Book Review: How Starbucks Saved My Life: A Son of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everyone Else

This past weekend, I had the chance to finish off three books that have been on my short list for a while. This post is a review of a fun one, How Starbucks Saved My Life: A Son of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everyone Else.

Overall, while it has its faults, in many ways I gave this book my second highest form of praise: I’ve already loaned it out to two people.

I’ve actually realized that with books, for me, they end up falling in one of the following categories (from lowest to highest):

  • 1 star: This is a book so poor I basically decline to finish it. Since I tend to read almost compulsively, it really takes a terrible book to lose me like this.
  • 2 stars: This is a book that I finish, but poor enough that I find that I’m not proud that I’ve read it. It gets hidden away on a low shelf, or packed away, or donated. I have no interest in reading this book again.
  • 3 stars: This is a good book, and I’m happy to have it around to remind myself that I’ve read it. I tend to publicly display it on my bookshelves, although it’s unlikely I’ll ever read it again.
  • 4 stars: This is a great book – so good that I actually find myself recommending it to friends with similar interests. I not only display it on my shelves, but I’ll actually actively loan it out to encourage others to enjoy it as well. Sometimes I will buy multiple copies as gifts for friends.
  • 5 stars: This is a truly great book that actually connects with me. I can tell when a book is this good because I find myself coming back to it and reading it again, either in parts or in its entirety. Not many books fall into this category for me, but the ones that do are close to my heart.

This book was 4 stars for me… I doubt I’ll read it again, but I enjoyed it enough to recommend and loan it to friends.
So what did I like about this book?

A few things really.   First, I actually enjoyed the character (the author).  He offered me a legitimate insight into an anachronistic personality type – the Upper East Side aristocrat, raised in enough privilege to be completely divorced most of his life from feelings of economic insecurity.  I might be biased here, since growing up on the west coast leaves me less tolerant of this type of character.  Still, it’s fascinating to hear from someone who grew up meeting the truly famous and powerful, went to Yale and got a job purely on connections through Skull & Bones, and then had a full, successful career without ever really learning math or how to handle money.  There is definitely some form of schadenfreude here.

Second, despite the heavy-handed repetition, I enjoyed the basic epiphany of the journey – the realization that a supportive, friendly environment can in fact be a part of a great company and workday.  Starbucks clearly comes from the west coast, modern style of company, but there is some delight in his simple realization that Starbucks offers health insurance, stock options, and a respectful & enthusiastic culture for its employees (nee, partners).

Third, I thought there were some genuine personal economic insights here.   You can be rich and “successful” your whole life, but without some attention to personal finance, you can find yourself in significant financial trouble in your later years.   In this book, the author is laid off in his 50s, does some lightweight consulting for a while, and finds himself almost broke in his 60s.  The additional fact that he has an affair which leads to an expensive divorce at this late stage is worth noting as well.  There are very, very few people who are truly wealthy enough to be able to ignore the realities of managing your money.

Lastly, I enjoyed a much more subtle point in the story.  It’s the fact that, in the end, happiness in retirement has a lot to do with the availability of social interaction.  For many lucky people, this comes from family & friends.  In this case, the author has alienated much of his family, and as a result, he only discovers this fact through Starbucks.  Truth be told, there is something meaningful about the idea that, even in “retirement”, it might be extremely rewarding to be in a job where your day-to-day involves friendly & respectful interaction with new people, regular customers, and a dedicated service team.  The job offers him more than money, more than health insurance.  It offers him goals, tasks, social interaction, and comraderie.  It offers him purpose, and that is often underestimated in the most common misperceptions about what is important in retirement.

What I didn’t like

This book will be tough to take it you react negatively to an overdose of corporate culture speech and repetition.  The author talks about “partners” and “guests” and “respect” almost relentlessly.  He also glosses over the details of anything negative – his entire affair, divorce, and illegitimate child get mere paragraphs.  Cleaning the bathrooms at Starbucks get pages.  This is book is mostly about his experience at Starbucks, and you could get jaded to it if you believe that this book is largely company propoganda.

Conclusion

The great thing about this book is that it largely doesn’t overstay its welcome.  It’s short and sweet.  An easy evening read – small pages, large font.

I particularly recommend it for people of a few disparate types of interest:

  • Personal finance & retirement
  • Starbucks fans
  • People in this age group (50+) who can empathize with the rise of uncertainty and change in the labor markets for professionals

If you do read it, let me know what you think here in the comments.  The links above will take you directly to Amazon, and the copy of the book that I ordered.

3 thoughts on “Book Review: How Starbucks Saved My Life: A Son of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everyone Else

  1. I enjoyed your review. My book club (all divorced people) discussed this book last night. While I liked the book, I was the only one that was not too impressed with Mike.

    I’m not seeing the inspirational message that everyone else seems to be taking away from this book. I give Mike credit for the courage to own up to his mistakes and to discover happiness. But Mike doesn’t seem to be taking any responsibility for raising his young son. Mike regrets that in his younger years his work was his priority rather than his family. Now he has another child and he still seems to be getting more fulfillment from his work rather than from his child. He has learned the importance of respect and service, but has he learned how to connect with his children? Has he repaired the relationships from his past? A Kramer-vs-Kramer-type-story (albeit fiction), has a much better message, in my opinion. Mike is not saddled with the responsibilities of juggling a job and caring for a young child. And it’s through the caring and sacrifice for a child that we often get that sense of purpose that Mike experiences by working at Starbucks…only on a much deeper level.

    However, this is a true story, and there may be circumstances that aren’t revealed that prevent Mike from talking about his relationship with his youngest son.

    Whether we are rich or poor, an executive or jobless, our happiness comes from treating those around us with love and respect. And when we give to others … Starbucks Guests, Partners, or our children, we connect with them — we love them — and that’s what life and happiness is about.

  2. i am only 15 and i chose to read this book for school. i actually found it quite interesting, and the message of enjoying life was so strong. And to not waste time all on work, and to be with your family because time flies by so fast… but yes i loved it.

  3. I just finished the book and I would give it a 2.5 on your rating system. I’m going to donate it. I found myself wondering what crony he found at Starbucks who would allow him to make some “real” money using the name. Sure enough, he did. The acknowledgments at the back mention his “old friend.”
    However, I agree with Abby, above, on the message about enjoying life. He did seem to find his experience meaningful. I respected that he had to deal with insecurity, limitations and the pain of spiritual growth in order to feel the enjoyment of life.
    I found myself a little angry at his children for expecting him to pay for college, and his pride that made him so dumb about money. Only the rich can afford to ignore money. He still thinks like a rich guy. Now he’s rich again. I wonder how long will he will work at Starbucks?

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