by Hanna Neuschwander
Dating is useful almost exclusively as an exercise in helping you understand what you don’t want out of your “forever life.” A necessary but torturous series of practice rounds for the real thing. Along the way, happily, you pick up some useful tricks: How to fold a fitted sheet, maybe, or how to navigate the hazy, shifting line between being an independent/confident partner and a selfish one. By the time you’re done dating (if you do ever become done with it), you’ve built a keen set of filters that help you sort out what’s likely to work for you. That guy? Nope. Him? No. Over there? Mmm mmm, no thank you sir. Nada. It takes a long time to learn how to say no so you’re ready to say yes to the right one(s).
Employment is a little bit the same. You work through a series of jobs in your youth that help you build skills, hard and soft, and help you figure out what you do and don’t like doing with your time, what you’re not good at and what you are, what is challenging in a fun way and what is challenging in a way that makes you want to gouge out your eyes with unsharpened pencils. If you’re a natural-born bureaucrat like me, you might discover an uncommon love of org charts and schedules and Trello boards. Or you might discover you chafe under rigid hierarchies and that you thrive on talking to people all day, and that you desperately hate wearing anything with a collar. These are the small realizations that accumulate to point you in the direction of your eventual career.
I, like most people, had no idea I’d end up working in coffee. I got a job as a barista when I was 24 because I had moved to a new city and I didn’t know anyone. It seemed like a good way to meet people. My professional ambition had always been to be a communicator. I had already worked at a publishing company, as a magazine copy editor, and as a medical editor by the time I moved to Portland in 2007 and got my barista gig. I simultanesouly took a job at the local newspaper. Since I was learning about coffee, they asked me to start writing about it. I said yes. I wrote some café reviews and met some fascinating, passionate people working behind the bar. A few months later, I got a great “real life” job as the strategic communications director for a college. But I couldn’t quite let go of coffee. I kept writing about it, freelancing for the paper and for our local city magazine. Then I got really lucky and a publisher asked if I’d like to write a book about it. I said yes. I wrote the book, and I pitched more stories to more magazines, leading a sort of double life, building my skill as a strategic communications professional, and following my curiosity about coffee down all sorts of rabbit holes. I got hooked on the big questions: What are the different roles that coffee plays in the social life of the 21st century? Why does it taste the way it does? How is it a product of a violent colonial legacy, and how is it uniquely capable of combatting that legacy? What will coffee be like in 100 years?
Writing about coffee allowed me to follow my curiosity about it. Along the way, I got to know some incredible thinkers and doers in the coffee world. It was increasingly hard to say no when people asked me to do something – to write an article or give a talk. There were so many things that fascinated me about coffee. It was equally hard to stop myself from pitching stories I didn’t have time to write. Coffee was taking up more and more of my energy and enthusiasm. I was realizing that my day job didn’t quite give me the same jolt. I’d been happy making my professional life separate from coffee for almost 10 years, but increasingly I was questioning that separation.
And then I got pregnant. I realized I would no longer have the kind of expansive free time I’d need to think and write about coffee. I tried on the idea of giving coffee up, but I couldn’t get right with it. So I started toeing around to see what was out there in the world of coffee and communications employment. I’d “dated” a lot of jobs. I knew what I did and didn’t want: I didn’t want to step down in responsibility; in fact, I wanted more. I wanted to be able to keep writing in some capacity. I wanted to apply my professional knowledge of strategic communications, if possible, not just find a job running as the marketing director of a coffee roasting company. I wanted, above all, to have the freedom—even the expectation—that I would keep learning more about the big questions that vexed me. I got offered a few jobs that didn’t fit my criteria, and I said no to them.
Eventually, about a year after I’d first started looking around, an email showed up in my inbox asking if I’d like to come have a chat about World Coffee Research. It hit all my marks. It hit more of them than I dreamed was possible in one job. On paper, it was perfect. I swiped right. It wasn’t exactly an interview. I agonized over what to wear to the meeting. I needn’t have. From almost the first minute, it was like I’d known this team for years. We were trading ideas and actually started doing the work of building a communications plan in that first meeting. It couldn’t have been a better first date.
I said yes.