I used to make cappuccinos for a living. Brilliant, amazing, PERFECT cappuccinos. I started doing it because I really, really loved cappuccinos. I was nineteen and that seemed to be as good a reason as any to pursue a “career” in cappuccino-making.
But something happened after cappuccino #3,771; I realized that I was really good at doing something I found terribly tedious and boring. Which is a problem, because not only did people want me to keep doing it – I became indispensable. Customers wanted MY cappuccinos and no one else’s. Which meant that I got promoted to the morning shift and had to work at 5am when it was busier.
So there I was, making ten times MORE perfect cappuccinos, while half asleep and grumpy, for people who appreciated my skills less and who were twice and grumpy as I was – all for the same crappy wage I made before. I could never take time off and the thing I used to love became something I loathed and resented. I had effectively created my own version of hell. The people that were mediocre got to work in the afternoons when the nice customers came in, when it was slower. They got all the days off they wanted because no one really wanted them there anyway.
They had lives.
I had cappuccinos.
A never-ending parade of progressively lousier cappuccinos.
All because I mistakenly thought that since I liked drinking cappuccinos that I would enjoy making cappuccinos. And for a minute, I probably actually did. But as someone who does not do anything halfway, I got really (REALLY) good at doing something I really didn’t enjoy doing. But I also didn’t want to quit. After all, I WAS indispensable. And everyone told me how I was the best. And my ego really liked that. So, instead of quitting, I did what any indispensable but dispassionate person would do – I pursued promotion!
I rose through the ranks. All the way to National Sales Manager. I was Queen of the Cappuccino Slingers. I taught people, who taught people, who taught people how to make perfect, beautiful, magical cappuccinos. Only now, I was also responsible for a very large bunch of nineteen-year-old fuck-ups who didn’t give a crap about their jobs or about my beloved cappuccinos. And every day, their ambivalence chipped away at whatever passion I had left.
We have all done this. Someone pays us a compliment on something we did and it feels good… so we do it more. And more. And more.
We search for that approval. And we just keep going. And so often we forget to think about the action itself, and whether we actually enjoy doing it. Years can go by. Careers can go by. Lifetimes even – seeking validation and accolades for things that never made us happy to begin with.
So what knocked me out of the hamster wheel of perfect cappuccinos? Weirdly, it was Robert Redford. The coffee company I was working for was sponsoring an event that he was speaking at. It was fancy and I was in charge. I was over-the-moon. It was an opportunity.
Now, for context, you should know that I’ve had a personal crush on Robert Redford for the whole of my adult life. I don’t care that he is leathery and twice my age. He will always be The Sundance Kid to me. Later in life I developed a professional crush as well. I’ve had a career pipe-dream to do work with the Sundance Institute since grad school.
So there I am… making coffee for Mr. Sundance in the greenroom backstage. Folding napkins to perfect points – cooling the milk to the perfect temperature – grinding the beans just so. I waited in the wings as he took the stage and inspired the crowd. I was gobsmacked. At the end, he waved to the audience and smiled. I stood off to the side, sweaty-palmed, with a lump in my throat. A lump that dropped as I watched him turn his back – in slow motion – and walk off the other side of the stage, and out a side door. He climbed into a car and was gone. And that’s when it dawned on me. It wasn’t an opportunity. It was me making coffee at 8pm for someone who had a plane to catch and who didn’t even know I was there.
I missed talking to my idol because I got there doing all the wrong things. I was great at something I hated doing.
Had I been there because I worked with the non-profit that threw the event… using my truest passions and skills, how different might that story have gone?
See, opportunities are only as good as what gets you in front of them.
The path that gets you there is every bit as important as the quality of the open door and whatever stands on the other side.
Every step you take matters. So when you make decisions in your business, remember that they matter. Throwing something together that you aren’t excited about creates a ripple effect. People will judge you based on every move. Accolades, short-term successes – they don’t matter. Play the long game.
The next cappuccino you make could be the difference between shaking Robert Redford’s hand or watching him walk away.