Coffee, Ambition, and Success

“Success is not an entitlement. It has to be earned every day.”
-- Howard Schultz, CEO Starbucks

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz uses a single word to capture the momentum that propelled the growth of his company from a small coffee roasting business to a global brand: onward.

The principles that Starbucks applies to how it runs its business is just as applicable to the engineering world. Consider what Schultz refers to as the “touchstones” of Starbucks:

  • Respect and dignity,
  • Passion and laughter,
  • Compassion, community, and responsibility, and
  • Authenticity

While “laughter” may not be explicitly called out in the Engineers’ Creed per se, that same passionate duty to improve society and public quality of life are very much part of that same DNA. Schultz’s idea for a coffee house business was initially rejected by potential partners and investors, but over three decades later, that idea has grown into an organization with nearly 20,000 stores worldwide. One might also say that these same touchstones can be similar springboards to how some of the most successful engineering firms of today remain successful while enduring through difficult, adverse times.

Coffee cupBut where to go when such adversity disheartens us at the individual level? Perhaps it’s the adversity that one encounters when seeking out that elusive first or second or nth job. Perhaps it’s the adversity that is an inherent part of passing a licensure exam or earning a graduate degree. Schultz captures this struggle best with this description:

“Wherever the location, the best beans—the ones with enchantingly complex flavors and compelling characters, known as Arabica—grow under some degree of stress, like high altitudes, intense heat, or long dry periods. Such harsh weather conditions can produce high-quality beans, but also fewer beans per tree.”

Making up less than 4% of all working Americans, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the yield of professional engineers is grossly asymmetric to the technological needs of a world that yearns for quantum changes in science, culture, and quality of life from one generation to the next. So why aren’t there more engineers? To reference sculptor and art world legend Louise Bourgeois who declared, “There is no virtue in wanting to be an artist—everybody can do that—but there is virtue in actually being one,” there is similar virtue in actually being an engineer and all associated stresses as well as all associated rewards.

This virtue has nothing to do with elitism or self-aggrandizing entitlement—the path to an engineering career can be quite Arabica-like due to the nature of its rigorous and trying circumstances. The virtue comes in confronting these circumstances and having the grit to overcome them. It can be a rocky way through, but we’re all proud (if not simultaneously exhausted yet inspired) to have seen a gratifying engineering career emerge out the other side fully. This can be true in traditional engineering careers or even in those where engineering is applied in nontraditional ways to trail-blaze the way to new ideas and discoveries.

Engineers persevere because that’s how engineers are trained. Engineers are thinkers who apply the same tireless, innovative problem solving to the construction of our own careers and for the worlds that we strive to better through the joining of technology, the needs of the public, and the overall quality of life. Food for thought (or sugar for your espresso for that matter).

Sow your ambitions deeply enough into yourself and you just might discover an idea for a single coffee shop, the first coffee shop in a world that demands 20,000 of them.

Published May 2, 2012 by Austin Lin

Filed under: success, ambition,

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