September 23, 2011

During my junior year of college I worked as a barista at one of the many Starbucks cafés in New York City.

I actually quite liked the job: it appealed to the mathematically-inclined  part of my brain, which adores puzzles of efficiency. And barista-ing is exactly that: how many drinks can you make simultaneously; how do you ensure the espresso doesn’t sit too long; how do you balance taking the time to write out every single detail of every single drink and offering fast service; how do you protect against suddenly running out of milk or soy or syrups and having to stop operations while you run to the supply room.

I like situations with lots of variables, and that is undoubtedly one of them. To this day I take pride in the fact that I was the only person who could run the espresso bar by themself during the intense morning rush.

Starbucks is also not a terrible company to work for. At the time, new baristas earned almost two dollars above minimum wage; the company offers reasonably-priced health insurance to all employees who work at least 20 hours a week (a perk I couldn’t even begin to fathom the value of at the time). There are 401(k) options, holiday parties and gifts, and surely even more perks that have escaped my brain in the interim years. Suffice it to say, for all the faults of the company (and I certainly don’t deny their existence), I found it to be a good gig.

And then… I got bored. About six months in. I’d mastered the bar, mastered the drink menu, mastered customer interactions, and most of my shifts became rote.

I hate rote.

I dealt with it for awhile. I liked the people I worked with (we liked to say we were the most educated Starbucks staff in the city — everyone at the store either had or was a pursuing a college degree), my paycheck softened the blow of what turned out to be a falsely sustainable standard of living (student loans and credit cards suck), and the work itself still offered moments of enjoyment.

But my tolerance for rote is lamentably finite, and eventually I managed to convince my conscience that quitting was a good idea, and did.

The justification I used to anyone who asked (myself included) was that “I was never going to be promoted.”

It was, at the very least, an honest excuse — just not a good one.

I never asked to be promoted. I simply assumed that my exemplary performance with my current duties would make it obvious that I should be offered access to the next rung on the ladder.

It retrospect, this was very dumb.

My natural inclination (that I have since spent quite a bit of time and energy working to suppress) is to withhold evidence of my own ambition. There’s no good reason for it. I don’t want to appear ungrateful. I don’t want to seem snotty or conceited. I figure the higher-ups have a sense of my abilities and trajectory.

This is all complete BS.

No one knows what’s going through your head except for you.

Seriously. No one — not your boss, not your mother, not your twin sister, not your spouse of 44 years — knows exactly what’s in your head. When you start assuming they do (or assuming you know what’s going through their head), things get dangerous. People feel neglected, misunderstood, and find themselves headed in undesirable directions. Too often though, they fail to realize that all of these could be rectified (or at least improved) if they actually told people what they wanted.

Looking back on my own barista conundrum, from an outsider’s perspective it was probably far from obvious that I would have any desire to be a supervisor. I was a full-time student at a rigorous university, with other extra-curriculars beyond the job. While I was very good at what I did, I made a point to present an image of contentment while at work… until I quit, and didn’t give anyone an opportunity to satisfy the demands they didn’t know I had. While my wish was obvious to me, I absolutely failed to recognize that the world through my eyes was not the same as the world to everyone else’s eyes.

I probably would have been promoted had I asked. Shift supervisors were dropping like flies for reasons ranging from theft to alcohol on the job, and there was a definite need for people to step up. But while an argument can be made that management should have been more proactive, the ultimate truth of the situation (perhaps all situations) is simply that no one is going to watch out for me the way I need to watch out for me, and at the end of the day I am responsible for securing my own success. One small-but-significant part of that responsibility requires me to keep those around me aware of what that success (and the journey toward it) looks like.