This is the story of how a twintailed Siren and a non-fat latte saved Michael Gill’s life—at least that’s the way he sees it.
Gill, author of the New York Times bestseller How Starbucks Saved My Life, is a former advertising executive who worked for J. Walter Thompson (JWT), one of the world’s largest advertising firms. Laid off at age 60, Gill had to reinvent himself and learn the principles of independent living on an hourly wage.
Now a full-time Starbucks barista at 64, Gill has a brain tumor, a young son resulting from an affair and is recently divorced from his wife, with whom he has three children—and he’s never been happier.
“Advertising people live in fear: fear of losing clients or losing their job. And there is no clear correlation between the millions spent on ads and the result in the marketplace—so everyone is always trying to loudly claim credit and yet the true results are always vague and often based on purely subjective criteria,” Gill said in an e-mail to the Journal.
Before working at Starbucks, Gill had never worked at a retail job. He’d never had to clean toilets or work for minimum wage serving anyone below a high social standing. The son of New Yorker writer Brendan Gill, Michael Gill was born into a life of wealth and luxury and lived his life accordingly. He studied at Yale University and, without a resume, was hired at JWT upon graduating, where he was eventually promoted to creative director. A prominent member of New York high society, he worked with reputable clients like Ford and Nike and called Frank Sinatra by his first name.
“I used to tell my children ‘Why don’t people just get educated? Why don’t they work hard like me?’ when they brought up some unfortunate example of people having trouble in their lives,” Gill said. “Today I know that I was given many advantages, such as a Yale education and a job, without having to do a job application, at J. Walter Thompson because the owner was a Yale man.” In some ways, his current morning ritual doesn’t significantly differ from his last. He wakes up early and leaves for work, entering Starbucks for a cup of coffee. He drinks his coffee and hurries to begin his workday, that, at the age of 64, is still about eight hours with a brief break for lunch. However, unlike his old morning routine, Gill doesn’t leave Starbucks and head to JWT’s offices at Lexington Ave and East 45th St. He puts on his green apron with the distinct Starbucks logo and he opens the door for the first guests, patiently lined up at the store’s big glass entrance. Gill said the difference in culture between his two employers is one of common courtesy.
“At Starbucks there is a kindness and a courtesy that is simply not part of advertising,” he said. “One example: At Starbucks they always ask me: ‘Would you do me a favour?’ At JWT I would order people to do things.” Gill said respect is the most important mission at Starbucks, for both workers—or as they’re called in Starbucks lingo, partners—and customers alike.
“I have to say that in advertising ‘respect’ is not a word that is heard,” he said. “At JWT I just threw new people into any situation and watched how well they did.” Gill he said he often competed with his peers when he worked at JWT.
“At Starbucks it is more of a sport where you are all on the same team and are all trying to serve in the best way possible in the brief time of a shift,” he said. “Helping each other is really the only way to make good times happen in that kind of environment. “In other words, I now realize that my fortunate birth gave me great advantages. My daughter Laura when she came into my Starbucks store and saw me struggling to keep up with people who had never gone to college and yet knew more about how to manage everything than me said ‘Dad, you are finally getting it.’” Gill said he’s grateful for the love of his children, his newfound appreciation for life and even losing his corporate job and expensive house.
“Today I am so happy with so much less. And so much happier moving through life without the strain or focusing on high status material achievement and simply accepting the fact that I am another humble person in a swirling universe I cannot control—but I can find a way to enjoy,” he said.
Gill spends most of his free time with his children and friends and says the fame on his New York Times bestselling novel has little bearing on his everyday life. “When I open at five a.m., the partners I work with don’t care whether I wrote a book,” he said.“We are all really focused on getting the coffee and pastries ready for the first customers who are already lining up to be served at 5:30 am.” Gill said although his customers have read his book and are impressed Tom Hanks will play him in the upcoming film adaptation, his interactions with them are still largely caffeine-oriented.
“‘Hi Mike. Could I have a double tall non-fat latte?’ is the substance of the conversation they really care about,” he said. “This is all a great relief to me. It is an equalitarian world: they don’t care where I went to college, what I do in my spare time. Everyone on both sides of the bar is focused on making the experience in that moment as enjoyable as possible.” Gill calls it the Zen in service.
“I can now understand why many religious orders focus on such simple things as farming—the simple tasks are sometimes the most rewarding,” he said. “Today I feel that a bathroom cleaned well can be a contribution that is certainly the equal of creating any Super Bowl ad,” says Gill.
Gill’s new book, How to Save Your Own Life, builds on the lessons that Gill’s life had taught others.
“While I would never advise anyone to lead my life—I have made many mistakes—there is something to be learned in my six decades of struggle, such as the surprising fact that losing material wealth and big houses and a high status job can be a source of new and greater happiness than you ever imagined,” he said.
“Today I am happier than I have ever been—and I honestly don’t feel I would be experiencing this simple, happier life if I hadn’t been fired, lost my big house and been diagnosed with a brain tumor. My life is irrefutable proof that happiness does not lie in college degrees or big salaries, but in looking inside your own heart and that sometimes shocks in life can be helpful.” Gill said he worked hard to achieve the American dream without pausing to think about the life he was leading.
“Too often today too many are obsessed with getting ‘things’. Rather than strive so hard to ‘succeed’ in that way I think it is wise for people of every age to put a hand on their heart, listen to their heart, and trust themselves to guide them to doing something they truly love,” he said. Gill prefaces every chapter of How Starbucks Saved My Life with a song played in Starbucks or a quote found on the side of a Starbucks cup. When asked what his own inscription on the side of a tall, non-fat latte would look like, Gill keeps it simple: Be grateful for this moment and share the joy.
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