Salad bars, Starbucks, and a Fulfilling Life
For me, it started with the invention of the salad bar, the option to choose what I wanted, and pass on things I didn’t. I was probably 12 years old the first time I encountered a salad bar at a church conference. Up until then, my mom made salad with ingredients of her choice, salad dressing of her choice, all tossed together before it got to the dinner table. It didn’t matter that I hated green onions and cherry tomatoes. I ate what was put in front of me. That was how salad worked, and pretty much everything else in my life.
So imagine the glorious surprise to my almost teenage self to see an acceptable way to still eat a healthy salad that included my favorite veggies, but allowed me a dignified option to skip those I detested, and gave me a choice of salad dressing (thousand island + a dash of blue cheese for me) and toppings. It was amazing!
If only the rest of life could be like a salad bar, right?
It wasn’t long after discovering the wonder of salad bars that Starbucks started to make a name for itself in the customized beverage world. For years I couldn’t understand how a coffee shop could make a business selling $4 coffees when the ubiquitous cup of coffee could be obtained for a quarter of the price. I couldn’t understand until I really started paying attention.
Some days I would sit and watch people order their daily coffee. Grande mocha, triple shot, low fat, extra foam, shot of vanilla. Venti Americano, extra hot, with room for milk. Double espresso with soy milk and 1 ½ shots of caramel and chocolate drizzle. The options were endless. I never personally ran the numbers, I’ve read that there are 87,000 possible variations on a Starbucks coffee.
Hmm, it was like that wonderful salad bar, just in liquid form. Maybe more parts of life could be customized than I thought.
I continued to muse as I watched people indulge in their daily coffee habit, something that could easily cost $100/mo, and I realized something. These people weren’t buying coffee at all. They were buying control over their lives. In incremental pieces, to be sure, but control nonetheless.
Professional people, dressed in suits, uncomfortable neckties and high heels, blue collar workers in their rugged work attire, all on their way to stressful jobs and demanding bosses, took the time and spent the money for a drink they could have made at their kitchen counters. Why? For those few moments every morning, another human being, an entirely patient and accommodating barista, would listen to the most discriminating of instructions and preferences and carry them out. For that moment in time, you could have exactly what you wanted. And for the rest of the morning you could sip that warm, comforting beverage reminder of complete control over your life.
Is that worth $100 a month? Even more? It’s no surprise that Starbucks started encouraging return trips in the afternoon with coupons for an afternoon beverage. Who wouldn’t want another hit of the powerful drug of “being in control of your life”?
It made me think. What if you could have a career as rewarding as your self-made salad or Starbucks coffee? What if you could decide the size, temperature, taste, and makeup of your job?
Turns out, you can, and millions of Americas are doing just that, using the growing gig economy as a tool to wean themselves away from employers who dictate time and place and manner of working. Sometimes they take up a side gig while working another job. Sometimes they create a patchwork quilt of several gigs creating a whole, customized career path to meet their needs.
When my daughter was born I faced a career quandary. I had been practicing law for close to 10 years, but as my maternity leave time was close to over, the law firm where I had been employed suffered a huge financial setback and correspondingly had to let half of its employees go, including me. Although I had worked for myself previously, having a baby didn’t seem like the best time to restart my own law practice so I started sending out resumes. It was easy to get interviews with my experience, but before I could close the deal on any new job, I made clear that I would not be working 12 hours days. I had a new baby and I wanted to be able to feed her dinner and put her to bed. It was non-negotiable for me. Apparently the opposite was non-negotiable for them. If I couldn’t/wouldn’t work crazy long hours and neglect my family, they wouldn’t hire me.
Now someone reading this is going to yell “gender discrimination” or some such statement and perhaps it is, but I really don’t care. Trial lawyers aren’t allowed to prioritize their family life over work. It’s in the fine print of some rules somewhere. I had to pick. I picked my family. My budding legal career had hit a seemingly insurmountable roadblack and I was just going to have to figure out a way around it.
In time, I took a legal assistant job with a law firm that was willing to be flexible with hours, and slowly began rebuilding my own law practice on the side, often with short projects for other lawyers, the same type of gig work that had helped me get established as a lawyer in the first place. It was a piecemeal living, but between my husband’s job and my work, we got by and got to spend time together as a family. I also got to work at home a lot and ditch those uncomfortable high heels.
Now that my daughter is a teenager, I have more time for my now-rebuilt law firm. I’m more likely to hire gig workers than be one myself these days. Its part of the circle of business life.
I also learned that a trial lawyer does not have to work 12 hours days to be effective or build a career. The day I got interviewed by Fox News about a case I was handling, and actually shook hands with lawyers for the president-elect, confirmed that for me.
I would have been a lot further along financially if I had made other decisions, but I don’t regret for a minute turning down 12-hour/day jobs when my daughter was first born. Like Robert Frost’s immortal words “I took the [path] less traveled by, and it has made all the difference.”
I haven’t been able to completely avoid the green onions and cherry tomatoes in my “life salad,” but I’ve come pretty close and I’m not alone. Every day I run into other people who have taken the same approach to constructing their own customized career, using the gig economy to help them do it. Instead of taking a pre-assembled “job,” they’ve created their own. Here’s another example.
I have a good friend who is well-educated and highly qualified in the field of business mergers and acquisitions. She could be making big bucks working full time at any one of many national or international firms. But she doesn’t because she’s a stay-at-home mom, running a busy household with growing kids and a world traveling professional husband. Instead, she works part-time and remotely for a company that long ago saw her brilliance and wanted to tap into it at least part-time.
But who wants to do just one thing at a time? Over the past few years, my friend has begun working on another passion of hers — freelance writing. Sometimes she gets paid for her articles, sometimes not, but she continues to push herself to refine her craft and be the best writer she can. The extra money is nice, but not everything.
As she writes, though, she’s been tapping into another other area of expertise. As a nationally and internationally ranked competitive runner, she’s been writing articles about fitness and wellbeing and realized there was something else she might like to do — personal fitness training. Soon she’ll have her certification and start taking on some clients.
Starbucks would be proud. “I’d like a multi-faceted career, please. Two shots of mergers & acquisitions, one shot of writing, and a drizzle of fitness coaching. Extra hot. Hold the whipped cream.” Now that is something to be excited about!
Melody A. Kramer is a lawyer, award-winning author, and visionary. She has long had a interest in supporting freelance careers, including the founding of FreelanceLaw.com and the National Association of Freelance Legal Professionals, and is working on two upcoming books about understanding and working in the gig economy. Feel free to contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org