Ari on Business

The Power of Positive Beliefs

Marveling at the difference a small shift in beliefs can make in every aspect of our lives

As I write, we’re in the process of putting the final touches on the first-ever “Zingerman’s Statement of Beliefs.” We’re working on getting them printed so we can give copies to our staff, and so those of you who want to can buy one as well. I’ll write more about why I believe the “Statement of Beliefs” is so important and how we plan to use it soon. But for the moment, I want to start with sharing the very first belief listed on the Statement:

“We believe leading with positive beliefs makes a positive difference.”

There are dozens of other beliefs in the document, and all are important. But, the more I work with the Statement of Beliefs, the clearer it’s becoming that that first belief is particularly important—it provides critical framing for the whole project. All the beliefs that follow on our list, are also positive. As are the stories that follow here. Like I said, “We believe leading with positive beliefs makes a positive difference.”

As many of you will already know, during the work on The Power of Beliefs in Business I began to imagine our beliefs as the root systems of our lives. What we believe—whether we realize it or not, is driving our decisions and behaviors every day. Change the belief, and you’ll likely change the behavior too. By contrast, keep the belief the same, and we will continue to get the same outcomes. In hindsight, it’s obvious. The roots below ground always dictate, 100 percent of the time, what will later emerge above the surface. One of the most important learnings for me out of all the work was this:

  • Negative beliefs will lead to negative outcomes.

  • Neutral beliefs won’t do much of anything.

  • Positive beliefs create positive outcomes.

Negative beliefs can create action. They can create both antipathy or apathy, evoke anger, tear down buildings, get people fired, or bring relationships to an end. But they will not create calming, collaborative and creative results going forward. Which means that if we want to create long-term positive outcomes, we must lead from a positive place. It’s a short sentence and a simple concept but it’s a big statement. If we want to build meaningful, healthy, sustainable organizations, organizations that generate positive energy and leave their communities better than we found them, we need to begin our work with positive beliefs.

Like many things in life, it’s easier to understand this concept intellectually than it is to put it into daily practice. Negative beliefs are all around us. Most of us grew up, unknowingly, with plenty of them. They’re on the news, they’re in social media, they’re in notes from meetings we go to. It could be thinking ill of coworkers or customers. Or about our neighbors, our in-laws, our partners, our spouses. It could be about entire groups of people—racism, anti-Semitism, the belief that women can’t lead, or young people won’t read. Negative beliefs are so pervasive that we’re often not even aware that they’ve entered our minds—criticism and complaining, gossip and negative thinking can be so pervasive as to pass, pretty much unnoticed, as “normal.” The more we hear them, the deeper the roots go, and the harder it is to get them out of our heads. It can be done though. We have the freedom and power to choose our own beliefs. And small shifts that we make from negative beliefs to positive beliefs actually make positive differences. In the long run, a big difference.

To be clear, sticking to positive beliefs does not mean ignoring problems. We face big issues in our organizations and society at large every day. So, no, I’m not suggesting we nominate Pollyanna for President. But, it turns out, we can have negative beliefs about a problem (“There’s nothing we can do. We’re at the mercy of others.”), or we can have positive beliefs about problems (“This is a serious issue—let’s start working on how we can make things better”). Starting with positive beliefs won’t guarantee good results, but they sure will increase the odds that we can make good things happen.

What follows are a series of “short stories”—all of which have happened in the last few weeks—that have served to reinforce the power of positive beliefs for me.

DeVeaux worked at the Deli as a porter in what we would now call “the early years.” After he left the Deli, DeVeaux got into design and consulting. He’s creative, a musician, a caring thinker, a good ZingTrain customer, and very community-minded. He’s still a great customer to this day, as is his whole family. After they were in the other evening at the Roadhouse, DeVeaux emailed me the next day with thanks for their dinner and to share this story:

I’ve been working really hard to change and improve the culture where I work and have made significant progress. Although at one point I was intent on leaving the company out of frustration, I shifted gears and tried to appreciate the positives, which are many. I started with changing my own mindset on gratitude and appreciation for what I have, and then working on what was important to me that I could change. So, it was part internal change, and partly learning to sell the importance of an idea and taking initiative to make it happen. The final component was making some great hires over the past few years of people who shared my goals [and, I’ll insert my own contextually relevant comment, his beliefs] and were willing to help. I even got the owners to attend some of the ZingTrain Leadership Series last year. This all culminated with an award I received at our annual Townhall. This is only the second time it’s been given out. The partners said some really nice things about me, how I’ve challenged them to be better leaders and transformed the culture, improving the business. It all started with the internal shift of “flipping the switch.”

The second story comes from Christine at the Deli. Based on the positive belief that others might benefit, she gave me permission to share this story: “Feel free to quote me. If it helps or inspires someone else that’s great.” After the piece I did on visioning came out last week, Christine wrote to share this story:

I’ve been seriously struggling lately with navigating this new reality (like everyone). Your writing about visioning earlier this week really struck a chord. I’ve been reading and re-reading it a lot this week, getting something new each time. As a result, I’ve slowly been changing my thinking. I have been so focused on what is “wrong” or causing me anxiety that I haven’t been appreciating all the positive things going on in my life. I wrote a vision and I feel better because of it. I was feeling like I had the 80/20 rule in reverse. Like seriously 80% of the things in my life are OK, but I was taking that 20% of anger and fear and anxiety and allowing it to take up all my mental space. Yes, those emotions are still there, but there was something about writing that bigger-picture vision two years from now that put things into perspective.

Here’s a small example of how my attitude has been changing: I’ve had my front door open today while I’m working for the first time in a month. My neighbor across the street has had a large collection of yard signs and flags for a political candidate I find abhorrent. I would get SO angry every time I opened the front door. I decided to refocus my view; by putting paper up to block my view of the sign, I no longer focused on something that upset me. Instead I get to see flowers and blue sky and trees. Yes, the signs are still there, nothing has changed except where I have decided to focus my energy.

The third short story starts with Marsha, who’s been a big player in the behind-the-scenes part of my life for decades, and who’s read The Power of Beliefs in Business, because of which, she sent me this from artist Emily McDowell:

“Finding yourself” is not really how it works. You aren’t a ten-dollar bill in last winter’s coat pocket. You are also not lost. Your true self is right there, buried under cultural conditioning, other people’s opinions, and inaccurate conclusions you drew as a kid that became your beliefs about who you are. “Finding yourself” is actually returning to yourself. An unlearning, an excavation, a remembering who you were before the world got its hands on you.

Positive beliefs, it turns out, are just as important when it comes to what we believe about ourselves. If we believe badly about ourselves, bad outcomes are almost certain. By shifting to positive beliefs, as Ms. McDowell so eloquently addresses, we can stay calmer, work more effectively, have a more positive impact on others around us, and remain more resilient—increasing our odds of getting to the future we envision.

The fourth story goes like this: I was sitting out front of the Roadhouse as I have been doing a lot over the last few months—a good spot in the warm sun and fresh-squeezed orange juice are hard to beat. Among the other guests arriving for breakfast was a gentleman around my age. He looked vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t quite place him. In the spirit of my friend Anese Cavanaugh’s teachings, his energy struck me (even across the parking lot) as positive, creative, grounded, and authentic. It was a beautiful Michigan morning, and he and the folks he was with were waiting for the dining room to open for brunch. From my table about 30 feet away, I overheard them wondering about what would be on the menu. I went inside and got them a copy. I went back to work, and he and his group went ahead, ordered, then sat out in Roadhouse Park, and ate breakfast.

About half an hour later, the gentleman walked back over and asked if I was one of the owners. I shyly said yes. He proceeded to share this story:

I was here a few years ago with my family for dinner. When you came by our table, I didn’t know who you were. I thought you were the busboy. I had half of my steak left on my plate, and you asked me if it was OK. I told you that the first half of it was fantastic, but the temperature had dropped prodigiously, and by the time I got to the other half it wasn’t hot, and it wasn’t what I wanted to eat. I’ll always remember you went and took the steak off my bill. You listened, and you treated me like a human being. I tell people that story all the time. And ever since then, if anyone tells me that they’re coming to Ann Arbor, I tell them to go to Zingerman’s.

I only vaguely recalled the details of the interaction itself. But in the spirit of Maya Angelou’s, “At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel,” I most definitely remembered him. I asked his name, trying to place him. “Ernst,” he said. “Oh yeah,” I said, “we talked for a while after you ate. You live in New York, right?” “Yep. I’m from Aruba, but I live in Brooklyn.” I thanked him for reminding me of the story, gave him my business card, and told him how happy I was to have him here visiting again.

He headed back to the family’s breakfast table. As he walked away I checked my computer. I remembered Ernst Mohamed and his positive creative energy. Immediately I found the file I was looking for. After he and his family had been in for dinner a few years before, I looked him up online. In part, I did it to learn more about him, but also in the hopes that I could find an email address to send him a thank you note. I didn’t find the contact info, but I did find this inspiring article about him. When I read it, it reinforced why I’d liked his energy so much!

The whole story of our interaction, I realized while I was writing, was based on positive beliefs. About customers. About people. About diversity. Even though my inclination is to not bring up the matter of race, I realized that in honor of the meaningful work Ernst Mohamed is doing in his community, I’m going to. Because in the spirit of poet Pat Parker who wrote a piece entitled, “For the white person who wants to know how to be my friend”:

The first thing you do is to forget that I’m Black.

Second, you must never forget that I’m Black.

Ernst is Black. (He’s also, it turns out, Jewish, but I wouldn’t have known that at the time.) The service we gave Ernst when he told me about his steak was, for us at Zingerman’s, our norm. It’s all, I now see, based on positive beliefs. He was our guest. We treat all customers with dignity and are committed to giving them a great experience. He wasn’t totally happy with his steak. Solution? Simple. Do the right thing. Refund his money.

But change the underlying beliefs, and you alter the outcomes. This story, in another restaurant in another place, could have gone very differently. The manager might think to himself, “Hey the customer already ate half the steak. He’s clearly scamming. Just trying to get something for free.” Based on those beliefs, the manager might have done nothing more than mumble an apology. If the manager had a lot of negative beliefs about Black people, there would at the least have probably been a lot of internal eye rolling. Maybe even worse. And even if the words spoken to Mr. Mohamed might have been formally “fine,” skeptical, unwelcoming energy sends a message. As he says in the article I found online: “I realized that in the eyes of a racist person my skin color is all that matters. Taken one event at a time, in isolation, maybe these aren’t such big deals, at least for me. But over time, one after the other, they are that foot, exerting constant pressure.” Negative beliefs of all sorts repeated regularly for years—whether they’re from our family, the press, or our boss—are wearing.

How do we change from negative beliefs to positive? The recipe I settled on is in Secret #43 in Part 4. Few of us understood growing up that our beliefs were nothing more than changeable lenses we learned early in our lives. Or that, like childhood nicknames or our favorite stuffed animals, they may have been fine at one point but not so great later in life. But it turns out we have full capacity to opt for different beliefs. The thing is, we can’t just order up a set of new ones. When the roots of negative beliefs are 30 years old, they aren’t just going to melt into nothingness overnight no matter how good our intentions. As Edgar Schein wrote, “Learning new things is easy when there is no unlearning involved.” The key here is to understand—and believe—that we CAN change them.

Last little bit of this series of short stories. For some reason a few weeks ago, I decided I wanted to know more about Jimi Hendrix. I’ve long loved his music and I have all the albums (on vinyl) from when I was a kid. I found this clip of him on the old Dick Cavett Show. It was made shortly after Woodstock when Hendrix did that mind-blowing marvelous version of the Star Spangled Banner. At one point, Dick Cavett says something about preparing himself to receive nasty letters about Hendrix’s “unorthodox version” of the national anthem. Having read—and gotten—some of those angry letters over the years, I immediately started to imagine how harsh they might be. But rather than get pulled into an argument, Hendrix smiles, reframes the beliefs, and takes the conversation in the opposite direction: “I don’t think it’s unorthodox,” he tells Cavett with a smile. “I think it’s beautiful.”

Secret #41, “Leading with Positive Beliefs” is out in pamphlet form. It’s online here, or on display at the Coffee Company, Roadhouse, and Deli.