Go Low

Let’s go low. In my book I call it “reverse scale” and you can read all about it, the temptations of scale luring us from all sides, and why we might want to consider alternatives to “grow or die.” You have an idea? Everyone wants to know “will it scale?” suggesting that an answer in the negative diminishes its value. I suggest turning the scale pyramid upside down and propose that we ask ourselves “will this project or idea help just one person, or perhaps will it change me?” What do I mean by “go low”? You’ll see in the next paragraph. I try to use reverse scale to keep me tethered to my vocation. My trip this past week in the Philippines sourcing our cocoa beans is an example and one I would add to others in the book. I use this practice to return to my true self, to reorient my soul and point it in the right direction. Toward meaningful work. 

The setup to my story is best illustrated in two of my Facebook posts.

Facebook Post – January 2016 -One final picture from my trip this past week to Davao: this church. It’s across the road from one of the small cocoa farms we work with. Dirt floor, wooden benches, drum set, guitar and an amp. The poverty surrounding the church would break your heart. It did mine. I’ve probably seen 100 churches like this. Without fail, I am always moved when I step inside. No exception this week. Something happened inside the church and I will write about in greater detail later. Jesuit Priest and author Father Greg Boyle talks about meeting Jesus in “low places.” This place was one of those and I’m thankful to have experienced it.

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The church in 2016

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Justin and his sister in the church – 2016

That’s what I mean by “go low.” I remind myself to seek out the low places so I can have the greatest chance of encountering the Divine.

Facebook Post – January 2017 – Back from Davao with one final post . . . His name is Justin. The little boy in the center holding the ball. He will be 4 in September. I met him last year on my trip to Davao. I’ve seen a lot of poverty over the years up close and personal here at home and abroad. There are times, albeit fewer than you’d imagine, when someone catches your eye and breaks your heart. One reason that it doesn’t happen more frequently is that I might just be a heap of tears on the ground if I let it penetrate me more often. So I see tragedy and move on. Not with Justin. He lives across the street from a farmer where we buy beans. I happened to stop at a tiny church about 20 feet from his “house” last year. I saw him when I got out of the truck. Justin had a distended belly, bulging eyes, a gunky runny nose, no clothes on, no parent around just siblings. He was clearly sick and extremely malnourished. For some mysterious reason he looked at me and in a split second I connected with him. A few minutes later I was in the nearby empty bamboo church with a dirt floor and turned around and there he was sitting on the pew with his sister. It kind of freaked me out. It was almost as if he just appeared there. I went about my business touring the farm across the road but could not get him out of my mind.

One of my hosts, Mimi, agreed to look in on him for me and help me. I came home and my friend Dr. John Waites  did a Skype “exam” of Justin. It was made possible by Mimi bringing Justin and mom to a decent internet connection. We then bought him a bunch of fortified infant formula which mom agreed to make sure he received. One of our employees, Dina, was traveling home to Davao the following month. She brought him a ton of Dr. Kerri Mcdaniel Miller‘s wonderful re:iimmune product. Mimi continued to check on him and he was improving.

I brought him a little t-shirt and plastic ball and more infant formula. He loved that little ball and would not let it go. The bottom line is that he is much improved. It’s true that he is just one of hundreds, if not thousands of children, within a few mile radius in the same circumstance. So why him, why only help him? Well, the only thing I can say is that he looked at me and somehow pierced my heart unlike anyone else on any of my other trips. In some ways, upon reflection, I think it was God looking at me through Justin’s eyes.

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Justin and his siblings during my 2017 visit 

I saw him for a 3rd time this past week. He lives just a couple of miles from Baguio Central Elementary where our school lunch program will be starting its 3rd year soon. It’s also just a few minutes away from our cocoa bean fermentation and drying facility. One tiny experience in 2016 in this remote place on the planet has provided me with a thread that I can hold on to and use to keep coming back to sew one more stitch in the patch of who I am, my true self.

Justin continues to improve. There are still some health issues but without a doubt he’s getting better and better. I brought him a few gifts this week that I am sure he will share. Also bought him some more fortified milk.

A common way to see this story is the almost unbearable recognition that the destitute poverty in this place is so overwhelming that the insurmountability of it leaves us paralyzed. We think to ourselves “I want to do something, but it’s too much” and defeated we do nothing. We conclude that it’s so desperate that helping one person might even be wrong because “what about the others?” You see all of Justin’s siblings in the photo and they are just as deserving of any tiny help I might offer.

Remember, I have not purchased food for life for Justin, I did not find his family a new house, I did not offer to pay for his college, I did not do anything monumental. What I did do is visit him three years in a row after his eyes locked on to my heart. In doing this little thing year after year I am sending this message to Justin and perhaps his family: I see you, I care about you.

Jean Vanier, Catholic theologian, author, and founder of L’Arche, the international federation dedicated to the creation and growth of homes, programs, and support networks for people who have intellectual disabilities, would have something to say about this. He would say that in the face of this sorrow we can go deeper within ourselves in silence and solitude to become men and women of peace. In other words, these real life human experiences cause us to deepen our own interior lives which bring about change in us. He points out that in the seeming hopelessness we can help just one person and remind ourselves that the strong need the weak so we can see our own poverty. So we can become human. And “help” may mean simply listening with full presence. Vanier would say that in helping the Justins of this life we are little lamps together forming a brighter glow in community with thousands of others doing the same thing. That is true sustainability.

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Justin this past week – January 2018

Near the end of our visit, out of the blue, Justin’s mother asked us if we could help her become a cocoa farmer. She has no job now and really no way to support her family. She has access to land, she said, as an Indigenous Person, and seedlings. Our lead farmer partner, Peter, was with us and he gave her his word that he would assist her in this goal. Who knows where this will lead but rest assured I will follow up and see what I can do to help in her endeavor.

  • Who is your Justin?
  • Can you think of a time when you talked yourself out of an idea because it was not “big enough” in the eyes of our turbocharged culture of grow or die?
  • Can you imagine how a thread of reverse scale in your life can keep you tethered to your vocation, the thing that called you to the work you loved in the first place?
  • Where are the low places you can intentionally go to seek out these tethers?

In a mashup of Boyle and Vanier I say we can find humanity and divinity in the low places of relationships, pain, sorrow, loneliness, poverty, regardless of religion. This is the place where we can see our true selves. It’s something we return to again and again throughout our lives not mistaking these encounters as the destination. No, they are only glimpses that give us the reminder “Oh, I see. This is who I am.”

Barely Better Than A Poke In The Eye With A Sharp Stick

At least for now.  It’s going to get better real soon.

It’s 2:30am and I am sitting here, outside, at domestic terminal #2 of the Manila airport on a metal bench, basically in the dark, waiting for the terminal to open so I can catch my 4am flight to Davao. What about waiting in the Admiral’s Club you ask? Ha ha. That’s funny. I ended up taking the bus down here. I usually walk but everyone said it’s too dangerous this time of night.  After 40 hours of travel so far I needed to knock out the cobwebs [Springfield > Chicago > Hong Kong > Manila > Davao]. I took a minute to duck into a restroom to deploy one of my travel secrets (acquired from my Africa travel partner Dr. Tom Prater): put on a fresh shirt and socks. I wish there were words to describe how good those socks and shirt made me feel. A “new man” as it were for at least a couple of hours. The humidity is thick. It’s almost the point in the trip when I say to myself, “What the hell am I doing this for?” but that will come in a few hours when I have arrive at my hotel and check in around 7am. Then I will start my work day. Unpacking my little carry-on in my room, that’s when I will say that.

I often talk about the mashup between suffering and joy in the book. The almost mystical nature of that recipe can really get you down and then take you up to the mountaintop in one fell swoop. There’s a catch. Most of the time [read: never] we don’t get to decide how much of either to put into our concoction. Don’t get me wrong this is not full on suffering. It’s low grade uncomfortable.

[This part written during my 16 hour flight from Chicago to Hong Kong]. This trip marks my 10th year of visiting Davao and working with the same lead farmer all of these years. I know his wife, kids, and grandkids. I’ve been to church with his family and I know his pastor. I have had many many meals with him. Everyone who knows me knows that I love this kind of travel. I still stress out the week before I go with all of the things to do piling up before I leave. Even after more than 10 years of sitting on these benches it remains exciting.

I can think of two reasons why I still do this and they both might apply to your business too.

First. Quality: I’ve written extensively about the inseparability of the way we are as a company and the quality of our chocolate. The same applies to your work too. Who we are and how we behave in 90% of cases is inextricably bound up in the thing we make or service we provide. Pretty soon I will have meals with farmers, inspect the next crop of beans I am currently buying, give feedback on last years crop, test roast some beans over open fire, check moisture content and distribute a profit share on our last crop. All of these things impact the quality of the beans that we will receive in a few months. Some might say, “Sheesh Shawn, do you really need to go every year? You’ve been doing business with the same folks for all this time. What could possibly happen? Couldn’t you just skip a couple of years?” The answer is an emphatic “no” that I need to go. The minute we let our focus drift from quality then the end of the slippery slope is a product tasting like sawdust. After a few years we’d all be scratching our heads at the factory asking “how did that happen?” We know how this happens! It happens when we no longer practice the tough stuff because we listen to a little voice in our heads (that sounds an awful lot like our own voice, which is very persuasive) and says “You’re an expert, you’ve seen these beans for 10 years, it’ll be fine, your body is not as young as once was and when you’re sitting outside the domestic terminal in Manila you’ll beeee soooorry.” But, the question is: are we professionals or not? Are we going to run wind sprints or not? Are we going to do one more pull up or not? Yes. That’s what we do. That is how great chocolate is made. How do you think it is that we’ve made great tasting chocolate CONSISTENTLY for over ten years? This is how. I am not saying there’s never been an off crop year. What I am saying is that we’ve been doing wind sprints consistently for over ten years. I am certain that if you’re making something great then you’re doing them too! Almost anyone can make a great thing or have a great service for a year or two. Pounding it out through many batches of suffering and joy year after year after year means you’re doing the hard work even when you want to ask yourself “Why the hell am I here?” It’s not lost on me that our farmers might have thought this same thing to themselves toiling, struggling in sometimes physical pain and exhaustion only to do it all over again tomorrow. We do our level best to make it worth their while (read more about that here).

Second. Another no less important reason I do all of this, go to the trouble, endure, is that it’s a tether to my vocation, the work that drew me to starting a chocolate factory so many years ago. Sure I could send someone else to do this. And I have taken others from my factory to other countries. I am not the only person in my factory who knows what a great bean looks, smells, and tastes like. But, as I said in a keynote talk I gave on Friday at 417ThinkSummit, I know something good is going to happen on this trip. I don’t know when, where, or how this will be but I know that I will have a glimpse of my true self here. The reason I know it is because it’s happened so many times and I am open to it. I am open to encounters of joy and sorrow. So being here is one of my tethers to this work. It means that I won’t float off under the disguise of scale and growth and delegation and management disconnected and unable to the reach human connection that brought me to this place in my life. I know you can think of examples of tethers in your business, those things that brought you there. They’re still there waiting for you. But you’ll have to re-establish the habit of returning to this discipline of staying tethered. No matter what.