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Book Excerpt: Askinosie’s labor of love, then to now

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Editor’s note: Shawn Askinosie’s forthcoming book reveals insights on his transition from a criminal defense lawyer to founder of small-batch manufacturer Askinosie Chocolate. Below are excerpts from Chapter 1, titled Find Meaning in Your Work, or Else It Just Might Kill You.

“Why did you quit law?”

“Why on earth chocolate?”

And my personal favorite: “I bet this career is a lot sweeter than your old one, huh?!”

It’s possible I’ve told my lawyer-to-chocolate-maker story a thousand times in the past 10 years in response to those questions. From college campuses to boardrooms to tours of our chocolate factory, these are the most common questions I’m asked. And I get it. People want to know how and why I made this crazy leap. They also want to know how I manage to “do it all.” How our team of 16 people, working on a humble street in a small city in the Midwest, makes chocolate that wins awards around the world. Or how we practice direct trade with smallholder farmers across the globe. Or how our small chocolate factory is able to feed thousands of students per day in Tanzania and the Philippines with no donations. After hearing me speak, a lot of folks say – either with excitement or despair – that they wish they could do what I’m doing, but don’t know how or where to start or that it all seems too daunting. I like to answer their questions with as much detail as time permits; the good, the bad and the ugly. And my reply always centers around the fact that Askinosie Chocolate is my vocation and it’s the only reason we’re able to do what we do.

It’s not as simple as, “Follow your dream,” which is nice, if trite, and also not that helpful. … I hope the lessons I’ve learned and the mistakes I’ve made along this path to my vocation inspire you to find meaning in your work. But before we discuss your business we need to talk about you. You have to find your personal vocation. I encourage you to follow these steps, try some of the exercises at the end of the chapter, and then go live what comes out of it. …

Vocation, Vocation, Vocation
My grandparents lived on the same farm in Miller, Missouri, for over 65 years. I think they left the state once to go with my parents, brother and I to Panama City Beach in 1972 (the entire trip they fretted about their animals and the weather back home). Their daily schedule was waking before the sun to milk the cows, collect the eggs, eat, tend the garden, work the fields, eat, work the fields some more, milk the cows, eat and then to bed, wake up and repeat. I love the monastic rhythm of that work now, but I didn’t appreciate it as a boy. It was boring and I didn’t like helping with chores. It always seemed too hot or too cold.

But the farming life was their vocation. They were called to it and clearly loved it, all of it. The best expression of my grandmother’s vocation is how she treated people who visited the farm. Everyone left with some kind of food that she had baked, canned, or picked from the garden. She insisted on it.

In South America they call it a “plan de vida”; in Japan, “ikigai.” I call it vocation – the reason you do what you do. We all need a reason to live, a reason to wake up in the morning. My grandparents woke up in the morning to grow and harvest food to nourish people. This reason for being can be cultivated in your personal life. But it’s also entirely possible to create it with your work. In fact, not only is it possible, it’s essential. After all, according to the math people, we spend approximately 80,000 hours of our lifetime at work. You better hope your work fulfills you or at the very least is enjoyable.

If you follow the advice in this book, I promise you will find some things out about yourself. My hope is that you’ll uncover your personal vocation, and apply that to your business. This is not only the best way to achieve the fulfillment you seek but it’s the best way to create a successful, sustainable organization. The impact of vocation reverberates throughout your life, both internally and externally, your business, your community, and the world by allowing you to realize your true self and by meeting and serving the needs of others. …

Time for a change
I never lost a criminal jury trial. I am one of a handful of lawyers in the country who have successfully obtained a not-guilty verdict in a death penalty case. My reputation as an over-prepared and aggressive criminal defense attorney was built on murder cases.

Once, I had prepared so many D-ring binders that I had to rent a U-Haul trailer to drive them to the courthouse. The D-ring binders, themselves, were a source of stress for the state’s expert witnesses. They made a distinct sound when I opened them up, a metallic thud. The witnesses eventually knew that when I opened a binder it was to show them a document, usually one they had authored, and that they were lying. The sound of my binder opening often caused a visible flinch. It reminded me of Pavlov’s dogs.

I’ve crawled on my hands and knees at night, in the dark, in a crime scene to see blood spatter patterns glow with luminol. I’ve been to an autopsy and smelled bone dust. I’ve used microscopic evidence with DNA material to free a man convicted of a rape he did not commit after serving two years in solitary confinement on a sentence of seventy years. I’ve had death threats. The most bizarre was when someone chopped up a deer and smeared blood all over the front porch of my law office building. It never really bothered me until my family was threatened too. That’s when my wife (who hates guns) and I took tactical handgun classes. I went a step further with low-light handgun training. It got so serious, we eventually had a security expert come out to our house to practice and plan “what-ifs” in the event of a hostage scenario. This was when my daughter Lawren – incidentally, a great contributor to this book – was a young girl, so we wanted to be very careful.

I loved my work, despite the sadness surrounding much of it, until I didn’t.

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