Saturday, January 5, 2008

There's More to Life Than Money

Easy to read that title and say "I know that." Harder to really KNOW that. And hardest of all to have to figure it out on a downhill slide.

Welcome to the life of Michael Gates Gill, author of How Starbucks Saved My Life. The book is subtitled "A Son of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everyone Else."

Michael, reared in New York City with summers abroad or at estates in upstate New York, is the son of celebrated New Yorker writer, Brendan Gill. His mother, who also came from wealth, was so determined to put an optimistic spin on everything that she didn't bother to tell her son that his father had died until Michael called her, and then she spent the first part of the conversation telling him what a wonderful Christmas the family had just had.

On the strength of his family connections, Michael went to Yale, almost graduated, then went straight into advertising with J. Walter Thompson, a topflight New York advertising agency. When we talk about life being handed to someone on a silver platter, Michael is the epitome of that largesse. He spent the next 25+ years as the quintessential Corporate Man , earning good money, competing compulsively to outperform his colleagues, ignoring his wife and three children (to the point of leaving his family on Christmas Day to fly to Detroit to massage the ego of an automobile manufacturer), and generally assuming that his life was all mapped out ahead of him.

Michael was neither a good nor a bad person. Yes, he dismissively sabotaged the career of a young black woman who wanted to be a copywriter, but he also championed a female account executive in what was a male-dominated industry. Ironically, it was this same woman who, many years later, fired him. By then he was 53, an expensive employee, and easily replaced by someone faster, younger and a whole lot cheaper.

For the next ten years, he tried to maintain his lifestyle, while acting as a consultant. It worked initially but over time his client base evaporated. To massage his own ego, he had an affair that resulted in a fourth child. His long-suffering wife decided NOT to suffer through this indignity so he wound up divorced.

Just when things could not get any worse, he was diagnosed with a slow-growing brain tumor. This was the author's first encounter with real life--getting older, looking for a job, having no health insurance.

Enter Starbucks.

It's not quite accurate to say that Starbucks saved his life, but certainly a number of Starbucks' employees jointly acted to save Michael, mostly by acting graciously while this now 63 year old boy grew up.

The book is not a finance book, but it is a good look at how one's financial class colors one's outlook on other people.

Michael is not necessarily a fast learner, either in the coffee business or regarding his own finances. His accountant has to tell him that earning $10.50 an hour, he can no longer afford to charge dinners at the Oyster Bar.

But learn he does--about co-workers, about teamwork, about the absolute necessity of health insurance, and most of all, about his own hubris.

The book is a fast read. The author's copywriting roots show--great literature, this is not. But it is an interesting account of a man who is not brought down by drugs, alcohol or mental illness. Rather, the simple act of growing older made him a less valued employee. His upbringing closed his eyes to the necessity of paying attention to his finances during his prime working years.

By the end, the author has regained his equilibrium, and as this NY Times article shows, is still happily working at Starbucks. It bothered me that he lost most of his prior friends from his more high-flying days, but then, why not? When he WAS them, he never noticed the person pulling his espresso, either.

1 comment:

Dividends4Life said...

That sounds like a really great book. I work with a lady who has highly encouraged me to read it.I plan to include your article in my weekly carnival review this Friday.

Best Wishes,