Why I quit my “real job” and became a barista at 30

Guest post by Melissa Aki
By: derbeth – CC BY 2.0
By: derbethCC BY 2.0

Between middle school and college, I studied Spanish, French, Japanese, and American Sign Language. Over the years, I learned a few words in Korean, Turkish, Hebrew, Portuguese, and other languages from my friends and coworkers, so working at Berlitz Language School in Rockefeller Center in New York was a dream come true.

Every day, I met people from all over the world and I got to practice the languages that I had little opportunity to practice when I lived in Cleveland. The job paid well, I had great benefits, my coworkers and students were wonderful, but at some point, I had to admit that I wasn’t really happy.

My day started at 10:30am, which meant that I had to get up at 8. I finished work at 7:30pm, got home at about 8:30, and by the time I ate, prepared for the next day, it was about time to go to bed. Out of 24 hours in a day, 12 and a half hours were spent getting ready for work, working, and commuting to and from work. Add eight hours of sleep, and it left me about three and a half hours of “free” time, most of which involved chores and prep for the next day. Everyone at work loved me. I smiled and helped people all day, but at night, I often cried because I felt that my life was passing me by.

I tried to stick it out, but the last straw came when my company started requiring us to wear only gray, black, and white clothes to have more of a “professional” image. (This rendered my whole work wardrobe null and void right after I had spent a fortune on new work clothes and shoes for fall.) Business was slowing down, and I guess it never occurred to them that the problem was the $1,000 language classes that no one could afford, not what we were wearing. Finally, it got to the point where I couldn’t take all the constraints, and I decided to go back to being a barista, like I had been in college.

At first, I felt a bit ashamed of being a 30-year-old barista, because I was told that wasn’t what one was “supposed” to do at that age. But it felt great when I got so much respect from my younger coworkers, who were inspired by the fact that I didn’t just settle and get stuck in a mind-numbing career until retirement or death — whichever came first!

For the first time in years, I felt alive again. With my jeans and cool clothes, I looked as young as my coworkers, who were in their twenties. And with my less rigid work schedule, I had time to pursue my freelance writing career, which had been put on hold because of limited time to write. After becoming a barista again, I published my first novel, and I also did some freelance work for Yahoo! and other websites.

My advice to everyone is to — not necessarily quit your job, because not everyone is in the position to do so — but in a more general sense to throw away society’s expectations and do what feels right for you. We are individuals, and not everyone can fit into the mold that society has laid out for us. I’d rather be a happy 40-year-old barista/freelance writer than a young, depressed office worker any day!

Comments on Why I quit my “real job” and became a barista at 30

  1. Great post! I was a barista in high school, and often consider quitting my “real” career to do it, since I actually really loved the job. This post will go in my back pocket as inspiration for if/when I get to the point of needing a major change from desk life.

  2. My dream job has always been to run my own coffee shop. Even when I was studying at university that’s what I would dream about. Now 10 years later I really feel like my soul has been sucked out and my dreams gone dusty because of all the fear of failure I’ve picked up over the years.

    Thanks for letting me remind myself that I’m not crazy.

  3. Stories like this are so inspiring! I want to open a brewery one day and be that 30-something metalhead that “breaks out” of the corporate world. It can be incredibly stifling to be in that environment. I would have bolted once they started dictating clothing colors too!

    Thanks for keeping the dream alive for a 20-something metalhead stuck in the trenches of corporate bs!

  4. I hate to ask about the boring stuff, but what about money? I assume your financial situation has changed. Does that mean you still can’t go out as much, but this time for financial reasons? Are you still saving for retirement? Are you nervous about things? Or have you simply changed your lifestyle to account for it? I personally don’t feel very constrained by what job I’m “supposed” to have, but I do feel constrained by how much money I need to be making and saving. Could you share your thoughts on that?

    • I’ll jump in here and speak from my own experiences; write down all of your expenses and budget. Then go a month recording every little thing you buy from groceries to coffee to concert tickets to savings etc. Then use last year as a gauge for what big ticket items you frequently spend money on (big concerts, Christmas etc). Then write down what number you wish your savings acct had in it as your “safety net.” Now take all of that information with your debt and income on the paper and find where you’re going wrong with money. Do you need to consolidate debt? Stop spending on coffee and lunch and buy a coffee pot and lunch box? Start buying in bulk? We stopped going on “vacations” and bought a $80 pass to the State Parks and go on “daycations” instead which saved us a huge chunk of change. There are soooo many places you can squeeze pennies without using coupons (which is a full time job in itself), and if anyone is serious about a career change (say going from 80k/yr to 30k), it’s going to be a big step if you’re used to your lifestyle. My husband and I went from two incomes to one, but we are buying a house now, paying off debt slowly yet still able to save and buy what we need without worry; only because (while tedious at first) keeping a very close eye on our money and debt-to-income and living within our means has kept us in the jobs we want! Also be aware that things can take time, but changing your whole attitude “I can’t live without x amount of money” to “I can buy the things I need and that’s all the money I want” can have a big impact too. Example: Forgoing the big screen TV and expensive cable saved our bank account AND our marriage because we read books from the library (free!!!) instead 🙂
      I wish you the best on your life adventure!

      • Oh, I don’t need any financial planning help. We have things pretty well figured out; we have a budget for everything, and keep track of all spending. But we also choose to do nice things like take a vacation to Disney World, because we can afford to and it’s something we want to do. I just know that if I chose to leave my job for a less-well-paying one, I would have to give up some stuff, and I know I would be worried about saving enough for retirement. I just think these things need to be addressed in addition the mental relief of leaving a job you hate.

        • I’m totally with you, donteatmenooo (and I wanted an excuse to type out your name!) – I’m incredibly bored with my current ‘career’, but it pays relatively well, and I get to work from home with hours that suit (kind of, anyway) my childcare needs. I’ve thought about quitting and just going back to retail or coffee-shop work, like I did before uni and as a student, but the biggest issue for me at this point would be the loss of earnings. We’re financially stable, though not exactly overflowing with cash, and could certainly take something of a cut in income by forgoing some luxuries, but I like the financial lifestyle that my boring career allows. So it’s either boring-job-and-good-financial-lifestyle or less-boring-job-but-giving-up-luxuries. It’s a tough decision, and one that I guess is very, very personal. Total first world problems though, right?!

    • I made less money hourly, but working at a busy cafe in NYC, you can actually make great tips to make up for it. No, I couldn’t go out as much, but I learned to spend money on important things instead of wasting it on frivolous things. All the money in the world can’t buy time, sleep, or peace of mind.

  5. Timing here is incredible. I left my office job yesterday. Today, I’m about to turn 29, sitting at home for the first time in years and terrified I made a mistake leaving the job that made me miserable.

    I did it because I wanted to write again, to live again, and my fiance couldn’t take seeing me so unhappy.

    This is terrifying, but it has to be better than letting my life go by unlived.

    • Good for you! It’s not easy, but you have to take chances in life sometimes. People who “play it safe” will never grow as a person. They will just stay in the cycle of live, work, and die without ever being their true selves. I just packed up and moved to Colorado with my boyfriend last month. It was scary, but the world has so much to offer. It’s good to do new things and see new places. Good luck with your writing!

  6. Interesting timing for me with this article too! I’m 30 and I left my “career” job in May. I was working 12-16 hour days, eating breakfast, lunch and dinner at my desk, never seeing my partner… and I had been in the job for nearly 9 years. It destroyed my health, my sanity, my relationships… but I was making nearly $100k per year. I had no idea what I was gonna do next but I knew I had to escape. So I quit. I took the summer off, we got a puppy, I spent a lot of time writing in my journal, taking the dog to the park, sleeping, resting. Now my savings are running out and I have NO IDEA what I’m going to do next. I’m working 2 nights a week at a restaurant but I feel old, awkward and decidedly UN-stylish next to my coworkers in their early 20s. I’m glad I don’t work that corporate slave job anymore but I am uncertain about the future and frankly terrified/slightly depressed.

    • Financially, it hasn’t always been easy since I left the office, but I have no regrets! Money can’t buy happiness! You have to live life on your terms because you don’t get a do-over. Good luck with your endeavors!

  7. Thank you for this- it’s great timing. I am in a crappy work situation and will have to quit by the end of the month (long story). I’m uncertain about the future, but this job is not making me happy. Your post was a reminder that there really is more to life.

  8. About to be me in 3 months except starting my own business! I’m scared as f*ck but more excited about getting “me” back because my corporate job, as awesome as it is, is not what I was put on this earth to do.

  9. Eds: I don’t know if I’m getting a wonky redirect, but the blog that OP’s name links to is probably not the kind of material that OBE wants to link to. (Conspiracy stuff eg Sandy Hook was fake, HIV is fake, etc…)

    • Thanks for flagging the issue for investigation. From what I can tell, that’s the author’s legitimate website, and I’m not comfortable policing the opinions our guestposters express on their own sites, even when I personally disagree with them.

    • My blog has many different categories, including art, inspiration, and music, not just conspiracies. As it says on the blog: Random things that I thought I’d share. Form your own opinion.

    • Just so you know you are not alone, SamanthaB, I was a bit rattled by it, too. I suggested that the link go to a less controversial category on the writer’s site.

  10. about 5 years ago after losing my brother and then my dad, both in less than 9 months, i re-evaluated my life. my brother was a bit of a drifter but enjoyed life, my dad worked his whole life waiting for retirement and never made it. looking for a balance between the two, i decided to leave my well paid corporate job of 11 years. i had started working when i was 18 because i had a baby and needed to work and it was a good stable job. BUT, i was miserable sitting at the same desk every day, doing the same thing, no room for growth or advancement (and trust, i TRIED).
    i took a year off, bought a house, was a MOM (field trips, vacations, etc), went to work for friends/small businesses that needed help, etc. i was a barista, work at a coffee roasting warehouse, worked at a computer store, a furniture store, wrote for a magazine, read books, didn’t do nearly as much writing as i planned, but i LIVED. i eventually chose to go back to work because i missed the routine and the stability, but i was able to pick a job i LIKE and a company i believe in.
    my older brother didn’t understand- but what about retirement? insurance? seniority? HOW COULD YOU LEAVE THAT JOB? (as well as referring to me as a frog with a lighter under it’s ass a few times). But, I knew it was right FOR ME. A paycheck really is worthless if you hate every day earning it. It’s sounds trite and over stated, but you really do only get one shot at this thing called life. Being miserable because you’re doing what you’re “supposed to” is a horrible way to spend it.

    • Great story! Whether in the office or somewhere else, you took a breather and found a place that was right for you. You regrouped and did things on your own terms. That’s what living is all about!

  11. I so needed to read this. Thank you. I am in the middle of a job a hate and that is eating my soul more quickly each day. I’m in the process of trying to start a coffee roastery in Northern Colorado simply because I loved working as a barista while in college.

    It is absolutely terrifying. Especially the business end of things. But as terrifying as it is, I get excited about it. Which is what I need. I’m not excited about what I currently do.

    And as my husband is always reminding me: “If you aren’t having fun, you’re doing it wrong!”

  12. Like so many others commenting, this is fantastic timing for me. I’m 34, and in a job that makes me miserable (I love my immediate coworkers, but the company culture is really bad, my director is horrible, and I also have 3 hours/day for me time…and I own a business, run two blogs, host monthly blog swaps, just bought a house and am planning a wedding…so that’s not really “me” time. I haven’t had the mental energy to be creative and it’s killing my soul). I worked as a bartender for 3 months before taking this job and I couldn’t hack the physical demands (odd hours, on my feet for 8 hours at a stretch, not being a high-energy type of person, etc) but as I recall between hourly wage and Saturday night tips, I made enough to pay rent and bills. I know I need to change gears and do something that will make me happy, so I’ve been scouring TED Talks about changing careers and job hunting and gleaning good advice there. I’m very impressed that you knew barista would be a good choice for you, and that you went for it. And honestly, I’d prefer a barista closer to my age than a much younger one. Makes me more confident about the quality of the drink I’m getting. 😉

  13. I’m taking a serious look at how my job contributes to my overall well-being, too. I work a 9-5 as an office manager. I don’t see any career growth or fulfillment, and am seriously considering grad school for a complete change of career; to become a mental health counselor. If I continue my 9-5, I’m setting myself on a good financial trajectory, but am afraid of wondering about my true potential. If I go to grad school, I’m doubling my educational debt and going to a lower paying job. I know money isn’t everything, but the prospect of poverty is something. I guess I am just anxious about the thought of grad school debt. If I thought I could get fulfillment from another career that doesn’t require school, I’d be golden! But I just don’t think office work is for me.

  14. The thought of not worrying about what others expect is a fantastic thing for me to read right now, thank you!

    For the comments about the realities of quitting and finding more odd jobs – I wonder how do you make that leap when if I don’t have a paycheck next Friday I can’t buy groceries. Sure we could live of the pantry stores for a little while but what about the mortgage? The student loans? How do you mitigate that in the face of a job you hate?

    I don’t expect the offbeat crew to answer those questions for me, but I needed to say that they were there.

    • In my case, there were no kids to worry about. I got to eat for free working at cafes and I “maneuvered” with my tips and online writing jobs. Like I said, not as much money as when I was working in the office, but it didn’t matter because I wasn’t stuck in a rigorous work schedule, I could wear what I wanted to and look cool, etc. I grew up poor, so I guess for me, it wasn’t so hard to live without all the “comforts” of life. I like being able to be myself more than I like material things.

  15. I am going through this right now. I want to quit my career as a journalist/photographer and go back into data entry. Everyone is telling me it’s a mistake, but I really miss methodical mindless work. I would really rather a “boring” job entering data at a secure firm, than an “exciting” career in journalism where my colleagues are cutthroat, the papers I work for are folding, and I’m constantly having to beg for assignments.
    btw, if you are in philly and looking for an admin…..:)

    • Rafay, you have to do what’s right for you. Most of the “glamorous” jobs sren’t actually glamorous. Begging for assignments and uncertainty of how much work you will get doesn’t sound like a recipe for happiness to me. Print journalism/photography seems like a dying industry to me anyway. Shitty, cutthroat colleagues in any job will make you miserable.

      Maybe you can do data entry and do photography on the side, even creative stuff that you actually enjoy. I enjoy doing photography, but I never wanted it as a career because I felt that it would take the fun out of it. Good luck in your endeavors. Follow your hear!

  16. Definition: The tendency to overemphasize internal explanations for the behavior of others, while failing to take into account the power of the situation. The student who says, “Brian got an A on his English paper because he is smarter than I am” instead of “Brian got an A on his English because he visited the Writing Center before he turned it in” suffers from the Fundamental Attribution Error.

  17. Happy to read this post. I just put in my application to Peet’s coffee and feeling nervous about stepping down from my comfortable salary and working hourly again at minimum wage. But like you, I find myself crying often feeling trapped after doing everything I was told I was supposed to do. Thanks for writing this and to everyone else joining in on the conversation in the comments.

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