A Riches to Rags Story

05/25/2011 12:10 pm ET

What do you want from your work? A big salary? A belief that you are making a difference? The sense of satisfaction that comes from a job well done? Status? Fun? Those questions have been resonating in my mind after reading a remarkable little book called How Starbucks Saved My Life: A Son of Privilege Learns to Live like Everyone Else by Michael Gates Gill. The book's coming out in the fall, and you'll be hearing more about it, if only because Tom Hanks has already bought the movie rights.

Michael Gates Gill had led a charmed life. The son of Brendan Gill, the celebrated New Yorker writer, he grew up amidst the well-to-do and the well-educated in Manhattan and on a lake in Connecticut. Ezra Pound and E.B. White came to dinner. At Yale in the early 1960s, he met T.S. Eliot and Robert Frost. He visited Hemingway in Spain. A friend from the secret society Skull & Bones set him up with a job at the storied ad agency J. Walter Thompson, where he toiled, more or less happily, for 25 years, rising to become creative director.

Then everything fell apart. Gill lost his job, failed to make a go of it as a consultant and destroyed his marriage by having an affair, which ended abruptly -- but not before his girlfriend gave birth to a son. He was diagnosed with a slow-growing brain tumor. You couldn't make this kind of thing up.

Out of money and out of hope, he found himself sitting alone in a Starbucks during a hiring fair. When a 28-year-old store manager named Crystal Thompson asks him whether he wants a job, Gill says that he does.

So begins this improbable story of, as he writes, "an old white man who was kicked out of the top of the American establishment, by chance met a young African-American woman from a completely different background, and came to learn what is important in life."

The 60-something Gill sweeps the floor. He cleans toilets. He learns how to make a latte. He struggles to make the cash register work. His feet ache.

Meanwhile, Gill who once socialized with the likes of Brooke Astor and Jackie Kennedy, gets to know Crystal and Kester and Charlie and Yvette and Tawana, the mostly African-American crew at Sbux, and finds something he'd never found at JWT -- a community with a shared sense of purpose. He makes connections with the other Starbucks "Partners." He banters with regular guests. He becomes a "Coffee Master."

During the Christmas season, when he's no longer invited to parties or welcome in his family home, Gill writes:

My Starbucks store became a refuge for me in a turbulent emotional time. My store on old Broadway was a little like an island of warm welcome in the larger island of Manhattan, where I was learning to survive and make new connections. In a very real sense it had become my new home for the holidays.

He steps onto the street and says out loud, "I am happier than I have ever been."

It sounds crazy, doesn't it? But Gill, by his own account, seems to have spent too much of his life trying to fulfill the expectations of others -- in his case, his distant father. At JWT, he admits, he always put work ahead of family, as his father had. Only after losing his bearings can he, at last, see the world with his own eyes. He finds a simple joy in serving others.

This book should be better -- the writing is often pedestrian, and some passages read like press releases for Starbucks -- but Gill has quite a story to tell, one that has the great virtue of provoking you to think. What do you want from your work? Are you getting it?

Originally posted here.