making love come alive in inclusive and meaningful ways. Wendell Berry wonders, “Suppose we learned to ask of any proposed innovation … What will this do to our community?”

  • Challenge the status quo, but still do it with love. It’s always important to bring up awkward issues, and to stand up for what we believe in. It can be done, though, with care and compassion, in constructive ways. As Chloe Valdery suggests, “Criticize to uplift and empower, never to tear down, never to destroy.” Love can be a positive contributor to even the most intensely challenging moments. As the late John Lewis said of his work on the Civil Rights movement in the ’60s:

    When we were sitting in, it was love in action. When we went on the freedom ride, it was love in action. The march from Selma to Montgomery was love in action. We do it not simply because it’s the right thing to do, but it’s love in action. That we love our country, we love a democratic society, and so we have to move our feet.

  • Lead with generosity, humility, hope, care, kindness, and compassion. I could probably add in grace and a gentle touch. When we do that—and I for one certainly have slipped many times—it’s hard to imagine too much going wrong that can’t be effectively recovered from.

  • Intentionally choose love with each interaction. For me this means, quite simply, to take a deep breath and make the mindful decision to start every day, every meeting, every bit of cooking, and every awkward conversation with love. As Rumi says, “Let the beauty we love be what we do.”

I’m not recommending that we stop reading financial statements; they clearly are important indicators of one element of organizational health. What I am suggesting is that we actively add love to the list of things we look at when we want to get a sense of how we’re doing. In the near term, we can make money, but if profits dominate the picture, the ecosystem can start to suffer in the same way that strip mining creates jobs but leaves ecological chaos and unemployment. This sort of “bad work,” over time, as Wendell Berry writes, “is almost invariably destructive.” Conversely, as Suleika Jaouad says, we can learn to “Love the people around you. Love the life you have. I can’t think of a more powerful response to life’s sorrows than loving.” When love levels drop, it’s an indicator that our work isn’t working. When love is in the air, it’s a sign that some things are going right. That all these lovely coincidences occurred in our ecosystem over the course of a couple days, and I guess the fact that it even dawned on me to do anything about them, are, I suppose, signs of health that I will take a minute for myself to appreciate.

What we do about love at work matters. The way we lead impacts the lives of those we work with, and they in turn impact the lives of the people they interact with as well. Love may be a quiet force, but it’s hugely powerful. Richard Davidson, the psychologist who’s done so many groundbreaking studies on love, compassion and meditation, writes:

When teachers interact with students, they are changing the brains of their students—and not just functionally, but actually, structurally. This is not a radical statement, because we’re changing each other’s brains all the time. We know that this occurs in a relationship between a parent and their offspring, and it occurs in any kind of a sustained interpersonal interaction.

We have this same sort of influence in the workplace. When we create loving ecosystems, then it follows that the people who work here will, more likely than not, become more loving as well. And since ecosystems attract unto themselves what they radiate, we will attract more loving customers. And coworkers. When we bring love to every action the way we wrote it up in our 2032 Vision, when we live in a loving ecosystem, we enhance the naturally loving state of the men and women we work with. The more they feel love, the more love they bring to their work. As Wendell Berry writes, “Good forms confer health upon the things they gather together.” And, although it’s literally “not our business,” I would guess this loving kindness will likely work its way into their lives outside of work as well. Speaking of which, my day was made when a coworker, someone who quietly hustles every day (see last week’s piece on how mushrooms can save the world), told me how much working in the ZCoB over the last few years has changed her life and improved the way she relates to herself and her family. This understanding alone, I know, does not pay any bills. But it absolutely has a positive impact on the service she gives, the sales she generates, the experiences our guests will get, and through all of that, on our financial health as well. In a healthy organizational ecosystem, as per Natural Law #14, love is in the air.

If you had told me in 1982 that I’d be writing about love in the workplace I’m sure I would have laughed. At the least, I would have chuckled nervously and then changed the subject. In the spirit of lifelong learning though, I’ve come around over the decades to see things the other way—that love needs to be at the core of everything we do. As Maturana writes: “Each organization is the result of the conversations that happen between the members that constitute it.” By talking about love in our everyday work worlds, I see more clearly than ever, we have the power to change lives—our own, as well as those we work with, and also those we wait on, and through them, of the greater communities of which we are very clearly a part. Speaking personally, I’ve challenged myself to make love a minute-to-minute reality, and maybe, too, to make adrienne maree brown’s lovely little love poem into a daily mantra:

i breathe in
noticing the gift i too often take for granted
not knowing how many breaths i have left
i want to spend them