A couple of weeks ago I bought myself a gift: Paesano bread from my good friends at Zingerman’s Mail Order. I have been enjoying this rare treat immensely, grilled on the Big Green Egg last night and toasted this Labor Day morning. I am reminded of one of my favorite poet philosophers Kahlil Gibran who said, “For if you bake bread with indifference, you bake a bitter bread that feeds but half man’s hunger.” The same is true for chocolate! Or any product or service you provide. Work vocations provide meaning and purpose. Products or services created with intention, by people who feel they’re contributing toward a higher purpose, will undoubtedly be higher quality.
We’ve been working for over two years on one chocolate bar that we will release in mid-September. It’s a collaboration with our friends at Heath Ceramics. They’re a historic, iconic company in the design world. Heath shares similar values to our company. They believe in “human-scale”– they make everything they sell by hand, just like us. Their factory is small and they’re dedicated to true quality and craftsmanship. Their ceramics are most certainly not bitter. Similarly, It took two years to develop this chocolate bar because it needed to be just right. We’re making this chocolate bar with care, not indifference, and thus we aspire to the lofty goal that it feeds not half but “all of man’s [and woman’s] hunger.”
Making something “with care” does not mean the same thing to every employee. For some in our little company it means taking pride in the attention to every detail in the process from roasting the beans to texture of the chocolate. For others it means knowing that cocoa farmers are benefiting from making this chocolate. For others it means having a job. For some it means working with students in our neighborhood. All of the ways we bring care to what we make are inseparable from the finished product. Who we are and how we behave is inextricably linked to our chocolate and the same is true for your product or service.
We leave in three days for rural Tanzania with 14 local high school students in tow. They’re an elite group of students who competed to be part of our Chocolate University high school program. We launched the project in 2009 and have been taking students to Tanzania ever since. Hold that thought.
We write about reverse scale extensively in the book. What is it? It’s a practice of recognizing the value of not scaling. One of our beliefs, coined by Lawren, is that our vocation is not necessarily getting bigger but getting better at staying small. We’re conditioned by our business culture to believe that unless the idea is big and capable of rapid scale then it has little value. Can we take a step back and reconsider this dogma? Could we assess value even if our idea helps only one person or if it only transforms us? True sustainability lies within the answers to these questions. If more of us answered the call to action on the supposedly “small” ideas then imagine the kind of social problems the world could address.
We tend to think “more” and “bigger” will always be better, that somehow they will allow us to finally breathe easier when we arrive. The problem is that it’s often an illusion because we never really arrive at the place that’s just out of reach. Scale demands that every single person in the chain focus on what’s next and on finding someone to do the thing that’s now ‘below’ them in order to move themselves up. Anything less than that and you will lose the race for scale, because someone else is more focused than you.
Reverse scale could also be called human scale. It is in the smallness of one on one relationships that we find meaning because we’re not insulated from the pain and sorrows of these connections. We tend to lose this when we’re so focused on scale and growth.
Could we have scaled Chocolate University nationwide or worldwide by now? Probably. Perhaps I’d be managing (not leading) multiple trips a year with students from around the world to more than one destination. It would be possible to do that right alongside accelerated growth of my chocolate company. That’s scale! Reverse scale, on the other hand, says, “This is it.” Today, right here, right now. This student, this cocoa farmer, this meal, this village. That’s all I really possess. There’s a lot of power in that. I know I’d lose these important human connections if I were managing, delegating, and looking at spreadsheets instead of practicing this discipline of reverse scale. It is this practice that allows me, at times, to experience my True Self as Thomas Merton calls it.
Back to the high school students I’ll be traveling with on Monday. When we arrive in remote rural Tanzania our students will be embraced by the village farmers as “members of the family” because we’ve been their partners for nearly a decade. We have a packed schedule of “doing” but have left ample time for “being.” In the coming days I will remain a student too as we’re welcomed by farmers who practice radical hospitality.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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).
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.