A Coffee Spoon’s Worth of Wisdom from My Job

“For I have known them all already, known them all:
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume?”

-T. S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

So says Prufrock when he comes to his midlife crisis in the middle of Eliot’s legendary poem. I have loved this particular work since high school, but I never truly understood it until I read it again sitting in the cafe that I both work at and in.

My family has been frequenting the same cafe in Westwood for the last few years, and in college, every weekend, vacation and summer would find me at a table there, trying to write, drinking some variation of a latte and making friends with the baristas.

When I graduated from college last May, I was lucky enough to come by a job in my field right away, writing for a political PR company in Santa Monica. However, I took a gamble that didn’t pay off, and found myself an unemployed college graduate living at home, trying to find babysitting jobs, going out on interviews for agencies that came back with the same refrain: “We don’t have anything for you, but try back another time!” I couldn’t even write: money was such a concern that I felt all my creativity draining out of me.

That all changed, though, when I went into my cafe one day. The manager served me my cold brew and, giving me a shrewd look said, “So… do you want a job?”

Yes. Yes I did. I took her up on it and have now been a barista for 5 weeks. The thing is, I love it, so much more than I thought I would. I’ve had parttime jobs before, some of which having been well and truly awful. Now, though, I feel like I have a purpose, a routine to balance my freelance blogging and give me some structure. I’ve learned so much there, and now I’d like to share some of what I feel are the most important of pieces of wisdom I’ve picked up along with dropped coffee beans.

  • Be humble:

This has so many facets, but suffice to say that you don’t know everything and you never will. Even when you’ve been doing the same thing for years, you will learn new aspects of it that will surprise you. If you are open to the idea that you are not an authority from the get-go, there won’t be additional barriers between you and your road forward. Moreover, take criticism with grace. In almost every situation, there is someone who knows more than you do. Why would you not want to learn all you can about what you do so that you can do it to the best of your ability? If you make a mistake, own it. This leads me to:

  • It costs far less to be nice than rude in the long run:

It may sound trite, but the value of a good attitude cannot be understated, especially when you work in service. All customers and clients want is to know that they’re being heard and, more importantly, listened to. You will get annoyed, guaranteed. There are entitled and awful people to be found in every corner and encountered in every job, but being able to smile through the annoyance is what sets you apart. Everyone gets angry: it’s how you push through that sets you apart. If a customer comes to you and tells you that you messed up, act as though you did and then go in the back and complain to your supervisor.

  • A good supervisor (and team) is worth their weight in gold:

I have been so insanely lucky to find myself in a position where I love being around the people I work with. All of my coworkers are fun, kind people who have supported and taught me. They genuinely want to see me succeed at my job, and the knowledge of that fact has made me want to impress them even more. A few days ago, I made 7 cappucinos in a row while I practiced with my assistant manager for the barista certification class I take next week, and every time she found something wrong, it just fueled my determination to make her a perfect cappucino. During my first week, my manager introduced me to all the regulars as the newest barista, which did more for my confidence than I can thank her for. I know that the position I’ve been blessed with, the possession of a job that makes me happy to wake up at 3:30 in the morning, is extremely rare and not something that I’ve had in the past. If you have the good fortune to have a good team around you and a good supervisor to teach you, don’t take it for granted: it’s incredibly rare and wonderful.

  • Haste makes waste:

This is an old piece of wisdom that applies to so many situations, but when my manager said it to me on my first day, I had to stop and stare at her, because it sunk in in that moment that cliches are cliches for a reason. I was moving so fast, trying to get everyone their drip coffees and teas, that I ended up spilling more drinks than I served and burned myself numerous times. It’s good to move quickly, but when you start making more errors than you can afford, it quickly becomes not worth it. As the wise men of Mumford and Sons say, “I will love with urgency and not with haste.” I find this to be especially true of my position, because I have a great deal of love for all of my customers, even the ones I can’t stand. If I didn’t, I don’t think this job would be worth it.

  • Don’t let anyone else define how you feel about your position in life:

Yesterday, I was working at the Brentwood branch of my coffeeshop when I had a customer come in wearing USC medical scrubs. When I told her that I’d also graduated from USC, she gave me a disparaging look and asked me, “so what are you doing here?” Well, first of all, I’m serving you your coffee, and be nice because I could spit in your cup but I won’t. Secondly, you have no stake with which to tell me that my choices or my profession are unworthy. In my case, this job is a placeholder, but it’s one that I love, but for many this is a career. And regardless of education, I stand by the fact that this is a great career and one that anyone would be lucky to have. My point is, no one is responsible for your happiness but you. If you are at peace with your position in life, my blessings and well-wishes go with you. If you wish you were doing something else, you’re the only one who can make that happen. Others might help, but you have to pull the trigger, and it doesn’t matter whether the gun is named satisfaction or relocation.

  • Find what you’re good at and run with it:

Every job has its different components, and every one of those components requires a different set of talents. Often, one doesn’t realize how many aspects there are to what appears to be a “basic” job, but since becoming a barista, I’ve learned how you might apply your loves to what you do. At my store, Chris is the coffee and tea guy: he has an incredible palette and knows the origin and tastes of every coffee and tea we sell. Vince is the biggest people person you’ll ever meet, so he is most often set to deal with customers. He’s just so smiley that people automatically have less complaints when he greets them with “Happy Monday!” Cassidy is the bar man: he knows every mood and setting of the espresso machine, and can steam perfect milk by touch. Melanie is good at all of the above, and has trained me in both tasting our various coffees and teas and working the bar. Above all, she’s an amazing boss and teacher. Once you’ve discovered what you love most, take the initiative to teach yourself everything about it that you can. You will thank yourself once someone introduces you as the “steamed milk expert.” [insert any other form of expertise]

These are just bits and pieces of the gifts that I’ve gotten from this opportunity, not to mention the fruit danishes and nutella macchiatos. As I go through each step of my life, measure by measure, French press by French press, I understand a little more of what Eliot was talking about: trying to learn the balance of wide-eyed faith and exhausted cynicism is an art form unto itself. I’m thrilled that I still feel the desire to “go through certain half-deserted streets” and meet every adventure, and I feel blessed to have woken up at 4:30 this morning to brew dark roast. Now I’m going to go fall on my face.

To read Eliot’s extraordinary work, click here:

To hear Mumford and Sons’ amazing and inspirational song, click here:

Writer, filmmaker, tarot reader, eternal nerd, lover of Thai noodles. Writing my way through post-concussion syndrome one anxiety attack at a time.

Writer, filmmaker, tarot reader, eternal nerd, lover of Thai noodles. Writing my way through post-concussion syndrome one anxiety attack at a time.