Every summer, from 1968 to 1974, James Boggs, Grace Lee Boggs, Freddy Paine, and Lyman Paine went to rural Maine to meet and share thoughts about the state of the world and what might be done to make it better. Some of what they sorted out is available in the little known, but wholly incredible, Conversations in Maine: Exploring our Nation’s Future. Back near the end of the book, on its second-to-last page, the Boggs and Paines say, “There are times when a book, a person, a discussion can change a person.” Their book might well be one of those for me. A person who also comes quickly to my mind in that context here is Stas’ Kazmierski. Two weeks from now, on Thursday, May 5, we will mark the fifth anniversary of Stas’ too early death at the age of 73. His loss was big, but his legacy will live on for a long, long time to come in the Zingerman’s Community. In the new pamphlet, I share:
In How the Irish Saved Civilization, Thomas Cahill wrote, “The great gift-givers [of history], arriving in the moment of crisis, provided for transition, for transformation, even for transfiguration, leaving us a world more varied and complex, more awesome and delightful, more beautiful and strong than the one they had found.” In Zingerman’s history, Stas’ Kazmierski was one of those gift givers. Visioning, the gift he gave us, was instrumental in creating the true and now maybe magical story of Zingerman’s. The way we wrote [our vision for] Zingerman’s 2009 was in great part possible only because of the wisdom that Stas’ had shared with us in 1993 and 1994.
The 2009 vision, along with the three other visions that have informed our organizational history, are included in full in the new pamphlet. But visioning is not the only gift Stas’ gave us. There is a wealth of facilitation techniques he taught us that we still use regularly, and it was his work that later became our Bottom Line Change recipe for organizational change. For me though, one of the most powerful tools Stas’ taught us is a technique for vision-writing that he called “Hot Pen.” Where he learned it, I don’t honestly know, but I do know that, like visioning, it changed my life. Hot Pen makes vision-writing infinitely easier. Before Hot Pen, I could have spent years worrying and wondering, trying to “figure out” what I wanted to see in my long-term future. My logical mind would never have let my closely held hopes out into the world—the voices in my head told me they wouldn’t, or shouldn’t, happen. Stas’ Hot Pen technique showed me how to just sit down and, in a matter of minutes, tap straight into the dreams and desires I’d long held, secretly, in my heart.
To put Hot Pen to work, we begin by planting our mind in some future time. And then, writing as if we’ve already arrived, we get to work. Here’s how I described Hot Pen in Secret #9 in Part 1:
Once you start writing, don’t stop. Just keep writing for those 15 to 30 minutes, regardless of how smart or silly what you’re saying may seem. Don’t start self-editing—just keep writing. When you catch yourself starting to think a lot about what to say next, just keep the “pen” (or keys) moving. (Personally, when I start wondering what to say, I often just stick in lots of swear words—it’s just the first draft and I take them out before anyone else sees it—to keep me going.) … Sometimes the most important/interesting/insightful elements of the vision are the ones that I started to edit out, but forced myself to put down anyway.
By writing quickly in this way, Hot Pen keeps our conscious brain from blocking out our dreams. Author NoViolet Bulawayo, born in Zimbabwe and now a professor at Stanford, writes in her novel We Need New Names, “I am starting to talk fast now, and I have to remember to slow down because when I get excited, I start to sound like myself and my American accent goes away.” What Bulawayo’s character is saying makes me smile—it’s an inverted but accurate testament to the power and effectiveness of Hot Pen. When we write really fast, our learned “accent” falls away, and we begin, again, “to sound like ourselves.”
Our approach at Zingerman’s is about business and life lived in an artistic way. Not like preconceived paint-by-numbers kits—living inside other peoples’ boundaries will literally, and figuratively, damage our souls and spirits. The sort of artistic existence I’m imagining is, like a great painting, unique and full of personality—graceful, imperfect, pieces that mirror who we are and reflect back positively on the community that helped us to become who we are. Hot Pen has been tremendously helpful in making that happen.
Ever worried that you’re spending more time agonizing about where you “should” be heading in life? Or felt stuck personally, and/or also organizationally while the various voices in your head argue it out? Maybe the world says you’re doing just fine, maybe even “a success,” but you’re really not sure what’s next? If you’ve felt that in the past, or still do, you’re not alone. I’ve certainly been there. So has pretty much everyone I know. These feelings can come up as we approach the end of our college years, it might happen at “mid-life,” or it can occur at any of the sort of thresholds I wrote about last week. The worry is wearing, and the uncertainty erodes our energy. There are many ways out—get advice from others, experiment with different options, look at how others are living, etc. For me, these standard offerings just left me feeling more stuck.
Paulo Coelho, world-renowned Brazilian author of The Alchemist and other life-changing books, has a similar story. Sharing from his own experience he offers, “You are unhappy because you are a prisoner of your life.” Unlike me, he had a strong feeling about his future direction even when he was a teenager; he wanted to write, but everyone he knew discouraged him from doing it. They wanted him to be an engineer so he could make a solid living. Instead, Coelho left home, wandering the world, trying out different jobs and different religions. His first book, The Hell Archives, finally came out in 1982, the year we opened the Deli, when Coelho was 35. It bombed. When he published The Alchemist in 1986, it sold under 1000 copies the first year. Fortunately for us, and for him, he stuck with it. (As the main character in The Alchemist says, “The secret of life is to fall seven times and to get up eight times.”) Writing is what helped Coelho turn his life around, and it can also help the rest of us as well. Not per se by writing books as Coelho eventually did, but by relying on the Hot Pen technique to write a vision.
I’ve written a lot about visioning—and Hot Pen—in the various pamphlets included in the Vision Pamphlet Bundle (adjusted as of this week to include the forthcoming “The Story of Visioning”). Hot Pen, and the work that follows visioning, are one of those rare things that, as the Boggs and Paines describe, “can change a person.” As they say in Conversations in Maine: “There are mysteries in each of us which we have to solve in ourselves.” Hot Pen helps those solutions come clear. What appears on the page when we use Hot Pen is, much more often than not in my experience, far closer to our true hopes and dreams than anything that can come from worrying, advice seeking, or long logical conversations about what we “should do.”
The power of Hot Pen is that our hand keeps moving and keeps our conscious brain on the sideline. As writer E.L. Doctorow once said, “Planning to write is not writing. Outlining … researching … talking to people about what you’re doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing.” Hot Pen is a powerful tool, but to Doctorow’s point, it does us no good unless we actually sit down and do it. If you’re intrigued, put this piece aside and do it right now—let me know what happens!
One of the characters in Doctorow’s book Ragtime was Emma Goldman. She appears regularly in the story, encouraging the characters to let go of long-held, socially-approved beliefs. In this sense, Emma’s character works much like Hot Pen, in the spirit of Rollo May’s statement that, “The opposite of courage in our society is not cowardice, it’s conformity.” In the last days of December of 1919, Emma Goldman was expelled from the U.S. for her anarchism and for speaking out against war. Since Goldman had come originally from Lithuania, part of the Russian Empire, in the final days of 1885 at the age of 16, she was sent back to the then two-year old Soviet Union. At the time of her deportation, radical thinkers were hoping that the “new Russia” would be a model of what I described last month as the Revolution of Dignity. It took Goldman only a few short months to realize that the reality in Russia was exactly the opposite; the Bolshevik Pyramid of Power had simply replaced that of the Tsar. She started speaking out against the Bolshevik regime as she had spoken out here in the U.S.: “To remain silent now is impossible, even criminal.” The framing is extreme, but it could be that staying silent in the face of our “secret” dreams is not dissimilar.
In 1921 Emma Goldman escaped the Soviet Union. Two years later, she published her third full book (she had also put out dozens of essays and pamphlets) with a title that might well have been written in 2022: My Disillusionment with Russia. In it, she wrote:
To-day is the parent of to-morrow. The present casts its shadow far into the future. That is the law of life, individual and social. Revolution that divests itself of ethical values thereby lays the foundation of injustice, deceit, and oppression for the future society. The means used to prepare the future become its cornerstone.
The next line in the book isn’t really relevant to what I’m writing here, but it’s totally appropriate to the moment and one more testament to how Emma Goldman was consistently way ahead of her time: “Witness the tragic condition of Russia.” Goldman then continued:
Revolutionary methods must be in tune with revolutionary aims. The means used to further the revolution must harmonize with its purposes.
In a wonderful way, Hot Pen is wholly congruent with the sort of visions we want to write. It’s free to use, and it helps us claim our own freedom. It’s easy to learn effectively, and equitable. (If someone is uncomfortable with the physical act of writing, they can speak and someone else can transcribe.) Rather than our bosses, our families, or social media dictating our path, it helps us listen to our hearts and long-held dreams. When a teenage Paulo Coehlo told his parents that he wanted to be a writer, they sent him to an asylum. Three times. Many of us do this to ourselves, locking our lives up in socially constructed straitjackets. Hot Pen can help us get out.
Hot Pen is essentially, in practice, what English majors might call “free writing.” There are big benefits to doing it. The Life Purpose Institute offers a list of fifteen, all of which sum up my amazing experience with vision-writing using Hot Pen.
- Reduces expectations of perfection.
- Provides unimpeded release of your thoughts and emotions.
- Builds self-confidence.
- Brings out emotional blocks and barriers to your success.
- Helps you develop good, healthy habits.
- Offers a blank slate for 100% honesty.
- Provides practice in releasing self-judgment and judgment from others.
- Increases creativity and inspiration.
- Uncovers thoughts and ideas you never knew you had.
- Assists in sorting through difficult situations.
- Acts as a forum for being truly authentic and YOU.
- Allows you to be more present in your day-to-day interactions.
- Fosters a greater sense of clarity and focus.
- Changes your perspective on challenging situations.
- Increases awareness of patterns and themes in your life.
The key of Hot Pen is that once we begin, it absolutely requires us to keep writing. It’s a bit like riding a bike—if you stop moving, you fall over. Any time you catch yourself starting to think too much, you try to write faster. Humorist Don Marquis says, “I never think at all when I write. Nobody can do two things at the same time and do them both well.” He got me laughing, but it fits. The faster we go, the less we think, the more effectively our inner thoughts emerge. To Emma Goldman’s point, the “ends” we are putting down on paper become ever more congruent with the means we are using. The freedom we all want in our lives, it turns out, is exactly what can help us find out what it is we really want.
Freedom sounds good, but it can also be scary. Which is one reason, I’ve come to understand, that many of us, as I did 30 years ago, resist sitting down to write a vision. I know many folks, including some good friends (I love you all) who have spent way more time talking about writing a vision than it would actually take to write one. I’ve never read a Stephen King novel and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film made from one either (life is scary enough for me as it is). I do, though have his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. These two lines from the book sum up a lot of what I have to say about vision-writing with Hot Pen:
- “The scariest moment is always just before you start.”
- “You can, you should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will.”
In the context of courage, it would be hard for me to look at what people in Ukraine are doing to stand up for freedom, without pushing myself to claim my own freedom by writing out a heart-felt vision for my future. There is an energy that emanates from people who are self-actualized, fighting for closely held positive causes. It’s the magic that I wrote about last month. Visioning with Hot Pen is hardly the only way to access it, but it’s certainly by far one of the most effective ones I’ve ever encountered. When we do it well—which I will tell you from experience, to Stephen King’s point, it is much easier than many of us make it out to be—we can make happen what Paulo Coelho says:
A personal legend … is your dream, something that you want to do that gives you joy, that you love … . So you want to be a gardener, for example. And then you go to your parents, and your parents say, “Oh, gardener? First, go to the university. Get a diploma. Then you can take care of your garden in your spare times.” Or you want to be a writer. Or, you want to be an explorer. Or you want to be a—whatever. … you want to do something that is against the plans that other people have for you. … there, you face this very hard choice. Either you start living the dreams of someone else—meaning your parents, your wife, your husband—or paying the price of your dream. So this is the most hard choice that you have in life. At the very beginning of your life, when you are a teenager, you know what you want. Then you forget for a while. It happened to me.
I can relate, and maybe you can too. Writing a vision with Hot Pen, I’ve seen hundreds of times now, helps us “remember.” It can quickly bring out what’s inside us, gently helping work around the voices and advice of others, to bring out our true hopes and dreams. While that sounds inspiring for many of us, Hot Pen, I know, can also feel risky. We don’t know in advance what we will write, and we are removing the socially imposed “safety rails” that so many of us have internalized. We may still choose, freely, not to pursue our dreams for good reasons. The key, in my experience, is that we freely choose our path, rather than acting as if we are compelled by others.
While my understanding of Hot Pen is experiential and intuitive, the scientific world has repeatedly said similar things. Carl Rogers, the originator of the Human Potential Movement, said in 1980, two years before we opened the Deli:
Human beings have potentially available a tremendous range of intuitive powers. We are indeed wiser than our intellects. There is much evidence. We are learning how sadly we have neglected the capacities of the non-rational, creative “metaphoric mind”—the right half of our brain. … man is to some degree the architect of himself. … the individual has within himself or herself vast resources for self-understanding, for altering his or her self-concept, attitudes and self-directed behavior.
Robert Henri, whose book The Art Spirit was one of the life-changing sorts for me that the Boggs and Paines referenced, wrote, “There are moments in our lives, there are moments in a day, when we seem to see beyond the usual.” This, when it’s working well, is what Hot Pen helps make happen! Call it “flow,” “clarity,” “magic,” “positive energy,” or call it whatever you want. Once one gets used to it, it’s fun, it’s freeing, it’s fast, and it’s immensely helpful as we work to find ourselves. No one who’s experienced it would want to go back to life without it. If you once had that feeling but now feel lost, Hot Pen just might help you find your way back.
Countless times over the years, people who try vision-writing using Hot Pen will, even in only ten minutes of writing, share how remarkable their experience has been. “I can’t believe how much came out in such a short time,” is a common response. Others talk about how relieved they felt to have put down on paper what they’d secretly long believed. Often things emerge that we didn’t even know were in there. NoViolet Bulawayo writes, “If I bring forth what is inside me, what I bring forth will save me.” The visioning process is very much about finding our voices, voices which, as I suggest in the new pamphlet and elsewhere, we all have, even if we’ve managed to hide them for years, even from ourselves.
Terry Tempest Williams writes in When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice,
Once upon a time, when women were birds, there was the simple understanding that to sing at dawn and to sing at dusk was to heal the world through joy. The birds still remember what we have forgotten: that the world is meant to be celebrated.
Visioning is a way to let our birds sing, to celebrate the possibilities of the planet. Sadly, when tensions are high, when fear is in the air, when we don’t feel safe, we hunker down, ensconced in the status quo, and we stop singing. Two years ago this week, at the start of the pandemic, Jorge Colombo wrote in The New Yorker, “The birds must think we’ve gone extinct.” NoViolet Bulawayo writes, “When things fall apart, the children of the land scurry and scatter like birds escaping a burning sky.” Industrialization, dehumanization, war, racism, exclusion … all push people to hide physically, and also to emotionally hide who they really are. In a spiritual version of laryngitis, we lose our “voice.” Hot Pen can help bring it back. Organizations where visioning is used regularly become places where we can all begin to sing together in ever more beautiful ways.
In his acceptance speech to the Brazilian Academy of Letters, Paulo Coelho reminded us:
Whenever we need to make an important decision,
it is best to trust impulse and passion,
because reason usually tries to remove us from our dream,
saying that the time is not yet right.
Reason is afraid of defeat,
but intuition enjoys life and its challenges.
There is a magic, energy, and magnanimity that happens when we trust our intuitions—both directly, when we’re listening to our own inner dreams, and also when someone close to us experiences it as well.
Half a century ago, the Boggs and Paines wrote, “Somehow we must begin to help people understand that they are capable of envisaging another way to live.” A vision, written from the heart using Hot Pen, remains, nearly 30 years after Stas’ taught it to us, one of the best ways I know to make that happen.