How Starbucks Saved My Life: A Son of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everyone Else by Michael Gill

Ultimately, How Starbucks Saved My Life isn’t believable.  I was interested in the concept, and the book started well.  Gill has come down in life from being an advertising executive to being a long-time unemployed.  He’s also made a mess of his marriage and fathered an illigitimate child.  Now he needs health benefits and a paycheck.  So he goes to work at Starbucks as a barista where he finds that their corporate culture of respect for individuals coupled with manual labor inspires him to become a better person.

You can see how that might happen.  Trouble is, it seems to happen almost without a struggle.  From day one he’s proud to scrub the toilets well and afraid he won’t know how to make change.  He doesn’t try to get into a management role, nor is anyone interested in taking advantage of the skills he actually has.  He’s all welled up with pride in himself and respect for his co-workers despite claiming to have been a prejudiced, condenscending asshole up until this point. 

And this turnaround comes without him ever hitting any visible bottom.  He has moved into an attic apartment.  That’s about as pathetic as his life gets.  He’s not on the street; he has a tax accountant and a multitude of doctors; and he’s somehow keeping four children in college while paying child support to another woman.  He’s not doing any of that on a Starbucks salary, I’ll wager.  So there’s clearly another source of income there and the Starbucks job is either primarily for the health insurance, as he claims (although I question whether this insurance would really pay for an operation on a pre-existing tumor.  The Starbucks benefits may be good but I doubt they’re so good as to ignore industry best practices), or it’s for a book deal.

So I’m sorry to say that that’s my takeaway.  He came up with a concept–bigwig asshole works humble small-time job–and he sold it to a publisher and then he went and executed it.  Although he’s supposedly still working as a barista, the book is so pro-Starbucks in an unrealistically fawning way, that some kind of viral marketing kickback plan seems likely.  He works to be a tourist attraction is my guess.

Call me cynical.  Yeah,we can all change.  (I’ve changed considerably in the last nine months, but I’m still cynical.)  Honest labor certainly has redeeming value.  Starbucks might treat it’s minimum wage workers way better than Wal-Mart.  Gill may really have gotten a lot out of the experience.  But redemption isn’t an overnight miracle.  Hand someone a mop and hey, presto!  a lifetime of privilege fades away as he discovers the true meaning of life in balancing a cash register.  If only it were so easy.

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