Back in December of 2013, after a nearly 25-year career in publishing, I left my job because my work life was getting stale. I was just sick and tired of the same old, same old. In fact, for several years, when it was time for the dreaded annual self-review, I would threaten to write, “I’m really good at my job…I just don’t like it anymore.” So, when my company decided to reorganize my department yet again, and gave me the option of either taking a “new” position (with the same responsibilities) or taking a buyout, I chose the latter.
I decided it was time to finally break free from the womb-like comfort and safety of a job I was overly familiar with, and the paycheck and benefits that came along with it. I had occasionally dreamt of taking a career leap and hoping (praying?) a net would appear, but this time I was actually doing it. And for better or worse, my wife was okay with it. Little did I know that finding a new job I could love and be passionate about would prove to be more than a bit challenging for someone in his early 50s.
Fast-forward to this past August. Having been severely underemployed for almost four years, and still really liking my house and wanting to keep it, I decided to try something crazy to bring in a little extra money. Starbucks, that coffee empire with the lovely and familiar two-tailed mermaid in its logo, was building a brand-new store at the end of my block—and they were hiring baristas. I submitted my application and résumé online and got a call from the store manager the next day. A few days later, after a brief in-person interview, he offered me a job on the spot, and I accepted.
I’ll be totally honest with you: I never envisioned being a barista at Starbucks, especially not at my age. But the appeal of going to work a mere 300 or so steps from my front door was incredibly alluring. The pay was terrible, but I’d always been a fan of Starbucks, even though I’d never been a coffee drinker. They offered terrific benefits, even for part-timers, and I thought the job might be a fun, low-stress way to jump back into employment. Plus, a little adventure never hurt anyone, right?
My initial two-hour orientation session marked the first time I had gone to a “real” job in 1,363 days. It began with a tasting of straight, black Starbucks espresso—the base of pretty much every coffee drink they make, I was told—which was paired with a delicious brownie. After my manager went through the obligatory corporate spiel, I was presented with two green aprons and my Partner Guide. My training would start with three eight-hour shifts the next week.
Those three days were a crash course in the myriad of things a Starbucks barista is expected to do. And I did it all: from brewing fresh urns of coffee every eight minutes (I can still hear that timer beeping in my head) to working the drive-thru window (which, by the way, was just as chaotic and difficult as I’d always imagined it would be). The training was challenging, and I made my share of mistakes, but my trainer was ever so patient with me—even when I forgot to put the top on the blender while attempting to make my first Frappuccino.
I made it through my first three days and was elated to have three days off before my next shift. But two days later, after much contemplation, I texted my manager and told him I quit. Yes, almost as quickly as it started, my Starbucks adventure was over. At the risk of disappointing the people who said they loved reading my Facebook updates about my new job, I had to do what was best for me.
Am I proud of quitting a job after only four days? No. But it was the only decision that made sense to me. That was quite liberating, too, especially since none of my three training days had made a lot of sense.
I knew the pay was low when I took the job ($9.09/hour), but I had no idea how tough the workday was going to be. With a bad knee and an achy lower back, lugging giant buckets of ice around, constantly bending and stooping and lifting, and being on my feet ALL DAY LONG was just too much for my old body. I was also overwhelmed by all the drink recipes, each one of which resembled some periodic table of caffeinated beverages. Trying to remember how many shots of espresso, how many pumps of flavored syrup, how much milk, what toppings or drizzle, etc. went into/onto each beverage creation was a total mind fuck for me. There are no cheat sheets. Baristas have to concoct your drinks strictly from memory.
I never got yelled at or anything. Everyone told me I was doing great and that making the drinks would eventually become second nature. But that was little comfort to me. Maybe part of it had to do with the fact that I don’t even like coffee? I consumed more coffee during my three days of training—baristas have to taste every drink they make while being trained—than I had consumed in my previous 55 years on earth. After a while I felt a little like a vegetarian working in a butcher shop. I kept wondering to myself, “What the hell am I doing here??”
I now have a lot more respect for everyone who works at Starbucks; and for everyone who works at similar food-related establishments. The work is hard. The pay is shitty. And yet, people do these jobs every single day. A lot of them would probably like to quit, but can’t. So, I guess I’m grateful that I’m in a position that allowed me to walk away from Starbucks without having to wonder where I’ll get the money to buy food or pay my rent. I’m not at that point. At least not yet.
I feel embarrassed for having quit. And even though the decision was easy, it wasn’t easy. I truly agonized over it. (You can ask my wife.) I know some people might think I didn’t give the job enough time. Others might call me a quitter. But trust me: I could tell this job wasn’t for me, and I didn’t want to waste any more of my trainer’s time than I already had.
When I dropped off my letter of resignation to my manager, I was half-expecting to be met with a scowl and some sort of terse goodbye. Instead, he told me that if I ever changed my mind, I was welcome to come back. He said that I was very employable, everyone liked me, and—despite what I may have thought about my performance—I was doing a great job. He even presented me with my share of the tips from the two days I worked behind the counter. I have to admit, all this did wonders for my confidence.
When I took my little coffee break, I took a leap and was hoping there’d be a net to catch me. The bad news is that the net wasn’t quite there; but the good news is that I didn’t hit concrete, either. Instead, I encountered something more along the lines of a gentle bounce on a trampoline, which propelled me back up to where I had started. Only this time, I bounced back with a little more courage and confidence, knowing that I now have the balls to try something completely new and different, without the fear of failure. And if that new thing isn’t a perfect fit for me, that’s more than just okay.
Oh, and one more thing: The next time you go to Starbucks, do me a huge favor and tip the shit out of those baristas, okay? You have no idea how much they deserve it.