On this week’s blog, I want to share some insights from our first three podcast episodes:
The first episode, The Best Business Advisor, which aired July 9, 2018 and launched the Make Meaning podcast, featured a conversation between me and my father, Norman Cohn, who is a retired entrepreneur and overall amazing person.
The second episode, Stories Can Change the World, July 16, 2018, featuring a conversation with Barbara Jones, Executive Editor at Henry Holt Publishers in New York, and a long-time friend and mentor to me.
I’m collecting insights from three episodes into this blog as a way of sharing why we podcast and the wisdom that comes from important, foundational relationships. In fact, everything we do and everything we know comes from the relationships we forge. If they are good, they will guide us toward success and happiness. If they are not, we will run afoul of our life’s purpose and swirl the drain with wondering about what we are meant to do.
I am lucky. I’ve had incredible good fortune to develop friendships and deep, guiding relationships with incredible people, from whom I continue to learn through the years of our enduring connection. My first and best mentor is my father, Norman Cohn.
An entrepreneur who took chances and set an example for me and my siblings of what it means to do work you love and do it well, my father is the person I turn to whenever I wonder if I am on the right path. His advice is simple and straightforward – and always right.
In Episode 1 of the Make Meaning podcast, which launched us on my dad’s 80th birthday, my father said his career in scrap metal came about because, “it isn’t what you know, but who you know.” He took a leap and went to work for a friend’s father, knowing nothing about business, and figured he could always return to his initial career of teaching if it didn’t work out.
Leap and the Net Will Appear
Dad loved meeting people, he liked the variety of the days unfolding, he says his career got into his blood and never left. He followed my grandmother’s adage: “Out of your mouth printed.” Don’t say something unless you want it out in the world forever. “Never lose your cool,” Dad says. “Never lose sight of who you are. It makes you much better in communicating with people.”
Paul Saginaw, another cherished friend and mentor of mine, created Zingerman’s Deli in 1980. Paul came into my life as I was transitioning from freelance journalism into something new. I sought his advice on a venture I wanted to launch, and he invited me to take part in his e-club, an opportunity for Zingerman’s employees to explore the possibilities of becoming an entrepreneur and starting their own business.
It was a powerful gift. I spent six sessions in Ann Arbor with Paul and his colleagues who taught all about what it takes to open a business. Zingerman’s is now a community of businesses due to this brilliant idea. It taught me that my initial idea wouldn’t fly, but led me to what I do today, in business messaging and marketing.
In our interview, which aired July 23, 2018, Paul recalled how Zingerman’s began. He sat down at the kitchen table with his partner Ari Weinzweig “and on a Smith Corona electric typewriter, we typed out our vision.”
“We didn’t know it was a vision at the time – our business plan. We said we were going to gather the finest foods from around the world and we were going to have this specialty food store, this busy bustling sandwich shop, and these sandwiches were going to be so big that it was going to take two hands to get them up to your mouth. And when you finally bit into them, the Russian dressing was going to roll down your forearms.”
“We also said that we wanted to be unique, and for us that meant there’s only going to be one. If we were ever going to grow, we weren’t going to do it by replication. We had never seen an operation that was really, really good and then grew by replicating itself. They just start to lose the magic.”
Just Be Nice
In recent years, whenever I meet Paul for coffee and a chat, I remark about how his business philosophy seems to be just be nice. The way he treats employees, customers, the community, the environment, it’s all about kindness and mutual respect, seeing other people and letting them see you.
I am so grateful Paul is my friend. I feel lucky. But I made that luck happen, too. I asked him for advice. I thanked him for it. I offered to help him. I built the relationship on the basis of honesty and kindness and learning and intention. And he was open to that.
Paul says, “Have a vision of what you want to do and then also, be very-very clear on the type of culture that you want. How are you going to behave with each other, with your customers, with your suppliers, with the outside world?”
“If you can describe that culture, you can have a written set of guiding principles that are powerful. They’ll attract the type of people to your organization that you want and if they’re well-written, use them and refer to them when you make decisions.”
Like I revere and love my father, Paul credits his grandfather with being a guiding force for him. We must know where we come from in order to know where we are going.
Paul says his “maternal grandfather, Ben Sherman, a native Detroiter who was just this amazing human being, he had a small business. He would tell me that ‘half of what you own belongs to those who need it.’ Or ‘if you’re successful, make your friends successful.’”
Stand For Something
I met Barbara Jones in 1995, at the Iowa Summer Writers Workshop, when I asked her if I could pay her to edit my essays. She charged me $10 per page and red-penned all the pages with helpful, honest feedback. We’ve been friends ever since, but I definitely benefit most from this relationship. Barbara offers me advice on how to parent, how to build my career, how to write, how to speak up and stand for something.
Now Executive Editor for Henry Holt Publishers in New York, Barbara was my guest on Episode 2, July 16, 2018, talking about the meaning of her career in book publishing and why more than ever, books matter.
She says stories of inner conflict, of fidelity and infidelity, these universal themes she found in stories and books guided her to see writing as a vehicle for “reflecting the human condition to the reader and making your life more meaningful.”
In speaking on marginalized communities, Barbara says, “The private language, the code within communities, and the language of literature are flowing together into a great and exciting sea of language.”
Barbara worked on Coretta Scott King’s previous unpublished memoir and she remarks, “She just believed in love.”
Barbara says, “I believe love can snuff out hate. We cannot be silent. Read.”
“Find what you love.”
“Find yourself a community.”
“Find a way to feel that you matter.”
If we can, perhaps we can end the divide our country faces. Perhaps we can really see one another, feel the pain our neighbors endure.
“Follow what you love,” Barbara says. Only then can we infuse our world with true meaning and powerful purpose.