This one isn’t pretty.
There are many reasons it's difficult diving into coffee from a corporate background. Here’s one you probably haven't considered: trying too hard.
Those who end up on corporate career track are used to excelling. All your life you’re measured against achieving stuff. And you get good at meeting external benchmarks of success.
The corporate structure creates a never ending stream of challenges to keep you excelling. I know lawyers who grind away their lives just to prove they're high achievers. Being a high achiever boosts your sense of self-worth. It adds direction to your life. External pressure eventually underpins your identity.
Now, imagine you're out of the corporate structure. You’re by yourself. And it’s eerily quiet. If you don’t go out and look for work, no-one cares. The only person you’re letting down is, well, you.
Some relish that quiet and embrace the peace.
Others feel lost. I can't stand the silence. I frantically search for something, anything, to listen to. And then I hear the distant cacophonous city. The old mantra begins again in my head: goals, achievements, proving yourself. Before I know it I'm internalising the pressures: "You must do well. You must impress others". The irony being I become so self-obsessed there’s no way I could endear myself to anyone.
I learnt this the hard way, twice, on the same day:
I arrive in Melbourne just before NYE and scramble to sort out my life. Accommodation, bicycle, groceries.
A few days pass but I don’t approach any cafes. I’m not mentally ready for it. It’s all quite daunting when you’re a nobody in an industry you know little about. The first time I make contact will be the first impression I make. And I want it to be good. I want to succeed.
I have brunch with a coffee friend and they explain that being a barista is like an apprenticeship. You need to learn the ropes. And to get a job? Just get out there, see which cafes you like and then inquire about job opportunities. Simple stuff.
The next day I cycle down to the city under the bright blue sky and step through the doors of the first café on my list. They’re pumping out the Pointer Sisters. I’m getting a good vibe. I order a coffee and shake my way to a seat.
Right, now what? I need to impress these guys. I need to talk to someone. But who? The man at the till serving a procession of customers? The woman pulling shots as fast as she can?
In the corporate world, it’s so much easier. You get an introduction. You research what you’re going to say against the job spec. You meet for an agreed upon length of time. You both know the deal: you’re curious about the role, they’re looking for someone to fill it.
This is much, much trickier. They’re treating me as a customer. They’re not prepared for a chat about working at the company. There may not even be any roles.
And I have a much more basic problem on my hands: these people are busy. They barely have time to say ‘hi’, let alone talking in depth about my nascent coffee career.
I hatch a plan. I’ll pick up some beans, bring them to the till, talk to them about the coffee and then segway smoothly into getting a job.
I stand in front of the rows of bagged beans, about to make a selection. ‘Can I help you decide?’ asks one of the baristas.
Oh my God. First contact. The job application starts NOW.
‘Well, I’m looking for a coffee that's suitable for pour-over’. She expertly explains what’s on offer while my mind is racing.
‘So, here we have the Ethiopian...'
I must make a good impression.
‘…its roast profile is on the lighter side...'
How’s my body language? I’ll straighten up a bit.
‘…but the Guatemala has a lovely body…'
It’s so weird - she’s treating me as a customer but my focus is getting a job here. I wonder how her demeanour would change if she knew I wanted a job...
…Shit. She finished talking. I can’t think what to say next. She’s looking at me expectantly.
Just say something.
I blurt out the first things that come to mind: ex-finance guy, travelled for 18 months, want to work in coffee. It’s over in 10 seconds.
She takes a moment to process it all. She seems unsure where to go with this information.
‘Oh, that’s nice’.
A moment’s silence. I can’t think of anything else to say. I've built this moment up in my mind too much and it's paralyzing my thoughts.
A second moment passes in silence.
‘…so, which coffee will you choose today?'
Bugger it. I’m back to being a customer again.
I pay for my beans and she suggests I email the company to ask for job opportunities. I thank her and walk out.
Damn! I’ve forgotten to ask for her name. FML.
Not to be defeated, I try the next cafe on my list.
I’m so used to screwing something up first time round that I've learnt to just dive in, make my mistakes and then swim fast. And I think I've learnt my mistake: don’t mention I’m looking for work, just get a feel for the company, their goals and how they treat their staff. This will be less awkward to discuss.
I stroll in at 4pm and decline the offer of a coffee from the barista. I’ve already had three and I’m wired.
Mistake. I’m now just some guy sat on a chair taking up his precious time and not buying a thing. This is not how cafes operate. It’s getting awkward.
We begin chatting about the business. Straight off the bat the dynamic isn’t working. He’s trying to show great customer service and I’m trying to gauge what the business is like.
I try different conversational tacts. Nothing’s working to bring the customer-clientele facade down. I take a gamble and lay down my cards: I’m looking for a job in the coffee scene, possibly at this cafe.
Big mistake. He feels his job is threatened. Damn straight too. Argh, why did I mention I was specifically considering his employer!?
Okay, one last gasp: if I could just have the owner’s email then I’d be able to shoot straight for the top and skip all this awkwardness. Back in London, the biggest specialty coffee chain in the UK were so open with their email addresses despite running over 50 cafes. These guys have just one. I wonder why they haven’t offered it already. I politely inquire what it is.
Big, big mistake. He feels very uncomfortable and checks with his manager. ‘I’m sorry, we can’t share that with you’. This is a line in the sand. You don’t trust me. Conversation turns to very technical coffee matters, a sanctuary amongst the hostility I feel my presence is bringing.
I scuttle out at closing time without even the offer of a parting handshake.
I cycle home through the honey rays of early evening and collapse on the couch, taking in the stillness of the garden.
My brother sits next to me and asks how my day was.
‘Rough’. He doesn't need to hear anymore.
‘Are you sure you want to do this?’
I think back to the feeling of emptiness I had while working in finance. I see the stream of grey shadows floating across London Bridge.
I think back to today. I had way too much anxiety. I was placing ridiculous amounts of pressure on myself to land a job. I was trying so hard I failed to think about anybody but myself.
It should have been a day of quiet observations, deep listening and genuine connections. One step at a time. I begin to realise my whole mindset needs to change.
I draw a deep breath.