Vulnerability Is the New Black
If you were to walk into our offices around noon on any given weekday, you’d see people swarming around the conference room table, bent over a full spread of veggies — examining the days bounty, looking to build that perfect bowl.
It’s one of the perks of joining our team, and frankly, probably accounts for half our hires — that lunch is catered everyday from our nearest restaurant. It’s a chance for us all to hang out and take a breather — we call it human time. While I’d like to think it’s a civilized affair, most days lunch feels more like feeding time at the local zoo. Everyone is angling and cutting the line, reaching over each other for the hot sauce. Imagine trying to feed an eclectic family of 40 for the holidays. Multiply that by five days a week, and you’ve got the picture.
The results of this week’s election caught many of us by surprise. I know we’re all still grappling with what this means — as individuals, as Americans, and as humans. There is so much to process, and it feels really sudden, and final. Last Wednesday, our office scene was morose. Half of the team didn’t make it in, and the other half shuffled around with a gaze of disbelief. I’m sure many of you can relate, as you likely witnessed the same in your own place of work.
It happened kind of organically, but just before lunch we all took a few minutes to gather together and reflect on what had transpired. Some were courageous and optimistic, others couldn’t stop crying, and still others surrounded their colleagues, many of them immigrants, with hugs of support.
Nothing could change the weight of that day, but it was within our respective power to change the way we responded to it. And we did.
The gravity of this election was immense, and I know that many of us feel let down and confused. We’re wondering why and how this could have happened. But one thing I noticed at our lunch afterwards — was that my colleagues were treating each other just a little bit differently. They were waiting patiently. They were making tea for one another. They were asking politely ‘please pass the farro.’
In the face of devastation, our usual everyone-for-themselves kind of lunch break had transformed from chaotic, into genuine and vulnerable. Nothing could change the weight of that day, but it was within our respective power to change the way we responded to it.
And we did.
Now more than ever, this country’s food future is caught in the crossfire. In a political climate that seemingly provides more accusations than answers, I want to talk to you about something that’s changed the way I live my life, professionally and personally. Before we talk about how to move forward, let me first backtrack to provide a little context:
During World War I, a global food crisis emerged as farmers were recruited into military service, and farmlands became battlefields. The burden of feeding millions of starving people fell to everyday Americans. In 1917, families left behind were encouraged, under the National War Garden Commission, to contribute to the war effort by planting, fertilizing, harvesting, and storing their own fruits and vegetables, so that commercially grown food could be exported to support the troops. Company grounds, parks, backyards, and vacant lots became prime agricultural land. Amateur gardeners, provided only with instructional pamphlets on how, when and where to sow, became farmers overnight. Young school children were enlisted as ‘soldiers of the soil.’
Shortly after the United States was drawn into the Second World War, these plots, known as Victory Gardens, began to re-emerge. In 1942, roughly 15 million families planted Victory Gardens; by 1944, an estimated 20 million Victory Gardens produced roughly 8 million tons of food — which was the equivalent of more than 40% of all the fresh fruits and vegetables consumed in the United States.
Think about that for a minute. It’s kind of mind-boggling to imagine that almost half our fresh fruit and veg supply was being grown on our front lawns. It’s no secret the 2016 election has amplified this country’s faults. But one thing I’m sure of, is black or white, Republican or Democrat, male or female, Americans have an incredible ability to unite and support one another.
If there’s one thing the Victory Garden era shows us, it’s that we’re best at fixing big problems when we work together, and we can’t work together if we are unable to be courageous, compassionate, and deeply connected.
Our food crisis needs us now, as much as it ever has. We all eat with the same two hands. We all deserve access to healthy, nutritious, and affordable meals. This is not a bipartisan issue — it’s a basic human right. When you think about it, we’re facing a similar task to those 1917 “soldiers of the soil.” Yet our challenge has evolved, because the solution is no longer simply output — it’s about growing food in a way that betters human, and environmental health.
If there’s one thing the Victory Garden era shows us, it’s that we’re best at fixing big problems when we work together, and we can’t work together if we are unable to be courageous, compassionate, and deeply connected. In other words: to be truly vulnerable. I truly think that the solution to these overwhelming problem lies within changing the very nature of how we do business.
1. Make connections, and don’t go it alone
My colleagues taught me something this last Wednesday — that for our Victory Gardeners, and for us, it was, and is all about connection. It’s the universal driving force. It doesn’t matter whether you work in social justice, mental health, fashion, or food; what we know is that the ability to feel connected is why we’re here.
I think one of the greatest cultural barriers preventing us from actualizing real, deep connections is the importance we place on going it alone. We equate success to not needing anyone, and being totally self-sufficient. Why is it so easy to lend a hand, but not always so easy to take one? The truth is that we are both: people who help, and people who need help.
I just look at how many people it takes to put one meal on the table in our business. If we didn’t let go and trust those around us, we’d all be starving, and footing some pretty serious shrink bills…
2. Invest in people and relationships
At Dig Inn, mostly for better, but sometimes for worse, our farmers and partners have become our friends. The already tough conversations about pricing, spec size, and delivery, get so much harder when something goes wrong and you really hope the person on the other end of the line actually likes you.
What if not refusing this tiny drought-affected cauliflower means they double the price of the squash we’re buying? But you know what — this never happens, at least not to us, because we believe relationships are built when both parties express vulnerability. The great paradox — it’s something we generally want to see in others, but don’t want them to see in ourselves. But I tell you what, when we’re hiring or working with people at Dig Inn, it’s the first thing we look for: people with the courage to fail, the compassion to show kindness to themselves and to others. The people with an authentic connection to what they’re doing.
3. Embrace uncertainty and imperfection
As humans, the more vulnerable we are, the more afraid we are. So we try and numb vulnerability by controlling everything. In other words, we try to make the uncertain, certain. We iterate and we perfect and we tell everyone ‘everything is just fine’.
Being vulnerable in business doesn’t mean that you need to bare your soul — even though if you ask any of my colleagues, I do that a fair bit too. But it does mean you no longer have to pretend that everything in your business is fantastic, and that you can, (and should), share with others your challenges, failures, and struggles. On the flip side, you should celebrate your successes, delight, and excitement.
This openness to uncertainty and imperfection is the very reason our construction managers can tell us a water main in our restaurant burst and it is not going to open on time; our farmers can call us in the middle of a drought and to let us know that a crop is just not coming out of the ground; and our single-mom general manager can go home because her babysitter split. Rather than get upset by mistakes, we provide the space to fix them, and learn from them.
4. Nurture the next crop
Our chef, Matt Weingarten, uses the saying “chefs not recipes,” when thinking about how to fill our growing need for young cooks. We firmly believe authentic relationships lead to the patient encouragement of growth. We can’t ever expect to change the food system without help. To inspire a new community of people to join the fight, we need their buy in — which is why we’re planning to start our own culinary education center, born out of our very own real, working farm.
The core of our farm project has always been rooted in our desire to understand the pressure points, challenges, and opportunities that our producers deal with on a daily basis. Farmers bring unique insights to the food industry, which we think are often silenced in the noise.
Imagine young chefs cooking exceptional local vegetables, sourced from passionate farmers preserving flavorful heirloom varieties, and kids demanding carrot sticks instead fries in their school cafeteria. What if all that it took was a little bit of vulnerability?
The good food movement needs more than just people ideologically invested in change, it needs people who want to get their hands dirty, on the land and in kitchens. There’s no doubt the future of food needs holistic solutions, which is why we’re training our young chefs to impact the world not only as chefs, but as farmers, environmentalists, nutritionists, businessmen, and hopefully teachers.
I truly believe there is another way to do business, and to build a sustainable food future. We dream of a world where change is happening from the bottom up — sprouting from an educated group of planetarians. Imagine young chefs cooking exceptional local vegetables, sourced from passionate farmers preserving flavorful heirloom varieties, and kids demanding carrot sticks instead fries in their school cafeteria. What if all that it took was a little bit of vulnerability?
I leave you with a simple call to action: next time you’re brunching with a friend, stop telling them ‘work is great!’, open up about what’s really going on. Next time your boss asks for input on an idea, give them your wildest most passionate solution, not the safety-net response you think they want to hear. Knowing full well there are no guarantees, start working on that business idea you’ve had forever.
When we work and live from this courageous place of vulnerability, we can connect, invest, embrace, and nurture.
If we do this, together and in support of one another, ours will be the generation that takes us back to a garden of victory.