• May 2011

Former Ad Exec Tells Us, "How Starbucks Saved My Life"

By Hope Katz Gibbs
Editor and Publisher
Be Inkandescent Magazine

You have heard it before: When it comes to saving your soul (not to mention your heart and your hard-earned money), sometimes you have to hit rock bottom.

We learn that lesson in, How Starbucks Saved My Life, by former ad exec turned service employee Michael Gates Gill. More than just a riches-to-rags-to-enlightenment story, Gill suggests that with a little self-awareness, redemption can be found before all is lost.

Yes, his story has been bought by actor and producer Tom Hanks (it is currently being turned into a screenplay). No, he hasn’t met our Entrepreneur of the Month, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz. And yes, he still works at Starbucks (at age 70).

But the true gift of Gill’s book is the wisdom he is happy to share with others caught up in the world of achievement, status, and the drama of climbing the corporate ladder. Is it worth it?

We recently asked Gill that question and more when we spoke with him by phone from his apartment in New York, shortly after he finished a Saturday shift at Starbucks. This is his story.

“The humble improve.” — Wynton Marsalis
a quote published on the side of a Starbucks Double Tall Skim Latte

In this true-life story that begins in March 2006, Gill takes us back 10 years earlier, when his life began to unravel. He is still a big-shot advertising executive at JWT, one of the largest ad agencies in the world. But on this day, he’s at a breakfast meeting with Linda, a 30-something exec who is charged with firing him from his six-figure job.

“Michael, I have some bad news,” the Yale grad recalls Linda saying. “We have to let you go. It’s not my decision.”

Gill remembers, “My mouth was dry. I couldn’t talk. The thought passed through my mind of suing JWT, or writing nasty letters to all the clients. Being fired is not the best way to start a consulting company, yet I needed the goodwill of JWT to have any chance of getting business from my old clients, or anyone else.”

So he said nothing.

“Outside the sun was shining,” he continues. “I suddenly, desperately realized I had nowhere to go. I started walking and found myself crying on the street. It was humiliating. Crying! Me! Yet at 53 I had just been given a professional death notice. I knew in my heart it was going to be a bad time to be old and on the street.”

Gill summarizes the rest of his journey like this: “This is the true, surprising story of 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.”

“Let go your sadness, give up the fight, follow your madness and take flight.”Lyric by Seal, published on the side of a cup of Starbucks Venti Americano

In fact, Michael Gates Gill grew up in a 25-room mansion in Bronxville, NY. The son of renowned New Yorker magazine writer Brendan Gill, he spent much of his childhood rubbing elbows with E.B. White, Ernest Hemingway, and Jackie Onassis.

After graduating from Yale in 1963, he landed a job as creative director at JWT — then known as J. Walter Thompson — married, and had four kids. For the next 26 years, he says he was “loyal to a fault.”

“I was always ready to adjust my personal schedule for my clients’ needs,” he explains in the book. “I remember getting a call from a Ford client one Christmas Day when my kids were little. I had just been getting ready to spend a rare day at home … but the client wanted to do a New Year’s sale event, and could I come shoot some commercials? So I answered, ‘Sure. When?’ I was a loyal JWT man. So I got a taxi to the airport and flew to Detroit.”

The long hours eventually alienated him from his family. But the real downturn came when he was fired from his job, and while trying to build a small consulting firm of his own, he would go to the gym to relieve the stress. There, he met a woman who he would have an affair with. She became pregnant, and when their son Jonathan (now 11) was born, the infidelity led to the end of his marriage.

“An affair is one thing,” his wife Betsy told him. “A child is another. I just can’t do it. I’m not made for this type of thing.”

Gill writes: “My four older kids, now practically grown-ups, were understanding in a grown-up way, but hurt and angry, too. I had given Betsy our big house, and she had enough family money to be okay, but I knew it wasn’t just about money. I had ruined her life. And ruined my own life, as well.”

He took a tiny apartment in Bronxville and began making big shifts in his life. “I spent less and less time chasing new clients, and more and more time with Jonathan. He loved me and he needed me. I was somebody wonderful in his eyes.”

The human catalysts for dreamers are the teachers and encouragers that dreamers encounter throughout their lives.a quote from Starbucks guest Kevin Carroll, published on the side of a Decaf Venti Latte

He was also broke. And not long after, there was a troubling buzzing in his ear, so he went to the doctor. The diagnosis: an operable brain tumor. But Gill had no health insurance.

That was when the then-63 year old went into his local Starbucks for “some comfort in a latte,” he explains. “It was one of my last remaining treats.” He didn’t notice the sign in front reading, “Hiring Open House.” “Still in my cocoon of self-pity and nostalgia about lost fortune and family, I ordered my latte and made my way over to a small table,” he explains. “I sat down and did not look at anyone nearby. Staring into my interior space, I tried to make sense of a life that seemed to have completely gotten away from me.” And then came the question that changed his life: ‘Would you like a job?’”

“I was startled out of my reverie,” Gill continues. “The speaker at the table right next to mine, shuffling papers with professional dispatch, was an attractive young African-American woman wearing a Starbucks uniform. She seemed so confident. I was struck numb. Without thinking I said, yes, I would like a job.”

Try a little tenderness.Lyric by Otis Redding, played during a Starbucks closing

What came next was a series of life lessons that are at once funny, tragic, and useful for everyone struggling with a balancing work, family, finances, ego, and aging. I won’t ruin the gift of this easy-to-read 265-page paperback by revealing the richness of Gill’s experiences and wisdom.

But I will tell you what he told me. “To my surprise, I am happier in his new, simpler life than I ever was in my former ‘high’ life. What is crazy is that I worked so hard to try to keep up my old life. While it took me a long time to realize what a gift it is to be grateful for every minute of every day, I know that serving people in even the simplest ways can be such a fulfilling experience.”

Save Your Own Life

In the Afterword of his book is a final chapter entitled, which turned out to be the prequel to a book that became the sequel, How to Save Your Own Life.

Take to heart these three ideas, in Gill’s own words.

1. Leap … with faith rather than huddle in fear. I could never have gotten out of the box I had created for myself if I hadn’t leapt without thinking — with the kind of crazy courage born of desperation.

2. Look … with respect. When Crystal [Gill’s future Starbucks manager] called to me and I leapt, I gradually opened my eyes and looked and saw that the respect she showed me was a gift that would lead to a more fulfilling life. I learned to look and see everyone in my day as a welcome guest to be treated with respect.

3. Listen … to your heart to find true happiness. I discovered so late in life that trusting your own heart is your greatest — and only — path to real happiness. I believe everyone is given a unique path to happiness that is special for each person — we have to listen.

Click here to buy How Starbucks Saved My Life. And check out the sequel, How to Save Your Own Life: 15 Inspiring Lessons Including: Finding Blessings in Disguise, Coping with Life’s Greatest Challenges, and Discovering Happiness at Any Age.

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