I’m a Barista, But I Want To Be a Ninja

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This weekend I found myself in several situations where I didn’t know every single person in the room/backyard/boat.  As is normative social decorum, I engaged in get-to-know-you small talk.

“Where are you from?”

“Seattle.”

“Oh, I hear it’s nice there. I’ve never been.”  (No one in California has been to Seattle.)

“Yeah, it rains a lot, but the music’s great.”

There is also…

“Where did you go to school?”

“UW and SDSU.”

“What’s UW?”

“The University of Washington.”

“Oh…well SDSU! Go Aztecs!”

Seriously California. There are other states up north you know. Stupid…surf…culture…anyway, those are two conversations I am always having. The third is of course:

“What do you do?”

“I work at a start-up internet company.”

“Oh cool! What is it?”

“We do online reputation management. We’ve only been around for 2 years, and no you haven’t heard of us.”

“How exciting! What do you do there?”

“I do training and development. But it’s a start-up, so I do a lot more than that.”

I think I’ve narrowed it down pretty well and I try to keep it to that. My job is pretty challenging to explain, and I don’t like to go on and on about it, because then I’m the girl talking a lot about herself, and that’s just weird in the small talk get-to-know-you convos.  However, people seem to find what I do interesting.

Does that mean I’ve “made it?” When I first got the job offer a month after I graduated, I was stoked. I’ve been there for a year now and I must say, it is rewarding.  Working at a small company has a lot of great perks, but there is one thing that makes it just like every single job I’ve ever had – I’m working for someone else’s dream.

I was in Trader Joe’s two weeks ago and the ringer-upper guy asked me what I do.  I told him the standard, “I work at a start-up internet company,” answer, and surprisingly he responded, “Oh wow! Your own?”

Sadly I admitted, “No.”

That really got me thinking. Joe there, not knowing one thing about me, had enough faith in me to think that I could possibly be an entrepreneur. That I am so dedicated to my ideas and have enough drive and determination to get an idea off of the ground and start my own company.

After that experience, I’ve really been thinking about this whole, “what do you do,” thing.  I’ve always been the type to resist being put in the box of my profession.  When I worked as a barista for a billion years in every coffee shop in the greater Seattle region, I never really thought of that as my “identity.” I mean sure, I kind of liked it. I was in my teens and early 20’s and it was around the time The Barista was sort of a cool thing to be. So me and my tattoos, dark-rimmed glasses and poetry books would make coffee and use big words to prove I that I was doing this gig just to get through college. “Nope, just making coffee, this is not who I am…but yes you can compliment how well I can make a latte.”

Damn a latte sounds good right now…

Anyway, now that I really think about it, I have never taken a job I would have been ashamed to tell other people about. I worked at a TV station, casting agency, newspaper, university, you can pretty much name any sort of profession that doesn’t happen under a bridge and I’ve done it. And while I genuinely liked each of those jobs to some extent, every single time I always had this bit of a divider like, “This is just what I DO, but it’s not who I AM.” I figured work life would always be that way.

Then I stumbled upon a thought.  When you meet any of your friends who are really doing what they want to do, they are excitedly proud to tell you that what they do is who they are.

“I’m a musician.”

“I’m a photographer.”

“I’m a firefighter.”

“I’m a basketball player.” (OK fine, none of my friends are basketball players)

“I’m a lawyer.”

“I’m an author.”

That last one has a little sting to it, because that’s the one that I want. While I have a pretty rad job, it’s not what I dreamed I would be doing as baby Joni. I was the kid who learned how to read well before any of my peers, and quickly began writing the second I found a sharpened pencil. All throughout school my teachers told me about my “gift,” and I shrugged it off hoping the other kids didn’t hear how big of a nerd I was.

“Ssshhhh!!” I thought, as I tried to drown that talent with cooler ones like sports or music. Those decisions to seek flashier, more lucrative professions, and not be the writer my 2nd grade teacher saw, brought me here. My belief that writing was a silly hobby, and work was adult career life, is to blame. And now when someone asks me what I do, my answer is still not quite what I’m looking for. Jon Acuff, a young writer who is starting to see some success, brings up a good point:

“We end up thinking that we can really have two different versions of ourselves, ‘work me’ and ‘life me.’ …When you think about it, the ‘it’s just a job’ belief is crazy. Imagine telling a friend, ‘I have to go somewhere five days a week, dedicate the majority of my waking hours to it, let it control my vacation and travel plans…but I don’t consider it part of my life.” (Acuff, 2011, p. 230-231)

By the way, this excerpt is from a book called Quitter and I do not recommend brining this book to work, and then getting caught by your boss reading it…that was not a fun week.

Anyway, he is right. We are one, whole person. And I think that this is the big career crisis that my generation faces. We are blessed more than any other generation to have the means to see beyond the “if I don’t work my family will starve to death or wind up eating rocks,” crisis that has plagued most of human existence.  We are the most coddled generation, whose parents have the ability to help us if we fall.  We have always been encouraged to chase our dreams, never give up, and be all you can be.

And I think that’s why so many of us are so bummed out by our jobs. I think I can safely say that most of my friends live for the weekend, and I can’t really exclude myself from that conversation.  As much as I enjoy my work sometimes, I hate Mondays and love Fridays.

The problem with that is, I clearly have a problem with work if I’m saddened by the very thought of 5 whole days of it ahead of me.  Or am thrilled with the thought of 2 whole days that I don’t have to go there.

So that leads me to believe that I in fact haven’t made it yet. Mom told me to be what I wanted to be, and I’m not being it yet, and that bums me out every Monday. When Trader Joe asks me what I do, I want to answer confidently, “I’m an author.”  He will then answer, “Oh! What do you write?” And so on and so forth.

How cool would that be?!?!

For now, I have a pretty good answer. But there’s still a “but” in it. “I work at a startup company in training and development, but I want to be an author.” I’ll bet there’s a lot of you out there that have the same predicament.

So play a game with me. How would you fill in those blanks?  “I’m a ______, but I want to be a ________.”  I have a feeling getting to the second blank is a reality you can make happen.  What are you doing to get there?

As for me, I’m reading like a crazy person, working hard at a job I like (notice, not love), and planning for the next step by saving skrilla and writing early in the morning and late at night. I’m doing it because the opportunity is there if I want it, if I’m willing to fight for it. No one is going to hand me a book deal just because I think I have talent. I’m not going to be walking in the park one day and a man in a beret will shout from across the courtyard, “Hey you! Hey you there! You are clearly a beautiful writer and belong on the New York Times Bestseller list! Come with me and I will make you a star!”  But if that does happen I’ll let you know which park.

We are a generation that has been encouraged to dream, and we easily get depressed when we feel we haven’t “made it” to remarkable fame, wealth, whatever it is that you want. But the opportunity for artists of all kinds is available. Tradesmen/women can get into a technical college when they are willing to do the work. Entrepreneurs have a chance to make that purse-for-cats idea a reality if they try.

The only thing separating us from that, sometimes, is our dichotomous “work me” and “life me” identity crisis.  We tell ourselves that our “life me” can never be our “work me,” so sometimes it can be hard to make the blanks of who we really want to be happen.

But I encourage you to try.  I mean, I really want to see a cat carrying a purse one day, so I’m hoping you’ll go ahead and step it up to make that happen.

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About jonierdmann
Ask thoughtful questions. Challenge tradition. Refuse to accept things are the way they are.

2 Responses to I’m a Barista, But I Want To Be a Ninja

  1. Charity O says:

    I’m right there with you when it comes to the ‘but’…

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