Once when I was little my grandpa sat me down, grabbed a scrap of blank newspaper and pen. He drew me this:
The vertical line on the right is supposed to be the eastern seabord of North America. The line extending to the left represents the St. Lawrence River. What he was trying to explain was the history of the Northwest Passage. The Northwest Passage (the St. Lawrence) is a river early European explorers believed (hoped) would take them all the way to the Pacific Ocean to their true goal: China. Attempt after attempt failed. Turns out, the St. Lawrence dead ends in the Great Lakes. The Northwest Passage, said my grandpa, isn’t really a passage at all!
In hindsight, things worked out for the Europeans. The cities they built along the impasse- Montreal, Buffalo, Chicago- became the backbone of America and arguably more lucrative than any trade route to China would have been.
But I can identify with the feeling of failure, that the passage you’re taking doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. I’m talking about my work as a barista. Working at a coffee shop is my ‘Northwest Passage’. My colleagues and I all have ambitions outside the café. We want to make a living writing, acting, designing, playing music. But because of the nature of each of these passions, we have a very difficult time doing so. In the mean time we sling espresso to pay the rent, working off the clock on what we really want to do. The operative statement here is “in the mean time”. We don’t know if we’ll ever break out and be successful enough to be able to devote all our time to our art. We fear, like the early European explorers, that the passage we’re taking doesn’t lead anywhere.
Recently, I had a review at work. Pretty good grades, but the important part of the discussion was about ways I can expand my knowledge and even specialize a little at the café, in the domains of tea and espresso machine mechanics. My boss offered to facilitate this growth. That is, pay me to learn. Good news, right? Oi.
I had a negative reaction to the supposed good news, asking myself what am I doing, how far down this rabbit hole am I willing to go?- Lake Erie, Lake Superior!? If I devote all this time to cultivating myself in the coffee world, it might be a waste of time if it’s not my world after all!
In the past I would have kept panicking, followed by a rash decision. This time, I asked people in my support network what I should do. They said I could apply spiritual principles to the matter. Whatever the hell that meant.
Well, today it happened, things cohered…
There was just one other thing we talked about during my review. My latte art. After 12 months it, well, sucks. I told my boss I have shaky hands. Don’t worry about your latte art, he said, focus on the other stuff. Okay, I told him, I’ll forget about the latte art and not worry about it.
… I stopped caring about my performance. You can probably guess what happened. I had a break-through. Latte Art. I GET IT. (It’s a felt nonverbal thing.) I’m actually excited to go back to work and practice more. In a sense, I’m getting paid to create.
My grandpa taught me one more lesson, that day with the newspaper. He drew me this.
On the top is an image of a rifle. The inside of the barrel of a rifle is grooved like the threads of a screw so as to spin the bullet as it escapes making it more accurate. Like throwing a football with a spiral. The bottom image is of a shotgun. Rather than shoot a single bullet, a shotgun shell expands outward in multiple shots. Obviously, the advantage of this is that if you shoot in the general direction of a target you’ll probably hit it. While the advantage of the rifle, on the other hand, is greater precision, especially at distance.
My mistake was using the shotgun for long term goals. I was trying to figure out all the details of my long-term future, my entire life path, based on pure speculation, all at once. This made me miserable with my lot, unwilling to learn, and afraid of the future. Like a French fur trapper paddling on the beautiful shores of the Mississippi, making himself wretched by dreaming of Chinese silk. All he had to do was realize he didn’t need to go anywhere.
As for the rifle, the target in my future? The willingness to learn. Whatever it is.