Starbucks Serves Up Lattes and Life Lessons Former New York advertising executive Michael Gill explains how he found happiness and a sense of self while working as a Starbucks barista. Gill is the author of How Starbucks Saved My Life: A Son of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everyone Else.
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Starbucks Serves Up Lattes and Life Lessons

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Starbucks Serves Up Lattes and Life Lessons

Starbucks Serves Up Lattes and Life Lessons

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ANTHONY BROOKS, host:

Right now, how Starbucks changed his life. Ten years ago, Michael Gates Gill was a high-flying executive at a top ad agency in New York, with six-figure salary, big house in the suburbs, wife and four kids. But in 1997, that all changed dramatically.

Michael Gill was fired from his job, replaced by someone younger. His wife divorced him when she learned the woman he'd been having an affair with was pregnant, and he was diagnosed with a brain tumor.

Into this dark nightmare entered the most unlikely of rescuers - Starbucks. Mike Gill, as he now likes to be called, became a barista at the ubiquitous coffee chain - an experience that he says rescued him from the depths of despair. He writes about it in his book "How Starbucks Saved My Life: A Son of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everyone Else."

And before we get to the story, we also want to hear yours. Have you ever had a job that changed your life? For better or for worse? Did quitting or getting fired from a job transformed your life in a way you never expected?

Give us a call. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is talk@npr.org. And Mike Gill joins us now from our bureau in Chicago, and welcome to the program.

Mr. MICHAEL GATES GILL (Author, "How Starbucks Saved My Life: A Son of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everyone Else"): Thank you, Anthony.

BROOKS: Great to have you. And your book was a lot of fun to read, I must say. First of all, give us a sense of what it was like when you were fired from your high-profile job as an ad executive. Did this just come out of the blue?

Mr. GILL: It shouldn't have come out of the blue, but I was still shocked and hurt by it because, you know, I made that mistake of growing old in advertising, and I should have known that that's sort of an unforgivable thing to do.

And also it would hurt because I was fired by a young woman I had sort of help bring along, and I told her once that - I said you really have to be perceived as sort of even tougher than any man. You're going to be, you know, just that kind of macho toughness to really move up in advertising.

And unfortunately, I think she proved her medal that day when she invited me to breakfast and fired me. But it did hurt, even though, you know, you sort of understand in the back of your mind that these things can happen. When they happen to you, it's still a great shock.

BROOKS: Yeah, that's seen in the book. It's one that - it's sort of scary. This is the person you brought along and she took you out for breakfast and she was pretty tough the way she gave you your walking papers.

Mr. GILL: Yes, I think, you know, there's no easy way to do it. And I don't -in a sense, I don't blame her because I think it's just the nature of the advertising business. Maybe, some other businesses in America, whereas you move up, you become, you know, regard as overhead, and then when you're too old -and too old being that most advertisers, most clients are looking for that young demographic - that it sort of someone's going to do it to you. But it hurt me especially because of that. You're right, Anthony.

BROOKS: So you write that you suddenly realized that this was the reality for millions of Americans, millions of elderly Americans, correct?

Mr. GILL: Yes, I felt, you know, I still felt singled out and it was very hard. But, you know, the interesting thing was it sort of, it has to be - it's almost like the mafia - you're not allowed to object to it. Because as part of the breakfast, you know, she said she would help me build a consulting business and, you know, JWT would refer clients and things like that.

So, you know, in the very act of being in a sense professionally killed, right, there's also the agreement that you're not going to say a word against anybody.

BROOKS: Or else they'll really forfeit all your chances of taking the step.

Mr. GILL: Right. It's sort of a - and then, so I went off and it was really hard for me and actually on an emotional level to admit to family and friends, even that I'd, actually been fired by this company that I'd really loved and spent, you know, 25 years, feeling this loyalty to, you know, because you -maybe I was inventing it in my mind, but it really felt that I devoted a large part of my life to J. Walter Thompson. And to be fired in that way at that time when I was most vulnerable because I built, you know - first couple of years in the consulting business was great. But then my friends themselves, you know, who would giving me business went off to play golf or something.

And I got - it was very, very lonely when, you know, trying to ring up people to get business and there's no answer on the other end of the phone.

BROOKS: So your attempt to set up a sort of private consulting firm failed.

Mr. GILL: Yes.

BROOKS: You ended up at Starbucks. Tell us quickly…

Mr. GILL: Yes.

BROOKS: …how you got there? How does a guy go from, you know…

(Soundbite of laughter)

BROOKS: …six-figure salary…

Mr. GILL: Right.

BROOKS: …in high-paced ad world of New York…

Mr. GILL: Right.

BROOKS: …to Starbucks?

Mr. GILL: Well, you know, I spend more and more time in New York in the Starbucks stores, you know, drinking the lattes. I still spent - dressed up in a fancy suit and necktie. But, you know, I would make my calls and pretend like I was actually still in business. And one day, by accident - oh, by the way, a couple of weeks before, I had also been diagnosed with a brain tumor. And the doctor said the scary thing that most people survive the operation, and I didn't had no health insurance.

In any case, that particular day, I'd gone back to my sort of neighborhood home because there were happy memories there. And I walked into a Starbucks store and ordered my latte and happened to sit down next to a young woman in that store purely by accident. They happened to be having a hiring event, and she turned to me. And even though I think - I heard later she thought maybe I was a guest, maybe I wasn't there for the job, she said, would you like a job?

And suddenly, Anthony, that broke through this, sort of, cocoon of depression and self-pity that I've been. And I said, yes, yes, I would like a job. But even more remarkable, I had never had to fill out - I was, you know, born in an affluent situation. I've been given an education, because at Yale in those days, you could get in if your family had gone there.

And a friend of mine from Yale had given me my job at J. Walter Thompson, so I've been given - I never had to fill out a job application. And so I moved over the table and we looked at each other face-to-face and she helped me go through it, like she said, you know, have you had any retail experience? And I said, well, what's retail?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GILL: You know, Wal-Mart. I said, Wal-Mart, I've never been in a Wal-Mart. But then, she helped me. She said, well, think of something that, you know, you sell - I said, well, I worked with marketing with Burger King. She said, Burger King. That works.

BROOKS: That works, sure.

Mr. GILL: So she was a young woman who I never would have considered even working with or let alone having a job interview with, right? And somehow, she intuited that I needed this help. And instead of just dismissing me because I was from such a strange and different background than she was, she actually not only offered me a job, she helped me get the job.

BROOKS: Well, we've got a lot of callers already dying to get in on this conversation. I want to talk to you about how it worked out for you at Starbucks, and you made some surprising discoveries there.

Our listeners can call 1-800-989-8255 or send us an e-mail at talk@npr.org. Tell us your stories. Have you ever had a job that changed your life for better or for worse? Did quitting or getting fired from a job transformed your life in any way?

Let's go to Rick(ph) who's calling from San Antonio. Hi, Rick. You're on the air.

RICK (Caller): Hello. Yes. I was a kid dropped out of high school, was 18 years old, and my girlfriend had broken up with me and left, and I was working in a factory and almost had union - almost had enough time to get in the union. I had 38 days, needed 50. But I guess they saw I was kind of a smart ass (unintelligible) you know, got rid of me before I got union protection.

BROOKS: So they got - so they fired you? They fired you?

RICK: They fired me. And the guy who I had worked with at the factory had sailed in the Merchant Marines, and he showed me how to get my seaman's papers and get on and sail with the Merchant Marines. And this is back there in Vietnam, you know, so I got to - I had marched and protested against the war -but as a Merchant Marine, I had to go over there to deliver war material, but, well, at least, I didn't have to fight.

BROOKS: So are you still working in the Merchant Marines?

RICK: No, no. That industry is pretty much dried up for us. Still, I got to get around, see the world, go around the world a few times, you know, late teens, early 20s and it helped me a lot in everything I've done since then.

BROOKS: So another story about being fired and things working out well.

RICK: Yeah. And, I mean, I didn't think it was going to work out too good, but it did.

BROOKS: All right. Well, Rick, thanks so much for the call.

RICK: Thank you.

BROOKS: So Mike Gill, getting back to your story. So you take this job at Starbucks almost out of desperation, but then something surprising happens -you discovered that you're actually happy with this kind of work.

Mr. GILL: Yes. Actually, it started the first day because, you know, as soon as I walked in the door - and I was obviously feeling uneasy - and this young lady, Crystal, came over to me and sat me down the table, gave me this most delicious coffee I'd ever had and then a delicious espresso brownie - and I've always loved brownies and loved coffee.

And suddenly, I thought I was in this new world, I mean - and she said by the way, you're getting paid for this, as we were talking and enjoying. She told me about the coffee and the brownies and I said, well, this ain't bad, you know? And then, as I got to work, you know, cross over the espresso bar on the other side, I really enjoyed working with these young partners. They were, you know, they were so much better than I had ever been - every different background, every different education.

And I felt that finally, I moved into a whole different world. Instead of just being with people just like myself, I had sort of gotten out of that into a whole world of various and different and interesting people. And it was so rejuvenating for me.

BROOKS: Mm-hmm. Yeah. You talk about this young supervisor who hired you, Crystal.

Mr. GILL: Yeah.

BROOKS: You already mentioned her.

Mr. GILL: Yes.

BROOKS: She was young. She was black.

Mr. GILL: Yeah.

BROOKS: Tell us about her. I mean, this was a bit of an education for you, correct?

Mr. GILL: Yes, because, you know, first of all, I would have never considered even serving coffee to anyone who work for me right before in my previous -when I was a boss, and here she was serving me. And then, I discovered that was part of almost a culture of courtesy that they have, you know. Well, I had worked with a lot of Fortune 500 companies and they always said, we put our customers first.

And I discovered at Starbucks, they really put what they call their partners first. I mean, you get stock. You get health care. She told me all my children would be covered with the health insurance, and I was just a part-time employee, you know, Anthony?

This was sort of - when I was a senior executive, I didn't get the level of, you know, health insurance and also the level of training and basically, also respect, like even if someone spilled some coffee or something, she said, Mike, would you do me a favor? Would you, you know, clean up the spill rather than do it. And the whole atmosphere was a very nurturing and uplifting atmosphere, completely different than anything I had ever imagined.

BROOKS: We're talking to Mike Gill about his book "How Starbucks Saved My Life: A Son of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everyone Else." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Okay. Let's take another call. Get someone else involved in this conversation. Let's go to Catherine(ph) who's calling from Fort Wayne, Indiana. Hi, Catherine.

CATHERINE (Caller): Hi.

BROOKS: You're on the air.

CATHERINE: Oh, thank you. Well, my story is that I had a job that I really hated, but it was a very good job and I made good money. I worked a lot of hours, but I was miserable and…

BROOKS: Can I ask what the job was?

CATHERINE: I'm sorry.

BROOKS: What was the job?

CATHERINE: Well, I was managing a TV station.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CATHERINE: And so I didn't enjoy the job. There was a lot of pressure and it was pretty much consuming my life. And so then, when I got fired, I was, you know, pretty miserable for a while, but then I realized I had time to think about who I was and what I wanted to do. And I actually had time to figure out that I - part of the reason I was miserable is because I was living a lie, and I was actually a lesbian and it allowed the opportunity to spend time with myself and to think about who I was and what I wanted to do, and I was able to come out to myself.

BROOKS: Wow. So it was a real journey of self-discovery, it sounds like.

CATHERINE: It sort of gave me the boost to get on with my life, right.

BROOKS: All right. Catherine, well, thanks so much for the call.

CATHERINE: Thank you.

Mr. GILL: Yeah, I think…

BROOKS: Yeah, go ahead.

Mr. GILL: …Anthony, Catherine's call that reminds me that this has been a gift to me of my life back in the sense that a part-time job - you know, before, my job was, you know, 12-hour days and flying 100,000 miles around the country that kind of thing. And even when you weren't working, you were thinking about it, whereas a part-time job and this kind of environment, where you're serving a great cup of coffee and there's interchange and enjoyment, but when you walk out the door at the end of a shift, your life is your own. Like, I say I start at 5:00 a.m. - I'm always over by one o'clock in the afternoon, and then the entire rest of the day and evening is mine. And I think that gives you the time to actually begin to think more about life and less about work.

BROOKS: So it sounds like you're saying you didn't have homework to bring home in a way.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GILL: That's a perfect way of saying it, which is, you know, I think most of us get in these jobs where we always, you know, even when we're, you know, say, with our kids, we're not really there, there, you know, because we're thinking, oh, how about tomorrow and this and this situation politically or whatever.

And you know, I could read a book, I could listen to music. In fact, it turned out I could write a book. But I never would have been able to do any of those things if I've been in my previous life, where, you know, the job was taken so seriously. I think in America, we have this kind of feeling that we have to define ourselves through our work rather than through our life.

BROOKS: Let's go to Steve(ph) who's calling from Waterford, Michigan. Hi, Steve.

STEPH (Caller): Hi. It's Steph(ph), actually.

BROOKS: Oh, sorry, Steph.

STEPH: Yeah. I'm a single mom and I work for 10 years at EDS. And the last four of my ten years, it was every-day-could-be-your-last-day and I couldn't take the pressure. And I actually asked a different manager to let me go, not my own, because I still wanted a severance package. But after ten years of just that burden and - but yet I had to work. I had to be responsible because I had a son I have to raise and…

BROOKS: So what are you doing now, Steph?

STEPH: So now, it took about six months, but I get into the pharmaceuticals and I've been - I'm a pharm rep for the last two years. And it's just - it's liberating to know - I mean, at first, I was stuck in a job that I enjoy the job but I couldn't take the pressure because every day could be your last day with the market in Michigan. But it's just - it's so liberating to know that you don't have to stay at a job for 10 years that you're miserable at. Do something else.

BROOKS: Mm-hmm. That's a great message, Steph.

STEPH: And it was a blessing to me.

BROOKS: Well, thanks for the call.

STEPH: Thank you.

BROOKS: Michael Gill, you're bringing out a lot of healthy messages from the callers, I would say - the idea that you don't have to stay with something that's making you miserable.

Mr. GILL: Yeah. I think that actually if there was any - by the way, I'm not a guru about any of this stuff. You know, I messed up and I'm struggling back, but I think if there's any idea that - and thinking about it, you know, the one thing I did right - And I did it out of desperation not courage - is that you should never allow yourself to get caught in a box like that or get stuck in that some unhappy situation. And it's almost better just to leap to a totally new life or new world rather than sort of jog along in a stuck situation. I think it's sort of like in America, we say, look before you leap. I think sometimes, you should just leap, you know, rather than figure everything out.

BROOKS: Well, Mike Gill, now, you're on a book tour. I've read that you've sold the movie rights to this story.

Mr. GILL: Yeah.

BROOKS: I understand Tom Hanks is involved in the project.

Mr. GILL: Yes.

BROOKS: That sounds like if you're not careful, you're going to get rich again, maybe even famous.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GILL: Anthony, and I think, you know, someone suggested that -you're absolutely right because there is the danger there, you know? By the way, I would still be waiting. I'm not going to give up my day job, you know, and - but, you know, actually, Gus Van Sant, who's going to direct the film, called me and he said that the thing that appealed to him and Tom, you know - by the way, I use their first names. I've never met them. I don't know them. But it was the idea of a life after a life, even though, you know, obviously, they've lived very successful lives. But the idea you could go into this whole new life that you never imagined and the surprise is you're happier than you've ever been because that's the way I feel today.

And I think, once again, that lesson is I was stuck and I was more and more unhappy and I didn't know how to get out of it. Thank goodness, through desperation, I made that leap. But I would recommend to anyone, like, listening to your program is that they don't wait so long that they say, okay, I'm just going to leap into some totally new situation because it might make me happier than I've ever been.

BROOKS: And you don't have to necessarily be a young person to do that.

Mr. GILL: Right.

BROOKS: Right. Because you're 67 now?

Mr. GILL: Yup. Sixty-seven.

BROOKS: So it's never too late to take the leap.

Mr. GILL: Any age.

BROOKS: Well, Mike Gill, thanks so much for coming in today. Appreciate it.

Mr. GILL: Appreciate it, Anthony.

BROOKS: That's Mike Gill, author of "How Starbucks Saved My Life: A Son of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everyone Else." He joined us from our bureau in Chicago. You can read an excerpt of his book at our Web site, npr.org/talkofthenation.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Anthony Brooks.

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