A Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach to Building a Great Business

December 20, 2010

I just finished reading A Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach to Building a Great Business. Now I’ll start it again, this time with a highlighter in hand. I originally bought this book because I was working for a small organization in Nashville that was looking to restructure the way they did business. When this book fell on my lap, the timing couldn’t have been better.

I started working at Zingermans the summer after I graduated from high school, in 1997. I had been working at a second-rate bagel shop in a strip mall at the time. I remember microwaving eggs in half pint plastic containers for our breakfast bagels. My manager wore acid washed jeans with the words Tough Mother etched in leather on the back. And they told me I had an attitude problem, which in all fairness, I probably did. There was a little bit of a showdown one afternoon, the details are slightly blurry now 15 years later, but I knew I needed a change so that same afternoon I went to Zingermans and applied for a job.

I have no idea why I decided on Zingermans. My dad loved the place; the rye bread, the rubens, Clancy’s Fancy, but we weren’t a hardcore Zingermans family, the way I’d be now if I lived in Ann Arbor. We knew it was cool, ahead of its time, but it was reserved for special occasions only, the kind that required a fistful of napkins, perhaps even one tucked in your shirt, and most certainly not your finest threads.

So a few days later I got the job, went into the bagel shop and told them, “I quit. I’m going to work at Zingermans.” As soon as those words came out of my mouth I remember feeling so satisfied, like I was now untouchable because I knew I was moving on to better things. I was 17. I was taking shit seriously.

That fall I started school at Michigan State but kept coming down to work weekends, football Saturdays, winter, spring and summer breaks. Eventually I had to get a job up at school, so sadly, after a few years, Zingermans and I parted ways. However, as any of you who have worked there know, Zingermans is not just a job, it can at times feel almost unrelenting (in the best way, of course) and those two years I spent working in customer service had a lingering effect on me.

I think I was about 25 years old living in Boulder, Colorado, endlessly searching the classifieds for what I was supposed to do with my life, when it dawned on me that every job I’d had up to that point, I’d compared to Zingermans. I hadn’t been totally conscious of it, but when I was honest with myself, – the passion, customer service, leadership – they never quite measured up. At the time, I didn’t quite know what to do with this lightning bolt of awareness, I was tired of always being the odd one out, trying to empower myself where there was no empowerment to be found, the one who wanted more when everyone else was content. Initially I tried to just push Zingermans out of my mind as best I could, to keep the memory there only for special occasions when I would talk about that “really great job I had back in college!” But as I soon discovered, memory suppression isn’t a viable long term solution.

What can I say, Zingermans got to me when I was young and turned me into a business woman without me even realizing it. In their own sneaky roundabout way, through infectious passion, hard work and lots of incredible food, they drilled into my brain that insisting on high standards is one of the best things I could do for myself, even if that means standing alone sometimes.

I did not expect to find what it is I found flipping through the pages of A Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach to Building a Great Business, which, if you ask me, pretty much sums up the whole Zingermans Experience. There are very few places in this country where standing elbow to elbow in a tiny claustrophobic deli can feel rather charming. On some level I thought I’d just read the book, take my new found business knowledge and turn the organization I was working for into the best version of itself. In hindsight, I see that that never could’ve happened. What I did not expect was to be faced with the reality that the business I was working for was on its way out instead of up, and I was now the only one involved who could truly admit that.

It is not always easy being aware, because when you are, there’s no turning back. This book is as much about business as it is about life in general because really, the two are so interconnected it’s almost more difficult to try and separate them, as I tried to for years. The wisdom I have gained from these pages has forced me to engage with every facet of my life: how I make money, why I make money, how I relate to those around me, what it is that I really want, how I want to feel, how I want others to feel when they interact with me and why it is that I’m here. I like that this book makes all those questions feel important. Because they are. And it doesn’t give any simple answers, just a bunch of really good ideas for you to do with as you please, which is probably the learning style that fits most people who are drawn to the knowledge of a lapsed anarchist.


One Response to “A Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach to Building a Great Business”

  1. Allison Schraf Says:

    Hey Carlyn, I just saw this blog entry of yours today, and
    you know, I could change a few place names and timelines and I
    could convince a lot of people that I could have written it (though
    I think you produce much prettier prose than me)! I, too, have
    found it pretty difficult to find a workplace that comes even
    remotely close to the quality of Zingerman’s. I have also often
    felt alone in wanting to do better when everybody around me doesn’t
    even seem to know that they are settling for mediocrity. Just as I
    am now totally spoiled in my palate for great food, my “workplace
    palate” is similarly ruined for anything but high quality. I expect
    a lot out of the people I work with and for, and I’ve had a hard
    time finding my place since leaving Zingerman’s. All I can do is
    keep trying and looking! I wish you luck on your search. Allison
    Deli Zingernaut, ’98-’06

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