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BOOK REVIEW: How Starbucks Saved My Life: A Son of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everyone Else

Reviewed by Afrah Jamal / Author: Michael Gates Gill
Published in Daily Times / Saturday, November 27, 2010

Starbucks had more than coffee on the menu the day Michael walked in. A company that claims its mission is to “inspire and nurture the human spirit — one person, one cup and one neighbourhood at a time”, was about to offer him a choice of lifelines along with their standard latte. And the man who once hobnobbed with poets, writers and political bigwigs and jet-setted around the globe, happily ensconced in his armour of wealth and entitlement, was going to accept both.

It is not every day that a former creative director of J Walter Thompson (JWT) who has a Yale education and leads a charmed life steps down to take the place of a Starbucks barista only to find that it was actually a step up in life. As ludicrous as this sounds, How Starbucks Saved My Life insists on turning the classic rags to riches story on its head.

Michael is someone born with a silver spoon in his mouth (he is the son of New Yorker writer Brendan Gill), who discovers the secret to happiness only after he crosses over to the other side of the divide doing work that, according to him, would have appalled his entitled and arrogant self. Knocked off his comfortable perch at 53, he fell a long way down, losing balance upon re-entry.

This is the story of how a fallen star who lived for work and let his true priorities go astray found his bearings in a famous coffeehouse that offers its guests (there are no customers) a rich experience, and its partners (as every employee is called) a nurturing environment.

Starbucks, an international coffeehouse chain that welcomes all new partners with coffee sampling and coffee stories is the unexpected star that upstages the mighty JWT. JWT, which is the “largest advertising agency in the US and fourth biggest in the world” is the one in need of an image makeover before this saga ends.

Working as a barista might not be everyone’s cup of tea (or coffee), but it proved to be an ideal “pick me up” for one Michael Gates Gill. Michael, or Mike as he is now known, recounts his adventures, first as the king of advertising and later as a pawn in the service industry. He reminisces about the past when his cloak of invincibility was still intact and he seemed to have a firm grip on things, yet, upon closer examination, he notices that his supposedly picture perfect life was riven by fault lines. Pondering over his background that “put him on an upward escalator reserved for those few affluent, properly educated, well spoken, well dressed peers who would never stop ascending”, he acknowledges that he would never have left voluntarily. He uses the book to condemn not just the soulless corporate machine that evicted him after 25 years of loyal service but also his lifestyle choices responsible for driving a wedge between him and his priorities. After being escorted out of JWT, he recalls how missteps were greeted by a cheering squad, fear was the driving force and clients loved to see them trip up.

At Starbucks, on the other hand, he finds that “both partners and guests agreed that everyone deserved to be treated with respect and dignity”, which is a far cry from the Fortune 500 companies he had encountered that “spent lots of money and time writing and publishing high sounding mission statements and never practised the corporate gobbledygook that they preached.”

Mike observes that his superiors at Starbucks have no problem serving subordinates, “turning the traditional corporate hierarchy upside down”. He discovers benefits at every turn, working with people who never order but request and is pleasantly surprised when guests appear to show genuine concern about partners.

The writer happens to be the original Mad Man (reference to the AMC show Mad Men about an advertising agency on Madison Avenue set in the 1960s) and bears an uncanny resemblance to its lead character, Don Draper. He does not pretend to be an innocent bystander at JWT and, afterwards, mentions that as he moved past an old colleague, he was also “moving beyond other remnants of his past more arrogant self”. He admits to his own failings (as a family man) and pleads guilty to harbouring secret prejudices; this is not just an angry rant against a corporation that left him out in the cold.

Every now and then Mike takes a break from ripping apart JWT and entertains with vignettes from their vault. Through the book he can take down his old company without worrying about lawsuits and endorse Starbucks without being dismissed as a PR man. In 2011, Tom Hanks will don the green apron to play Mr Gill in the movie adaptation of How Starbucks Saved My Life.



Gotham; Pp 272

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