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Life Arts    H2'ed 8/18/10

Michael Gates Gill on "How Starbucks Changed My Life: A Son of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everyone Else"

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My guest today is Michael Gates Gill, former advertising executive and author of New York Times best-seller How Starbucks Saved My Life: A Son of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everyone Else. Welcome to OpEdNews, Michael. When you were already in your fifties, the safe, comfortable and tidy world you inhabited fell apart. What happened?

Gill in front of his childhood home by Michael Gates Gill

Three seismic shocks upended my world:

1. At 53 I was invited out to breakfast and fired. I had spent 26 years working my way up from copywriter to becoming a creative director at the advertising agency J. Walter Thompson. I was earning a big salary and had a big job at one of the largest advertising agencies in the world. I had no warning and I thought of myself as a most loyal and hard-working employee. Suddenly, I was told I was no longer needed or valued. I literally cried after hearing the news. I knew my life in advertising was over and I had no idea how to create another one.

2. I went in for a "routine physical" and was diagnosed with a brain tumor. I had always counted on perfect health. I think I had only three sick days in all my time at JWT. Now, suddenly, I was confronting a serious health problem and had no health insurance. I was also told by my doctor: "Most people survive the operation." Most people! The brain tumor was a swift and terrible reminder that I was mortal and at my age death was a real possibility--even it seemed to me then a probability.

3. I got divorced. I had always thought of myself as a great father and husband but realized later that I had spent much of married life on the road rather than spending precious time helping to raise my kids and build a family.

Those three shocks shattered my cocoon of privilege and made me feel that my personal and professional life was virtually over--and it had all ended so badly.

My daughter Annie had suggested during these hard times that I start a journal as a way of dealing with everything. I would write a sentence or two every night. I remember writing in those days how guilty and terrible I felt. I seemed to be on a downward spiral and there didn't appear to be any help in sight.

In essence, the life you thought you were in control of spun wildly out of control. Yet, for a time, you dressed up in a suit, carried an expensive briefcase and simulated having a real job. While visiting the house you grew up in, you serendipitously stumbled into a local Starbucks and things slowly started to change. What happened at that Starbucks that day?

I had reached such a low point in my life, having lost what I considered all the external measures of success--big job, big house, my health-- that I went into that coffee bar as a person about to have their last latte.

By accident I happened to enter a place that was having a "hiring event" and sat down next to a young African-American woman who was a manager of a store looking for help.

She asked me: "Would you like a job?"

Without thinking--because if I had thought about it I would never have rationally wanted to trade in my Brooks Brothers suit and sense of entitlement for a green apron serving coffee and cleaning toilets--I replied:


Something deep within me spoke with eagerness and clarity...not letting me let this unusual, spontaneous opportunity slip away.

Serendipitously, Crystal, for I learned that was her name, became a kind of angel of mercy for me and helped me get a job and learn a whole new way to be. But it all started with leaping with a kind of blind faith rather than huddling in self-conscious fear.

That day, you embarked on an odyssey into a strange, new landscape full of people and ideas you had not encountered before. And, in fact, Crystal became the kind of boss you never were. Can you talk about her and her managing style a bit?

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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