Alabama Chanin, stack of books: The Book of Delights, Brave Old World, Big Magic, Bird by Bird, Crave Radiance, Genius Foods, Agnes Martin


Since 2012 and in January of each year, the team at Alabama Chanin, The School of Making, Building 14, and our Family of Businesses undertakes strategic planning for the year. This process was learned from our dear friend Ari at the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses and ZingTrain. Over the years, our process has changed and evolved, but like the company—and me personally, our method is in a state of constant improvement or kaizen. It’s hard to know what came first, my own personal state of constant improvement or the growth of the business creating a need for constant improvement and a wonderful team who had the vision of kaizen. Twenty years of defining sustainability takes a lot of constant improvement—and is not for the faint of heart.  Know right now that this process is not for everyone. With a company that is constantly striving for better, lots of changes happen. Tables and departments get moved to bring departments closer together or to create better flow, job descriptions morph as departments wax and wane—we are an organization in constant change. Some people thrive on that change, others do not—and both are okay. We need both kinds of people in this world.

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“Personally, I mirror the business in my constant striving for improvement:  to eat better, to sleep better, to be athletic, to be outside more, to mother better, to be more organized, to tend my garden more often, to read more, write more, and to be a better leader in the midst of being a designer.”

These are the things I think about when I retreat in January (and February) and do my own personal strategic planning. I’m not sure what came first: was I born as one who thrives on change or did I learn to change through running our Family of Businesses? Maybe like all things in life, it is a process of development. 

In his book, Atomic Habits, James Clear explains the “Rule of 1%”. He writes, “The difference a tiny improvement can make over time is astounding. Here’s how the math works out: if you can get 1 percent better each day for one year, you’ll end up thirty-seven times better by the time you’re done. Conversely, if you get 1 percent worse each day for one year, you’ll decline nearly down to zero.” Check out James Clear’s website here, there are lots of great articles, and a great list of book summaries for those of us looking to become better readers. During our recent Strategic Planning sessions, a collective word emerged that we will use to define our idea of constant improvement this year: rising. Jessica, our new COO, described it as raising our sightline to the horizon.  I love this idea. She had small postcards made for all of us and we found a small plane at our seat when we arrived to the “Big Meeting” where all our team leads present their past successes and dreams for 2020. 

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James Clear writes about how small change in your trajectory can make a huge and lasting difference using the airplane as an analogy: 

“The impact created by a change in your habits is similar to the effect of shifting the route of an airplane by just a few degrees. Imagine you are flying from Los Angeles to New York City. If a pilot leaving from LAX adjusts the heading just 3.5 degrees south, you will land in Washington, D.C., instead of New York. Such a small change is barely noticeable at takeoff—the nose of the airplane moves just a few feet—but when magnified across the entire United States, you end up hundreds of miles apart.* Similarly, a slight change in your daily habits can guide your life to a very different destination. Making a choice that is 1 percent better or 1 percent worse seems insignificant in the moment, but over the span of moments that make up a lifetime these choices determine the difference between who you are and who you could be. Success is the product of daily habits—not once-in-a-lifetime transformations.”

“In my personal constant improvement project (while often slipping back to less desirable habits), I’ve come across a few books that I return to over and over again. These are a collection of books for the short term and for the long haul: gems of knowledge that delight and surprise me every time I revisit.”

One of my favorite books of the moment (and since it came out in 2018), is Genius Foods: Become Smarter, Happier, and More Productive While Protecting Your Brain for Life by Max Lugavere. The book combines digestion and brain health with cooking and eating (two of my favorite pastimes). While there are a few recipes, this isn’t a recipe book per se but a recipe for changing the way you approach what you eat and the effect of nutrition on your brain health over your lifetime. It’s such an interesting read for me as I watched one of my beloved grandmothers suffer through Alzheimer’s. Through one of the over-the-counter DNA tests, I found that I have a slight tendency for the disease myself. I keep going back to Genius Foods for the research, the heath tips, and because I feel really, really good when I eat this way. I can say that as I’ve grown older, my brain and my life has become more scattered—whether this is from DNA or just the complexities of life. In striving to be better, I love the idea of eating well for my brain and of my brain staying sharp and ready for all that reading and writing I have planned. 

Max has a great podcast which is one of my current favorites: The Genius Life. I recently re-listened to Episode 83: How to Instantly De-stress and Supplement for Better Health, Sleep, and Longevity with Andrew Huberman. There is a moment they talk about sightlines in this episode.  Roughly, Dr. Huberman recounts a study where moving your gaze to the horizon and away from what is right in front of you reduces stress. I’ve tried this often recently and it works. This goes well with our plan to raise our sightlines this year and I love taking just a few seconds to see the horizon and remind myself that I am a small part of this enormous world and cosmos. Dr. Huberman cites that animals also have this practice of scanning the horizon to find their place. Mine is a poor description of this interesting study. Listen to the episode to learn more and you can follow Dr. Huberman on Instagram or find his publications over at Stanford. 

I find Max to be a humble, inquisitive host and I learn something interesting each week about subjects from autophagy and mushrooms to movement, alignment, eating whole foods, and coffee. There is also a fantastic episode on hormones and birth control with Sarah H. Hill which is a great listen for all genders.

And, while we are on the subject of whole foods and hormones, there is a copy of The Whole30 and The Whole30 Cookbook on my kitchen counter as I’m trying to make better decisions about what to cook and eat to feel better. Yes, I’m working Whole 30 these months of retreat and self-love (January and February). 

And speaking of self-love, I have been an avid reader and loved books my whole life—although the last years have been more challenging to find time to sit down and range through a book. Today I love to listen to books—it is a guilty pleasure that calms my soul and, sometimes, my body as it helps take the focus away from myself and my family and focus on community and humanity. There has been much study about the role of storytelling in community and culture; it helps us learn and connect and transcend and find agency in our own lives. I find all of this, and more, to be true. My favorite transcendent listens recently:  Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens and read by Cassandra Campbell, Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy and read by Maggie Gyllenhaal, and The Dutch House by Ann Patchett and read by Tom Hanks. 

I’ve started working on a new book. In doing research and getting started, I’ve dug out my copies of The Book of Delights by Ross Gay because delight is the key to all things, Brave Old World by Tom Hodgkinson because I’d like to know how to write while piddling and being an idler. I’ve also been dipping in-and-out of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic because all creative work is about conquering fear, Anne Lamot’s Bird by Bird because you have to get started somewhere and just because. Add to this The Courage to Create by Rollo May, and my copy of Crave Radiance by Elizabeth Alexander, and my favorite book on Agnes Martin because creativity and thoughtful piddling can be inspired. 

“This is my own personal way of practicing retreat and self-love while striving to be 1% better every day. Join us in Rising. Valentine’s Day is just around the corner and this year, among all of the other people I cherish and love, I’m going to love myself.”

My self-love list:

Atomic Habits by James Clear
Genius Foods: Become Smarter, Happier, and More Productive While Protecting Your Brain for Life by Max Lugavere
The Genius Life podcast with Max Lugavere
The Whole30: The 30-Day Guide to Total Health and Food Freedom by Melissa Hartwig Urban
The Whole30 Cookbook  by Melissa Hartwig Urban
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
The Book of Delights by Ross Gay
Brave Old World by Tom Hodgkinson
Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamot
The Courage to Create by Rollo May
Crave Radiance by Elizabeth Alexander

P.S.: Max Lugavere has a new book coming out in March; I’m looking forward.


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