Friday, May 27, 2011

A True Life Riches-to-Rags-to-Riches Story

He was born with a silver spoon. Instead he threw it away and was forced to eat with his bare hands like everybody else. In the process he found his soul, his calling, happiness and may even get the silver spoon back. But my guess is he now knows he no longer needs it.

Michael Gates Gill is the son of New Yorker Writer Brendan Gill. He lived in a 35-room house as a child. He went to Yale and never had to job hunt. His friend made a call and he got a job writing advertising for JWT. He worked there for 25 years until he was fired. Then, in his late 50's he is without a job, cheats on his wife, gets divorced and his life continues in a downward spiral until he is offered a position at Starbucks after he unwittingly walks into a job fair while trying to get a latte.

My first reaction was, wait a minute, where did all his money go? How can you work at a prestigious job for so long, earn a six-figure salary and have nothing left for yourself at the end of the day? And then it dawns on me, which is what is great about his writing. He never explicitly comes out and tells you anything. He just tucks it in, one paragraph here and another there, like secrets written on little pieces of paper hidden under rocks. After he was fired, he decided to become a consultant in advertising, basically competing with his former employer. Even though it doesn't work out and his clientele is dwindling, he keeps up appearances and his upscale lifestyle long after he has no means to support it. There comes my first take-away from the book: You have to be truthful to yourself. You cannot keep living a life you cannot afford to impress people your neither know nor like. In addition, all those years he worked at JWT he did not really learn anything about the business side of what he was doing. He did not teach himself about how the bottom line worked. When he was no longer relevant in increasing the bottom line he was fired. He had an employee mindset and never cultivated one of ownership. He mingled with the rich, the movers and shakers, but never learned their ways. He did not build for himself something that would continue to generate income whether he worked or not. He was focused on exchanging time for money.

Of course there is also the inspirational dimension of this true-life drama. After losing everything, except "his sense of entitlement," Gill at a Starbucks store on the wrong side of New York City finds a new family, a new calling in service, an appreciation for the dignity that lies in hard labor and a face-to-face meeting with his prejudices and preconceived notions. Crystal, an African American manager at Starbucks in her late twenties, offered him a job. This, to the same guy who years earlier had treated the token affirmative action hire at JWT, a young African American woman, with so much disrespect that she had to flee to a clerical position in personnel. Her undoing was that she dared to come into his old boys' club of alumni of prestigious universities. At Starbucks where he is now the minority working with young people his children's age and all non-white, he is treated with so much more respect and patience even when he can't perform the seemingly easy task of understanding the cash register and handing out correct change. We get a great behind-the-scenes look at the workings of a Starbucks store and the spirit, people and culture, some of what reportedly makes it such a good company and a great workplace. Gill's book joins the other many books written about the Starbucks experience. The inspiration in his story lies in the fact that if he did not go through this ring of fire (borrowed from another author I admire) he won't be where he is today. He got a book deal and now Tom Hanks has bought the movie rights to his book and will be starring as Gill in a movie to be released later this year. Gill is writing the screenplay.

The beauty of "How Starbucks Saved My Life" is in its style and great dialogue. Gill captures the essence of his fellow partners (as Starbucks workers are called) in ways only someone who has written for a living all his life can. Even though the book is chronological from March to March covering his first year at Starbucks, it is dotted with numerous flashbacks to his childhood and earlier life without rudely interrupting the flow of the present.

Although Gill does not define his journey in spiritual terms - he is just a guy who made too many stupid mistakes - it clearly is spiritual. For me, you know you are on a spiritual journey when you no longer feel the need to live up to defined expectations or play laid out roles. It becomes easy to understand that there is no reason why an aging baby boomer ivy leaguer can't serve coffee in the not-so-trendy part of New York City. Nothing will shock your worldview more than if you were a former six-figure earner in your 60s working for minimum wage brewing coffee, mopping floors and cleaning toilets. Gill's journey comes full circle when on his way to work he notices the Lobb-clad feet of an expensively dressed man as he makes his way out of the subway station. It turns out the well dressed man is an old classmate of Gill's at Buckley and Yale. The former Gill would have reached out to him, said hello and rubbed shoulders with this peer. But he doesn't and the man doesn't even notice him. Gill has become one of the invisible. How's that for an awakening?

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