The pop scientist Malcolm Gladwell famously popularized the idea of the 10 000 hours it takes to master a craft. It roughly translates to 10 years, but as he examples, extraordinary performers like The Beatles managed to quick up the pace of those hours with circumstance, supply and demand. They spent a year playing every night in Hamburg, every night with enourmously long sets basically forcing themselves into becoming creative not to bore themselves nor their audience.
The same can probably be said about World Barista Champions of the past. Many of the legendary winners of the competition were baristas for a long time, mastering their craft out of many hours of bar routine and most likely (I speculate) from boredom. I remember specifically a barista in Sweden that was really upset he didn’t have the same chances as everyone else, cause he didn’t have a sponsor for travel and accomodation. He’s a lovely guy, don’t get me wrong, I had him staying at my house for accomodation that competition, but an attitude like that don’t win you championships. Personally, losing a close friend, battling a crazy pregnant ex girlfriend, homelessness and my own raging alcoholism got me to the finals but was too much to take me to the top. And I did have a sponsor for travel and accomodation.
A lot of times we see the coffee industry through the looking glass of the competition. But in order to even have the idea of competing, you are most likely a working barista the rest of the 51 weeks of the year. I say 51 cause there are 52 in a year, and even if you get a weeks worth off for competiting in total (if you’re lucky on more than one level), you are most likely not having paid holidays in your contract. For a lot of us, sick leave doesn’t even exist. We are just left with cut hours that week. In order for the industry to make the comps democratic, imho, is to look at the reality of working within the industry.
This year, about now actually, I’ve done my 10 000 hours of being a barista on a professional level. I started off at the hardest school possible. Even though we had our ups and downs, our differences and fall out for a long time (even though now reconciled and patched up), I thought what I experienced at my first real barista job was a norm, though it was extreme. I figured it might be I wasn’t used to the Australian work culture. Maybe my boss was a lunatic. Regardless of how I percieved my work at that time, to this date I haven’t had one single place where I didn’t get screwed over and used somehow. It is the norm in our line of work. But nowhere else did I willingly accept it for so long and at a very high price (I had to leave Australia and return to the hell that is Stockholm due to family reasons). Why?
I got to work with some of the best equipment and beans around. And I’ve never learnt so much from a single person throughout my career. And to this date I can still say it was the most crucial time of my life that shaped me, gave me a career and fed a passion I’ve never thought could exist in a work place.
But, now I’m 43 years old, and equipment and beans don’t pay my bills nor support my family. It’s the only craft I know. It has cost me a lot to be where I am, and yet I am going nowhere. Talor Browne held a very important talk that cannot and should not be ignored, which is an elephant in the room for a lot of us. Mental health might be something you bring with you to any work place, but in my experience the work environment and its conditions are also a key trigger for making it better or worse. As a man, I’m usually treated better than a lot of female staff, due to gender and maybe also age. Most of my co workers have been brilliant girls with a much higher standard of professionalism than myself. The only company I’ve seen rewarding women, and fair work ethics, is Da Matteo, a company I will probably be true to for the rest of my career, though not saying it’s a perfect employer. But close enough.
Your preformance at work stems from many factors; your private life is one of them (that includes the stake holders of your financial situation), inspiration is another (which might or might not include cutting edge machines, beans, produce, great colleagues etc). Encouragement though, might be the key factor that binds it all together. One inevitable encouragement is your salary. Most of us know this industry doesn’t pay well. So the inspiration must be high in order to make up for that. Creating a positive spirit at work is key. More than often though, the lack of inspiration in combination with leadership mostly consisting of petty micro managing, brings staff together negatively against management. Weak leadership then tries to conquer by dividing people, or by fear. That just takes the problem to another level.
When building relations with staff, and customers, it is important to feel you get something, and not lose something. In my recent and on going case, it’s been losing out more and more as I go. In July I got offered a very good deal, a salary and paid holiday leave. In September I’m told the business cannot afford this and need to renegotiate my contract. The employer considered this an oral agreement, when in fact neither hourly wages nor amount of hours has been discussed closly, only in broader terms. When starting my contract, the employer was very well aware of both my financial situation and the fact I was leaving for Las Vegas for a week, stating I should’ve worked up my holiday pay until then. Needless to say, the “new contract” both decreased my hours as well as left me with a week of unpaid leave. This when letting them know I was looking for other jobs not beeing able to afford keeping my position. Several negotiations with other employers fell through leaving me in a limbo where either facing unemployment or struggling with hours.
In the latest events we find out that even though our closing hours are at 7pm and we should serve people up to the last minute, leaving me doing dishes and closing up which will take anything from 25-50 minutes depending on the situation, we still don’t get paid after 7. That means I’ve worked for free approximately at least a full week (getting robbed twice of my Vegas trip if you’d like). Still the employer demands more and more to be done at closing. I’ve had no job where closing shop didn’t include 30 minutes closing time. If it took me an hour for some reason, I’d still get 30 minutes at least. This thing started when the kitchen closed 7 but got paid until 7.30. They didn’t do their dishes and left it to the bar, and went home at 7. So what makes the employer think I want to do their dishes for free?
If you don’t pay your suppliers, there will be no more supply. But what happens when you don’t pay your workers. This is not the first time I’m being screwed over by people simply not caring about the personal finances of their staff. When coming back from parental leave, I agreed to have my hours cut to 80%. All of a sudden they were 40% and paid by hour instead of a monthly salary. When saying this wasn’t sustainable, I got a shit load of inconvenient hours, still with an hourly rate making my finances better but my personal situation was even worse.
Back to the issue of mental health. One of the most important things for people suffering from various issues, is to keep stress down. There are various kinds of stress, and various individual triggers. For me, I don’t mind a heavy work load when I feel in control of my situation. A barista with a long docket might actually find it kind of soothing, experiencing “flow” (the more scientifically studied phenomena, I mean here). It can free you from trouble on your mind, and liberate you for a while taking you into a positive mind set. A kind of active mindfulness if you will. The stress we normally feel is wearing us down, is one we have no control over. Financial issues is a heavy burden, in my case logistics with family matters is another factor. But how is anyone supposed to deal with stress relief, if money is scarce and time is eaten up by just sleeping and reboot yourself to be able to deal with bare necessities, like laundry?
My last employer helped me with therapy, working around the hours for me to be able to go. It ate a huge hole out of my wallet, but at least he tried. And I understand the hardships of running a small business, I had to bring my 3 year old with me for whole workdays when she was sick or noone to look after her. More frequently than I’d like to admit actually. The same is happening again. I work when I’m sick, cause I can’t afford being home, and still I have no money left once the bills are paid. The only excercise I get is walking to work, instead of yoga and meditation, I steal a minute or two having a smoke, and the only kickboxing I do is the ones in my mind fighting off my demons. How the hell am I supposed to deal with life when it has me in chokehold?
I am no status clinger, I don’t need material things to feel happy. But bare essentials, like buying glasses to stop headaches when I watch TV, or going on a holiday once a year with my family, or even buying a pair of new pants, things most people outside our trade can take for granted at my age and circumstance, are a fucking luxury to me.
I am eternally greatful for an extremely supportive wife and children that loves me through the darkest hours. But shouldn’t a culture that talk about the welfare and fairness for coffee farmers start looking around their own fucking café and see how the well being of their employees are effected by their lack of support? I mean, getting paid for what you actually do for them shouldn’t be too much to ask, really….
NP: Youth of Today Break Down The Walls