Ask

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.

Accountability

June 18, 2011

I yelled at my youngest sister yesterday.

I love the girl dearly. She’s smart, much savvier than I was at her age, and has a great talent for seeing through bullshit to the heart of an issue, which in my own not-so-humble opinion is one of the most valuable skills a person can have.

But yesterday she really needed to be yelled at.

My dear little sister feels stuck. She is 20 years old and made the rather gutsy decision after high school to forgo college, which puts her her at the oh-my-god-now-what place that a lot of us (well, me, at least) reach in our mid-twenties a few years early. Specifically, now.

This sister of mine has been teaching dance in some capacity since she was about 12 years old (assisting in the beginning). As the years have gone on she’s learned how to handle classrooms full of 3-year-olds, classrooms full of 13-year-olds, and all of their parents; has established herself as the voice of authority among her peers, and been deemed trustworthy enough to often be in charge of unlocking and locking the studio and generally running the show on days when the owner isn’t around.

Not too bad overall, but the situation still is less than ideal. Just about all of the growth of the eight years has happened organically, linearly, and unofficially. While she’s been open to and seized upon each opportunity as it has arisen, she hasn’t really actively designed and guided the path she’s found herself on — she’s followed as it has unfolded.

Because of this, she’s just not quite where she wants to be. And while she’s theoretically okay with not being where she wants to be right now, she (rightly) feels as though this unfolding path is not even heading to this destination she fantasizes about. The one she’s on is certainly a fine path, but it’s sort of like this path is going to St. Paul when she really wants to go to Minneapolis. Or it’s headed toward LA when she really wants to go to New York.

It’s a perfectly legitimate path; perhaps perfect for someone else. But when your inner eye is on one thing and you’re seeing something else on the horizon… well, you should probably be doing some sort of a course correction.

Baby Sister and I have been discussing said course correction for the last several months. We’ve been trying to define what “success” looks like, what the actual differences are between that scene and the current one, and what real steps can be taken right now to minimize the distance between the two. There have been many hours on Skype, many points bulleted, and one paradigmatic, big-picture shift in what the destination actually is (totally fine).

Which brings us to yesterday.

We had a lovely sister-ly conversation, not initially related to our scheming. Joked a bit, talked about a bizarre dream she’d had the night before (in which I had a baby and named him “Zachary Mack” — I may now have to get a cat so I can use that name), and commiserated over the woes of laundry. Then we got into talking about the studio. Some recent interactions with some key people. Plans for the summer. Thoughts about next year that were quite at odds with many of the goals we’ve been setting. A certain amount of helplessness and frustration (the former worthless, the latter only valuable if steps are taken to fix the situation that causes it) pervaded her side of the exchange.

As her tales wound down I took a little breath and said, “You know I love you, you know I think the world of you and your abilities. But I am about to say some things that will make you very uncomfortable.”

We’ve had this conversation before.”

We have. Multiple times. Same players, same frustrations, and some unsurprising variations in details.

“The goal should be to not have to deal with these same frustrations day after day and year after year. And you and I have been talking about how to fix this for months now. What steps to take, what opportunities to seek out. What will make things better now, what will make things better a year from now, and what will make things better a decade from now. And from where I stand — do correct me if I’m wrong on this one — it doesn’t seem as though you’ve acted on any of it.”

I listed some conversations she needed to have. Research to be done. Contacts to be made. All things we’d previously discussed.

Bless her heart, my generally feisty and quick sister made the somewhat-obligatory attempts at explanations, but didn’t argue when I called her out on what they were: excuses.

“It’s excessively important to think. And talk. And plan. But here’s the thing: that’s the easy part. You can do all the thinking and talking and planning in the world, but if you don’t do the work, go out on a limb, and surrender yourself to the discomfort of pulling your thoughts out of the ether — where they are perfectly content to stay — and into the real, physical world, we’re going to be having this conversation again in four months. And again in December. And again next March. And I just don’t want that.”

“It’s not that I’m not interested, it’s not that I don’t care, it’s not that I don’t value or respect the truth of what you’re going through and feeling. It’s that you are not living up to the standards you have set for yourself.”

“You’re doing a hell of a job of pretending you are for the outside world, but right now I will be the one to call you out on the fact that you are not. backing. it. up.”

“I wouldn’t say any of this if I didn’t absolutely, completely, wholly have faith in your ability to pull that life you want into reality, or if there were any question of your desire to do so. But I do have that faith and you do have the desire, and right at this moment, you are still just looking over at the other path — not actually turning the wheel to move toward it.”

Quiet.

‘…I know you’re right.’

 

And so on.

 

***

 

We’ll see where that all goes. I’ll keep the whip out and utilize that distinct desire to impress the elder sister that every little sister houses to the situation’s advantage, but at the end of the day it’s up to her. So we’ll see.

But the conversation really set my brain alight, pondering the value of having someone who doesn’t care if they make you uncomfortable. Someone who will look past the surface of an interaction (”Oh things are greeaaat! I’m happy, and busy, and… greeaaat!”), understand what’s going on beneath the presentation, and actually call you out on the crap.

It’s pretty freaking hard to come by, largely because most of us go out of our way throughout our whole damn lives to minimize encounters that make us squirm. (I myself am certainly no exception, having worked quite hard over the last decade or so to establish my identity in my own social circles as one who’s “got it all together” …which doesn’t exactly lend itself particularly well finding someone to occupy the crap-calling position…)

But man-oh-man what I wouldn’t give for someone — an accountability partner of sorts — to do the same for me. To sit down with an outsider’s perspective (just outside my little brain is far enough) and cut to the core of things and give me shit where and when I deserve it. Because I’ll tell you right now, I certainly do deserve it.

I’m pretty positive most of us do.

False Comparisons

April 2, 2011

The odds of becoming a professional athlete are 25,000 to 1.

The odds of becoming an astronaut are 12,000,000 to 1.

The odds of winning an Academy Award are 12,000 to 1.

We all grow up hearing these ridiculous statistics, which are generally paired with the unspoken advice, “So don’t even bother. It’s not worth the time or energy, and you’ll inevitably end up disappointed. Worse, you’ll inevitably disappoint.”

It’s not done maliciously. Instead, the approach is framed as one of “realism.” Dreams are good… but not if they get in the way of reality. Consider the stars… but keep your feet on the ground, please. This is how you raise a “well-balanced” little person.

And it’s damn effective. Because alongside these wild facts, we’re also taught to revere numbers. To trust them. To have faith in them.

What we are not taught is how to look at them correctly. We’re not taught that even these comfortable, cold, hard facts can be (and almost always are) presented with a spin that drastically affects perception. If you tell a patient their surgery has a 5% mortality rate, they’re significantly more likely to refuse the treatment than if you instead offer that 95% of patients survive. The New York Times recently published an article boldly claiming that blogging is dying, and the piece made viral-esque rounds around the Internet. Few people noticed though that only one number cited was actually a statistically significant decline (blogging among 12-17 year olds, with the noted caveat that even this may be an issue of semantics) — the majority of the figures mentioned were actually increasing. The words surrounding numbers tend to carry a much stronger message than the numbers themselves.

So back to the long odds.

We’re given these numbers and their implicit don’t-even-bother story, but too many people — often impressionable, uncertain young adults on the cusp of independence, grasping for guidance from those around them — don’t see their real significance.

Life isn’t just a lottery. You don’t have the same shot at becoming an astronaut as every person who’s ever been born — you have the same chance as the people who work as hard and as smart as you. Of the 12 million people cited up top, 10 million are complete non-players — they’d rather be teachers or doctors or forest rangers or wine tasters and they have their own competition to worry about. Boom, gone. Another 1.9 million realize somewhere between fifth-grade math and Calculus III that their dreams lie elsewhere. 99% of the competition is already out of the picture.

Of the 1% left, it’s the people at the library during lunch, on the tennis court at 5am, or in their office at 9:30 on a Friday night who succeed. It’s the people who take care to learn about all the myriad elements that contribute to success in their given field — I’ll tell you right now that in this realm, some of the most important ones are not the most obvious ones, and some of the most obvious ones are actually a complete waste of time. It’s the people who embrace that they’re not the best, and therefore recognize their need and capacity to improve — and then do something about it.

These are not obscure hoops to jump through. There is a base amount of work and a base amount of sacrifice that will eliminate a huge majority of your “competition.”

Granted, overcoming the few who are left (if “overcoming” is actually necessary — most situations are not actually one-or-the-other scenarios) will require a whole other ballgame. But that’s the fun game — where innovation happens and fulfillment is found.

The up-front work is vital though, and letting scary numbers get in the way is silly and detracts from the real issues. Not everyone wants the same thing as you and most people won’t do the work to get it, so don’t burden yourself with unnecessary worry about “the masses” on your way up — that brainpower could be much better utilized on your real priorities.

I recently had an encounter with a friend of mine who I don’t see particularly often. She’s an actress and a singer, and during our conversation I learned she had found herself producing a short series of television shows for kids through some obscure chain of connections, acquaintances, and opportunities.

Now, producing a TV show is not easy. Not even a little. The producer has his or her hands on absolutely every step of the process, from pre-production to post-production, and is often the only one with an eye on the big picture and larger arc of the project. It can be a stressful, sleepless job, and generally is craziest just before it’s all done. This is where my friend was when we spoke. I asked if she’d had a chance to consider what was coming next — what she was thinking of doing with the experience.

“You know,” she said, “it’s kind of an odd thing.”

“I could keep going. It turns out I’m actually pretty good at this, and this one little gig has opened up doors that would lead to some fantastic opportunities, and ultimately could make for a really comfortable living. And I can’t kid myself — I’m no Julia Roberts or Celine Dion. The odds of making it ‘big’ in either of those worlds that I’ve been exploring for the first part of my career is pretty dang small.”

“But I sort of feel like I went to Madison Square Garden with a soccer ball. I was just looking for somewhere to play when I walk onto an unfamiliar court with a game going on, and suddenly a basketball gets tossed my way. I start dribbling and passing out of instinct, you know, just trying to keep up with the people around me so I don’t get clobbered.”

“So I keep dribbling and passing and somebody says, ‘Hey Kid — you’re pretty good!’”

“And I mean, come on. Who doesn’t like to be told they’re good? Especially when they’re in the middle of a game in Madison Square Garden? So I start working a little harder, dribbling cleaner and running faster, trying to impress and such. And sure enough, soon someone else goes, ‘Kid — you wanna play for the NBA?’”

“And I sort of feel like that’s where I am right now. The allure of the lights and fame — such as it is, what with it not actually being the NBA and all — is pretty damn compelling. But then I find myself looking over at the bench, and see my lonely soccer ball just… sitting there.”

“If I do this, if I ride this wave, I’ll have a blast. And I’ll be successful. And it’ll be fine. But I didn’t get into it because I was crap at soccer and needed an alternative, it was just a little cosmic accident. And honestly I’m not ready to give up my small-time success and journey for the first shiny alternative that comes along. Because small-time for this thing that I love, that completely resonates with my sense of self… it’s just not something I can walk away from so easily. And believe me, I’ve tried to convince myself to do it. Turns out though that for me, it’s worth spending some more time wandering around the Garden, looking for the right game.”