The first time Travis Leach saw his father overdose, he was nine years old. His family had just moved into a small apartment at the end of an alleyway, the latest in a seemingly endless series of relocations that had most recently caused them to abandon their previous home in the middle of the night, throwing everything they owned into black garbage bags after receiving an eviction notice. Too many people coming and going too late at night, the landlord said. Too much noise.
Sometimes, at his old house, Travis would come home from school and find the rooms neatly cleaned, leftovers meticulously wrapped in the fridge and packets of hot sauce and ketchup in Tupperware containers. He knew this meant his parents had temporarily abandoned heroin for crank and spent the day in a cleaning frenzy. Those usually ended badly. Travis felt safer when the house was messy and his parents were on the couch, their eyes half-lidded, watching cartoons. There is no chaos at the end of a heroin fog.
Travis’s father was a gentle man who loved to cook and, except for a stint in the navy, spent his entire life within a few miles of his parents in Lodi, California. Travis’s mother, by the time everyone moved into the alleyway apartment, was in prison for heroin possession and prostitution. His parents were, essentially, functional addicts and the family maintained a veneer of normalcy. They went camping every summer and on most Friday nights attended his sister and brother’s softball games. When Travis was four years old, he went to Disneyland with his dad and was photographed for the first time in his life, by a Disney employee. The family camera had been sold to a pawn shop years before.
On the morning of the overdose, Travis and his brother were playing in the living room on top of blankets they laid out on the floor each night for sleeping. Travis’s father was getting ready to make pancakes when he stepped into the bathroom. He was carrying the tube sock that contained his needle, spoon, lighter, and cotton swabs. A few moments later, he came out, opened the refrigerator to get the eggs, and crashed to the floor. When the kids ran around the corner, their father was convulsing, his face turning blue.
Travis’s siblings had seen an overdose before and knew the drill. His brother rolled him onto his side. His sister opened his mouth to make sure he wouldn’t choke on his tongue, and told Travis to run next door, ask to use the neighbor’s phone, and dial 911.
“My name is Travis, my dad is passed out, and we don’t know what happened. He’s not breathing,” Travis lied to the police operator. Even at nine years old, he knew why his father was unconscious. He didn’t want to say it in front of the neighbor. Three years earlier, one of his dad’s friends had died in their basement after shooting up. When the paramedics had taken the body away, neighbors gawked at Travis and his sister while they held the door open for the gurney. One of the neighbors had a cousin whose son was in his class, and soon everyone in school had known.
After hanging up the phone, Travis walked to the end of the alleyway and waited for the ambulance. His father was treated at the hospital that morning, charged at the police station in the afternoon, and home again by dinnertime. He made spaghetti. Travis turned ten a few weeks later.
When Travis was sixteen, he dropped out of high school. “I was tired of being called a faggot,” he said, “tired of people following me home and throwing things at me. Everything seemed really overwhelming. It was easier to quit and go somewhere else.” He moved two hours south, to Fresno, and got a job at a car wash. He was fired for insubordination. He got jobs at McDonald’s and Hollywood Video, but when customers were rude—“I wanted ranch dressing, you moron!”—he would lose control.
“Get out of my drive-through!” he shouted at one woman, throwing the chicken nuggets at her car before his manager pulled him inside.
Sometimes he’d get so upset that he would start crying in the middle of a shift. He was often late, or he’d take a day off for no reason. In the morning, he would yell at his reflection in the mirror, order himself to be better, to suck it up. But he couldn’t get along with people, and he wasn’t strong enough to weather the steady drip of criticisms and indignities. When the line at his register would get too long and the manager would shout at him, Travis’s hands would start shaking and he’d feel like he couldn’t catch his breath. He wondered if this is what his parents felt like, so defenseless against life, when they started using drugs.
One day, a regular customer at Hollywood Video who’d gotten to know Travis a little bit suggested he think about working at Starbucks. “We’re opening a new store on Fort Washington, and I’m going to be an assistant manager,” the man said. “You should apply.” A month later, Travis was a barista on the morning shift.
That was six years ago. Today, at twenty-five, Travis is the manager of two Starbucks where he oversees forty employees and is responsible for revenues exceeding $2 million per year. His salary is $44,000 and he has a 401(k) and no debt. He’s never late to work. He does not get upset on the job. When one of his employees started crying after a customer screamed at her, Travis took her aside.
“Your apron is a shield,” he told her. “Nothing anyone says will ever hurt you. You will always be as strong as you want to be.”
He picked up that lecture in one of his Starbucks training courses, an education program that began on his first day and continues throughout an employee’s career. The program is sufficiently structured that he can earn college credits by completing the modules. The training has, Travis says, changed his life. Starbucks has taught him how to live, how to focus, how to get to work on time, and how to master his emotions. Most crucially, it has taught him willpower.
“Starbucks is the most important thing that has ever happened to me,” he told me. “I owe everything to this company.”
For Travis and thousands of others, Starbucks—like a handful of other companies—has succeeded in teaching the kind of life skills that schools, families, and communities have failed to provide. With more than 137,000 current employees and more than one million alumni, Starbucks is now, in a sense, one of the nation’s largest educators. All of those employees, in their first year alone, spent at least fifty hours in Starbucks classrooms, and dozens more at home with Starbucks’ workbooks and talking to the Starbucks mentors assigned to them.
At the core of that education is an intense focus on an all-important habit: willpower. Dozens of studies show that willpower is the single most important keystone habit for individual success. 5.1 In a 2005 study, for instance, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania analyzed 164 eighth-grade students, measuring their IQs and other factors, including how much willpower the students demonstrated, as measured by tests of their self-discipline.
Students who exerted high levels of willpower were more likely to earn higher grades in their classes and gain admission into more selective schools. They had fewer absences and spent less time watching television and more hours on homework. “Highly self-disciplined adolescents outperformed their more impulsive peers on every academic-performance variable,” the researchers wrote. “Self-discipline predicted academic performance more robustly than did IQ. Self-discipline also predicted which students would improve their grades over the course of the school year, whereas IQ did not.… Selfdiscipline has a bigger effect on academic performance than does intellectual talent.”
And the best way to strengthen willpower and give students a leg up, studies indicate, is to make it into a habit. “Sometimes it looks like people with great self-control aren’t working hard—but that’s because they’ve made it automatic,” Angela Duckworth, one of the University of Pennsylvania researchers told me. “Their willpower occurs without them having to think about it.”
For Starbucks, willpower is more than an academic curiosity. When the company began plotting its massive growth strategy in the late 1990s, executives recognized that success required cultivating an environment that justified paying four dollars for a fancy cup of coffee. The company needed to train its employees to deliver a bit of joy alongside lattes and scones. So early on, Starbucks started researching how they could teach employees to regulate their emotions and marshal their self-discipline to deliver a burst of pep with every serving. Unless baristas are trained to put aside their personal problems, the emotions of some employees will inevitably spill into how they treat customers. However, if a worker knows how to remain focused and disciplined, even at the end of an eight-hour shift, they’ll deliver the higher class of fast food service that Starbucks customers expect.
The company spent millions of dollars developing curriculums to train employees on self-discipline. Executives wrote workbooks that, in effect, serve as guides to how to make willpower a habit in workers’ lives. Those curriculums are, in part, why Starbucks has grown from a sleepy Seattle company into a behemoth with more than seventeen thousand stores and revenues of more than $10 billion a year.
So how does Starbucks do it? How do they take people like Travis—the son of drug addicts and a high school dropout who couldn’t muster enough selfcontrol to hold down a job at McDonald’s—and teach him to oversee dozens of employees and tens of thousands of dollars in revenue each month? What, precisely, did Travis learn?
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