By Deborah Bayer | Photos by Joni Strickfaden
On a beautiful October morning, I sat outside at a picnic table at the well-loved Deli on Detroit Street and talked to Ari, co-founder and CEO of Zingerman’s. One of Ari’s friends, three-year-old Eli, joined the conversation periodically as he explored the recycle bins and reported his findings to us.
Deborah Bayer: Readers who know your writing from Zingerman’s newsletter and your books about food and business might be surprised by your new title: A Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach to Managing Ourselves, the third book in your Zingerman’s Guide to Good Leading series.
Ari Weinzweig: People are frequently surprised about what we do at Zingerman’s. One of the biggest reasons why we’re still here today and doing interesting things is because we work so hard at learning how to manage ourselves better. If you have to pick one thing, it’s probably the most important because if we don’t do that, the rest of it is unstable.
Deborah Bayer: So, it’s foundational.
Ari Weinzweig: Yes, totally. If your vision is to have a rewarding, productive, and positive life, as it is for us as individuals and also for us as an organization, it requires self-awareness, reflection, learning how to breathe. Everybody here is part of what we do, and we have 600 people.
DB: A key part of your personal growth over the years has been journaling. I sense that it’s a contemplative practice for you. You say, “For the cost of a pad of paper and a pen, it's perhaps the best investment I’ve ever made.”
Ari: I just did it this morning. I almost never miss. I started journaling at a time when I was struggling, personally, and someone suggested I do it to get my act together, and it was hugely helpful. In the beginning, it allowed me to get stuff out of my brain and get past the rumination. In one’s head, it’s very easy to repeat the same worry over and over again. Journaling put an end to that. It pushed me past the initial blocking thoughts, which aren’t helpful, to get into other things. It helped me to learn about self-talk. I learned how much difference it makes to be respectful of one’s self. If you aren’t mindful of your internal dialogue, and you are raised, as most people are, to be fairly self-critical and not respectful of yourself internally, then it’s manifested in doing the opposite in the external world by over-compensating. If I would say something harsh, it was on paper, and I could catch it. The words “can’t,” “have to,” and “should” are so limiting to our self-liberation. When they would come out on paper, it was easier to capture it. Now a lot of that has passed, but the regimen of journaling is really helpful because it helps get my mind cleared and centered for the day. Even if there are no brilliant thoughts that come out, it’s still a really grounding exercise.
DB: Some people love the idea of journaling but struggle with the commitment. What are your thoughts about this?
Ari: It’s not just journaling that people start but don’t stick with. When people take something on because they think they should do it, it’s externally focused and rarely works. My essay on free choice is about choosing to do something because you believe in it and want to do it. Then, it’s a totally different thing. We use the visioning process at Zingerman’s. There’s an essay on personal visioning in the new book, and four others on visioning for organizations in Part I. If people write a descriptive, emotionally engaging vision about how their journaling will go, and they share that with a few key people in their life, then the odds of it happening are radically increased. Journaling is not a hard thing to do — it’s much easier than, say, slicing smoked salmon. All you need is a pen and paper or a computer. There’s the “ten thousand hours of practice” idea from Malcolm Gladwell from his book Outliers in which he says that it takes roughly ten thousand hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field. I’m probably getting close to 10,000 hours of journaling over the past 25 years. At first it felt silly and unnatural, but it becomes natural.
DB: I’m interested in the barriers we come up against even when we truly long to do something. How can we be patient during a period of resistance and have faith to proceed through the “I don’t enjoy this” phase?
Ari: Anything great takes a long time. It’s hard to parse that in a world where people are trained to expect fairly quick, if not immediate, gratification. It’s uncomfortable to embrace something new. All great things start with discomfort. If you don’t have a vision and an understanding that it’s going to take time, it’s totally natural to want to bail. Running is a good metaphor for that. Early on, I decided when I run to end where I start. I almost always do that. For me it created an internal regimen around getting through resistance. Part of running is you always want to stop, especially in the beginning. You learn that if you keep going, it will be good, like most things in life.
DB: Thank you, Ari.
As I stood to leave, Ari was smiling and handed me a business card — not his. The card, featuring a white unicorn, is one he had made for Eli’s six-year-old sister, Maia. Look for her column “Hey Kids” in the Zingerman’s newsletter.