Everyday rules for living, from the sanest CEO in America

Editor's note: We at Inc. have written often about the desire of company owners to have not just a business but a life, too -- a day-to-day existence that actually makes room for personal relationships; for the pursuit of decent health; for a family, maybe; possibly even for the occasional trip to the movies (though one should be careful not to overreach). But over the years of doing those stories a pattern has emerged, which is that the stories are almost always about people whose lives aren't working, people whose stabs at personal change -- however hopeful or audacious -- haven't yet been proven out. More often than not, in fact, the stories carry a not-so-subtle whiff of desperation -- which surprises readers not at all, since readers, when it comes to marrying business and life, tend to feel a good measure of desperation themselves.

That's been the pattern. Then along came Pete and Laura Wakeman.

I met the Wakemans last summer, and Inc. readers met them in our November story about Great Harvest Bread Co., the business they have run since graduating from college, 25 years ago. (See " Zen and the Art of the Self-Managing Company.") The story focused on how Great Harvest, a chain of 137 franchised whole-wheat bakeries, enables information to flow so freely among its people that innovation and continual improvement happen inevitably, almost by accident. What the story left out, though, was the Wakemans themselves, and how they have succeeded at both growing their company and creating a life they not only enjoy but love. And we do mean love; when you're with them, the feeling is palpable.

In a series of E-mail messages, I asked Pete Wakeman to say more about how he and Laura had managed this uncommon trick. I tried to explain to him that the overwhelming majority of business owners get swamped by their companies, that many aren't even aware of the need for psychic balance (personal obsession and workaholic martyrdom being the celebrated entrepreneurial traits that they are). I told him that most of those who do wish their lives had balance can't begin to imagine how to achieve it. Limit my workweek? Not bloody likely. Completely leave my business for a spell? Impossible.

All too often, of course, the consequences of that behavior include bad health, impaired managerial performance, and all manner of burnout. Longer term, the consequence is that all too often there is no longer term. Most owners -- I explained to Pete -- don't run their companies for 20-plus years, as he and Laura have. Then I left him with some questions. What follows is part of my E-mail message and Pete Wakeman's response. --Michael Hopkins

Pete, what would you tell business owners who are struggling? Can you describe for them how you make your balanced life work? The questions are simple, really: What are your hours? How do you take time off? What happened when Great Harvest needed you so badly that it might have seemed impossible to leave, but you did anyway? And how have you and Laura -- as well as your company -- been affected by this way of working? Begin at the beginning, if you can. When you started your bakery in the 1970s, did you have a clear idea how you would balance your work with whatever else was in your life? --Michael, October 13

A different kind of rich
Michael, I like that last question because it goes right to something important, which is the simple fact that we've been like this all our lives. It's not uncommon for people to want to believe they're trapped, and often those people will do the "must be nice" thing with us -- must be nice to have a com- pany, so you can take the whole summer off; must be nice to have enough money to go to Bolivia. The assumption is that the way we live is a rich-people thing, an arrived-people thing, something few can afford (and by afford, I mean in time as much as in money). We always wish we could show people our younger selves, the Pete and Laura who had no money and were building things from scratch. We were surprisingly the same as we are now.

Before the bakery, I graduated from college a year ahead of Laura and worked on a dairy farm. We were both working too hard, she on her schoolwork, I milking cows. I talked my boss into a three-day weekend one month, so Laura and I could go rock climbing with friends. We were so looking forward to that weekend; we needed it bad. When it finally arrived, off we went to the Schawangunks for some pure camping and rock climbing. Well, it rained like crazy all weekend long. Our friend, who basically lived at the climbing area and climbed every day of the week, was in a great mood, happy to just drink beer while it rained and to let his climbing calluses soften a bit. But something snapped in Laura and me that weekend, something deep -- the very word "Schawangunks" still has this waterloo meaning for us, even today. That Sunday night, driving home in the rain, we vowed that no weekend would ever be that precious to us, ever again. We vowed to live more like our friend the climbing bum, rich in time.

In the early days of the business we had simple rules, but we followed them like religion.

In the early days of the business we had simple rules, but we followed them like religion. One was the two-day weekend. We never violated that, no matter what -- it was a line we were afraid to cross, as though lightning would strike us down if we did. Combined, the two of us worked about 50 hours a week. We didn't talk about work at home; that was a rule. That's especially important. When we left the bakery, we were gone until we came back. In fact, for our first seven years in business we lived 17 miles out of town, the last 5 of those over gravel, and had no phone. No phone and a gravel road for seven years is a wonderful, wonderful thing for teaching the basic work/home separation habits.

Those things are what we have always called handrails -- physical things that make it almost impossible not to live how we want. But the biggest handrail of all was what we used to call our "three-week trips." Sometimes longer than three weeks but never less; we never skipped them. In the early years they were mostly wilderness trips; later we often went to Latin America. We worked so we could take trips. We loved our work, but we worked so we could take trips. Later, as the business got more intense, it was easy to get confused and begin to think the trips were to refresh us so that we could work better. We fought that thought like the poison that it is. The trips were, are, their own justification.

I have a list of our early three-week trips here on my computer. In 1975 (postgraduation, prebakery) Laura and I hiked 31 days straight, the full height of Montana from Yellowstone to Glacier. In 1976, our first summer with a running business, we left the business with our employees and hopped freight trains from Montana through Canada to the East Coast. When we got back, we were short one employee; they had locked her up in girls' prison for stealing $1,000 from us. Bread quality, though, was still good. In 1977 we hiked from the Crazy Mountains to Cooke City, 27 days on the trail plus the logistics on both ends. A bakery employee dropped us at the trailhead. In 1978 our first daughter, Sally, was born; we only got a 9-day camping trip in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. In 1979, though, we made up for it, driving due north 60 hours through Alberta, British Columbia, Yukon, and into the Northwest Territories. I loaded Sally on my back, Laura carried the food, and we backpacked into the Mackenzies. Sally was six months. One night there were three grizzlies visible from our tent, just picking berries. It goes continually like that, to the present. The actual time away from the business was much longer than those trips suggest, because you need a week or two at least for logistics on wilderness trips like that.

It was the inviolate nature of those weekends and trips that forced us to hire right and train right and invent systems for our people as the business grew. It grew up around that belief system, accommodated to it. Of course, that was fabulous for the business -- imagine a little bakery, or a just-beginning two-employee franchise company, whose people knew they had to do Sundays alone, Mondays alone, August alone -- and that there was no way to call if they got into trouble.

Laura and I work on ourselves, read success stuff, write in our journals, build habits, break habits -- if that's what it takes to have a great life, we're into it. But we really believe that it's the physical solutions that work, not the mental ones. The physical act of leaving has tremendous power. That sounds so obvious. It even sounds easy. And in fact, it is easy, once you get the hang of it.

We really like strong lines between things. We carry time cards, and we punch in, punch out, to the nearest five minutes. We know when we're working. We get paid by the hour by Great Harvest. I have a little Excel sheet I keep -- we make a conscious decision each year how many hours we will work. We work less now than we used to. In 1993 we worked 2,986 hours -- that's for the two of us, so if you figure 2,080 hours is full time (52 40-hour weeks) we were working three-quarter time. In 1996 we decided to go to 1,000 hours each, basically half time. The past four years have been controlled, by time card, at exactly that.

Aside from the 1,000-hour rule, we vary our schedule any way we want. Last winter, against a deadline, I worked an 18-hour day followed by a 24-hour day, straight through the night. I love the intensity of being on a roll. Other days we'll drive in for a single meeting and clock less than 2 hours. To some extent the 1,000-hour rule has replaced the rigidness we used to have about weekends and vacations. Right now, for example, I'm billing. It's Sunday, I'm on a lawn chair by the Jefferson River in strong Montana sun, camped really nowhere, 50 miles outside Dillon. I live the life they like to show in the computer ads. Difference is, I have my 1,000-hour spreadsheet, and when my year is done, it's done. I know when I'm working and when I'm not. Writing by a river is nicer than writing inside, but it's still more like writing, less like river.

Never let anyone -- yourself included -- make you 'pay' for taking a vacation.

You can see, by fast-forwarding from our beginnings to now, that what works for us with a 100-plus-bakery franchise is what worked for us with a single retail store. Simple, physical handrails. Handrails that we set, then follow without further questioning. All the good systems, all the good habits, derive from this simple act of partitioning. In the old days working on a Sunday would have been taboo. But the partition between work and play is just as simple and clear today as it was back then.

When the company's needs made it seem impossible to leave
Business is very dynamic. There's no off switch, as you well know. But honestly, nothing pops to mind, storywise, about times when it seemed impossible to leave the business, and that fact alone is interesting. The feeling of leaving for a long time, let's say three months, has always been the kid-out-of-school feeling, nothing more. Traditionally, right before going, we've drunk coffee through the night and built one last system or written one last newsletter. It's a happy time, when all workaholic taboos are suspended, and we're free to whirl ourselves right over the edge of crazy, knowing a big clean block of no work lies straight ahead. We do what it takes, using all this getting-out energy, to leave the business in good shape. But since we do it every year, it's nothing new for our people, and it isn't as onerous to get out as you'd think -- now or in the past. Most of this getting-out energy goes into fun improve-the-business things, not things we feel we have to do.

An important rule: never let anyone -- yourself included -- make you "pay" for taking a vacation. You work a bit harder before, but it's because you naturally feel like it. You work a bit harder when you get back, often, because you feel like it. But don't ever buy in to other people's myth that the work should stack up. It shouldn't, or something's broke.

But your original question, I know, wasn't about when things are going right; it was about how to leave when everything's going wrong. I would give two simple answers. First, trust your people, even if they don't solve the problems exactly the same way you do. Problems that may look to be over their heads usually aren't, and they'll have a much more interesting summer if the thing is not running like clockwork. And second, remember the power of the physical solution: physically put one foot in front of the other (and I mean your physical foot), and you'll find your physical body moving out the door. Your brain may object vigorously, but it has to go, physically, where your body carries it. Then, physically, don't look back.

After a week in the woods or wherever, it will make more sense.

Find kindred souls. Hire them
Laura and I purposefully created a little world where we fit. We hire people who think like us, and we accept as bakery owners people who want to live their lives the same way. Our head of Legal is off on a one-year leave; she'll be back next September. Our hiring ads say clearly that we need people with "strong personal loves as important as their work."

This is not a little thing. You can't have a great life unless you have a buffer of like-minded people all around you. If you want to be nice, you can't surround yourself with crabby people and expect it to work. You might stay nice for a while, just because -- but it isn't sustainable over years. If you want a happy company, you can do it only by hiring naturally happy people. You'll never build a happy company by "making people happy" -- you can't really "make" people any way that they aren't already. Laura and I want to be in love with life, and our business has been a good thing for us in that journey. It's been as much or more fun than any other work I can imagine. The proof is in the simple fact that it's kept our strong interest for 30 years. But we could never have done this if we had accidentally hired serious, intense people. For me, the simple idea of surrounding ourselves with the kind of people that we want to be is the whole reason we built and stayed with Great Harvest so long. We gathered a group of people like ourselves so we could be ourselves.

What business gave us
Because we have always cared so much about having fun and being nice people, I think we would have achieved that in our lives no matter what we did, whether we had been businesspeople or not. The business didn't really give us that -- we gave that to the business. But what the business has given us in return is more excitement, even adventure, and much more constant growth and change than we would have had otherwise. I think that we are stronger as people for having chosen business as our trade. In weight training, you get strong by increasing resistance as soon you can handle it without injury. You'll get hurt if you start out lifting too much. But you can work up to weights that at first would seem impossible by increasing resistance in a stepped program. I love that about business. It makes you use everything you have -- spiritually, mentally, emotionally -- but, if you grow it right, it's always coming at you in chunks you're strong enough to manage (often, much to your own surprise). I don't know if I could have grown in the ways that were important to me doing anything else. --Pete, October 22

Pete, I wonder whether it might be harder than you think for some readers -- people running companies or wanting to -- to quite believe you. Because even as you describe convincingly and concretely how you've governed your work so it enables your life, it still can seem too easy. For many readers the idea of physically putting that one foot in front of the other, of "moving out the door," represents a forbidding leap of faith. It just doesn't look doable -- not when it feels to them as if things are barely being held together as is, not when it feels as if without them the business won't have enough fuel. You would be right, of course, to say that to the extent those perceptions are accurate they're another sign that things "are broke." Never- theless, it's wise to respect the inhibiting power of those feelings. To most people that leap of faith is scary, is what I'm saying. Maybe you already understand that. Can you help people think about how to make the leap? --Michael, October 23

A blueprint of one's own
I've been thinking hard about how to answer your question, which I could maybe restate as, How can it be easy to put one foot in front of the other, walk out your company's door, and not look back once, while you go do something else for three months?

For many businesspeople, the idea that leaving can be that easy -- not only easy but also good for them and for the business -- is so far from their own personal experience that they will assume it's a lie or at best a careless exaggeration. As you so gently pointed out, the answer I gave before, "simply, physically, leave," just doesn't cut it.

You need a buffer of like-minded people around you.

I think I can give you a satisfactory answer. It's not an answer that's going to bring real satisfaction, though, because I'm afraid it might make the goal seem even further out of reach.

If the question is, How can it be easy to walk out the door? then the answer is, It's easy when every facet of your life has been chosen or designed to make it easy. No exceptions. When all your choices are made with freedom and simplicity powerfully in mind, then freedom and simplicity are not only easy but also inevitable.

It really is easy for Laura and me, and always has been. I'm not saying there has never been a tug-of-war -- those feelings are common -- but there's never been any question which side pulls strongest. I touched on some of the reasons earlier, such as structuring the company from top to bottom to support freedom of motion and building an organization of people who thought like us. The systems match, the people match, and right there you've avoided a huge hurdle that you would've had to get over if your company hadn't grown up from scratch around freedom as a vision.

If I list the choices that we've made, the list may only serve to make freedom and simplicity look unachievable or even undesirable. But still such a list may be worth making. A person glancing down our list of choices might be able to identify things in his or her own life that make leaving harder than it needs to be.

Our list is only an example of the kinds of things that work. Someone in another part of the country, with different personal loves, would take a different path -- but if he or she kept choosing freedom at every turn, it would probably work just as well.

One thing, though, before I do the list. There are certain questions that you should never ask, because they throw your brain into a looping pattern, and you have to completely reboot. Questions like, What was it like before the universe began? or, What does God look like? or, Which came first, the chicken or the egg? or, How long will my life be? or even, What happened to this day? They are essentially unanswerable. Relax, enjoy life, don't worry about them.

How can it be easy to walk out the door? When every facet of your life has been designed to make it easy.

The granddaddy of such questions is, How do other people do it? Over the years we've learned, the hard way, never to ask that question. It leads to the worst kinds of mental short circuits. As proud businesspeople ourselves, we don't know how CEOs of the biggest corporations can find the time to reproduce, much less buy Christmas presents for their young. As hard workers ourselves, we don't know how other people can put in 72 hours a week, week after week, and volunteer on the side and be so cheerful. As parents ourselves, we don't know how people making a third the money we do can send twice as many kids to college. As runners, we don't know how the best marathoners can run 26 miles at amazing speed, one race after another, and not have their knees and ankles unhinge.

We've trained ourselves to be fully at peace with that unanswerable, universal question. So here we are, taking more time off, working fewer hours than anyone else we know in our position. And still, surprisingly perhaps, it's a challenge for us to keep our refrigerator from running empty; let's not even think about the challenges of putting up our Christmas tree. So read this list for whatever you can get from it, but forget trying to use it as some kind of recipe.

List of things that make freedom and simplicity come easy for us

  • We avoid debt like poison. Our first house cost $5,000 -- and that was with 10 acres. Our whole life we've bought everything with cash. Only three times can I remember signing to a note, and all three times we could have paid it off the same day it was signed, from our own savings. I frankly don't know why we had those notes; we prepaid every one. We paid them off quickly because even if you have $1 million in the bank, a simple little car payment will ever so slightly enslave your thinking.
  • Our company is private, and we own 93%. Anybody can put a trip on us, anytime, but would fail to get purchase. We just plain run it how we want.
  • In the business, we are always aware of our two hats. We are employees, and we are also stockholders. We never get the two mixed up. It's OK to swap hats as needed and as appropriate. It's not OK to forget which hat we're wearing. Our relationship with the business is carefully, almost fanatically, businesslike.
  • We're very rural. Our house is eight miles outside of Dillon, Montana, a ranching town of 5,000. Sixty miles outside Dillon, in any direction, is basically empty except for ranches. There's no pressure in a place like this to be any way except exactly how you want to be.
  • We get outdoors -- a lot. Every single day we're out in the weather for at least a couple hours. Where we live, it's completely quiet except for birds and things. Weekends, we hike, ski, or camp.
  • Our only newspaper is the Dillon Tribune. It comes out on Wednesdays and never prints a single word of world or national news.
  • Our TV plays only videos. We haven't had regular TV in our house since college, 30 years ago. Our daughters grew up with no TV at all.
  • Laura and I both write in our journals, on average, an hour-plus per week. We've been doing that almost as long as we've had the business. Our journal work is almost exclusively about being the people we want to be, living the life we want to live.
  • We run or lift weights for an hour or two every day, generally alternating six- or eight-mile runs one day with weights in our yard the next, with hiking or skiing on the weekend. We do all our exercising outdoors, no exceptions, in our yard for the weights, on gravel roads for our runs. We know how to dress comfortably for every kind of weather Montana has. Being out in strong weather is one of our loves.
  • We are completely surrounded by animals at all times. That's important, because animals think differently. Right now we have four cats, two llamas, one old horse, and Kona, our dog who visits occasionally. We live in perhaps the "cowiest" place on the planet. There are cows and horses in all directions, all the time. We see baby calves and baby colts born alongside our driveway every spring. Even at work, our entire building is so pigeon infested it's like a prize-winning photo from National Geographic. Sheep drives come right down the main street through town. Yesterday we saw a herd of antelope close up and two deer you could have tossed a rock to. In fact, right at this moment as I dictate this sentence I'm driving between Butte and Dillon, and there are seven cow elk skylined on the hill to my right.
  • Our house is 1,300 square feet, not including the basement. It's a simple white farmhouse with a porch and a porch swing. Our bed is smaller than most, a simple full-size, which still allows room for cats. The one bathroom has one sink, one toilet, and one very short tub, maybe the shortest real tub you've ever seen. No shower. It worked fine for us even when our daughters were going through high school. Sometimes, in the morning, all four of us were in there.
  • We are surrounded by a thick windbreak of trees we planted ourselves. We can't see our neighbors. Even if we could, the closest is a quarter of a mile away. The trees are full of birds most of the year.
  • We have compelling, constantly evolving personal loves, totally unrelated to our work. Favorite magazines include The Bolivian Times and others whose titles few would recognize. We buy books like crazy. I just noticed that Amazon is keeping track of us and has sold us more than 200 books. Even so, we are lucky to own a magic bookcase that never gets full. I would say less than 25% of our reading is even remotely related to our work. Because of our small simple house and our magic bookcase, we aggressively prune anything we aren't going to use.

We almost never multitask. We start something, do it, stop it, pause, start the next thing.

  • We spend every summer either in Latin America or on a wilderness trip. When we travel in Latin America, we avoid cities. We try to find towns that are the Latin counterparts of Dillon. Rural travel in Latin America may seem completely different from wilderness trips, but both have the same effect on our perspective and priorities.
  • We have always found it easy to save. Even when we weren't making much money, saving came pretty easy. It seems as if we've spent less than we made, our whole life. That's good for freedom.
  • We meditate. I meditate mostly in the yard, Laura mostly in the house. Mornings, this time of year, I watch the aurora borealis. Our mama cat meditates with me. Meditating isn't religious for us; it's just a quiet time, without much thinking.
  • We eat simple and healthy. We don't try, particularly, but Laura has a degree in nutrition -- and we are in the whole-wheat business, after all. Meals are simple and basic.
  • Speaking of the whole-wheat-bread business, it doesn't produce a lot of ethical-values bind. It's a nice business, that way.
  • We "buy it, don't make it." Anytime we can trade money for time, we do so. We were like this, to the extent we could be, even when we were poor.
  • We always "buy high, sell low." That's really a key to freedom. The minute we're done with something, we sell it supercheap and get it out of our life, fast. When we need a thing to make our goals happen, we outbid everybody.
  • We almost never multitask. We start something, do it, stop it, pause, start the next thing. We try never to think about what we aren't doing. We make choices mindfully, and then we're happy with them.
  • I was born without the gene for responsibility. I like helping people, I like being a nice person. But when people want to get me to do something, it's like trying to pick up a watermelon seed off a smooth plate.
  • We married each other. We think alike; we've grown up together since we were 15. We can move with great freedom, as a pair. --Pete, December 4, 2000

Michael Hopkins is Inc. 's executive editor.

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