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A New Set of Stories Can Help Us Change Our World

The Seventh Story, sustainable ecosystems, and a more graceful way to go forward

hand holding a very small tomato

As I write, world leaders are gathered in Glasgow, attempting to come to consensus on a way to address the increasingly urgent world crisis of climate change. Despite what seems to be general agreement on the gravity of the situation, the visitors to Glasgow appear unable (at least so far) to coalesce around a comprehensive plan to move forward to save the planet. As the New York Times headline said the other morning, “Rifts and Finger-Pointing As Climate Summit Opens.”

I’m not here to argue about climate change, or to propose programs for the diplomats to adopt—I’ll leave that work to those who know far more about all this than I do. My focus on the G-20 get-together is less about the short-term strategies the political folks are putting forward, and more about encouraging all of us (starting with myself) to look more closely and more caringly at the stories we tell about the situations we’re working with. While the stories circulating at the Glasgow gathering revolve around climate change, the truth is that the power of story applies to every part of our lives. Whether we’re famously powerful politicians, or just everyday people trying to figure out how to work through challenging circumstances this coming week, changing the way we tell those stories will almost certainly have a significant impact on the way we see the world, on our actions, and the way our world responds to what we do. As Erin McMorrow, who writes extensively about the climate crisis, says, “Our stories define our reality.”

If the world leaders were asking, I might suggest they take an hour or two to go sit outside at a good Glasgow café and read Brian McLaren and Gareth Higgins’ little book, The Seventh Story: Us, Them, & the End of Violence. (If they were up for it, reading Erin McMorrow’s book Grounded would surely be of great value too.) It might help them get grounded, and find some new, more effective approaches with which they could work together collaboratively. McLaren and Higgins write: “The current global crisis is a crisis of storytelling. We have become possessed by the myth of redemptive violence.” The spin that gets shot out on social media is not the way it needs to be, because as McLaren and Higgins make clear, “The world is not getting worse, but the story we’re telling about it could use a little help. There are better stories to tell.”

If world leaders were telling better stories, we might be seeing more encouraging headlines emerging from the gathering. Ursula K. Leguin framed the problem in a small bit of poetry: “Most dragons don’t know how to read. They hiss and fume and guard their hoard.” The Seventh Story suggests a different path, one in which hissing, hoarding, and fuming are appropriately framed as ineffective. The Seventh Story shows us a way forward that’s based, instead, on the pursuit of peace, and a long-term commitment to positive beliefs. While the book itself is small, it’s very clear to me that its impact can be big, helping to reduce conflict in all parts of our lives, while simultaneously leading us towards connection and collaboration. We have no say in what goes on in Glasgow, but we do have the power to change the stories we’re telling here at home, both at work and in any other part of our lives. Instead of seeding division and antipathy, these are stories that would steer us towards peace and healing.

The Irish poet Padraig Ó Tuama, a longtime friend of the Belfast-born-and-raised Gareth Higgins, says:

We need stories of belonging that move us towards each other, not from each other; ways of being human that open up the possibilities of being alive together; ways of navigating our differences that deepen our curiosity, that deepen our friendship, that deepen our capacity to disagree, that deepen the argument of being alive. This is what we need. This is what will save us. This is the work of peace. This is the work of imagination.

The Seventh Story takes Ó Tuama’s ideas into practical and practicable detail. It lays out the old, unhelpful stories that nearly all of us have been trained to tell ourselves so that we can steer clear of them when we go to work, when we’re home, and when we’re out in the world at large. What are the destructive six stories that lead humanity toward so much emotional and physical violence? There’s more detail in the book, but here’s a quick list:

  • – Domination (we tell them what to do)
  • – Revolution (we overthrow them)
  • – Isolation (we get away from them)
  • – Purification (we get rid of them)
  • – Accumulation (we get enough money and other things to protect ourselves from them)
  • – Victimization (our lives have been made bad by them)

You can see the six stories at play in politics, but also in the movies, in comic strips, in the media, in business meetings, in not-for-profits, in family systems. (Each of the six has an unhealthy reliance on “heroic” leaders to show us “everyday” folks the “proper” way to get to “success.”) The six stories are all, in the context of what I’ve written in The Power of Beliefs in Business, based on negative beliefs. They are certainly, in quiet ways, much of what I learned as a kid, not because someone sat me down and gave me the list to study, but simply by being in the world in which those six stories are told over and over again. Most of our learning happens unconsciously; we hear the stories from our parents, teachers, sports figures, managers, or movie stars. Now that I have language to describe the six stories, I see and hear them almost everywhere. My guess is that if you list the six on a sheet of paper and make tick marks every time you hear a snippet of one of those stories, you’ll soon need to get a second sheet of paper if you want to keep ticking.

The good news, McLaren and Higgins say, is that “There is a better story.” This is what they call the Seventh Story—“a new story, a new way of life, in which love, not violence, is the protagonist.” Unlike the first six stories, the seventh story is based on positive beliefs. Which as per Natural Law #16To get positive outcomes, we need to begin with positive beliefs, we can use it to create the kind of healthy organizational ecosystems and personal lives we all wish for.

Stories, I’ve come to understand, are simply beliefs made manifest. When we change our beliefs, we in turn alter our stories; when we shift our stories, they begin to impact our beliefs. If we were to shift the stories we tell ourselves and others away from the first six to the seventh, the impact on our world, and hence over time, on the world, would be enormous. In The Seventh Story, Higgins and McLaren say:

We imagine “us” reconciling with “them,” us working with them for the common good, us seeking to understand them as our sisters and brothers; we even allow for the possibility that we are invited to live with the earth itself, not in exploitation, but in partnership.

As flawed as we are, and always will be, here at Zingerman’s, it’s clear to me that over our nearly forty years in business, an ever-increasing part of our story here would fit into the sort of seventh story that McLaren and Higgins are describing. What really caught my attention and clicked for me in a way that connected what they are writing about with what we’re doing here at Zingerman’s was this statement in the book:

A great story is what results when humanizing wisdom and grace, and technical and aesthetic craft operating at their highest frequencies kiss each other.

In the book, the sentence is printed in bold, which makes it hard to miss. The more I reflect on it, the more it makes sense. If our food and service were super great, but if we didn’t work so hard at “humanizing wisdom and grace,” the story might have appeared once or twice in the Wall Street Journal, but it would not have created the kind of lasting, regenerative stories I shared last week. If we were super-caring, but the quality of our food and service were only so-so, that wouldn’t be much of a story either. And, similarly, if we’d lasted only four months (not uncommon in the food business) instead of forty years, Micki Maynard would not be on the verge of releasing a nationally-published book about us. It’s the combination of all of them—the marriage of craft and care, done in a way that holds together over the long haul—that is making what we do here at Zingerman’s into a seventh story that people want to both share and to study; a story that I, and hopefully you, want to be a part of.

The way we work here is certainly not a typical story of the mainstream business world. Our approach (along with other organizations with shared values and beliefs) is, as McLaren and Higgins offer, “a new path, a new story, a new way of life, in which love, not violence, is the protagonist.” When we live this, love is a lead character in all we do, a story in which community, caring, and sustainability play critical supporting roles.

It strikes me that when Bo Burlingham wrote about us and others in Small Giants: Companies that Choose to be Great Instead of Big, he was, in essence, attempting to change the story of business; to tell a bit of what might be his take on seventh stories, an effort to frame a more holistic way to work. Small Giants honored the idea of setting the sort of limits that we all will need to accept to overcome the challenges of climate change. The fact that the book has (happily) gained such a following over the fifteen years since it came out, reinforces for me the power of sustainable stories. The story of Zingerman’s—both our past, our present, and the way we talk about the future in the 2032 Vision—is our highly imperfect attempt to tell, and live, a seventh story. Many of our suppliers, our customers, and our colleagues around the world, are also working on their own versions of this sort of seventh story. Each organization is, appropriately, finding its own way, true to its own ecosystem, to focus, as we have here, on compassion, positive beliefs, purpose, dignity, humbleness, vision, servant leadership, positive energy, free choice, the spirit of generosity, diversity, kindness, care, collaboration, community, and customer service. All are stories in which people live, let live, and let love. In fact, the final section of the 2032 Vision is all about love. While they don’t make many business headlines, they are positive growth paths towards a more sustainable, and more loving, future. Because as Humberto Maturana writes, “Only love expands intelligence.”

The organizational ecosystem metaphor I’ve been working with, I can see now, effectively encourages the creation of seventh stories for us to tell about our businesses. Where the typical business models support the stuff like “domination” and “accumulation,” ecosystem thinking encourages us to think about equity; to embrace the many ways that everything impacts everything else; to create outcomes in which all the elements of the organization come out ahead. In fact, I long ago came to the conclusion that in a healthy organizational ecosystem, love was a natural “outcome.” Which means that the protagonist of the seventh story will be naturally present when we create the kind of regenerative ecosystem we’re working towards. Conversely, if we stick with any or all of the six other stories as the dominant themes of our workdays, they will, inevitably, lead us toward ill health. If we stay with them too long, they will likely lead us to the organizational equivalent of climate change; unsustainable settings in what seems right somehow no longer works as it once did, and where “natural disasters” and “emotional crises” occur with ever greater frequency.

The seventh story, in hindsight, is a lot of what I have learned from the wise women and men who have taught me so much about self-reflection over the last forty years. It’s also much of what I wrote about in the Guide to Good Leading books, as well as what we teach internally and through ZingTrain. All of this work with stories starts on the inside. In the spirit of the anarchist belief that the means must be congruent with the ends we want to achieve, then, it’s clear that if we want to live better, let’s say seventh, stories in our organizations, and if we want political leaders and reporters to live them too, we must begin by shifting the stories we tell ourselves and about ourselves. Because as Bayard Rustin once said, “The only way to reduce ugliness in the world is to reduce it in yourself.”

What do we do with all this stuff about stories? I can speak most meaningfully about how it’s helped me even in the few short weeks since I read the book. Like the Natural Laws of Business, the organizational ecosystem model, our Vision for 2032, our Mission Statement, our Guiding Principles and our new Statement of Beliefs, the idea of the seventh story is giving me another good framework with which I can help keep myself on course. It’s helping me to shed old, unhelpful beliefs, to try to keep my thoughts, my words and my deeds all going, at least roughly, in the right direction. All of these constructs help us tell stories that feature subjects like Servant Leadership, visioning, hope, healthy culture, and caring customer service. Stories that focus first on dignity, collaboration, kindness, and compassion, while still diligently delivering solid financial results. They give us tools to contribute to our communities and the long-term health of our companies. Studying the story of The Seventh Story is helping make me a better leader, a better partner, and lead a better life. After all, as writer George Saunders says, “The true beauty of a story is not in its apparent conclusion but in the alteration in the mind of the reader that has occurred along the way.”

Changing beliefs, and the stories that cyclically emerge from, and inform them, is not quick work but it can be done. I know because I’ve changed so many of my own beliefs, and the stories I tell about them, over the last forty years. When I look back, I can see that the people who have inspired me over the years, the people I reference in the books I write, the classes I teach, and in this enews, are very often people who are or were telling seventh stories. Stories in which everyone comes out ahead, stories in which collaboration crosses whatever made up dividing lines social programming and the other six stories have set up. They are stories that remind us that we each have the opportunity to make a meaningful difference!

Robin Wall Kimmerer writes, “An Onondaga elder once explained to me that plants came to us when they are needed. If we show them respect by using them and appreciating their gifts, they will grow stronger. They will stay with us as long as they are respected.” The same for me goes with books and the ideas, beliefs, and philosophical framing that I find in them. Of the many hundreds of volumes that I have in my house, The Seventh Story is a very small one. Five inches square and only 189 pages long, it’s not hard for me to imagine it getting lost in one of my stacks or falling behind a shelf somewhere. What I have learned from it, I’m confident though, will stay with me for the rest of my life. It’s ever clearer to me with each passing day that if we live and think in the ways that Brian McLaren and Gareth Higgins have detailed for us, good things will happen. As they write,

There is a Seventh Story, a path of openheartedness toward others, and reading this book will inspire you to look anew at the world and your neighbors in creating it. Facing fear, aggression, and violence with the strength to love, and change your story.

This week marks the 40th anniversary of Paul and I meeting up to talk about what became Zingerman’s. I hope that forty years from now, in the fall of 2061, that Zingerman’s will continue to be a story that people tell—an uplifting story, in which care and collaboration came together with sustainable business, a story in which love of coworkers and customers, craft and community, products and the planet, all came together to produce great experiences for many good people. I hope too, that when that story is told in 2061, that what we now call climate change will have been to a great extent reversed, and that a whole lot of lives, both here in Ann Arbor and around the world, will have been made better in the process.


*** This post is an excerpt from Ari’s Top 5, a weekly newsletter from Ari himself. Sign up to receive Ari’s Top 5 here!

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