Monday, July 6, 2015

On Being a Boss

Robert Frost, the same optimist who penned “The Road Not Taken,” is famous for saying, “By faithfully working eight hours a day you may eventually get to be boss and work twelve hours a day”—a view which I’ve decided is no more truly or succinctly stated.

By working diligently and coloring within the lines, I have been afforded opportunities swiftly at all of my jobs, working my way a little higher at each company, such that even with a spotty education I’ve risen to the highest place available at the Parisian-style bakery where I now spend the vast majority of my waking hours. I enjoy working there; I know the owners of the neighboring businesses and get on amicably with them, and my employees are, on the whole, timely and motivated. I also have a leaning toward experiencing fewer, finer things in life, and enjoying them more than one would a higher quantity of things of shoddy or “good enough” quality, which is a shared standpoint of all the businesspeople on the street where the bakery resides, so I am daily exposed to foods and craftsmanship that puts my universe at a tilt. Removing myself from all this would (I sometimes think) be like removing a crux from a Jenga—not for anyone at the business or in the neighborhood, but for my life.

Still, I look forward to the day when I can finally break free. In my Plan A of being a writer and my Plan B of being a successful coffee shop owner, Plan B has taken a front seat, due to the hours of my life gone to covering the shifts of those who fall ill or claim to, supervising the installation or repairs of equipment, sorting our misdeliveries, or managing whatever the disaster of the week decides to be, such as the gushing of boiling hot water from the tea dispenser all across the cafe floor or having to run the entire cafe alone because one of my openers threw up upon arrival and the other went home concussed. I don’t mind doing these things—far from—but I do have moments of forgetting what, exactly, my return is on the investment.

Part of my desire to leave to have my own place is sprung from the matter that I am the only front-man on the street where I currently work who is not also an owner. This provides a surprising amount of segregation for me from my customers, and also reminds me that nothing I have is truly mine. In the butcher shop are the butcher, the wife, and the apprentices; in the studio are the artist and the cashiers; in the noodle bar are the chef and all the little minions; and so the list goes on. The butcher, artist, and chef all own and run their businesses, and all the locals like to think they have an “in” with them, but when asked (some days every hour), “Are you the owner?” I feel disappointment in both our hearts when I have to answer one of my own customers, “No. Just the manager.”

Also, at the end of the day, most of those with whom I share social interactions hour after hour are people with whom I have only superficial connection. Either they are the customers—those with whom I share regular chitchat which can neither forego our previous conversational context nor exceed two minutes—or they are employees, who, I’ve come to learn, must respect me more than see me as a source of compassion or comfort. I find it no wonder that three to five days a week I arrive home with just enough energy to microwave a dinner I prepared and portioned at the beginning of the week and then collapse into bed.

The business owners on the street, I recognize, share a similar experience. If they are not at home, they are at their business, re-explaining concepts they’ve covered a thousand times to those they’d hoped to leave in charge, or figuring out large orders, or doing maintenance. Their work is inseparable from their lives. But what they have is what they've built and get to take pride in. What they have is theirs. And for every day that I show up and throw my heart and soul into my work, another person gets to claim success. And I just have to accept this as the reality for a person who did not plan well enough ahead to have something of her own by now, a person who has to put in time building someone else’s empire.

When I see my hourly workers taking time off to go to the lake, or strolling in a minute before start of shift (ten minutes early is five minutes late, I always thought) with yesterday’s shirt and a sleepy smile, or cutting hours to accommodate an education or a hobby, I think of dialing back a bit. I think, “I work to live, I don’t live to work.” And I consider what it would be like to be a barista instead of a boss.

But I always come to the same conclusion. I didn’t plan before, and now I’m paying in professional purgatory, caught between servant and master. I would no more be free in an hourly position than in the salary one I hold now. I would struggle more to cover the costs of living, I would have no opportunity to save money for the future, and I would be no closer to becoming my own boss, because I wouldn’t have the experience or be able to afford the risk. Yes, I might have a bit less stress; yes, I might have a bit more time on my hands to go to coffee with friends. But as a person who can’t help but work hard, would I be happy? Those who work hard are rewarded with more responsibility, regardless of title or pay. At least this way I have a little more to take home at the end of the day than knowledge that my boss thinks I do good work.

I might sound like a belly-acher, but in truth, I’m doing what the writer in me is compelled to do: sorts out her thoughts in paper. I am weighing the pros and cons of my decision to be a boss, and seeing why it is that I renew my commitment at the start of every day to be the person I am. In a way, even though my heart sinks a whole six inches every time a customer asks me if I’m the owner and I have to say no, I also take a smidgen of pride in the notion that people see me bustling around behind the counter and think, “This one must be the proprietor.” That is a little beam of light in the darkness. One day, if all goes according to plan, a customer will come forward and say to me, “Are you the owner?” and I will get to smile and say (with immense satisfaction): “Yes.”

These are the little things I am learning to grasp throughout the work week. In a position of authority, I am able to know that matters of significance are handled quickly and in a way that honors the face of the business. I am able to coach my employees in a way I believe lends them dignity. I am able to rest assured that the business is set up for success at whatever time I leave for the day. All of these truths are of immense value to me, and I would not have them if I was not a boss, putting in her Frostian twelve hours a day.

Being a barista was hard, but there was a measure of reward. Being a boss is hard, but there is greater reward. I expect that when I am an owner, I will work harder than I ever have, but the reward will be greatest; I will be able to stand back and say, “I built this. This is mine.” Believing this is what helps me to press through the hard moments. 

Onward and upward.

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