Sorrow At Work: A Bereavement Policy

You would think since I co-founded (with Dr. Karen Scott) Lost & Found Grief Center in Springfield, Missouri nearly 18 years ago, am on the board, and have facilitated a teen group on and off for many years that I would have done this before now. It’s embarrassing actually. Backing up, at Lost & Found we provide free grief support for children and teens who have experienced the death of a loved one. If you’ve read my book you know that this place is near and dear to my heart. We’ve served thousands of children and their families over the years.

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO, was interviewed not long after her husband died unexpectedly and said the company would be adding a bereavement policy to its benefit package. When I heard about this I had to get my hands on the new policy which was not easy but I did. They now offer 20 days paid leave in the case of the death of an immediate family member and 10 after the death of an extended family member. Of course they have great benefits, they’re Facebook, one of the most valuable companies in the world. I wanted our little company of 17 full time employees to have our own bereavement policy. We already have a maternity/paternity policy. For tiny companies these benefits can be very expensive and challenging to execute. But, as my grandma used to say “we’re makin’ it.”

There are many reasons we small business owners should follow Facebook on this idea. First, it’s the right thing to do. It sends a message of compassion that will be heard. Second, it makes financial sense as studies estimate that American companies lose tens of billions of dollars in lost productivity because employees cannot focus on work [citations omitted – google it]. Third, grief is a workplace health issue and as an educated society we need to work on this and treat it with the respect it deserves. Fourth, we don’t need the government to solve this problem because businesses can do it and lead the way together.

Ten days is not “enough” and neither is ten years because guess what? If your child dies your grief will never end. Ever. Or how about the man whose wife died and he was left with five children under ten? He needs more than 10 days. We implemented our new policy Friday. Feel free to copy and paste or use this to consider your own bereavement policy. What we’re trying to do is say “We recognize this death in your family, we see you and care about you and will pay you for this time off.” Of course we cannot “fix” the pain but we can participate in the sorrows of our coworkers as best we can.

Please consider joining us and implement your own bereavement policy. Once your employee returns then the work of learning the language of a broken heart begins in earnest. I hope your town has a grief center like Lost & Found that you can suggest to your employees who are learning to walk with their families in grief.

Thank you Sheryl Sandberg for bringing this to our collective attention in the midst of your profound sadness. Here is our policy for you to cut, copy, paste and revise:

This policy applies to employees who qualify for PTO. Non-qualifying employees should see their direct supervisor to address cases on an individual basis.

Askinosie Chocolate allows employees up to 10 paid working days on the death of an immediate family member. An immediate family member is a spouse (same/opposite sex), a domestic partner (same/opposite sex), and children (including step-, a domestic partner’s, or a foster child).

Askinosie Chocolate allows employees up to 3 paid working days on the death of an extended family member. An extended family member is a parent (including step-, in-law, and domestic partner’s), a sibling (includes step, in-law, and domestic partner’s), a grandparent (includes step, in-law, and domestic partner’s), grandchild (includes step and domestic partner’s).

 

Restoration Hardware: You Might Need A Retreat in 2018

Assumption Abbey Photo .jpg

It’s a cool store and all but that’s not what I am talking about. I am talking about what you might consider as you look at the unfolding year in front of you. Taking a retreat (or two) this coming year could be the opportunity for your very own restoration hardware and software of body and soul. I’ve written extensively about my retreats to Assumption Abbey in my new book, Meaningful Work. My retreating to the guesthouse of this Trappist monastery, located in the heart of the Mark Twain National Forest in Southern Missouri, started 17 years ago. The gravitational pull of this holy ground is fully described in the book. My retreats deepened over the years to the point that four years ago I decided to become Family Brother. I’m no longer a guest but when I visit the abbey, as I did this past week, I live behind the cloister with the monks, and fully participate in their rhythm of prayer and work. But I am getting way ahead of myself so let’s back up and dive in to the “how” you can take a retreat in 2018. I am not going to take time to talk about “why” we all need our hardware and software restored and make the presumption you know who you are. And further presume that you feel this need down deep in your bones. Let’s jump in.

  1. Schedule your retreat and put it on the calendar. Tim Ferriss is right about this; schedule it now, block off the time, buy a plane ticket, make a reservation, do something that will lock you in and diminish the likelihood of cancelling it.
  2. “Time apart from the world” is what the monks call it. How much time should that be? My retreats at Assumption have always been three to five days. I would take longer time if I could and encourage you to try it if your schedule permits. Less than three and it’s not really worth it since it takes me a minimum of 24 hours (more in my earlier days) to settle down without a cell signal or any access to Wi-Fi. I can begin to feel the rhythm of the place at about 48 hours.
  3. Where to go? There are many retreat and meditation centers around the world. There are monasteries all over the world with guest housing. There are forty Benedictine and thirteen Trappist monasteries here in the U.S. that have guest facilities. Most of these places are very inexpensive asking only for a small nightly donation. It’s important to remember that these spots are not The Four Seasons. I will say, however, that guests are very important in all monasteries because in most contemplative traditions hospitality is a critical facet of spirituality. The Benedictine Rule, for example, devotes an entire chapter to the topic, stating, “Any guest who happens to arrive at the monastery should be received just as we would receive Christ himself.” You might be wondering if a retreat necessitates staying at a religious guesthouse. Of course not. You could stay home and have a retreat, rent a cabin in the woods near you, or pitch a tent on the Pacific Crest Trail. Likewise you may ask if it’s okay to go to a religious place for a retreat, even if you’re not religious and the answer is yes. At my abbey, for example, nobody is expected or required to attend any the five prayer services per day open to the public. There are no monks trying to convert anyone. If you are having trouble finding the right place let me humbly suggest Assumption Abbey, home of the best fruitcakes this side of heaven. Give our guesthouse manager,Jill, a call at the and she will set you up. That way you’ll have an excuse to stop by a chocolate factory that I know located in the town you’ll be flying into before traveling to the monastery.
  4. Who should you go with? My short answer is: yourself. Go alone. There are many types of structured group retreats you can attend which include learning and group discussion and those are indeed beneficial but that is not what I am talking about here. My retreat is one of solitude. This takes a lot of courage because most of us are not used to being alone with the thoughts in our heads that dart from one place to the next. We’re not accustomed to it because we’re able to tamp them down and keep them just below the surface with scrolling, likes, views, shares and retweets. I’ve been retreating for 17 years and sometimes it’s still hard for me. In fact, sometimes it’s downright painful. Sounds like so much fun! Then “why the hell would you want to do this?” you ask. Thomas Merton says “Solitude means being lonely not in a way that pleases you but in a way that frightens and empties you to the extent that it means being exiled even from yourself.” Wait, that might be the comfy quote I was looking for. There’s a point here I promise. The point is that once we can settle in and dip just below the surface of our monkey minds we can find rest and deepen the search for our true selves. And even experience glimpses of pure joy in the process.
  5. What’s the retreat agenda? This is a trick question because an agenda of questions we’re hoping to answer is generally not a good idea and often results in disappointment. I know this from hard earned experience. A general intention for our retreat is a great idea, however. For example, during my visit this past week, while not really a “retreat” my intention was to restart my practice of “centering prayer” as a method of resting in God’s presence. Obviously, we might think in advance, “on this day I want to hike in the mornings and pray at these times and journal at this time.” For the most part, I recommend that you leave big blocks of time for being alone with no agenda but thought, rest, reflection, prayer, walking and writing. It’s tempting to have long conversations with other guests but I’d suggest resisting it as a possible distraction from your solitude. At my abbey you can ask to speak with a monk, the Guestmaster, if you’d like and that can be productive. I tell people to generally schedule that conversation for the next to the last day of the retreat in order to have time to settle down and quiet your mind. However, if the anxiety level is super high at the outset it might be a good to chat with one of the monks right at the beginning or even before you arrive.

A retreat in solitude can be restful and recharge your batteries. Mostly, though, it gives us a chance to momentarily experience our true selves once we reduce the noise. The greatest benefit of a retreat is the awareness that you can “bring it with you” into the world after your time apart. I have yet to master this but I am working on it, details in the book.

Happy Birthday Morrie! (the one from Tuesday’s With Morrie)

Today would have been Morrie Schwartz’s 99th Birthday. If you’ve read my book you know that Morrie and his book had a powerful influence in my life. Instead of pulling one of my favorite quotes from his book (and there are many) I decided to tell a story in honor of Morrie and one that I think he’d like. He was one of my teachers, albeit through his book, and so my story is about students.

Last Saturday we had our orientation meeting for our brand new Askinosie Chocolate University Class of 2018. They are super smart, competitive, accomplished local juniors and seniors in high school. About half of our students are on full scholarship which means we raise the money for them to participate. The other half can pay on their own because their parents have the money. These students will meet with us periodically over the coming Spring. Then they’ll spend a week together this July in the Drury University dorms near our factory getting to know each other, studying our business model, learning about cocoa beans and chocolate, a little Tanzanian culture, language and history. They will go home and pack and meet us at the airport and we’ll travel to Tanzania to meet our farmer partners in an adventure of a lifetime. I have been doing this since we started the program in 2009. It fits within our local elementary, middle and high school projects.

Back to the orientation meeting with our somewhat nervous, bright-eyed students and their parents. We covered the practical need to know things like passports, visas, food, malaria, air travel, forms and medical histories. Then it was my turn to explain why we are going on this trip to begin with: business. The business of buying cocoa beans and profit sharing with farmers. I explained the things they might see, smell, taste, and experience. I showed a few pictures of beautiful lake Nyasa and the village, the farmers, the children.

I explained that they will see striking images of joy and sorrow side by side. I looked at each of our students and said “I am sure that your hearts will break, some of you a little and some of you a lot. If not then we have not done our job. It’s my hope that your heart will break not because of the poverty that you see in the people of Africa but because of the poverty you see in yourself.” I challenged our students to consider that (almost) anyone can travel to Africa, observe terrible things and feel sad. Some of it IS sad but not all it and some is both joyful and sad at the same time. But not all of us can absorb the experience, feel the sadness, feel the joy and recognize the depths of our own malnourishment.  

Our students more often than not come into this experience earnestly wanting to “help the people of Africa” until the blindfolds are removed and they see that it’s not their job. Their job is to let their hearts break because as Leonard Cohen would say “that’s how the light gets in.”

Here’s the lesson for me: I dont need to travel halfway around the world to see this. I can let the light in right here, right now. 

CU2018

How To Write A Book With Your Daughter: a good topic since ours comes out in 9 days

First, get a daughter. Next, make sure that she’s a great writer. Then, write a book. That’s all there is to it. The real title to this post should have been “what’s it like to write a book with your daughter.” Now, that’s something I can talk about. I guess I am kind of an expert. I am not going to say that the entire writing process with Lawren was a cakewalk but I will say that it was an experience I would not trade for a billion dollars. “Wow! That’s a lot of money,” you say. “Are you sure?” Yes, I am sure. Here’s why.

It all started in 2002. Lawren was 12 and playing Annie in Annie at Springfield Little Theatre. I was a busy trial lawyer in those days with a heavy docket of criminal cases to occupy my mind and time. I think I went to all of her rehearsals and all of the shows but I remember one night in particular. I was with Caron, sitting in the 4th or 5th row, and Lawren belted Tomorrow to the back wall of the theatre and the whole thing just came over me. It was one of the first times I was teleported (not really but I can’t think of a better word) to heaven. I remember telling Caron that night right before we went to sleep that if I did not wake up all would be well with me, that I knew what heaven will be like.

Little Lawren Annie

Fast forward 5 years, then 10. My chocolate factory in full swing, the courtroom behind me, and Lawren working with me full time right out of college. She helped write copy for our website when she was 15. Today, remotely from Austin, she’s our Chief Marketing Officer and my trusted confidant on pretty much all strategy matters related to the business. When a real opportunity crossed my path to write a book about 3 years ago I knew that I would want Lawren as my co-author. She is a gifted writer and storyteller. Look at our little company today and the sense that you get about us is her handy work.

I did most, not all by any stretch, of the original writing. Lawren edited my writing; in some cases heavily and in others not as much. But there’s more to the story. She helped me articulate the thoughts in my head by asking me questions upon questions not only about the business model ideas but my own personal story that gives context to all of it. It’s a surreal moment when your daughter helps you write about painful times in your life. She did that for me. She helped me uncover what I was really trying to say. Not just a story of this happened and then that happened. She helped me give the story deeper other meaning.

Given that we’re both pretty intense people you can imagine that there were some arguments and hurt feelings along the way. We mended those quickly, often within minutes or hours of the strife. The book I hope you read is better because of this intensity that we share not in spite of it. I wrote the book because I had something to say with hope you’ll find something in it just for you. I also wrote it on purpose, with Lawren, so someday her children and their children will have this little book that we both worked on together with stories that mean something.

When I first held the book in my hands last week with our picture together on the back flap, for a moment I was carried back to Annie, Tomorrow, and heaven. That’s what it feels like to write a book with your daughter.

Lawren Shawn back flap

 

“People Come, People Go”: The meaningful simplicity of a monk’s life and death

I’ve been going on retreat to Assumption Abbey, a Trappist monastery in the wilderness of Southern Missouri just south of Ava, for about seventeen years. Four years ago I became a Family Brother. I write about that process in our upcoming book released on November 14th. And as a Family Brother  when I’m there I no longer stay in the Guest House but behind the cloister with the monks following their work routine and prayer schedule. Upon arrival each time I stop by Brother Francis’s office and inquire which room – the actual word in monastery speak is “cell” – I am assigned to live in. They’re very small and sparse. My visit two years ago in December was a little different. This time I asked which cell but I prefaced my question with a request. I asked if it would be possible that I not have Brother Boniface’s room. I told Brother Francis that I knew he’d just left to live out his days in a nearby nursing home. I explained that I was close to Bonnie, his nickname, and I would not feel right in his room. Thankfully, Francis acquiesced and gave me an empty cell down the hall from Bonnie’s old room.

Brother Boniface died this week, almost two years after he left for the nursing home, and we committed his body to the earth on Wednesday. Here’s what Bonnie taught me about death and life. I need to begin this story by backing up a bit.

Boniface, the Abbey’s long time  bread baker, cook, tailor and keeper of hiking trails was declining in health after Brother Dominic died. Finally, his dementia got the better of him and for his safety he was moved to a nearby nursing in the little town of Ava. He was originally from Illinois and entered the Trappist life as a monk in 1950. Always a smile and quick wit. I came to know him really well after Brother Dominic’s cancer diagnosis. It progressed and he had to move to a nursing home in Springfield in order to receive hospice care. Dominic was expected to die fairly soon and Boniface was his caregiver. Since the nursing home was so close to my house (and not that close to the Abbey) I visited Dominic and Bonnie almost weekly when I was in town. Outliving the short prognosis Dominic survived almost one full year.

Here is the stunning thing: Brother Boniface lived at the nursing home with Dominic. Not figuratively. He only went home to the Abbey every two weeks for a couple of days to bake bread for his brothers. Somehow the Abbey arranged for Boniface to sleep in the bed next to Dominic in the same room. I remember marveling at the time that I don’t know many spouses who would live in a nursing home with their loved one. Visiting daily for sure, but to live day by day, hour by hour with a sick person, who is totally mentally intact is a gift of service that is beyond compare. Jesus talked of laying down our lives for our friends. “There is no greater love” He said. That was Boniface. He was a simple humble monk who served his friend, his brother, even though it may have hastened his own death.

The story does not stop here.

When Bonnie declined in health and mind he moved to a nursing home and a few weeks after he left I visited the Abbey. Brother Francis kindly did not assign me to his room. It would have been too sad for me to sleep there and he seemed to understand that. I will pick up the story as written in my journal the day after I arrived.

December 29, 2015. Journal Entry:

I searched the work assignments on the bulletin board this morning after Terse for my name. Found it. My work for today: “Shawn – clean Brother Boniface’s room.” I could not believe what I was seeing. I gulped and said nothing. I knew that I had to clean it from top to bottom and get it ready for a new occupant whether I liked that assignment or not.

The year [with Dominic] took it’s toll on [Bonnie]. By the end he seemed more frail, less sharp, tired. He went back to his routine of bread making, cooking and life in the Abbey but mentally he declined rapidly. I’m not sure if he has Alzheimer’s but it would not surprise me. The monks visit him daily, perform mass and check on his condition.    

So, today my work assignment meant clearing the last vestiges of Boniface’s personal things out of his room and clean it up for the next monk or family brother.  A small box of Reader’s Digest magazines dating from the 70s, a few medical items, and one small box of personal effects. One box of “things” that signify, at least externally, that Brother Boniface was here. A 50th anniversary high school graduation program, some pictures from much younger days here at the Abbey that I couldn’t not look through. One great picture caught my eye. The photographer captured the Abbey dog of the time, Dires, licking Bonnie’s face. And Boniface seemed to love the dog (other pictures of the dog were in the box).

Father Robert was passing by in the hallway as I was cleaning the room. Father Robert is 91, became a monk in 1949 when he was 23 years old and now has a long white beard and always a smile. He is the man who taught me Lectio Divina (a kind of praying the sacred scripture) years ago. I showed him the picture of Brother Boniface with Dires. I told him I felt strange cleaning out Bonnie’s room, with him in a nursing home, knowing he’s never coming back here. I expected some kind of shared empathetic reply that might comfort me. Father Robert, off to complete his own morning chores not wanting to chit-chat I could tell, looked up from the picture, smiled at me and said “Well, people come, people go.” And he walked on. To myself: What?! “People come, people go”! That’s it! Five words! That’s all you have to say about your brother of more than 50 years?

I’ve been thinking about this all morning. My incredulity has turned into a version of Lectio from living life. Life Lectio. Father Robert’s reply is perfect. The picture, the room, the one box; those are not who Boniface is as a human being created in the image of God. Father Robert knows that deep, deep, deep, down in his heart. He also has peace that God’s will be done. I guess it seemed a little… abrupt. OK it was but it was also perfect!

End Journal Entry

Bonnie Dires

During Bonnie’s funeral mass this week I pondered this layered story and treasured it in my heart. Father Alberic, the Abbot, asked me to be one of the pallbearers at the last minute, literally, and helped carry Boniface’s body a short walk to the monastic cemetery. It was my humble honor. After the mass and burial I asked Father Paul why we shoveled dirt directly onto his body clothed in his white robe and habit, laid in the grave without a casket on only a wooden board. He said, “Because we committed his body to the earth and the dirt you shoveled on it was our expression of the reality that Bonnie is dead. He’s not ‘out there’ somewhere, he’s with God and his old body is dead.” I drove the winding roads back home in silence reflecting, in gratitude, on my friend Brother Boniface who taught me these things.

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What Do Tuesdays, Microbes, and Jimmy Carter Have In Common?

As a lawyer all I did was read. But not books. I read new case law to keep up with changes in criminal law. I read transcripts of trials when working on appeals. I read police reports with such focus and intensity that it seemed as though I was inhabiting the page. Yes it was reading but not for inspiration. Over the ensuing years I’ve read and loved many books but right now I want to talk about the three books that influenced me at the beginning of the end of my law career. I write about this time in my life in great detail in my upcoming book (out November 14th) co-authored with my daughter Lawren Askinosie. I will leave that story for the book. Instead, I want to highlight three books that moved me to some kind of action at the beginning of my five year path from law to chocolate. I am writing about this now in hopes that you will see yourself in this list. Not because I hope you read these three books, not at all. My hope is that you read this list and come up with your own. What books will lead you to deep introspection, reflection, searching within and then action?

  1. Tuesdays With Morrie: I have talked and written about this book for nearly 20 years. It’s the book that opened my heart to something new. Lawren read the book to me out loud when she was 9 years old and night after night I could tell that something was happening. One line in the book penetrated my soul and has comforted me ever since: “death ends a life but not a relationship.” I needed to hear that at that exact moment in time. The story moved me to search my interior life in ways that perhaps no other book has. Then I took action after letting the interior work seep out. It moved me to co-found Lost & Found Grief Center with Dr. Karen Scott. Now 17 years running this center helps children, teens, and families learn how to grieve the death of a loved one. I still read it periodically and learn something new each time.
  2. The 100: A Ranking of The Most Influential Persons In History: I could not tell you who the author of this book is and it does not really matter. The book is 100 biographies of the most influential people ever in all time according this author. It was interesting to read the stories of people I had never heard of like Antony Van Leeuwenhoek born in 1632. What did he do to land on this list? He discovered microbes. Interesting for certain but here is what struck me down: I realized reading this book that I would never be in a revised edition. Ever. If you knew me back in those days, late 30s and early 40s, then this will not come as a big surprise that this news would be such a revelation to me. In reading this book back then I recognized that I would not only be left out of the 100 but the 1,000 or the 1,000,000 most influential people in history. Then I started thinking deeply about the luminaries in my own community growing up that I was sure most people would soon forget if they had not already. I then came to understand that after a couple of generations people do not even remember notable ancestors from their own family. Over time and reflection on this notion I started thinking about it from another perspective. If my daughter, Lawren, wrote a book titled “The 100 Most Influential People In My Life” would I be in it? I hope so! What about my wife’s book of the same title? What about my friends? Would I be in their book?
  3. Sources Of Strength: This book is a collection of some of former President Jimmy Carter’s favorite Sunday school lessons taught over the years. I have no idea why I bought this book in the first place. I never really liked Carter as president. Today I’d say he might be one of the greatest ex-presidents of all time. For some reason I bought and read the book. I think I liked the colors and photo on the cover of a really cool looking old tree. This was during a time in my life that I did not think that much about God. I went to church but was never really present for about 25 years. I outline my reasons in my book. Jimmy Carter told the story of the “woman at the well” in his book. It was the first time I had ever read the story of the Samaritan woman and the wall of prejudice that Jesus broke down with the simple question: “Will you give me a drink?” That story was powerful for me. There was something simple about the book full of similar lessons that led me quietly back to my faith that I’d abandoned years before.

Guess what? I am pretty sure that the word “chocolate” appears nowhere in any of these books. The books did not have a secret fold out map made just for me that led me to the next path in my life. The books I mention stirred something in me beyond mere words on a page. They all sparked my interior life and prompted action to match it. Are you searching for a book to ignite your interior life that will lead you to action? Email me about your list.

Monks Take A Vow of Stability: The Antidote To The Shiny Object Syndrome

The Rule of Benedict has governed life and business in Catholic monasteries and convents around the world for over 1500 years. In order to become a monk or nun you must take a vow, called a solemn vow, after a three year trial period of discernment. This “practice” is both for the community and the prospective monk to prayerfully determine if indeed this vow is the right thing to do. The commitments made in front of the community and God are “stability, fidelity to the monastic life, and obedience.” As sacred as a wedding vow. I want to talk about the vow of stability.  

Stability is a cornerstone of the Rule of Benedict. Some say that the Rule is the oldest management document in continual use. The pledge of stability is one of place. That a monk or nun will seek the monastic life in this place, in this community. Or as my copy of The Benedictine Handbook says, “This promise is very different from the lifestyle of a wandering monk of Benedict’s day.” There is no question that this promise of stability has anchored the faithful that brings us such joys as Trappist beer, cheese, and fruitcakes. What application might this promise have for us?

While I still suffer from The Shiny Object Syndrome, I am better, not cured. Years in the trenches have both worn me down and given me perspective that I did not have in my 20s or 30s. Not that there really is a cure, it’s more symptom management and discipline than anything else. Guess I should explain a little bit about what it is. It could also be called the “follow your dreams” syndrome. It’s a person’s inability to focus when distracted by the shiny object in his or her peripheral vision. Over time this shiny object can become so luminous that it more than distracts but dominates our thoughts and daydreams. For entrepreneurs this can be devastating if not kept in check. What about Elon Musk and Steve Jobs you say? Well, for every one of them there are thousands of men and women whose businesses succumbed because they could not stay focused on the road ahead.

Fueled by the internet and social media this malady, by the way, is not only found in entrepreneurs but in all of humanity. We are surrounded by shiny objects on our screens. All. Day. Long. I see on Instagram that my friend opened a snow cone stand in Costa Rica. I could do that! Two or three hours later I emerge from day drinking Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest looking for something better than my life now, convinced I will find it in Costa Rica. The problem is not that we’re unsettled seeking a better life for ourselves but that the shiny lure is tempting us now more than ever. And it repeatedly brings us back for more hitting the same reward centers in our brain as crack cocaine. “That other thing has got to be better than this” overwhelms us in a way now that was never possible before. What’s the answer?!

Timeout. Wait. What? I am the poster child for leaving a successful career and starting a new thing. Talk about a shiny object! While it’s true I’ve written a book, with my daughter Lawren, which centers on finding your vocation in business I also talk about STAYING WHERE YOU ARE. I realize that I didn’t stay put but we write at length about that thought process and what it looks like to find your vocation right where you are. Now more than ever — staying where you are — your house, your car, your job, your city, your school, your spouse — takes courage! The chains that once held us to these things (another story) are no longer binding us. It’s easy to leave. Too easy.

I am not suggesting we all become monks and nuns. However, looking at this ancient idea of a “solemn vow of stability” is worthy of our consideration. My grandparents continue as my example on this point. They were married and lived on the same farm here in Southwest Missouri for nearly 65 years. They did not live an easy life but one steeped in stability. Of course things went wrong with the crops, the cows, the chickens, the garden but their lives were deeply rooted in their faith, in each other, in their work, and in their neighbors. Stability gave them peace when the world swirled around them. That’s what it can do for me and you.

The monk’s vow of stability means that they don’t just pick up and move to another monastery when things get tough. I know a monk who is in the process of moving after over 50 years at Assumption Abbey. He’s talked to the Abbot about this for a year or so, prayerfully considered it, and will have a one year trial period at another abbey. This decision is not taken lightly but with great discernment. I am a Family Brother at Assumption Abbey and the the complete process is six years long. I am about four years into my “promise” based on my Rule of Life (loosely based on the Rule of Benedict) and in two years I will take a final vow of sorts, a lifetime commitment to this Abbey. The brothers, the liturgy, the balance of work and prayer help keep me grounded. Like I said, I still suffer from the lure of the shiny objects but I am working on it.

If you see yourself in any of this then I recommend finding your own heroes of stability and talk to them. Ask questions and listen. Seek their wisdom as the elders they are. They can help keep you grounded, in check, and at peace. I hope you can talk to them face to face in person and develop a relationship that spans the years. This human connection might one day enable you to be the teacher when someone much younger than yourself seeks your wise counsel.

Read my book, Meaningful Work: A Quest To Do Great Business, Find Your Calling, and Feed Your Soul, co-written with my daughter Lawren to learn more about this topic and others. The book will be out November 14th and is available for pre-order now (just click the book cover to the right).

Grandma and Grandpa With Lawren
My Grandparents, in their mid-80s, holding my daughter (and future co-author) Lawren in the den on their farm

Thomas Merton’s Two Step Guide To Becoming a Saint

Thomas Merton, in Seven Story Mountain, recounts a conversation with his best friend Robert Lax one evening while they’re kicking around 6th Ave in New York City in which he asked Merton what he wanted to be. Merton, after stumbling on the question, says “I don’t know; I guess what I want is to be a good Catholic.” From the book:

“What you should say”— he told me—”what you should say is that you want to be a saint.”  . . . I said: “How do you expect me to become a saint?” “By wanting to,” said Lax, simply. “I can’t be a saint,” I said.  . . . But Lax said: “No. All that is necessary to be a saint is to want to be one. Don’t you believe that God will make you what He created you to be, if you will consent to let Him do it? All you have to do is desire it.” A long time ago, St. Thomas Aquinas had said the same thing— and it is something that is obvious to everybody who ever understood the Gospels. After Lax was gone, I thought about it, and it became obvious to me.

It takes 2 things: desire and consent.

This notion of everyday sainthood is close to my heart because it was the central theme in the eulogy message I gave a few weeks ago for a father figure, friend and mentor in my life who died recently. I was honored, deeply touched when his family asked me to do this. He was 82 and to me he is a saint. Not was but is.  

The story goes something like this . . . Not long after my dad’s death he invited me over to play music with his family. I was a teenager with nowhere to turn. He and his wife were friends with my parents. Not best friends but friends. He encouraged me to learn to play the banjo and guitar. He played the tenor guitar, or a mouth bow and occasionally a washtub bass he made. His wife and three daughters played other instruments and sang. Playing with a group, this family, it became clear that I really did not understand timing or keys or proper capo usage or any of it. He never ever one single time showed frustration with my incompetence. They made me feel like I was part of their family. This was off and on throughout high school. They made me think that even though I could not sing that I actually could. Do you know what that feels like?

Over the years he taught me how to use a camera, got me into CB-Radios [it was the 70s – what can I say]. This was a very difficult time in my life. I thought God had abandoned me after my dad died. Clearly He did not. He is a saint to me. As Aquinas to Lax to Merton says, he wanted to and consented to being my saint. I don’t know how or why but he did and he did it for decades. Don’t ask me to play the banjo today because all I can play is part of Foggy Mountain Breakdown but it was there when I needed it.

Have you had someone like this in your life? An everyday saint. Someone who wanted to be and consented to it time and time again. I would love to hear about it. I am not talking about a really good friend. Friends can be our heroes at times for certain. I don’t mean Mother Teresa – the actual person – because she’s not what I’d call an “everyday” saint. I mean someone, who more than once, picked you up when you’d almost given up. I don’t mean someone who literally saved your life and pulled you from a burning car. It’s more mundane than that. It’s little and almost unnoticeable until it’s not.

Anatomy Of The (Almost) Perfect Huddle

There’s the football image of a huddle but it doesn’t fit here since the quarterback leads it. I love the Webster intransitive verb example, “to gather in a close packed group;” “They huddled around the campfire.” At Askinosie Chocolate we are 16 full time and 3 part time people in a close packed group. When it comes to the perfect huddle, chocolate making is no different than rebuilding transmissions or providing nonprofit disaster relief services or brewing beer. Lawren and I detail this subject in our upcoming book but today I wanted to take this a little deeper.

Here’s what a huddle looks like at Askinosie Chocolate and you’re welcome to adopt whatever you find useful for your own great huddle.

The What

Until a couple of months ago we met every Tuesday morning at 9am for one hour. We’ve been experimenting lately with every other week but the point is we’ve doing this company wide “meeting” for nearly eleven years. Everyone in the company attends including our remote workers. For example, our Controller is in St. Louis, our Chief Marketing Officer is in Austin and they both join in via Skype. They see us and we see them. The Agenda moves at a fast pace and looks something like this:

  • Quick Opening from our COO about what’s coming up this week.
  • Cocoa bean report from me. I report on the status of the crops, the farmers, export dates, arrival dates or any problems we’re encountering.
  • Sales & Marketing overview from our CMO.
  • Sales Report sharing all channel sales numbers. This includes monthly plan (budget), forecast, and actual on a whiteboard. This report generates lots of questions from the group.
  • “Jack Stack” Report from our COO. This is a group of people reporting a condensed financial statement (we call this spreadsheet the “Jack Stack” in honor of the father figure of Open Book Management) covering plan, forecast, and actual.
  • Inventory Report from our Facilities Manager. This report informs everyone where we are, on a whiteboard, with all of our product inventory especially the sales team.
  • Production Report. Our Production Manager lets us know, using a whiteboard, where we are with finished chocolate production reporting plan, forecast, and actual. The summary also includes what products we are making this week and next.
  • Safety Report from our Production Manager.
  • Chocolate University Report. Our CU Executive Director reports the status of all things related to our community development and education projects.
  • Marketing Update. Our Design Manager reports on recent press mentions, and open packaging orders.
  • Workaversary celebrations. If we have someone celebrating anniversary of working with us then we celebrate them. I plan on dedicating a separate post to only this. It’s really powerful.
  • The Last Word. Our Facilities Manager concludes the huddle with a few minutes of uplifting thought to either challenge us, inspire us, get us thinking about our work, our lives and each other.

All of this happens in one hour unless we have a workaversary then we add on another 15 minutes because we have some awesome snacks that this person loves and spend a little time chatting with each other. I said “almost” perfect huddles because we’re continually finding ways to make them better and even more meaningful.

The Why

The most important aspect of our huddle is that almost everyone talks or reports something. The practical benefit is that many people need to know bits of important information from diffused areas of our little company. We don’t groups in the company siloed off from one another. Do the people packaging our chocolate bars really need a status update on our school lunch program in the Philippines? Yes they do! The huddle does not replace other meetings, such as sales or production, but it can make them shorter and more to the point. The huddle is an easy place when people can ask the reporter questions in a spirit of teamwork. Almost everyone walks away from the huddle feeling like they matter. They either obtained information they needed or they gave it or both. Every huddle we’re celebrating big and little victories with a single thunderous handclap in unison. The dominant feeling is “I belong.”

The meeting is full of numbers, numbers that most companies do not share with employees. It’s all part of Open Book Management which I’ve used for nearly 20 years. The numbers tell a story, both good and bad. There’s a sense of “we’re all in this together.” Kinship is an important principle in our company and our huddle is an integral component. The huddle is essential for any organization or large workgroup sharing a collective vocation or calling. My book is all about this. The huddle is ostensibly costly and one could make the argument that not every single person is absolutely critical to being there. We are taking up valuable chocolate production time with this gathering. It’s probably more costly in ways I cannot even estimate if we did not huddle together “in a close packed group.”

My huddle mentors: I learned about these years ago from Jack Stack, The Great Game of Business and Ari Weinzweig, Zingerman’s Deli. Buy their books and read them! You will not be disappointed.

 

Work, work, work, work, work, work

I was about 40, making a lot of money, winning cases, making a difference, and loving my work and then. Then I stopped loving it but kept on. I started praying a simple prayer that went like this: “Dear God, give me something else to do.” I have never, as my friend David Mercer puts it, viewed God as my “cosmic bellhop.” Regardless of the intensity of my prayer there was no magic dust illuminating the path before me. No, instead there was anxiety, depression, searching, years of that prayer, and work, work, work, work, work, work. Work of a different kind.

You can imagine that the guy known for the courtroom – spending in the neighborhood of 15 to 20 hours of preparation for every hour of trial – would uncover every business opportunity, start-up, and franchise possibility. I relentlessly looked for hobbies I could convert into businesses. I did what I knew. I worked hard and dedicated myself with great passion at finding my next passion. How did that work out for me you ask. Not so much.

I have friends, former colleagues, and strangers who email me out of the blue asking for the illuminated path. Just like I did. Here’s the secret: there’s no weekend conference, book, life-coach, research project, or peak experience that will magically unlock the door that seems to be blocking us from meaningful work. Notice that I included books in that list. That’s right. My upcoming book is all about this very topic but reading it is not going to make it happen. I read a lot about meditation but it does not make me a better meditator.

It took me five years of wandering, wondering, serving, praying and listening before I even heard a faint whisper. It takes deep work on the inside in order to find meaningful work whether it’s the work we’re in right now or what we know is possible. Oh sure, we can skip over the gut wrenching hard parts, leave our broken hearts unexamined, and move to the next shiny thing but we’ll be right back where we started. If you want to know which thing you should invest in I am not your guy. If you want to know what it might be like to take the road less traveled and one without any guarantees then talk to me. And once you “find it” the work never stops because we don’t wander and wonder in order to find a destination. Hint: there isn’t one. We do this work so that we can keep finding our true selves as Thomas Merton would say. On the worst days I have stress, lose my cool, and forget to breathe just like any other job, but on my best days I experience the Divine in meaningful work. I am working on treasuring those best days in my heart so I can sprinkle a little bit of that around those days in the middle. And now, I have a responsibility to let others know – who ask me – that a broken heart is, despite news otherwise, a good and holy thing.