What does 'good work' look like for you?
On finding the not-so-obvious thread that ties your strengths, needs and goals together (a.k.a. Why I'll never stop talking about being a barista 100 years ago).
On the road earlier this summer, I was reminded of something I always re-discover about my partner, Stefan, when we’re traveling: He hates indie coffee shops. Blasphemy, I know, especially to a writer, for whom indie coffee shops are actual creative havens.
In reality, what he hates is being in an unfamiliar coffee shop. Each indie shop has a distinct, quirky system and set of unwritten rules that make up the vibe its regular patrons adore, and he senses that baristas are annoyed with him for not knowing their quirks. Where does the line start? What do you call your 12-ounce size? Where do I pick up my drink? Do I bus my own table?
I don’t know whether baristas are annoyed; their demeanor is more likely the general demeanor of working in food service in your 20s, especially in this era of heightened awareness of their role in their employers’ profit margins. But I do know baristas don’t tend to be trained for or interested in guiding customers through their idiosyncratic micro-cultures.
That role as guide is the part I loved about being a barista.
I started in coffee in 2004 serving Starbucks in a book store. We were well into the era of joking about “a Starbucks on every corner,” but that — like most pop culture references I barely understood — was only happening in major cities. The Starbucks corporation hadn’t taken much interest in central Wisconsin, and most of my customers’ coffee experiences were (literally) limited to Folgers at home and gas station cappuccino machines when they wanted a treat. They wandered our way while shopping for books, because we baked cookies whose scent let them know we existed. They’d never taken an interest in craft coffee, but the familiarity of the Starbucks brand made them feel safe testing the waters.
That cultural ignorance meant every order involved education. Customers didn’t know what a real cappuccino was. They’d never heard of a Frappuccino. They were afraid to try to pronounce “caffe au lait.” They didn’t know the difference between drip coffee and espresso. They didn’t know which drinks contained caffeine, which were dreadfully bitter and which were disgustingly sweet.
I was just learning all of this, too. And my favorite thing to do with new information is to share it with someone else so they, too, can enjoy the discovery. I loved the opportunity to answer questions or to spot a customer who didn’t know which questions to ask. I found it fascinating that “caffe au lait,” “cafe latte” and “coffee with milk” mean the same thing in their respective languages but are three different drinks, and I poured that knowledge onto anyone who would listen.
In central Wisconsin in 2004, a barista’s job was much more interesting than making coffee. We were helping curious customers find comfort in the chaos of unfamiliar coffee shops.
What is the real work you’re doing?
In June Stefan and I began the process of buying a local brick-and-mortar business (which I’ll write about in more detail once the deal is done). In this printing and design business, he’ll be the artisan and the face of the brand. My role in operations is part-time and behind the scenes. Though I’ll be an equal owner, it’s sort of like taking on any part-time job.
Deciding to take on this role was tough. Since we’ve shared the news with friends and family, some have asked, “Won’t you miss writing?” even though I don’t plan to change my commitment to writing at all. But I’m keenly aware that making a visible, brick-and-mortar business part of my portfolio means a lot of people will only see that side of my work. They won’t see me as an author or creative entrepreneur. This decision made me wonder whether I was betraying those facets of my identity, which I’ve become attached to over the years.
But this print shop opportunity dropped in our laps, and I was unexpectedly drawn to it. I wanted to add a totally different kind of work to the mix. I wanted another anchor to my new community. I wanted to activate and challenge the operational parts of my brain.
I decided to buy into the business and embrace Healthy Rich as part of my portfolio career, rather than my full professional identity, because I realized being a creative entrepreneur isn’t the point.
Doing good work is the point.
The major parts of my work portfolio — the print business, this newsletter and the book I’m writing — don’t seem like branches on the same tree. But together, for me, they add up to my definition of good work:
They take care of me financially in balance with freeing my time.
They support the kind of business I want to see in the world and let me contribute to the impact I want to make.
They let me engage fully with every one of my interests and strengths.
My work is more like a set of stars that make up a constellation; they’re tied together in a beautiful and not-always-obvious way. Whether I’m operating a retail shop, running an online business or writing a book, the worker in my brain is doing the same thing: helping people find comfort in chaos. I’m always doing this same work, even when I don’t notice it immediately.
Running the print shop lets me engage with customers in real time, like I used to as a barista. I’ll be charged with revamping a 45-year-old operation for the 21st century and structuring a business in line with the economic values Stefan and I want to promote. I’ll be able to use my position as a business owner in a small, rural town to learn about and guide customers and community members through unfamiliar things that are meaningful to me, like building a co-op and creating inclusive spaces. The day-to-day duties differ wildly, but the purpose of my print-shop work isn’t substantially different from the purpose of this newsletter and the book: helping folks find comfort in the chaos of budget culture.
My work isn’t being an entrepreneur, a writer, a teacher, an author. Those are titles, but they’re not the work. They’re just means to do the work. Good work, for me, is finding comfort in the chaos. As long as I’m doing that, I’m doing my best work; I’ll exercise my strengths, make an impact and the money will follow.
Just like I did with coffee back in the aughts, I’ve delighted in uncovering order in the chaos of the unfamiliar throughout my career as a writer. My first client was an end-of-life resource blog, where I wrote for two years about taboos like death and terminal illness. My first attempt at coaching let me guide indie writers through the new wild west of self-publishing. My first staff writer job was with a personal finance site, demystifying money. Even the first iteration of this Substack, for writers, was untangling questions in composition and grammar.
Through Healthy Rich and my book, I’m continuing that work, seeking comfort in the chaos of our financial systems and sharing what I learn to help you all enjoy the discovery with me. Through the print shop, I get to discover an unfamiliar industry with unfamiliar needs, learn everything about it and share with others so we can create a new kind of ease and joy in our community. After more than a decade splashing around in the pool of online business and eight years traipsing through the muck of our relationships with money, it makes perfect sense to me to dive into a local shop and uncover systems that shape the kind of business I want to see in the world.
Your title is not your work
Since that job as a barista, I’ve reveled in seeing through the chaos of subjects people are convinced they’ll never understand. It’s no surprise I’ve made my way to finance — a subject that touches all of our lives and one almost no one feels they know enough about. Money carries a lot of weight in our society and seems able to save or destroy us.
But it’s not substantially different from any work I’ve ever done.
However frivolous coffee might seem in comparison to personal finance, I no less found good work in being a barista. I found an opportunity to find my customers comfort in the chaos, and that’s the work I’ve continued to do in every job since and the work I’ll seek in every job to come. Whether I’m a barista, a writer, an entrepreneur, an author, an employee — whatever — I’m learning and sharing. I’m helping people discover comfort in chaos.
Last year, I couldn’t resist offering a consulting call to a friend who was baffled by SEO, even though it was a detour from my title of Personal Finance Writer™️. At the end of the call, she told me simply, "I no longer feel stupid when I think about this."
I no longer feel stupid when I think about this.
How many ways can I make this feeling happen?
That is my good work. The title is irrelevant.
a few things you can do next…
I linked to a sample chapter above, but I’ll take another opportunity to recommend this book by Jenny Blake: Free Time: Lose the Busywork, Love Your Business.* The book offers a framework to help heart-based business owners simplify and streamline — not just through brilliant systems, but also by naming your values and how you define excellence, so you can do more of the work you love in less time.
What’s your good work? How have you found it in different jobs? How can you find it in the work you’re doing now?
*This post contains affiliate links for Bookshop.org, so if you buy a book mentioned here, you support the author, local bookstores and Healthy Rich!
Image by @eyeforebony via Nappy.co