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Another Look at Natural Law #7

New learnings about how successful businesses (and people) do the things that others know they should do … but generally don’t

Black and white photo of a farmer tending to their crops in a greenhouse

The other morning, I got an email from a Zingerman’s alum. Although it’s been many years since she worked with us, she still lives here in town and has long had her own successful career in business. She wrote that last week she’d had a particularly stressful medical appointment for which she’d had to fast. Driving home, she started to feel sort of faint. Her anxiety rising, she decided to make a beeline for the nearest place she would feel safe: The Deli. Her email detailed how the crew at the Next Door did a few dozen little things to help her. I’m sure they were busy, and they certainly weren’t there to provide care to someone who wasn’t feeling well and wasn’t even buying anything. And yet, they did them anyway. As well they ought. Our alum was hugely appreciative. At the end she offered to settle up for what they’d given her. The Deli team wasn’t having it. “Oh, you don’t need to pay for that,” the cashier insisted. “Are you sure?” our alum asked. “Yes, he said. It’s all good. Glad you’re feeling better!”

As I reflected on how beautifully the staff had handled the situation, I was reminded, once again, of how important it is to create an organizational culture where folks will, consistently, day in and day out, do these sorts of little extra things. Everyone probably knows these are the right things to do, but all too many won’t because it’s more trouble in the moment to do them than to look the other way, and because “rules and regulations” give them sound “reasons” to steer clear. Doing these little extras, every day for many years, is almost certainly one of things that helps any business (or non-profit or sports team) that’s getting to greatness. Sometimes, as in this case, it’s about helping customers. In others, it’s about doing extra learning. In others still, it’s checking and rechecking quality. It could be minor adjustments to improve systems, or going back to clear up the emotional debris from a difficult conversation. On a personal level, it might be leaving a handwritten love note, buying flowers on a day that doesn’t otherwise “matter,” hugging your kid a couple extra times, or picking up the phone to call a friend. You get the idea. Stuff you most certainly don’t have to do, but that ultimately makes a big difference. All which, I was reflecting when I read our alum’s email, is actually Natural Law #7 on the original list of twelve:

Successful businesses do the things that others know they should do … but generally don’t.

If you’re reading this, you likely do a lot of these little things too. The people who get to greatness—at work, in love, in life, or as lifeguards at the local pool—consistently do a whole lot of the “small stuff” that others agree is a good idea, but just don’t quite get around to doing. Great teachers respond in real time to shape their lesson plans, and great cooks taste and simmer their stocks just a little longer. It’s musicians who rehearse more and managers who carve out the time to talk to troubled staff members. For my friend, Molly Stevens a food writer, it’s going back to retest her recipes over and over again, and getting someone else she trusts to test them for her too to make sure they really work as they should. (We do the same here.) For my friend Jay Sandweiss, a physician, it’s doing more reading and teaching, and being willing to come in and work when his clients have time to be seen. For my significant other, farmer Tammie Gilfoyle, it’s growing her plants strictly from seed, using only heirlooms, working organically, and hand watering rather than relying on an easier route of switching on an automatic sprinkler system.

When I asked Dr. Jay what he thought he did that separated his work from so many others, he gave me some examples, and then quickly followed each item with, “I guess that’s sort of obvious.” That is the point: None of these little things are rocket science. They’re really just “do-diligence”—actually doing the stuff others think about but don’t act on. The key is to make these small actions part of our daily lives. In this sense, Natural Law #7 is really a way to be in the world. If we go through each day, doing just a bit more—and more thoughtfully—in the long run, great things are simply more likely to happen. And while the risk of doing these little things is usually very low, the long term upside is, happily, extremely high. It’s a mindset that helps us to default to action rather than get stuck in worry and anxiety. As we live Natural Law #7 more consistently, we create an organizational bias towards small meaningful actions that support Margaret Wheatley’s wise statement that, “Leadership is a series of behaviors rather than a role for heroes.”

Here’s a bit about Natural Law #7 from Secret #1 in Part 1,

While business books often focus on some stroke of Steven Jobs-like genius, I think that more often than not the real genius is mostly in doing the sort of drudgerous stuff that anyone who really thinks about it could do, but doesn’t. Most people don’t do this type of work because it seems too hard, too boring, too unrewarding … too something. For whatever reason the best businesses do it anyway, while their (oft-complaining) competitors can’t quite muster up the energy to make it happen.

I wrote more about this, taken from a personal life perspective, in Secret #36 in Part 3.

Everyone who’s great at anything will almost always be doing all the little, if less-than-glamorous, things that ultimately add up to greatness. … You can look at any field you want. The stars in sports who shoot more free throws, work out harder, and watch more game film than the others. The surgeons who study for countless hours late into the night to find things others may miss. The teachers who take the trouble to learn the names of every student on the first day and to adjust their lesson plan every semester just to keep things fresh.

Let me say that when I use the word “successful” I don’t particularly mean the people who make the most money or gain the most fame. Success for me essentially means living—collectively or personally—one’s vision. It means leading a meaningful, fulfilling, purposeful, and purpose-filled life that fits and feels congruent with a design and construct of your own choosing. People who are pursuing a vocation because it’s something that they love, something through which they’ve found a way to be themselves, through which they create their art, and share that art with the world.

(I’m not placing blame on those who don’t do these things. I know full well that in many ways it’s infinitely easier for me to say and do this stuff given where I sit in the world. There are socio-economic barriers, centuries-old biases, systemic obstacles, and lifelong family dysfunctions that make it far harder for many. When one is running short on funds and emotional energy every day, when one is managed by a boss who would reprimand you for giving away what wasn’t yours, doing these little extra things, while certainly not impossible, is most definitely much more difficult.)

Rebecca Solnit says that “We’re really in an energy revolution that’s a revolution of consciousness about how things work.” Each small action by itself is probably almost irrelevant. Together they’re an inspiration. They take work, but they also generate energy. When we do them regularly, they become the background music of our lives; it’s easy to forget we’ve even done them, and yet, at the same time they’re an important part of what’s getting us to where we want to go. Writing this piece is a call for me—and maybe you—to make that unconscious behavior conscious, to work to create cultures where almost everyone is doing these sorts of things, all day, every day. When that happens, everyone comes out ahead. Our organizations get healthier, the people who are part of them feel better about themselves and their work, they take these uplifting habits home with them, and our customers and our communities benefit.

This idea of inspirational, spiritually meaningful “background music,” makes me think about what in traditional Irish music is known as “the drone.” It has nothing to do with the things that folks are flying around, nor with male bees. Generally played on the Uillean (pronounced “I’lun”) pipes, or at times on a harmonium, the drone is formally defined as “a harmonic or monophonic effect or accompaniment where a note or chord is continuously sounded throughout most or all of a piece.” Musician Francis McPeak said, “The drone is the backbone of the melody and has a spiritual significance in Irish music as well, we believe that it is meant to appease the Lord. It is symbolic. Just like how all life emanates from the universal source and returns to it, all the music we play emerges from the drone and merges back into it.” For those of you who don’t know it, listen to Radie Peat from the amazing band Lankum on this solo show inside the old Kilmainham prison in Dublin, or this version of “Dark Horse.” While the casual listener might hardly even notice it, it’s not easy to do the drone well. The drone also shows up in musical traditions like the music of Les Filles de Illighadad, the Toureg band from Niger that I referenced down below use it as well. The musician needs to maintain it, steadily, neither too softly nor too loudly, while still focusing on the rest of the song. David Renard writes about their music in the New York Times, saying “The result … conveys something spiritual and solemn.” Amanda Petrusich, in the New Yorker, says, “If you listen long enough … it is possible to reach a kind of holy place … The edges of your consciousness will blur a little.”

In leadership life, I believe an equivalent of the drone is what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi famously called “flow.” Csikszentmihalyi says it’s “a mental state [in which] people are completely involved and focused on what they are doing.” In it, he continues, “The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

When we live Natural Law #7 well, weaving together hundreds and hundreds of little extra things into our lives and our organizational cultures in this way, good things are almost certain to happen in the long run. Ultimately, I’m thinking of them as a way to create daily regimens that over time elevate the quality of our work to something that can create the kind of regenerative organizational ecosystems to which we aspire. The more we do these extra little things, the more energized we feel, the more we want to do more of them. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says, “If you are interested in something, you will focus on it, and if you focus attention on anything, it is likely that you will become interested in it. Many of the things we find interesting are not so by nature, but because we took the trouble of paying attention to them.” Each small action energizes us to do more, in the process, creating the steady spiritually uplifting “background” for your life, the same steady sounding note that the drone can make. It feels good, it’s fun, and much of the time, when it’s well practiced, we don’t even realize we’re doing it. While I was working on this piece, another Zingerman’s alum walked by. He’s an Irishman who used to work at Mail Order. I told him I was listening to Lankum and writing about the drone. He paused, looked at me very seriously, then smiled broadly and said, “You’re having fun, aren’t you?” I smiled back and said, “You’re right. I am!”

Getting ourselves to a) focus on, and b) follow through on a regimen of doing the little extra things to make our daily “drone” is “the trick.” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says the key is,

To develop the habit of doing whatever needs to be done with concentrated attention, with skill rather than inertia. Even the most routine tasks, like washing dishes, dressing, or mowing the lawn become more rewarding if we approach them with the care it would take to make a work of art. The next step is to transfer some psychic energy each day from tasks that we don’t like doing, or from passive leisure, into something we never did before, or something we enjoy doing but don’t do often enough because it seems too much trouble. There are literally millions of potentially interesting things in the world to see, to do, to learn about. But they don’t become actually interesting until we devote attention to them.

So, what can we do to help create a culture in which these little extra things become the norm?

  • Choose to do them freely—If we do them out of obligation the energy they can create erodes and their benefit is drastically diminished. The “flow” that Csikszentmihalyi is speaking of starts with free choice!
  • Have a Vision—When we have a vision, written from the heart and wholeheartedly embarked upon, then we are doing the little extra things towards a greater purpose; they serve a set of positive outcomes to which we’re committed. You can see this in parenting, in farming, in the teaching of philosophy, in poetry, professional basketball … If you want an inspiring and touching version of this, read Chris Wilson’s incredible book The Master Plan.
  • Increase hope levels—People with low hope will rarely do the little extra things—what would be the point if you don’t believe there’s a better future you can get to? The more we raise organizational hope levels, the more likely it is the little things like what happened at the Deli will become the norm. Much more about this in Part 4Secret #44 and Secret #45.
  • Lead with positive beliefs—I wrote a bunch about this last week. People with negative beliefs about themselves, society, life, their manager, their job, or anything else are unlikely to do the little extra things. When we believe the best, the odds are much higher we will go out of our way to do more because we believe our work matters.
  • Get around other people who are doing them—When you’re in a culture—whether at work, in your family, in your online community, with your friends—where doing the little extra things is frowned upon, the odds obviously will go down drastically that you’ll do them. In cynical settings, staying late to check back with a customer one more time will most likely draw scowls. In Ireland, it’s often referred to as “cutting the tall poppies”—criticizing those who work “harder than they have to” or do “too much to succeed.” By contrast, we want a culture where doing the extra thing is celebrated.

We have, dozens of systemic ways that we lead folks here to live Natural Law #7 every day. Going the “extra mile” (the third in our Steps to Great Service), the “:55/:05 Rule” (unlocking our doors five minutes before our posted opening hours and locking them five minutes after our closing hours), sticking to systemic quality checks, making handwritten thank-you notes part of regular routines, ending meetings with appreciations, documenting “Code Greens” to share positive customer comments like the Deli story above. Actively building hope and leading with positive beliefs. Sharing stories is another wonderful way to get the word out. As Gareth Higgins, an Irishman who probably knows the power of the drone well, reminds us, “The stories we tell shape everything we experience.”

To restate, I know enough to know that while doing a couple little extra things is nice, in most cases, the immediate impact of each on its own is insignificant. When we stick with it though—like your 401K—small contributions to the cause, over time, create a surprisingly large “account.” Doing two a day for a year adds up to 700. Do five a day, and we’re getting close to 2000. Keep that up for twenty-five years and you’ll have over 50,000 small things done in support of stuff you care about. Contrast that with doing few or none at all and it’s obviously a huge difference. The real power, after all, isn’t in you or me doing it alone; it’s getting everyone we work with to do them. If every one of the folks working here did two a day over the course of the next year … that’s 36,000 contributions to our cause and our community. Many of these small acts will not directly be noticed; but they do matter. As Wendell Berry writes, “Maybe they had helped a little the healing of the hurt world.”

As we do them more and more often, I believe they help us to become ever more spiritually alive. It’s the energy embedded in the sort of mastery that Dr. Sarah Lewis writes about in The Rise. We know that we’ll never attain perfection, but we embrace that going the extra mile for customers or saying thank you or a bit more study or a little more love put into every interaction will likely lead to the sort of spiritual aliveness that’s something special both to behold, and also, to be part of. This for me, is also the beauty of the drone. It’s why, I realize, I unconsciously recenter myself, take a deep breath and close my eyes almost every time I hear those first notes of the drone in a great old Irish song. When we do these small extra things regularly they gradually enhance our existence. As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says, “we learn to become more than what we were.”

So … how do you get started? Theodore Roszak said of E.F. Schumacher, the author of Small is Beautiful:

Schumacher would invariably get asked by someone in the audience, “But what can I do?” His simple answer was “Do three things, one after the other, one leading into the other. Inform yourself. Support others who are already at work. Initiate where you can and how you can. Start where you are. But start. Don’t wait for the perfect situation.”

I’ve created a new little regimen for myself around Natural Law #7. For the moment, maybe we’ll call this routine “Three and Up,” to go with the “Three and Out” I’ve talked about for my energy management. When I feel like I’m floundering, rather than let my mind sink into a state of frustration, I’m going to try it: do three small things, one after another, in service of what I’m committed to and what I believe in. It could be helping an elderly customer to their car; giving a small, unexpected gift to a customer or coworker; reading a few pages on a subject of interest; or reaching out to someone interesting I’ve long imagined connecting with but not done. It’s more important, as Schumacher suggested, “to start where we are,” to move forward, with small steps, even if they’re not, totally terrific, than it is to blame others, or hang around worrying about which steps we “should” take.

The movement from each of these small actions can help us build momentum and get us—and our organizations—going in the right direction. If we do them with care, consistently over time, what we do every day, “the music” we make in our lives, will, I believe, be beautiful; the spiritual uplift, the steadiness of the sound, the power of the pitch, will impact us and everyone around us, in quiet, but still wonderfully positive, ways. If we stick with those small things steadily over time, one after another, they help us create something extraordinary. Because as Jacob-Ernst Berendt, the 20th century jazz writer, once said, “Music is more than music.”

For more on the Natural Laws of Business, see Secret #1 in Part 1.

*** 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!