Sticking With Stuff Through the Zone of Doubt and Blame

A car drives off down a long road.

Thoughts on trying to get through to the other side.

By Ari Weinzweig

Last Wednesday I was on the twice-weekly call of the Independent Restaurant Coalition. The connection to the group and its amazing members has been one of the bright spots for me of the last four months. Its hard work on behalf of independently owned restaurants like ours has been an inspiration. The group has made a lot of headway over the weeks. And still, pretty much everyone in the IRC is struggling. Nearly all, right now, are losing money. Limited seating, appropriate focus on safety concerns, staff furloughs, struggles to rebuild sales, etc. have all been laid on top of the multitude of long standing challenges of the food world. And yet, over the course of the pandemic, this hundred or so committed chefs, restaurateurs, and key managers have gotten on that call a couple times a week to push forward—through the fear, frustration and financial challenges—to figure out how to get past this pandemic in a positive way. 

In the last few months, the folks in the IRC have been working hard to build support in the House and Senate for the RESTAURANTS Act. I’m happy to say that our Congresswoman Debbie Dingell signed on early as a co-sponsor, and Michigan Senators Stabenow and Peters followed suit last week. But there remains much work to do to try to get the bill moved forward. Chef Jody Adams, who I’ve known for a long time, and has run a whole series of great restaurants in Boston, lamented that she hadn’t yet gotten her state’s two senators to sign onto the bill. “I feel like I’m failing,” she shared with the group. Then she added, “I hate giving up.”  

I can relate. Probably everyone else on the call hates giving up too. Not many people last long in the food business if they’re not, to some degree, super stubborn. If you’re reading this piece you’re most likely also pretty good at sticking with stuff. Like attracts like. In that sense, I suppose, as I write here about sticking with stuff, I’m probably preaching to the converted. But that said, in dark days we all need reinforcement. I know I do. So, here’s a story (and a few thoughts to go with it) that I hope can help all of us get successfully through to the other side of this rather challenging year.  

A story about an encounter at the Roadhouse.

The other evening, I was sitting on one of the wooden benches out front of the Roadhouse. The dinner rush had ended, and I wanted to try to catch up on email. By pandemic standards, it was “busy,” and the staff had done a nice job working through the evening’s service. While I was moving through my email, a guest approached the Roadshow trailer to pick up a carryout. A guy, about my age—someone I don’t think I’d seen before. He looked at me for a minute, then kind of hesitantly asked, “Are you . . . Ari?” I said I was. “Wow!” he said softly. He paused for a second and then went on. “I want to thank you for nearly 40 years of great food and great experiences. I’ve been coming to your businesses almost since you opened. Honestly, Zingerman’s has changed my life.” It was an unexpected but welcome reminder of why we do what we do. I thanked him for his decades of support. It means a lot.

A bit later, after he’d eaten his carryout at one of the picnic tables we’ve put out front in the last few months and was walking to his car, he stopped to thank me again! I thanked him again too, and said, “I just hope we get through to where all this just becomes a good story we tell.” He smiled back from behind his mask and said, “We will.” I chuckled and smiled too, but maybe more anxiously than I’d intended. He stopped, turned, and calmly but very firmly said, “We will!” I have no idea what his area of expertise is or why his belief that we’re going to get through this would carry more weight than anyone else’s, but just hearing him say it calmed my nerves a bit. 

About 250 year ago Thomas Paine wrote, “These are the times that try men’s souls.” A century or so later, Frederick Douglass, working to undo the power of white men that was woven into the Constitution for which Paine worked so hard, said, “Without a struggle, there can be no progress.” This is a time that is trying the souls of women and men and everyone, all over the world. Everyone is struggling. Some much more than others. I feel fortunate to be doing it in such a great community with such a positive group of coworkers and customers. But the reality remains—everyone, right now, is having a hard time. 

The zone of doubt and blame.

In any long project, the beginning stages are a lot of work but are often filled with the energy of the new challenge. Much later, when one advances into the latter phases, energy increases anew when we finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. The hardest part, I think, is the middle. Patience wanes, frustration rises, anger gets amped up. This is the period we learned to refer to (from someone I can’t recall) as “The Zone of Doubt and Blame.” I’m sure you know it—it’s the point where we all start to doubt what we’re doing and try to figure out who got us into this situation. It’s also when a lot of us begin to feel like fleeing might be our best option.  

Now, I know, the sad reality is that not every organization will get through this pandemic. Many have the will, but just don’t have the resources—I read in the news about businesses running out of cash and closing every day. Others will, understandably and appropriately, opt out. I most definitely don’t judge those who decide to change direction under duress. There are many good reasons to let go. I talked to a good friend last week who shared that she’s decided in the next year or so she’s going to sell her business. Not out of exhaustion—it’s just time to do something else. But for stubborn folks like me, as much as I dislike the Zone of Doubt and Blame, I’m still all for going forward. In fact, I’m determined. Like Jody Adams, I hate giving up. 

On not giving up.

This willingness to stick with stuff and get through to the other side is implicit on the list of Natural Laws of Business and Life.

#7  Successful People Do the Things That Others Know They Should . . .but Generally Don’t
#11 It Generally Takes a Lot Longer to Make Something Great Happen Than People Think

I’m pretty confident that almost everyone who’s successfully stuck with anything—project, pandemic, long-term relationship, school, raising kids, writing books—considers quitting at various points en route. Maybe even daily. On dark days, more than once. The difference between those who get through to the “finish” and those who don’t is often whether or not we have the mental bandwidth to push past the fear, exhaustion, and indecision. It’s whether we can take another deep breath, reground, reconnect with folks who believe in us. Even when those folks—like the guest at the Roadhouse—are people we hardly even know. 

Which got me to wondering—what keeps people like us going when we want, at various points, to just let go and call it a day? Early 19th century anarchist Voltairine de Cleyre said over a hundred years ago that, “Circumstances are what men make of them.” Here are five things that help me, and maybe you, keep going through this Zone of Doubt and Blame, Pandemic version—and make the most of the rather challenging circumstances we all face. 

Five things that keep us going.

1. Free choice—When we make a conscious choice to recommit, our lives will be altered in wonderful ways. Energy is higher, determination is bigger than ever. The very wise Margaret Wheatley writes, “Perseverance is a choice. It’s not a simple, one-time choice, it’s a daily one. There’s never a final decision.”

2. Purpose—In continually making that choice to push forward, for me—for us—there’s much more at stake than just paying bills. Don’t get me wrong. The money matters—we have debt we’re responsible for and we need to pay our bills, at work and at home. But, really, what drives me most is that the work we do here matters. It’s not just about making a living. It’s about making a meaningful difference. It’s about community. About creating something special. About positive workplaces. About showing that one can thrive and survive conducting business in the way we do. To demonstrate that one can bring generosity, kindness, and quality to the community in meaningful ways. And to prove Michelle Obama’s statement that, “Success isn’t about how much money you make; it’s about the difference you make in people’s lives.”

3. Vision—When we have a long term picture of where we’re headed, a vision that came from the heart, a vision we’ve worked on and believe in and care about deeply, it’s much easier to keep pushing through the Zone of Doubt and Blame. We’d just about wrapped up 18 months of work on our 2032 vision when the pandemic started popping up in newsfeeds (if you want to read the near final draft, drop me an email). But I’m no less committed to that vision now that I was before all this started. It still stands and I still stand by it. And as Daniel Coyle writes in The Talent Code, “When we envision ourselves doing it far into the future, we are tapping into a massive evolutionary energy source.” Our vision also gives us the power to make better decisions today. As psychologist Paul Watzlawick points out, “In this sense it was the future—not the past—that determined the present.” 

4. Get around the right people —Wallace Stegner once wrote about a type of people that he called “stickers”—folks “motivated by affection, by such love for a place and its life that they want to preserve it and remain in it.” We fill that bill. And the more we’re around people like that—folks who believe deeply in what they’re doing and who then push through the hard parts—the easier it is to stick with things through our struggles. I’m fortunate to be part of an organization that’s filled with them. When I need a boost, the folks around me inspire me daily.

5. Rigor and resilience — Dr. Angela Duckworth wrote about this in her excellent book Grit. “Enthusiasm is common,” she said. “Endurance is rare.” As I wrote in the summer issue of Zingerman’s News, what we’re dealing with right now is “a marathon through a minefield.” Speaking of which . . . while running isn’t the only reason I have resilience, I’ve realized over the years, it definitely helps. I run every day. And everyone who runs—or rows or rock climbs or whatever comparable activity one undertakes—knows the feeling of wanting to stop part way through. Yes, on rare occasions, reality, health, and safety dictate that we do that. And yet, 99% of the time we just keep going. To be clear here, for me, it’s not about competition. I’m very slow. I don’t run races. I just run. Alone. Every day. As writer and runner Haruki Murakami says, “To keep on going, you have to keep up the rhythm. This is the important thing for long-term projects.” As Dr. Duckworth writes, “To be gritty is to keep putting one foot in front of the other. . . . To be gritty is to fall down seven times and rise eight.”

Is it worth all the work? That’s a question we all have to answer for ourselves. For me, yes. Free choice. Purpose. Vision. Good people. Rigor and resilience. When I feel like quitting every couple days, I take a deep breath, and reground. As Margaret Wheatley writes, “Perseverance is the capacity to lead, to keep going with clarity.” We can get through this. Like running, it’s really just one foot in front of the other. The little things do add up. Because as Dr. Duckworth says, “Most dazzling human achievements are, in fact, the aggregate of countless individual elements, each of which is, in a sense, ordinary.” 

I do believe that if we stick with stuff we believe in, eventually clarity and coherence can come from the darkness. One day this will all be a good set of stories we tell. In Murakami’s book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running he says, “Once the storm is over, you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.” And, as one of our line cooks shared from her work at a previous job, on really rough shifts they used to say to each other, “See you on the other side!” 

Oh yeah. Two days after Jody Adams said, “I hate giving up,” Senator Elizabeth Warren signed on as a cosponsor of the RESTAURANTS Act!

P.S. While I was wrapping up this piece, the IRC folks shared this new ad linked here for downloading at the weekly meeting. While they were in discussion, someone took a stab at asking actor Morgan Freeman to be in the ad. To the point of Wayne Baker’s wonderful book All You Have to Do is Ask, shockingly, he said yes. I can’t watch the clip, to be honest, without crying. The team that did it got two months’ worth of work done in a week. Thank you for all your support, encouragement, caring, and collaboration. You all inspire me every day!

There is more in Ari’s third business book, Managing Ourselves!