Ever met someone in your life and, inexplicably, in about two seconds, you knew that the connection was something special? Maybe you heard some music that you instantly realized you’d likely be listening to for the rest of your life? Or maybe it was the incredible magic of walking in an old growth forest, reading a breathtaking bit of poetry, the birth of your child, tasting great chocolate for the first time, or the indescribable beauty of watching the sunset on a lovely late September afternoon? These kinds of things occur in business as well. Ever hired someone and, even though their résumé wasn’t quite what you’d thought you were looking for, you just knew they were someone you wanted to work with? Or when you walked into a restaurant and things just felt remarkably, right? The details in each of our lives might be different, but the experience, I believe, is universal. They are magical moments we will surely remember for the rest of our lives.
While we can offer theories that explain a good bit of why all these things happen, I keep coming back to the reality that no matter how we slice, dice, or dissect them, there remains something inexplicable—elements of the equation that are understandable, but not fully understood. Modern science and the influence of the Industrial Revolution have pushed us to quantify, qualify, and to assess each element of an ecosystem in isolation. Yaneer Bar-Yam, an expert in systems analysis, reminds us, “A complex system is formed out of many components whose behavior is emergent, that is, the behavior of the system cannot be simply inferred from the behavior of its components. … Emergent properties cannot be studied by physically taking a system apart and looking at the parts.” Which means there is more to what's happening in our organizations than basic math might lead us to believe. The “more,” I will suggest, is the mystery and magic that we would do well to both encourage, and also actively appreciate.
I realize my feelings on the subject might be influenced by the fact that I’m writing this from Florence (Italy, not Florence, Indiana), which is one of the most magical places I’ve ever been. In fact, the photo above is of some beyond-belief-good wild strawberries that are already coming into season here. While I can offer theories on why Florence is so fantastic, or cite the science of what makes wild strawberries so special, there is still something more to what takes my experience of them beyond that. It's important for us to learn to watch for, work towards, and embrace that magic, since, as Wendell Berry writes, “Mystery, the unknown, our ignorance, always will be with us.”
Two weeks ago, I wrote a lot about messiness. It occurred to me while reflecting on our 40th anniversary last week that maybe the inverse of “mess” might then be magic and mystery. While we can come up with a plethora of theories to explain either of them, the truth is that each is greater—or in the case of a mess, maybe less—than the sum of its individual components. And when I think about Zingerman’s over the 14,618 days we’ve now been in business, it would be disingenuous to deny that it is, in fact, more than a bit magical. Not magic or mystery in the sense of someone waving a wand and the world of Zingerman’s appeared, but rather in the sense of having made something happen—with human beings or in our world with food and drink—that is so special it’s impossible to really say fully why it happened as it did. Shared with humility, I’ve heard it so many times, in so many marvelous ways, that, owning our many imperfections, it is a special place to be, and/or be a part of.
Although I grew up trying to process everything through an exceedingly logical lens, I’ve spent most of my life learning that, whether I like it or not, there’s more to it than logic and reason can explain. Even Albert Einstein said the same:
The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed. … A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty.
Marcelo Gleiser is a scholar at Dartmouth College whose studies include the combination of philosophy, physics, and astronomy. I doubt that Gleiser has it on his résumé, but for his Bar Mitzvah he was gifted a signed photo of Albert Einstein. Gleiser’s grandfather, it turns out, met the great scientist in Brazil back in 1925, and in many ways Gleiser set out to follow in Einstein’s creative scholarly footsteps. Born 63 years ago this week in Brazil, Gleiser grew up with a Jewish education that sounds not unlike the one I had 5000 miles to the north in Chicago. Not finding the answers he was seeking in the religion with which he was raised, Gleiser turned to the study of science. In a similar sense, I dove into history and anarchism, and then, later in life, the study of leadership and business. We have each in our own ways, over time, concluded that there’s more to what happens—both in the natural world and in organizational life—than can ever be completely understood or effectively explained with only logic and reason. His work, I’m imagining, would have made his grandfather proud; a year before the pandemic began, Gleiser was awarded the Templeton Prize in recognition of his outstanding contributions to “affirming life’s spiritual dimension.”
Gleiser’s work in this regard runs counter to what most of his scientific colleagues might say. “One of the grand goals of modern physics,” Gleiser observes, “has been to build a theory of everything … that would in principle explain all that we can observe in nature in terms of a single force.” The problem, he says, is that after centuries of intensive studies, he and others have concluded that “the theory of everything is an impossibility as a matter of principle. … we are definitely limited in how much we can know of the world.” As much as many advocate for a reductionist approach, what happens around us simply cannot be explained with solely scientific solutions. All of which helps me to make peace with the uncomfortable reality that no matter how much I might want things to go the way I want, no matter how many models, recipes, SOPs, and structures we create in our businesses, there will still be things that happen that we/I will not be able to fully account for or ever understand.
Architect Christopher Alexander calls this the “quality without a name.” Vaclav Havel, writer and former president of the Czech Republic, used to say that this was “the mystery of being.” Poet Ra Avis refers to it as “sparkle and hope.” Like Marcelo Gleiser, I’m wholly agnostic, but those who are more religious might call it “God.” Others, still, call it consciousness. I like the way Krista Tippett talks about it, when she suggests we manage “mystery as something thrilling and animating and also eventually linked to science.” Personally, I imagine it at times as positive energy, other times still as love. For the moment, I’m going to weave them all together here to think of them, in the best possible way, as magic and mystery.
All that said, I’m not suggesting what we’ve created is an accident, or that there’s no method to our magic. To the contrary, there are many things that I confidently feel have contributed to what we do, that help us to understand what makes an organization special, and what makes it work in a meaningful way. The Natural Laws of Business, visioning, energy management, Bottom-Line training, the healthy application of anarchism, strong systems design, continuous learning, active and engaged teaching, Open-book Management, Lean, traditional full-flavored food, and a super strong commitment to customer service all contribute. There’s also commitment to place, being engaged with one’s local ecosystem, positive beliefs, hope, healthy organizational culture, the spirit of generosity, soul, and mission. Creative uniqueness counts for a lot as well. They, and others I have not listed here, all matter and all aid us in managing ourselves and our organizations. And yet, I’m continually reminded that it’s still ultimately impossible to quantify or qualify how much each element contributes, impossible to really know how much we would suffer if we were to cut one of them out. (If you want to read one example of how to make organizational magic erode into a management mess, check out Seth Godin’s post from this past Monday.) While it’s easy to offer explanations after the fact, as Marcelo Gleiser and Albert Einstein have said, there is still—even in the third decade of the 21st century—more to it than our logical minds can understand.
It’s the magic that makes one Saturday dinner rush mysteriously marvelous, and then, a week later—with almost an identical crew and roughly the same level of sales—messiness dominates. It’s what creates the feelings that all those kind folks I quoted last week about their connection to Zingerman’s offered up. It’s the chemistry that takes great teams over the top, or that makes one chef’s version of a dish so incredibly delicious when ten others did pretty much the same thing. It’s why a couple times a year a great cheesemaker’s cheese is so good it’s beyond belief, and part of why my partnership with Paul has worked as well as it has for 40 years now. Why do these things happen? We may have many good systems to stick with, best practices to follow, and yet, that “quality without a name” remains a part of the equation. Marcelo Gleiser writes:
What we see of the world is only a sliver of what’s “out there.” There is much that is invisible to the eye … We strive toward knowledge, always more knowledge, but must understand that we are, and will remain, surrounded by mystery.
We will not, in a world where we know that everything is out of control, ever be able to fully manage the magic. What we can do is manage in a way that will move—our organizations and/or our personal lives—towards it with ever greater effectiveness. I’m working to be mindful of Chloe Valdary’s suggestion to “appreciate the mystery that exists in everyone, to delight in it and not push away from it.”
One of the fascinating mysteries of human existence that this makes me consider is the amazing way that people can come together in a crisis. Observers are continually blown away by how things that were divisively pushing people apart even days earlier, can seemingly evaporate almost overnight. We’re socially trained to focus on drama, and biologically biased to stare at what’s scary and bad, which means if we’re not actively paying attention, we likely won’t notice the “sparkle and hope” that’s behind the headlines.
Careful observers, on the other hand, consistently point out the caring and collaborative, even if illogical in a sense, magic that so often shows up in these difficult moments. As Rebecca Solnit reminds us:
When all the ordinary divides and patterns are shattered, people step up to become their brothers’ keepers. And that purposefulness and connectedness bring joy even amidst death, chaos, fear, and loss.
This is what seems to be happening now in the horror of bombing and killing and the humanitarian refugee crisis in Ukraine. Here’s this from NPR the other day where long time correspondent Ari Shapiro reported from Poland:
We have seen this astounding and apparently effective emergency relief effort that stood up here on the border practically overnight. … just a remarkable level of generosity, patience and understanding. … everywhere you turn, someone is offering whatever refugees might need—grilled sausages, COVID tests, veterinary services … It’s like this entire ecosystem that just sprung up in two weeks.
My friend Pavel Hrica in Slovakia, who I referenced last week (along with his inspirational work to help the Roma people), shared a similar story from Bratislava:
This horror has created also some positive response. I am so surprised with the level of solidarity towards [Ukrainian refugees] here. It is not typical. Many people make donations and volunteer and offer accomodation. …My friends developed an online education tool for Ukrainian kids here. Others organise collections. People are creative and active. Yes, terrible and crazy times now. Freedom and solidarity are stronger than tyranny.
George Orwell wrote about much the same thing that played out during the tragic years of the Spanish Civil War in the regions where equity, humanness, anarchism, and authenticity appeared in really prominent and positive ways:
Many of the normal motives of civilized life—snobbishness, money-grubbing, fear of the boss, etc.—had simply ceased to exist. … One realized afterwards that one had been in contact with something strange and valuable. One had been in a community where hope was more normal than apathy or cynicism, where the word “comrade” stood for comradeship and not, as in most countries, for humbug. One had breathed the air of equality.
One of these moments changed Dorothy Day’s life. As PBS tells it:
Born in 1897, Dorothy Day was 8 years old when she lived through the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. In the aftermath of the seismic shock, she watched as people reached out to help each other—pitching tents, giving clothing, making food. “While the crisis lasted people loved each other,” she wrote in her autobiography.
Day went on to become an inspirational leader; a very observant, anarchistically-oriented Catholic; the founder of the The Catholic Worker; and someone who contributed both compassion and physical assistance to thousands over the course of her life. Her biographer, Paul Eli, writes that for the rest of her life, Day, “would try to recapture the sense of real and spontaneous community she felt then, and would strive to reform the world around her so as to make such community possible.” Later in life, Day suggested something that still resonates with me all these years later: “Let’s build a society where it’s easier for people to be good to each other.”
All of which has had me thinking: what can we do to make the kind of magic that has happened in newly set up refugee shelters, life in anarchist Spain in the Civil War, or the great acts of generosity and compassion that Dorothy Day witnessed in 1908, become a more regular affair? As anarchist poet, philosopher and professor Paul Goodman once put it:
Suppose you had the revolution you are talking about and dreaming about. Suppose your side had won, and you had the kind of society that you wanted. How would you live, you personally, in that society? Start living that way now!
For me, and in alignment with what Solnit, Shapiro, Hrica, Orwell, and Day are all elucidating, this means to make the Revolution of Dignity a daily reality, not just a once a decade reaction to disaster. Exactly why and how we make this happen we cannot fully quantify, but we can do our best to increase the odds of it occurring. Gustav Landauer, the pacifist German Jewish anarchist who was kicked to death during the German Revolution of 1919, wrote that:
During revolution, people are filled by spirit and differ completely from those without spirit. During revolution, everyone is filled with the spirit that is otherwise reserved for exemplary individuals; everyone is courageous, wild and fanatic and caring and loving at the same time.
The courage, the caring, and the love that Landauer, and all the others above, have described is what we are working to make a daily reality in our workplace here at Zingerman’s, acknowledging that “we are, and will remain, surrounded by mystery…” while at the same time working hard to help make mystery and magic happen in the best possible ways. When this magical coming-together at such high levels of love, dignity, and connection works well, it’s hard to go back. Gustav Landauer wrote that “Whoever discovers this community in himself will be eternally blessed and joyful, and a return to the common and arbitrary communities of today will be impossible.” Which is, it seems, some of what’s happening in Ukraine. Having made spiritual space for themselves with the Revolution of Dignity in 2014, people are not willing to return to living in the confined spiritual quarters inside the Pyramid of Power.
Ultimately this shift in mindset must be grounded in humbleness. Wendell Berry writes:
The change of mind I am talking about involves not just a change of knowledge, but also a change of attitude toward our essential ignorance, a change in our bearing in the face of mystery. The principle of ecology, if we will take it to heart, should keep us aware that our lives depend upon other lives and upon processes and energies in an interlocking system that, though we can destroy it, we can neither fully understand nor fully control.
When we do it well, we can make an ecosystem that encourages magic in the best possible way. A workplace where ideas inspire instead of being ignored; where conflict is more likely to turn into creative solutions. Where lapses in leadership can be addressed by everyone involved with love and care. Rather than seek retributive justice, we can take a deep breath, believe the best, and proceed to deal with the issues at hand in inspiring and strategically sound ways. In the context of what I wrote last week, thank YOU for being a part of that unmeasurable but nevertheless meaningful magic.
It’s not always easy for me to embrace, but the magic and the mess will remain part of our leadership lives. Rather than fight it, try to control it, eliminate it, or legislate it away, we can lean into when it happens. To learn as Marcelo Gleiser has done through decades of deep study and engagement with science that our work is “not so much about finding all the answers but actually about courting with the mystery of the unknown.”
Life, I’m reminded regularly, is short. I’m committed to celebrating that magic and mystery everywhere I can find it and doing my best to make more of it whenever and wherever I can. In that sense, I might consider framing the now-four-decades-long-and-still-counting story of what we have done at Zingerman’s in the same way the Beatles once did, a seriously marvelous “Magical Mystery Tour.” In hindsight, I realize now, smiling, they somehow managed to foretell the title of Micki Maynard’s new book about Zingerman’s in the third line of the lyrics from this stanza of their famous 65-year-old song:
Roll up for the Mystery Tour
Roll up for the Mystery Tour
Here’s to making more dignified, delicious, caring, and compassionate magic happen here, in your world, and around the world!