I am building my self-esteem around a sentence:
I can learn anything.
I’m not great with kids? Not a great runner? Not all that social? Not a published writer? Doesn’t matter, I remind myself (over and over again) being “great” is not my self-worth.
I’m not great with kids yet. I’m not a great runner yet. I am learning the balance between Just Josie and being social. I am learning the skills to become a great writer.
This sort of self-esteem is powerful for me; it’s less fragile than whipping up a self-esteem based on being good at anything.
It’s not, however, anti-fragile.
As I discovered, recently, after a full-dose of body-wracking misery and raging emotions.
One of the main baristas at the bakery peaced back to Italy for a month, and since I’ve had experience as a barista in the past, and coupled with quite a few days off from au pair duties, I was recruited to fill in as many gaps as possible.
I was excited to do this; I love the art of crafting coffee, of customer interactions, of spending time with the other baristas. Of seeing the sun! I don’t get to see the sky when I’m back in the kitchens on the weekends. I was happy to help out.
It meant that all of my days off were spent working, it meant an early wake up with an hour bike commute in the heavy Auckland dawn, it meant I wouldn’t get much of a chance to run. But I was happy to do this, just for a month.
My help was, for the most part, happily received, too.
Il Forno has stacked up quite the list of regulars, many of them the fancy Ponsonby upper working class, who come in at precisely the same time and get the same thing every single day. And have for years on end. They know all of the baristas, they know the owners, they know about Brianna’s tai-kwon-do lessons, they know exactly what they want.
They didn’t know me, however, but I didn’t take their skepticism to heart. I understood that I was an unknown in their daily routine, that they didn’t perhaps, want their coffee made by this mystery girl. Which was fine by me, I was there to be helpful to the other baristas.
The first few shifts were fine, featuring the typical bouts of overwhelm followed by a jazzed sense of fulfillment after making a great cappuccino for the man by the window. I made mistakes. Listed incorrect ingredients. Didn’t charge for the extra shot of espresso. Couldn’t remember if it was for here or take away.
But, you know, not my first rodeo. Those instances are typical. My self-esteem is not built around doing it perfectly or even well. It’s built around being a learner.
I can learn anything. I will get better.
My colleagues are wonderful, I love them for who they are. We’ve got a great dynamic when I’m the chef in the kitchen and they’re scurrying around with the customers and coffee. We make a great team. But there was one, in particular, who was not so much jazzed at my presence up front. I made mistakes, and that was frustrating. I was inefficient, a rusty gear in the usual well-oiled machine. I knew she thought these things, because I could hear her say them to the other barista.
Which hurt, of course, but I kept reminding myself: I am a learner.
The day drooped, the slope becoming steeper and steeper as I made more mistakes and got more frazzled. The tipping point: I misheard a customer’s order, thought she was trying to say “americano” when what she was really saying was “a marocchino” and I overheard my fellow barista say, to the customer:
“I told her, that’s why I didn’t want her on the till.”
What I heard:
“She will never learn.”
Then I saw the signs everywhere; in everything she said to me, in the way that she treated me when I asked what flavor of danish this was (“you asked yesterday what flavor that was…”) I heard: she will never learn.
It didn’t matter that she thought I wasn’t good at this job. I didn’t care about that. But it shattered me to be treated like I could never learn.
Here I was, trying to do something helpful, going out of my way to help out the team. Doing something enjoyable, but also completely arbitrary in the grand scheme of humanity.
To feel like this sucked.
I biked home and ugly-sobbed the whole way, tears whipping around in the wind and splashing the cyclists behind me. Poor lads. Sunny skies with a chance of high-velocity tears from the chick on the bike.
I had another day of barista-work ahead of me, until the weekend when I was back safely in the kitchen. I didn’t want to spend the next day just getting through it.
I spent that evening with the door shut, a cup of tea, Thelonious Monk and a pen.
I started by writing:
People can only treat me the way that I let them treat me.
I let the thoughts flow from there, just rambling, stream-of-consciousness sort of writing. Eventually, I found, that what got to me so severely was not that she thought I would never learn, but that I had believed her. She wasn’t knifing into my self-worth; I was the one holding the knife, stabbing myself and blaming her.
I was allowing her perception of me to become my reality.
I needed to change my mindset in some manner, more than just being self-aware, I needed to do something about it. I had another day of working with her ahead of me. I didn’t want to spend it choking back tears. So I dove deeper.
I hated that I was so cut up about something so arbitrary. That I was reacting to something that simply didn’t matter AT ALL. Cafes are grand things to have, grand things to work at, but it’s completely arbitrary. My work as a barista is not furthering humanity. Not even, really, the human experience; all of those customers can go to another cafe. There are five more around the corner.
Operating on instinct, I began to write a big, colorful list of my life goals. I had two sheets; one for one-and-done life goals—like thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, like visiting Nepal, like learning how to bake artisan breads—and one for life-directions. That last one was the most important. It tied in, very closely, with my perspective on feeling grounded.
After thinking for a while, I wrote, simply: become a writer.
Under that, I wrote all the things it would take to accomplish this goal; learn a variety of skills, meet unique people, feel as many emotions as possible, put myself in situations that I could write about, live fricken life.
I didn’t tie this exercise in with the revelations from the day, simply content to let it all exist where it was and to find how useful it would prove.
How extraordinary the next day was!
Absolutely a different day entirely, and I credit that almost exclusively to reminding myself of my goals.
Every time I would catch a snippet of my coworker throwing me under the bus to another customer, I thought: how cool! I’ve never been badmouthed by a middle-aged woman before. What a unique experience!
Every time I made a flat white instead of a latte, charged $3.50 when I should have charged $3.00, gave a plum danish to a customer who requested blackberry, I thought: man, I bet there are loads of people who can relate to this. How great to be gaining the ability to relate. That will be powerful!
I didn’t think about what my coworker thought of me, nor what the customers thought. I thought that everything was useful, that everything would eventually, if I let it, serve me. I was actively, consciously, letting it serve me.
I’m quite goal-oriented as it is, and sometimes I worry that being so focused on what I will become detracts me from being present. This day showed me differently; I was focused on the moment far more because I had attached purpose to it. I scanned my surroundings closer than before because I knew what I was looking for.
Living like this, traveling around, staying somewhere for just months at a time, can be hard. It shakes you out of routines, out of preferences, forces you to adapt and feels, often, like giving up a portion of yourself in order to stay just a little bit sane.
But, to be fair: life in general is just sometimes hard. Let’s get over how hard it all is and start goddamn letting it all serve!
We are in ONE HUNDRED PERCENT control of our reality.
People can only treat you the way that YOU LET THEM.
(Sorry for the capital letters, I’m just jazzed.)
Peace and blessings,