What I Gained When I Lost Everything or How Starbucks Saved My LifePosted: April 4, 2011
Fourteen years ago, at age 53, Michael Gates Gill was at the top of his game — he had a lovely wife, an expensive home and a $160,000-a-year job in advertising. By age 63, he was divorced, unemployed and nearly broke — then his doctor informed him that he had a slow-growing brain tumor.
In desperate need of health insurance and a regular paycheck, Gill took an entry-level job serving coffee at Starbucks for $10.50 an hour. To his amazement, he loved the work.
Four years later, Gill no longer needs the health insurance — he now is old enough to qualify for Medicare. He also has sold his life story to Hollywood (Tom Hanks is expected to portray Gill in the film), but he plans to remain at Starbucks — he enjoys the job. He has chosen “watchful waiting” as the treatment option for his brain tumor.
We asked Gill to share what recent years have taught him about life…
Your own expectations can constrain you. In my earlier life, I defined myself by my career and social status — I was an affluent, Yale-educated ad executive. When I lost my job in advertising, I was certain that the solution to my problems lay in landing a new job in advertising or, if not that, a new client to get my own advertising consulting business on its feet.
My mental image of myself prevented me from considering opportunities that did not fit that picture. I could not see myself in a service-sector job wearing an apron and a baseball cap — even though Starbucks’ generous health insurance plan offered a solution to my most immediate problem.
It took an outside force to break me out of this box. I was in my local Starbucks when, out of the blue, a manager asked me if I needed a job — it turns out that the Starbucks I had entered was having a “Hiring Open House.”
You may not know your true priorities. I spent most of my adult life chasing bigger paychecks, loftier job titles and flashier possessions. These were my goals not because I chose them, but because I never considered that any other goals existed. My friends and family seemed to want these things, and I assumed that I wanted them, too.
When I accepted the job at Starbucks, it struck me that I probably would never again have money, titles or expensive possessions — yet one evening at Starbucks, I realized that I was as happy as I had ever been in my life. This “low-level” job gave me supportive bosses and coworkers, lots of human interaction and enough money to live a simple life. These were my real priorities, and I had never even known it. Instead, I had wasted most of my life pursuing other people’s goals. Perhaps I could have discovered my true priorities long ago if I had listened to my heart, rather than allowing myself to get swept along in what those around me were doing.
Trust the universe. I thought of myself as a master of the universe when I was young and successful. Only later did I discover that no person is a master of the universe, and it is foolish even to aspire to be one. Trying to master the universe means struggling against the tide of events, which rarely works. When the universe pushed me out of the executive suite, I tried to take charge and reclaim the life I had had previously. I did not find happiness again until I stopped fighting the tide and started swimming with it to see where it led.
Any task can be worthwhile if it involves serving others. I had considered serving coffee an unimportant job — until I figured out that my job was not really serving coffee at all. It was serving my customers and my coworkers. I might not be curing cancer, but I am doing my best to make life a little better for anyone who steps through the Starbucks’ door. There are few feelings as wonderful as the feeling you get when you help someone feel better.
Having money only creates a desire for more money. I earned a lot in my previous career, yet I was always in debt and worried about finances. Today I no longer have a car, a big house, stylish furniture or $2,000 suits… and I do not miss my former possessions in the least. I can’t even remember why I thought they were important. Living without luxuries doesn’t feel like a sacrifice. I love my cozy apartment. I love that I can go for a walk or sit at home reading a book and not feel that I should be out at a business event or an expensive restaurant.
The best jobs are those that keep you in the moment. Much of my 26 years in advertising was wasted in meetings. Many times we had meetings to prepare for other meetings. We were living not for the moment but always in the future.
Only when I started working behind a counter did I discover the joy of work that keeps you in the here and now. There are no long-term projects in my new career. When I prepare a cup of coffee, I don’t worry about past mistakes or future challenges. I just do what I am doing right now to the best of my abilities, and I immediately see the results of what I have done. That is a wonderfully gratifying way to live.
Most people work long hours and think about their jobs even when they are home. When I worked in advertising, a boss once ordered me to fly to Detroit on Christmas while my young children were still opening their presents. I went.
I love the fact that now when I leave work for the day, I do not think about my job again until my next shift. That is what a job should be — a relatively small part of life.
True, jobs that offer lots of free time are unlikely to be very lucrative — but the free time they provide can lead to even greater financial success. I used some of my free time to write a book that will soon become a movie. If I were still a “successful” executive, I never could have found the time to write.
The only job that’s beneath you is one that you do not give your full effort to. I no longer consider it degrading to clean the toilets in a coffee shop bathroom. What would be degrading would be cleaning them poorly. Doing a task well — any task — is a source of self-respect.
It is natural to fear change, but things are rarely as bad as we fear. When we’re faced with change, we worry that we will not be able to adapt or that we will not enjoy our new situation. I was scared of taking a job at Starbucks… scared that I wouldn’t get along with coworkers half my age… scared when I was put in charge of a cash register, because I have never been very good with money.
Each time, I was scared before the change occurred — yet once it did, it was never as bad as I had feared. Sometimes we just have to take that leap into a completely unfamiliar situation and expect that we will rise to the challenge.
Michael Gates Gill, former creative director at J. Walter Thompson Advertising and currently an employee at a Starbucks in Bronxville, New York. He is author of How Starbucks Saved My Life.