The other evening one of our newer staff members, a young man who’s impressively self-reflective and eager to learn, asked me mid-shift how I handle my stress. Since he’s busy with school, and is already reading Part 1 in his spare time, I gave him a quick response. There are three things, I shared, that I do daily to stay centered: I journal every morning, I run every afternoon, and Tammie and I cook at home every evening. Later that night, I realized that there’s actually a fourth thing that I unintentionally left off that list. It’s something I do that’s essential to my ability to keep my anxiety manageable, my mind relatively clear, my learning active, and my energy positive: reading. There are very few days in the last 40 years that I have not read at least a few pages from a book. In fact, I can barely imagine life without regular reading. As Anna Quindlen once wrote, “Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination, and the journey. They are home.”
When I teach our approach to energy management in the Welcome to Zingerman’s orientation class for new staff, I share my strong belief that reading (or whatever way of formal learning works well for you) is like “working out for your brain.” When we don’t do it, our brains get out of shape. Engaging with active learning, I share, meaningfully improves our energy in multiple ways. It strengthens our brains, increases vocabulary, improves memory skills, and enhances empathy. It also reduces stress and the odds of clinical depression. Some studies show it might increase age longevity. The real reason I read, though, isn’t to fight off old age; it’s to calm myself, enhance my learning, increase my creativity, connect myself with other eras, and to deepen my understanding of diverse perspectives and different ways of life. Reading every day regularly opens new intellectual windows into the world for me. Concepts I’d never conceived of suddenly become clear. My anxiety goes down, my energy goes up.
To be clear, I know that there are many ways to learn other than reading, and all have value. There are vibrant cultures—the Ojibwe people in our own area, and the Roma around the world to name just two—where oral tradition, rather than the written word, has long been at the center of a very rich life. There are also, I know, those who aren’t comfortable reading, and others whose brains aren’t wired for it, folks for whom reading can feel exhausting. Today we have access to a huge amount of audio learning (I also listen to a lot of podcasts); audiobooks; learning by doing, watching, and listening; learning from quiet reflection, and communing with nature. All are important, and as per what we know about diversity, the more we weave them together, the healthier our emotional and intellectual ecosystems are likely to be. For me though, it’s reading that keeps me going.
Reading—even three or four pages at a time—encourages reflection, pushes me to improve, keeps me actively learning every day, helps me self-actualize; all of which are essential elements of effective leadership and a more grounded, positive energetic presence. I’m very much as Annie Dillard once described one of her characters: “She read books as one would breathe air, to fill up and live.” Reading books brings me peace, learning, and breathes life into my brain and my body. For my own sense of emotional safety, I rarely go anywhere without a book or two in my bag. For some people I know, reading is stressful; for me it’s centering.
I’ve long been touched by the story of Vedran Smailović, the Sarajevan cellist who, in the middle of the war zone, would show up in buildings that had only recently been destroyed by bombs, to play classical music. There are many stories now of similar things happening in Ukraine. All of these musicians talk about how playing music, while confronted with so much pain and unwanted upheaval, helped them retain their humanity, to stay true to themselves, hopeful in the face of fear. Their ability to engage with art when anxiety is incredibly high is inspiring. Rather than flee, they refocus. Reading can do the same for me. I’m not equating the courage that these musicians show to what I work with in trying to be an effective leader, but still, reading in the middle of the mental maelstrom that makes up my day has a similarly calming effect. When I feel like emotional bombs are going off in my brain (which is almost every day), stopping what I’m doing to read a few pages of a good book offers me an emotional and intellectual shelter, a place that I can bring my brain back from the edge. I’ve long been practicing a self-management technique I call “SBA”: “Stop, Breathe, Appreciate.” I’m realizing one variation I could add would be “SRA”: “Stop, Read, Appreciate.” A deep mindful breath, reading a few pages, followed immediately by a quick act of appreciation helps me get things back into perspective in a matter of minutes. In that sense, I’m with Anne Lamott when she says:
For some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die.
I have seen and heard many people in recent years declare that “no one reads anymore.” In the marketing world, we’re encouraged to keep everything short (clearly, I violate that directive). I realized the other day that the arguments against “slow reading,” or the declarations of its death due to the demands of industrial efficiency, are very much parallel to the ways people wrote off artisan food back in the middle of the 20th century: “Inconvenient, irrelevant, old fashioned.” Of course, you know what happened in the food world—we ended up with monocrop monotony, a diminishment of culinary and agricultural diversity, severe damage to the food system, the ecosystem, and to human health. It could be that the shift to “reading” in only short snippets on screens is having a similar effect on our minds. Neurobiologist Andrew Huberman talks about the difference in both our brains and bodies between reading from actual books (more positive) versus scrolling on a cell phone (not so much so). Patrick Kingsley, writing in the Guardian, frames it this way:
Still reading? You’re probably in a dwindling minority. But no matter: a literary revolution is at hand. First we had slow food, then slow travel. Now, those campaigns are joined by a slow-reading movement—a disparate bunch of academics and intellectuals who want us to take our time while reading, and re-reading. They ask us to switch off our computers every so often and rediscover both the joy of personal engagement with physical texts, and the ability to process them fully.
While modern leaders can clearly live without books, it’s hard to really thrive, I believe, without doing regular reading. As my friend Verne Harnish always says, “Leaders are Readers.” To Verne’s point, reflecting back, reading has been at the core of almost everything I’ve learned over the course of my whole life—history, culture, anarchism, organizational design, leadership. When we opened the Deli, books are how I learned about traditional food and cooking. Later in life, reading dozens of books that gave me an infinitely better understanding of myself and how emotion, insecurity, emotional intelligence, etc. worked. Therapy also helped with the latter, and with all my learning, hands-on practice and conversation with colleagues were, of course, also essential. But for me, time and again, it all begins in books. Ursula K. Le Guin says that reading offers us an “essential guide to our understanding of what we ourselves are and may become.” My conclusion is akin to Le Guin’s when she writes, “We read books to find out who we are.”
Building on Le Guin’s statement, exiled Russian poet and former U of M professor, Joseph Brodsky, once pointed out, “Man is what he reads.” What we are learning—or not learning—has a significant impact on our lives and our leadership. If most of our reading is done by skimming headlines or social media feeds, our minds will be occupied but our leadership will not likely be developing as well as it could. In one of the last interviews done before he died in January 2008, John O’Donohue said, “A question to always ask oneself, is who are you reading?” Putting good books on our reading tables is one of the best ways I know to begin shaping our future and increase the odds that our work to implement new ideas will be effective.
Part of what makes reading so amazing for me is that, for a few minutes, maybe more, my mind can move into other worlds. As Kiese Laymon writes in Heavy: “It was not a matter of believing or disbelieving what I read, but of feeling something new, of being affected by something that made the look of the world different.” In the last few days alone, I have entered into some small sliver of a sense of the story of life for an enslaved Black woman in the middle years of the 19th century, a dip into Irish history, a study of solitude, and an engagement with the culture of Ethiopia. Reading reminds me regularly how much there is to learn, which in turns helps me be a better leader and a better person.
The importance of advocating for more reading in our organizations might, I realize, be affirmed even further by looking at where reading is discouraged, or even outlawed altogether. In the Soviet Union, in Russia now again today, and in other autocratic settings where the preservation of the Pyramid of Power takes precedence, books have regularly been banned. Looking back on American history and the era of enslavement, most states acted to make it illegal to teach unfree people how to read or write. If readers are leaders, then the last thing any autocrat wants would be widespread learning. Howard University political science professor Clarence Lusane says, “an educated enslaved person was a dangerous person.” As educator Lacey Robinson describes, “If they learned how to write they could ensure their own freedom. If you gave folks the tools to read they would become writers and reading and writing would liberate them.” In both cases, there are inspiring stories of people who pushed past this attempt to hide information. One of the ways people behind the Iron Curtain would share “illegal” information was by what was known as samizdat—self-published materials, painstakingly typed out or photocopied for covert distribution. Frederick Douglass taught himself to read while he was still enslaved. Less well known is the story of David Drake, a potter in South Carolina. Drake produced over 40,000 handmade pots in his life—his products are now selling for seven figures in art auctions. At the same time that South Carolina was passing anti-literacy laws, Drake was quietly painting poetry on the sides of his pots, including this touching line: “I wonder where is all my relation/friendship to all—and, every nation.” Reading can, and has, started revolutions—in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, passing political pamphlets around was a radical act.
In the modern workplace, unwillingness to share information is less extreme, but the concept remains, quietly, comparable. While no one in American companies is preventing front line folks from going home and reading books about business or leadership, unless they’re part of one of the few places that Peter Senge referred to as “learning organizations,” neither are new staff likely to be encouraged in that pursuit. Conversely, companies that want to create engagement, equity, autonomy, free-thinking, and creativity, actively encourage reading and learning as part of daily work routines. Reading regularly, it’s clear, increases confidence, builds depth of knowledge, enhances empathy, and encourages diversity of thinking, all of which are so essential to our organizational creativity and collaboration. Regular reading encourages engagement, and increases the odds of introducing new ideas. Regular readers more readily act like leaders. Educator Lacey Robinson talks about the challenges of growing up as one of only a handful of young people of color in a predominantly white school system in Ohio. She shares:
The one thing I held to be true was I could read. I would lose myself in books, I would wrap myself up in characters in places and lands. … once they gave me those tools, once they taught me how to read, they would never be able to take that away from me. I learned to love to read.
The more we can help make Robinson’s love of reading a reality in our organizations—for people at every level and of every background—the healthier our businesses are likely to be. We have long given a free copy of the books from the Guide to Good Leading series to folks who work here and want to read more about our organizational history, philosophy, and best practices. We give a copy of Zingerman’s Guide to Giving Great Service to every staff member who takes our internal service class. And we ask everyone here in a formal leadership role (that includes me) to do on average, two hours of formal learning a week—learning that could be going to a class, attending seminars, or, of course, reading.
In her terrific new book, All That She Carried, Tiya Miles writes about the story of a cotton sack that was packed by an enslaved woman named Rose for her daughter Ashley who, at the age of nine, was sold to another owner. Ashley’s granddaughter Ruth embroidered a bit of the story onto the sack, which was found many decades later. Miles’ beautiful book traces the tragedy and triumph that is interwoven with the story of “Ashley’s sack.” Dr. Miles writes:
We begin to see the makeup of all the intersecting worlds and appreciate a larger swath of interwoven experience. We notice a shift from the self to the other, from the personal and family history to local, national and even global history. This dawning awareness leads us to trace all of the intertwined threads, to appreciate that there is one earth and one humankind, one social fabric of many folks in dire need of mending.”
What she’s describing is very much what reading means to me. If part of our organizational work is to enhance the quality of the lives of those we work with, then one of the best things I believe that we quietly do here and there is to gently get people reading. Through that we help them to free themselves and to learn to learn, to boost self-confidence, access more information, grow their skills in reading and writing, to impart the same sense of the confidence and the energy of those in leadership roles.
Not everyone, I’ve learned, grows up with reading being as woven into their daily routines as I did. Lacey Robinson describes how as a young woman she “watched my grandmother grow as a reader … I watched her grow as a woman. I watched her confidence shift. I began to understand that there was this liberation in learning how to read.” Getting everyone to do that, of course, isn’t easy, but as Lacey Robinson says, “I have never grown a muscle without exercising and that takes sweat. It’s not always fun but it’s always rewarding.” And, Robinson reminds us how wonderful it is, “When you allow another human being to showcase who they are and what they can become.” Making reading part of our everyday reality can, I believe, in a dignified way, do just that, helping people push past the understandable discomfort, and in many cases, the accumulated shame, of not being able to read regularly.
Nearly 200 years ago, women’s rights advocate Margaret Fuller wrote, “Today a reader, tomorrow a leader.” With that motto in mind, here’s a Zingerman’s story that will stay with me forever. It’s from Kieron Hales, one of the managing partners at Cornman Farms, who shares his long-time struggles, and more recent successes, with reading:
As an owner of thousands of cookbooks, some may be surprised by the struggle this chef has had with reading throughout my life. As a young child I grew up in a picture perfect small English village. Within this rural country life I went to a picturesque school house where we had one teacher for 3 grades. For me and my reading journey it was not the best start. One of my most disliked class times was reading, as it was always done out loud and in front of the whole class. I struggled often with skipping over my words more than the struggle with reading. As a child I thought it was my inability to read and the laughter and teasing that took place reinforced this.
Years went by when I did not read any books. I was probably 17 or 18 living in France working as a chef in Burgundy when I picked up babysitting on my days off from cooking for some extra money. I would read stories to these two little boys, and I finally found some enjoyment in reading and the power it has to bring the sense of wonder. From these first steps on my enjoyment-based reading, I would find myself buying books in the ports, train stations, and airports as I traveled the world. Mostly this part of my journey was based on my love of sci-fi and mystery. I would read books over the course of months, not days. This continued all the way to when I joined the ZCoB. Up to then I would say I had read probably only 50-60 books in my entire life.
2016 rolled around. I had gotten married. We’d had our second wonderful son, and I had become a partner in the ZCoB. Reading was not high on my list in any way shape or form. That year I flew out to Charleston for my first Partner offsite. I was ready to soak up all the learnings from my partners and begin my journey as an owner at Zingerman’s. We had many good meetings and discussions, but the greatest change I took away from my time in Charleston was from a 7- or 8-minute talk I had with Ari before we went into a meeting. This brief passing vulnerable conversation about my reading struggle changed my focus on self-improvement right up today.
Since that chat I have read over 500 books. I have recently started writing my learnings and reflections on each book I read to help me focus on another strength I am working on—writing. The power of having my two young boys and never wanting them to have the lack of confidence I had for reading and writing is a mighty great motivator to take the harder road. The gift of reading to them, learning to write stories together with them has given me the joy and pleasure I missed early in my life. This is now a muscle I work out daily to find new strengths I never knew I was missing. Never doubt what you can do and be open to letting others remind you of your untapped greatness.
George Saunders says that “The true beauty of a story is not in its apparent conclusion but in the alteration in the mind of the reader that has occurred along the way.” In that sense, Kieron’s success has a lovely double meaning that warms my heart.
One of my favorite books of the last few years is Manchán Magan’s Thirty-Two Words for Field. It does all the things I love most about reading—I’ve learned a lot about Irish culture and the roots of the Irish language, and come to understand so much about the import of linguistic diversity. In the spirit of bringing many of the various and varied ways we learn together into one exceptional event, Manchán will be coming to ZingTrain on the evening of Wednesday, April 20, to do a performance of his one-man show Arán & Im (in English, “Bread and Butter”). In the show, Manchán will share stories and learnings from the book, and do it all in a hands-on, culinarily engaging way, by making sourdough bread and churning old-fashioned butter. Even my introverted self can’t wait to go to the show. I hope you’ll join us. (In the meantime, here’s a nice podcast to give you more background.) There are only about 40 seats total and only a single show. Copies of the book will be available for sale on site. Seats are very limited, so sign up soon!
In summarizing his hopes for his writing, Manchán writes:
Life is certainly dense with levels of experience, both mainstream and liminal, and I hope this book has shown that Irish can be one way to access some of its overlooked layers. When we dare to tune in, or open up to it, certain things begin to show themselves. Maybe they do so gently to begin with, but over time, the invisible and inaudible become visible and audible, and our lives are deepened and enriched.
What Manchán describes has certainly been true for me reading his book. It’s also a great depiction of what reading does for me every day. By reading regularly ourselves, and by encouraging the same with those we work with, we have the chance to bring dignity, beauty, diversity, self-growth, and creative inspiration ever more into our daily lives, both individually and organizationally.
In the spirit of what I wrote a few weeks ago about judging our organizational success in great part by looking at how many lives we have enhanced in the course of our work, encouraging reading is one of the most meaningful of the many ways we can do that. The shift in Kieron’s self-confidence is only one small example. Heather Cox Richardson, whose enews I read religiously, writes:
Every day, people write to me and say they feel helpless to change the direction of our future. I always answer that we change the future by changing the way people think, and that we change the way people think by changing the way we talk about things.
Regular reading, working our brains out by taking in the words on the printed page is, I believe, one of the best ways we can make that happen. The cost is incredibly low, the benefits exceptionally high. Read on, and right on! Here’s to good things—and a lot of good reading—to come.