How Starbucks Saved My Life: A Son of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everyone Else
by Michael Gates Gill
Publisher – Gotham Books
Rating – 9/10
Summary – This book is surprisingly good. Michael Gates Gill, a blue blood ad executive found himself unemployed, sick, divorced, and the father of baby boy. A chance meeting led to a second career at Starbucks that, at the very least, improved his life.
Review – My mother and my wife both read How Starbucks Saved My Life and recommended it to me. I was skeptical, as it didn’t seem like the sort of thing that I usually read. But – since it is a short book – I gave it a shot and I’m glad that I did.
Michael Gates Gill, is a Yale grad and is the son of a New Yorker writer (Brendan Gill). After graduating from Yale, he stepped on to the fast track with the ad agency, J. Walter Thompson (now JWT). Once Gill began his career, work dominated his life. He accepted assignments all over the world and dealt with the corporate titans. (He recounts an interesting anecdote about Lee Iacocca).
In short, Gill was a mover and a shaker. Perhaps predictably, as his work life thrived, his family life suffered. He seldom saw his three children and his marriage became fragile.
However, one day Gill’s old life came to an end. A woman he’d hired at JWT summoned him to a breakfast meeting. Gill knew what was coming and, indeed, he learned that he was being fired. Soon after, Gill found himself out of work, newly diagnosed with a brain tumor, newly divorced, and trying to support a fourth child he’d fathered while having an affair. His finances were in shambles and few of his old advertising clients even returned his calls.
Life changed again one day when Gill entered a Manhattan Starbucks that happened to be hosting a job fair. The woman hosting the fair asked if he wanted a job; Gill wasn’t sure if she was joking. To his surprise, he found that he found himself telling her that he did, indeed, want a job.
This is the start of great adventure for Gill. A sixty-ish white guy is hired to work in a store primarily staffed by young minorities. Gill commutes about 90 minutes to the Manhattan store from Bronxville, New York. Some of the job involves strenuous tasks and Gill struggles to keep up with his younger colleagues.
Perhaps more surprisingly, Gill finds that he enjoys both the work and his colleagues. In How Starbucks Gill tells readers that working as a barista was much more rewarding than working in advertising. Among other tasks, he enjoys learning about coffee and hosting small “tasting parties” in which he shares his knowledge with customers. Gill’s co-workers are from working-class backgrounds and they teach him much about life; many juggle multiple responsibilities as they hold down their jobs at Starbucks.
One of the most-interesting aspects of the book is Gill’s admiration for the Starbucks organization. He notes that his health insurance benefits – as an entry-level Starbucks employee – far exceed any that he received when working in advertising. Also, many of Gill’s co-workers attend college with assistance from Starbucks, though Gill acknowledges that many of them struggle to find enough time to devote to their classes. The book also discusses Starbucks’ policy of placing workers in stores close to their hometowns in order to shorten commutes.
Gill likes Starbucks so much that even his worst experiences are “teachable moments.” When a customer with a large knife threatens Gill, he uses the experience to reflect on ways that he could have better managed the situation.
Downsizing & Updates
In short, How Starbucks Saved My Life recounts both one, sixty-something man’s “about face” and subtly challenges the reader to reconsider how he or she is living. The book is short and always entertaining. Anyone who works – or enjoys pondering “the right way to live” – can find food for thought in these pages.
Having praised the book, I do think that an update would be helpful. Since the book appeared, Starbucks has gone through some downsizing; one wonders how the downsized employees feel about the company. Also, it is difficult to find information on what Gill is doing now; while he has a blog, it stops in early 2010.
How Starbucks Saved My Life is a winner: short, fun, and thought provoking