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Lithium The coffee-industrial complex: America’s obsession with productivity

Nov. 9, 2020
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During quarantine, I’ve missed a lot of things—my friends, my family, my dreams and aspirations—but most of all, I’ve missed coffee shops. 

I miss the hustle and bustle of 9 AM Starbucks—the hodge-podge of business execs and angsty artists impatiently tapping their toes as they wait in line for their cup of joe. I miss the chitter-chatter in the air, the Pandora playlist shuffling through the same ten generic indie-rock songs that are just quiet enough for me to eavesdrop on the people next to me. I miss the friends I’d unexpectedly run into—the way we’d exchange stories before sitting down at our respective tables to work.

But most of all, I miss myself, or at least, I miss the person I thought I was in coffee shops: the ultra-productive all-star who, after chugging down a cup of coffee, could take on the world. I miss the bright-eyed college student who could read 200 pages of Paradise Lost and somehow still have enough energy to write an entire essay, apply to ten internships, and clear out my email inbox all in one day. I miss the good little corporate slave I once was. 

This is toxic, I know. And I know it’s toxic because I wasn’t always like this. Growing up, I never associated caffeine with productivity. Instead, coffee was synonymous with culture. It was something to be drunk at home with my Ethiopian family, devoid of any expectation of work or productivity.

Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee—the Starbucks before Starbucks—and when my father immigrated to America, he brought that heritage with him. When I was a baby, my parents opened up a coffee shop smack dab in the center of Portland’s thriving Habesha community. Though I was too young to remember the shop’s inception (or its collapse), the memories live on in old photo albums.

When I entered middle school, my father started selling coffee again. My sisters and I would watch him roast beans on our back porch, the smoke sifting through our screen door into the living room. When he finished, we’d help him scoop the beans into bags and sell them at local groceries stores and sometimes to our neighbors. I even helped my dad set up a website. In those years, coffee became just as much his thing as our own.

Looking back, I wonder if my father was holding onto a piece of himself with that coffee. Sometimes I wonder if I was too. Living in a predominately white town, there were few things we could hold onto, and caffeine was our safest bet. Everything else Ethiopian—from the embroidered headscarfs to the language to even my name, “Kiddest”—made us stick out like a sore thumb. But coffee? Everyone loved coffee.  

So whenever I’d see my Ethiopian family, we’d sit in the living room together, injera on our plates and a cup of my grandmother’s pan-roasted coffee in our hands. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t speak Amharic. This was a language in itself. 

Some of my fondest memories with family revolve around coffee. This is ironic because I hated the taste of coffee until high school, which was not-so-coincidentally the same time I discovered the sweet flavor of productivity.

In high school I was obsessed with getting perfect grades, often at the expense of my mental health and sleep schedule. I told myself getting into a top-tier university was the only way I could build a better future for myself. Consequently, I became obsessed with drinking coffee to feel more alert.

Every morning, I’d order the same drink: a medium oat milk caramel latte with extra caramel. Then, because that wasn’t sweet enough, I’d top it off with whipped cream and a chocolate-covered espresso bean. This was essential to mask the bitter taste. 

I’m convinced that no one really likes coffee when they first start drinking it. Instead, they grow to like the taste, just like we grow to love being productive. Caffeine addiction, like workaholism, isn’t something we’re born with. It’s a product of the environment we live in—a capitalist hierarchy that rewards productivity over sustainable lifestyles and conflates work with self-worth.

“At the root of this is the American obsession with self-reliance,” explains writer Jia Tolentino in her article “The Gig Economy Celebrates Working Yourself to Death,” “which makes it more acceptable to applaud an individual for working himself to death than to argue that an individual working himself to death is evidence of a flawed economic system.” 

That’s why coffee is such a two-faced bitch: it tricks you into thinking that capitalism isn’t flawed. That you are the problem, but that you can be fixed with a magical super-beverage. The coffee-industrial complex takes what was once sacred—to me, to my family, to so many cultures across the world—and contorts it into a dangerous drug. A drug that pushes you past your limits, convincing you that you can and should keep going, even when you’re ready to collapse. 

“This performative workaholism displays the hunger in the millennial generation for purpose and meaning,” explains writer Deeksha Verenader in her article “Dismantling Hustle Culture.” “By rooting [meaning] in productivity, many young people attribute their self-worth to glamorize long hours, exhaustion, and little free time.Furthermore, when the workload lightens, an anxiety is created in its vacuum—as though there is always something we should be doing.”  

I’m no stranger to that feeling. When I finally graduated from high school, I was excited to go to college, but I was also terrified because I had no idea what to do next. I had worked tirelessly to accomplish my goals, but I hadn’t taken the time to reflect on who I really was. And when I got to campus, I felt even more lost. But instead of taking a break—instead of reflecting on who I really was and what I really wanted—I gravitated toward what knew best: work and coffee and work and coffee, the positive feedback loop of toxic productivity. I became obsessed with being the best, not because I loved what I was doing, but because of the faux sense of accomplishment it gave me. It didn’t help that I’d been rewarded for this kind of behavior my whole life, especially in school. 

“People were trained to become mini-adults,” explains journalist Anne Helen Petersen. “They get into high school and college and a job, and they don’t know anything else other than how they can work all the time. They don’t know what being happy is, they don’t have that space, they don’t know who they are. And so you get millennials in crisis, existential or anxiety, because what else is there but my ability to work?”  

I didn’t internalize this until a few months ago, when the pandemic hit and I was no longer able to waste my days away in coffee shops. I started working a 9-5 remote job that I hate, chugging coffee in my living room just to feel alive. After a while, the caffeine stopped affecting me, and I was left with nothing but a bad headache. And myself.

The pain was so unbearable that I had to take a day off from work. I lied in my bed, staring at the cracks on the ceiling, a million thoughts spinning in my head. A million things I needed to do. Why was I so afraid of doing nothing?

There is a power to doing nothing at all—of being alone without obligation, of existing completely in the present moment—but capitalism strips us of it. Instead, it tells us that “nothingness” is no different from worthlessness. That if we clear our schedules of superficial tasks and expectations, if we toss out our to-do lists and turn off our phones even for a few hours, our lives are no longer meaningful. 

Life doesn’t have to be this way. We can reconnect with our inner-child—the version of ourselves whose passions and interests weren’t tainted by expectations of productivity, who could spend hours painting or reading or frolicking through a field.

I miss those moments. The moments when coffee wasn’t coffee, but time spent with family and friends. I miss coffee shops before I could remember coffee shops and the smell of my father’s roasted beans. I miss coffee as a language spoken between me and my family. But most of all, I miss me.

Illustration by Joy Velasco