Wednesday, July 28

How Starbucks Saved My Life - Michael Gates Gill

After a quarter of a century at one of New York's most prestigious advertising companies, 63-year-old executive Gill was taken out to breakfast by a protégé, and fired. After a privileged lifetime of never having to worry about money, and never having to interview for a position, Gill found himself unemployed and unemployable. In the space of a few short months he was also divorced, the direct result of an affair that unintentionally produced his fifth child, and diagnosed with an acoustic neuroma, with no health insurance to cover the cost of specialist visits let alone surgery.
Unready to accept the changes in his life, Gill dressed every morning in a suit and tie, briefcase in hand, and set out the front door. And more often than not he wound up in Starbucks, where the people were friendly and the ambiance uplifting. When a woman sat next to him one morning and casually asked if he was interested in a job, he said “yes,” without thinking. And that act changed his life.
Subtitled A Son of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everyone Else, this riches-to-rags-to-fulfillment bio epitomises the concepts that you make your own luck, happiness is unrelated to income, and that it’s never too late to change your life. Though not something that had at all occurred to him – Gill, unsurprisingly, had been looking at executive-level positions – he found he flourished in a position that required a substantially new skill set, had different priorities, and involved a very different population that his previous role. And while there were certainly small areas of overlap, for the most part Gill was a neophyte – he’d never cleaned his own home, but relished getting the public toilet of his store sparkling, and threw himself with gusto into every task. And in return he was rewarded – by a supportive management style, humane corporate policies, complete health care coverage, and the opportunity to shine.
How Starbucks Saved My Life is also an excellent advertisement for the Seattle-based coffee chain that’s had worldwide success - except in Australia, where 75% of stores closed within two years. I have to admit that I’m no fan of American chain corporations, who pay minimum wage, offer few benefits, and modify employment hours to reduce these still further. I also have a fairly cynical view of chains in general, and global American chains in particular; though I don’t drink it myself, Melbourne sees itself as a foodie mecca, and that includes some of the best coffee you can buy, so the opening of Starbucks here was greeted rather hostilely, even more so when a Starbucks opened in Italian-rich Carlton.
So I was pleasantly surprised by Gill’s description of the benefits Starbucks affords its employees, and by their humane policies – toward employees but also to indigent Guests.
Gill does a veer a little toward the evangelical on the topic, though. Indeed, the tone of How Starbucks Saved My Life is a little too unrelentingly positive for me throughout – there are only cursory mentions of Gill’s wife and children’s reactions to his affair and new baby, for example. And he has a decided tendency to paint himself in the most flattering of a lights – even when recounting an incident where he was less than sterling (as when he remembers the way he treated an affirmative action trial staffer) the spin is less on his poor behavior than his new-found excellence. I was also a little irritated by Gill's frequent recollections of the past, usually triggered by something in stark contrast, and frequently involving contact with the rich and famous, particularly writing. That said, I didn't find Gill self-aggrandising or at all self-important. I did find his open embrace of change and life lessons positive, and I feel a little warmer toward Starbucks, though not enough to go there. If you’re in the mood for something a little Chicken Soup for the Soulish or if, like me, you’re killing an hour in a Singaporean bookshop, this is excellent. - Alex

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