Thoughts from Dan: On the Pursuit of Perfection.

Thoughts from Dan: On the Pursuit of Perfection.

When I was a younger Dan I thought not caring about anything was cool. I thought being a detached, cynical a**hole made me interesting. It wasn’t a front, mind you. It actually came pretty naturally. I could accurately be described as a ‘glass half empty’ type of guy, and reading a bunch of books written by depressed dead dudes in my formative years probably only added fuel to that fire. Picture the most stereotypical ‘cool guy’ persona you can think of: the leather jacket wearing, cigarette smoking, douchebag who thinks everything sucks. That was me. I’d get a job, in a coffee shop or elsewhere, and put in just enough work to not get fired. I thought I was ‘sticking it to the man’ but in reality the only man I was sticking it to was myself. I was never a bad employee, per se, but I was never an exemplary one either. ‘Who cares, it’s just a job, this isn’t what I want to do with my life,’ was my internal justification. In a way that is correct, but in a more meaningful way, it is very wrong.

When you start slacking in certain areas, that kind of thinking infects your entire being. Well, it did for me at least. I’d tune out at work, then I’d tune out when I was with my friends, hell, I’d even tune out in romantic relationships. If one of my ex-girlfriends happens to be reading this, my apologies. Looking back on it now it’s very obvious to me why I was allowing myself to live this way: If you put effort into something, if you really try, you might fail. And failure was not an option I was comfortable with. It scared the hell out of me. So instead, I lived in this kind of limbo where I’d do just enough to get by.

As I’ve grown older and 2% wiser, I’ve realized that you can’t live a fulfilling life if you half-ass things. I truly believe that no matter what you are doing, you should try to be present in that moment, and in that moment aim for perfection. I don’t mean live every moment perfectly, because that’s impossible. But in striving for perfection, in striving to do our best, we create an environment in which we hold ourselves accountable to ourselves. The Roman Emperor and Stoic Philosopher Marcus Aurelius put it better than I ever could: “Be tolerant with others and strict with yourself.”

So, what the hell does this have to do with coffee? You’ve probably been thinking for the last several minutes. Well, like most revelations I’ve had in my life, it’s been rooted in random chance and realized through working in coffee. I mentioned in one of my other posts about my first job in a specialty cafe after working in corporate coffee shops for years. The first few weeks I was there I didn’t really understand the people I was working with. They genuinely were trying their best, each drink they made was important to them, and so was each customer. My cynical, sarcastic comments weren’t receiving a warm reception. Bunch of weirdos, or so I thought.

Then one night I was dealing with a bout of insomnia and I tried to find a movie I could fall asleep to. I think it’s a little melodramatic to say a movie (other than Roadhouse)  changed your life, but this one came pretty damn close. I stumbled upon a random documentary about a 90-year-old sushi maker called “Jiro Dreams Of Sushi.” The film follows the life of the first Sushi Chef in the world to be awarded a Michelin Star. Instead of dozing off to the background noise, I was glued to the screen. His story fascinated me. He’s strived for perfection in the art of sushi and has done so single-mindedly for over 70 years. He didn’t do it for the Michelin Star either, he did it for the love of the Herculean task he had set about him: perfecting sushi. In his own words, “I do the same thing over and over, improving bit by bit. There is always a yearning to achieve more. I’ll continue to climb, trying to reach the top, but no one knows where the top is.” Without attempting to push a philosophical ideology on me, this unassuming 90-year-old Japanese man was convincing me of the error of my ways without even trying. Something he said has always stuck with me. “You have to fall in love with your work. Never complain about your job. You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill. That’s the secret of success...and is the key to being regarded honorably.” 

I watched that movie twice that night and went to work the next day without sleeping. I’m not going to pretend I was a new man when the sun rose, because life doesn’t work like that, but I did have a bunch of ideas swirling around in my brain that hadn’t been there previously. The scariest one being “What if I actually try?”

Well, eventually I did. And the funny thing is, this is where I began to fall in love with coffee. I always thought if you found something you cared about, the effort would follow, when the truth is it’s the other way around. We expect passion and inspiration to strike us like a lightning bolt, but in my experience it doesn’t happen like that. Waiting around for an apple to hit you on the head so you can discover the laws of physics is a fool’s errand. It wasn’t until I started actually giving my job everything I had that my passion for coffee began to blossom. I started putting in more and more work, and like stoking a fire bit by bit I started to care more. After working in coffee shops for years I had finally reached square one: Someone who was actually willing to learn. Zen Buddhists call this state “Shoshin” aka “Beginner’s Mind” and it essentially means you have finally reached a stage where you are ready to learn. And learn I did. This is the part where coffee became my chosen career, and not just something I did to pay the rent.

I’ve since been on a years-long quest to reach perfection in coffee. And just like Jiro Ono, I’ve got a long way to go. When Treeline opened my goal was to help make it the best coffee shop in Bozeman, then Montana. Whether we’ve achieved these goals is subjective, and ultimately irrelevant, but regardless, My next goal is to make it the best coffee shop in the country and then the world. These goals seem ridiculous I realize, but it’s not in achieving them that gives life meaning, it’s the effort. In Greek Mythology, Sisyphus was a king who was punished by the gods and forced to roll a boulder up a hill only for it to roll down every time it neared the top, for all eternity. Pretty rough deal, right? Well, it depends on how you look at it. In “The Myth of Sisyphus” Albert Camus (one of those depressed, dead dudes I mentioned earlier) says the following, “The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

I despise self-aggrandizement and embellishing one’s own story for a better narrative, so I don’t want to paint a picture of me being born again and perfect every day. Hell, I love what I do, and I still get pissed every morning when my alarm goes off. I’ve failed more times than I can count. I’ll continue to fail in the future. I’ve ruined expensive pieces of coffee equipment I was trying to fix, I’ve made bad drinks, I’ve done a poor job explaining things when I’ve been training baristas, I’ve been short with people, I’ve complained. But through those failures, I’ve had a voice in the back of my head telling me to keep trying. The voice in my head is Jiro Ono, and he only speaks Japanese, so I’m assuming that’s what he’s saying anyway. To this day I still have plenty of moments where everything seems hard and nothing makes sense. I think we all do. But for me, the simple adjustment of putting in the effort changed so many things. This life lesson transcends coffee, but coffee was the lens through which I experienced this change.

I did some math in my head (a tall order for me, as you can probably imagine) and I’ve pulled over a million shots of espresso. That’s a lot. Every time I pull a shot of espresso I’m trying to pull a perfect shot. So far I haven’t succeeded. That means I’ve failed over a million times. What would a perfect shot of espresso be? Does such a thing even exist? I honestly don’t know, but I’ll pull another million to try and find out. 

I encourage you to do the same. What’s your life’s equivalent of a perfect shot of espresso? Find it, and get to work. It’s worth it.

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