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Natural Law #16

To get positive outcomes, we need to begin with positive beliefs

black and white photo of a tomato plant

As many of you know, I’ve been working for a while now on what is the next set of Natural Laws of Business (and also of life) that I hadn’t yet formulated when I wrote the initial essay back in 2009 in Part 1. Natural Laws, like gravity, are simply the way the world works. We don’t have to like them, but they will remain true, nonetheless. Exactly how they play out, like everything in the natural world, will always be local, but the principles will be consistent regardless of when and where you put them to work. In the last few months, I’ve written about Natural Laws #13#18#19, and #23. This week, I’ll share another from the growing list: #16—“To get positive outcomes, we need to begin with positive beliefs.” Said differently, in an inverted way, “You can’t get positive outcomes from negative beliefs.”

To back up a bit, in The Power of Beliefs in Business I wrote about beliefs as the metaphorical equivalent of the root systems of our lives. We can’t generally see them, but what grows above the surface is always 100-percent correlated with the root system below. In an example of Oliver Wendell Holmes’ wonderful suggestion to seek “simplicity on the other side of complexity,” I started to look at beliefs in three broad categories: negative beliefs, neutral beliefs, and positive beliefs. The roots/beliefs metaphor made the conclusion obvious. What will grow from the roots is already clear before anything sprouts above the surface. Negative beliefs will lead to negative outcomes (aka, “weeds”); Neutral beliefs won’t do much; Positive beliefs will lead to positive outcomes (which we might imagine as the vegetables or flowers we want in our gardens). As anarchist Alexander Berkman once wrote early in the 20th century, “You can’t grow a rose from a cactus seed.” And as Gertrude Stein said thirty years or so later, “A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.” (Stein, by the way, was a student of William James, the pioneering psychologist who said, “Belief creates the actual fact.”)

To be clear, negative beliefs can create action. We could all, I’m confident, come up with a long list quickly. One can use negative beliefs to cause conflict, get someone fired, or even overthrow a government. They can also be used in the short term to push for big achievements by defeating opponents or crushing competition. But ultimately these remain negative pursuits, and the energy behind them will inevitably peter out unless they’re replaced later by positive beliefs. As historian Robin D. G. Kelley writes, “Without new visions, we don’t know what to build, only what to knock down. We not only end up confused, rudderless, and cynical, but we forget that making a revolution is not a series of clever maneuvers and tactics, but a process that can and must transform us.”

Working with positive beliefs doesn’t mean there are no problems. This is not about Pollyanna. I’ve learned, though, that one can have negative beliefs about a problem (“We’re doomed!”) that lead us toward feeling like frustrated victims. Or we can have positive beliefs about a problem (“This is difficult, but we can do something to make it better!”) that will inspire us to take constructive action. Since I’m already writing about plants and root systems, I’ll use my good friend Melvin Parson’s We the People Opportunity Farm project to illustrate the point. We the People addresses a couple of serious issues. One is helping returning citizens who have only recently gotten out of prison to find jobs and reacclimate to being in the community in positive ways. The other is the loss of farmland and farming in the Black community over the course of the 20th century. Rather than simply express his anger and concern, Melvin created what is now one of the most positive non-profits I know in the area. In the process, Farmer Parson has realized in practice what Grace Lee Boggs advised us half a century ago: “You don’t choose the times you live in, but you do choose who you want to be. And you do choose how you think.”

(I should add that there’s a whole other discussion which I wrote about in Part 4—what will actually be considered a “weed” will be different from one organization or one culture to another. To wit, a baker questioning an accountant’s financial statement accuracy in most corporate settings would be considered a bad thing, probably grounds for at least a polite reprimand; in an Open Book Management setting, it would be a cause for serious celebration. See endnote #14 on page 580 for a bit more detail and Élisée Reclus’ lovely description of dandelions!)

I wrote a lot about how to put this approach to positive beliefs into practice in Secret #41 in Part 4. There are sixteen practical recommendations and a whole range of stories about what the work looks like when we do it well, and also when we don’t. Both metaphorically and practically, I got additional supporting evidence for Natural Law #16 while listening to sustainable farming specialist Jason Hobson on the Regenerative Agriculture Podcast. Asked what separates farmers who fail when they try regenerative regimens from those who do really well with the same practices, Jason said:

The people who believe things are going to work and that things are gonna change overwhelmingly see success. The people who believe they’re not going to work, probably aren’t going to see success. … Very practically, if you believe in something you’re gonna do the little things that are necessary to make it successful. … What’s the one criterion, the one thing that separates people who are successful in our work? It’s the belief that things are possible, that things can change, it’s the belief that it can happen. And the belief that they have the ability to create the different outcome that they’re looking for.

From a very practical and interpersonal standpoint, I can see this Natural Law play out every day in our workplace. When we live it, by leading with positive beliefs, the odds of things going well go up significantly. When we don’t, the odds of success sink. Recovery is usually still possible, but only by mindful use of positive beliefs.

So many of our issues—mine, and everyone else’s—are triggered by miscommunication and misunderstanding. I’ve long looked at that as a frustration to work past. But in the spirit of what I’m writing, I’m going to shift to a more positive set of beliefs around the problem. Misunderstandings between people, while frustrating, are probably the norm; meaningfully effective communication is the exception. (Thank you to Hasna for helping me see this.) Even with good intentions, it’s not easy to make happen. If we begin, then, with the belief that we will more often than not be misunderstood, knowing too that we will just as often misunderstand others, we can start to see communication more as the all-important craft that it is. Just as great cooking or carpentry require years of conscious practice to achieve anything close to mastery, communication can be something we practice and improve on for the rest of our lives, rather than just another problem to get pissed off about. This, I’ve realized, is one of the most important places to put positive beliefs to work in our day-to-day organizational lives.

Here’s a near-everyday occurrence, which shows how significantly a seemingly subtle shift in beliefs can change our day, or even our entire relationship: Something small goes wrong. It happens, everywhere, every few minutes. One person, frustrated by the problem, starts with the same negative beliefs we all see in the news every day. Based on those beliefs, they come quickly to conclusions like “Clearly, she’s not committed!” Or it could be “He doesn’t even want to work here,” or “She doesn’t care!” What follows from those sorts of beliefs? They’re pretty much going to lead to tension, conflict, anger, maybe disengagement and distancing. More often than not, they will also likely lead to the spreading of even more deeply rooted negative beliefs. As I’ve tried to move myself into embracing Natural Law #16—“To get positive outcomes, we need to begin with positive beliefs”—I’ve worked to change the stories I tell myself in these sorts of situations. And then, taking it further, to help those I coach and work with every day to switch out some of the stories they’re telling as well.

What I’ve begun to do is to ask the folks who are starting with the negative beliefs about their colleague to share some alternative stories they might make up to explain the situation. As Gareth Higgins writes, “The stories we tell shape how we experience everything. When we tell a diminished story, we make a diminished life.” Because beliefs are so far outside most of our day-to-day mental conversations, many folks I ask to reconsider the story they’re telling are almost unable, in the moment, to come up with a more positive alternative to explain the situation they’re so, understandably, stressed about. I get it. It’s taken me six years since I first started working with positive beliefs to get to where I am, and I still slip regularly. To help folks go deeper, I ask again: “So, if you were looking at this situation through a more positive and compassionate lens, what story might you tell?” If they’re still stuck, I try to help by offering what at the Deli we could consider “free samples.” I’ll begin with something like, “Maybe she’s scared and doesn’t know how to handle it well?” Or “Perhaps it’s possible that she shuts down when her stress gets super high?” Or maybe “He might just be afraid to say he doesn’t have all the answers?” Or “Maybe he’s overwhelmed?”

To be very clear, none of these latter stories deny the actual issue—there’s no question that you/they were frustrated when the situation played out as it did. We certainly want to work through the problem. What these new stories—all of which are positive beliefs about the people involved—do is give us a more meaningfully effective way to enter into a conversation in which we have reasonably good odds at emerging with sound understandings and agreement on positive paths forward. Embracing Natural Law #16 has helped me to believe the best about everyone, even those whose beliefs frustrate me, or whose actions I believe are destructive. As Gareth Higgins has it, “We may still want to be right, but we’re learning that it’s better to be creative.” With that in mind, early on in doing this work, I simply decided to believe that everyone is doing the best they can with the limited—and often even inaccurate—information that they have in their heads. While I may still not like what they’re doing, I remain committed to working to find better alternatives. As I wrote in Part 4,

I agree with Isaac Asimov when he writes, “To me it seems to be important to believe people to be good even if they tend to be bad, because your own joy and happiness in life is increased that way, and the pleasures of the belief outweigh the occasional disappointments. To be a cynic about people works just the other way around and makes you incapable of enjoying the good things.”

Making this switch has, without question, reduced my own stress level, and at the same time, helped me to move more quickly towards mutually-agreed upon solutions. My energy is better and so is my effectiveness. As the amazing author Anne Lamott reminds all of us, “You can either practice being right or practice being kind.”

Gareth Higgins says that the story we tell ourselves about our life,

is the single most important element in determining our happiness and the kind of life we will lead. It is immensely powerful, though most of us aren’t conscious of this much of the time … the story you tell yourself will determine the part you play; as either a courageous, wounded, healer (of yourself and others) or merely a victim of the other people’s broken stories.

Stories, I’ve come to see, are beliefs made manifest. Change the belief, and we change the story. Change the story, and we change our beliefs. Psychologist Paul Watzlawick pointed out that from a car driving past in the dark a man hunched over trying to find his house key looks pretty much identical to someone trying to pick the lock. It’s a great insight, with important implications in all parts of our lives. What we believe—at work, at home, and in the world—will significantly alter what we see. What we believe changes what we do. What we do changes what others believe, which in turn changes what they do. And, it turns out, about nine times out of ten in my experience, what they do will reinforce our original belief.

One of the keys to doing this work well is to become ever more mindful of which beliefs we’re using to sort out any situation with which we’re confronted. Learning to begin with positive beliefs, after living most of our lives with a wealth of weeds growing unwittingly in our intellectual and emotional gardens, can take years of practice. I wrote in Secret #33 in Part 3 that mindfulness lives in the space between stimulus and response that Victor Frankl wrote about. It’s in that space that we can take pause, pull the roots of old weeds, and plant the seeds of more positive stories. Like all changes, it is awkward at first. A lifetime of learning and living with negative beliefs won’t go away in a day, but it can be done. (See Secret #43 for a recipe for changing a belief.)

If you want another elegantly simple construct to help you with this work, consider this “recipe” from Gareth Higgins. Regardless of the situation, he recommends:

When you encounter a story, ask yourself: “Is the story true, and is it helpful?” If the answer is no for either, take responsibility for finding—or making—a truer or more helpful version.

It’s an awesome mantra: Is the story true? If not, is there a truer story to be told? Is the way we’re telling it helpful? If not, is there a more helpful way to tell it? Give it a shot over the next few days. I’ve tried it, and Higgins’ suggestion works remarkably well.

Certainly, this is all easier said than it is done. When our anxiety rises, it’s understandable that we start to slide back into old negative ways of thinking. But we can use Gareth Higgins’ handy prompt to help talk ourselves back into a better, more positive set of beliefs. Instead of saying stuff like, “Everything is coming apart!” “We’re screwed!” or “It’s a disaster!” we might try a story that sounds more like this: “I’m feeling so anxious. I know we’ve been in difficult spots and we’re in one again. How are you feeling about things? What do you think the best way might be to get through this together?” The content, to be clear, is really no different in the two descriptions—we still have big issues to overcome—but the second snippet of conversation is a hundred times more likely to lead someplace constructive.

From what I’ve been learning in reading the work of Dr. Bruce Lipton and Dr. Mario Martinez, our beliefs also have a big impact on our health. Dr. Martinez writes a great deal about the impact of our beliefs about our aging—certainly something that’s relevant for me as I get older. People who buy into the belief that life is “essentially over” at 60 or 65, he says (with a good bit of scientific data to support the statement) will almost always live shorter and much less rewarding lives. Those who believe that life can continue to get better as they mature, and that there’s much left to learn and do and contribute, are meaningfully more likely to live to past a hundred. As artist Christine Mason Miller writes, “At any given moment you have the power to say: this is not how my story will end.”

If you want a bit of an artistic insight, as well as some additional evidence, on that last bit, check this statement from the amazing artist Eva Zeisel who said, “No creative thought or created thing grows out of a negative impulse. A negative impulse is always frustrating. … No negative impulse can work, can produce any happy creation. Only a positive one.” Zeisel, by the way, lived to be 105, and she was designing pretty much up to the day she died.

I was reminded of the tragedy that negative beliefs can cause when I read this beautifully touching piece by Syrian poet Amineh Abou Kerech. It’s called, “Can Anyone Teach Me How to Make a Homeland?”

I’m trying to design a country
that will go with my poetry
and not get in the way when I’m thinking,
where soldiers don’t walk over my face.
I’m trying to design a country
which will be worthy of me if I’m ever a poet
and make allowances if I burst into tears.
I’m trying to design a City
of Love, Peace, Concord and Virtue,
free of mess, war, wreckage and misery.

What I’ve come to understand, in the spirit of Natural Laws, is that if we want to design that sustainable, loving, peaceful country—or company or community—of the sort Ms. Kerech is seeking, it must be based on positive beliefs.

The proof of all this, I believe, is in how we put the principles at play to work every day in our personal lives and in our organizations. Our new Statement of Beliefs is one very productive way to do that at work. Every belief on the list is positive. All of us at Zingerman’s, me included, have much to do to make it an everyday reality, but the more we do, it is clear to me, the more we honor Natural Law #16, the better our work and our lives are likely to go. The Statement of Beliefs is one part (along with vision, mission, and values) of a real-life answer to the question asked in the title of Ms. Kerech’s poem. The beliefs we were brought up with are what they are; but what we do going forward is up to us. As Margaret Wheatley writes, “It’s not differences that divide us. It’s our judgments about each other that do.”

*** 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!