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A few weeks ago, I appeared on the I AM NOT A BARISTA podcast, which shares stories from coffee people. During the conversation, I outlined three ways I try to retain balance in my life:
I try to do yoga every day
I try to read 50 pages of a book or a collection of articles daily
I try to walk 10,000 steps a day.
I want to be clear: I rarely check off all three of these items. But in the last few weeks, I noticed I wasn’t doing any of of them. Not even close. I wasn’t reading, I wasn’t getting out of the house, and—worst of all for a person like me, who sits at a computer for most of the day—my yoga mat was starting to collect dust.
Every now and then, I forget how regenerative it can be to pursue these inspirational practices. My life as a writer and podcaster has been marked by ebbs and flows—periods when I feel really creative and driven, and periods where I feel absolutely lousy and unable to think of a single new idea.
In January, I quit my full-time job and decided to go freelance, and I’m still figuring out how that works. Most of my paid assignments are client work and ghostwriting, and a small percentage of what I do is bylined writing for publications. Typically, I pitch and I pitch and I pitch and I get no responses from editors.
Recently, I realized this continuous slog was affecting my pursuit of inspiration—and that the deeper I got into the cycle of relentless pitching, invoicing, client work, phone calls, repeat, the more I was shedding the things that matter to me. The things that really keep me inspired.
On this week’s episode of Boss Barista, I interviewed Neichelle Guidry, a college administrator and the founder of Black Girl Black Coffee, a brand that was born of her desire to document her journey in coffee. There are dozens of wonderful moments in our conversation, but something that Neichelle returned to was the idea of refilling your cup, and engaging in ideas and material that inspire you. I’m thinking of moments like this:
Ashley: How do you stay inspired?
Neichelle: I love to read, I love listening to music. I’m very, very big on African-American art forms. So Black literature, Black music, Black visual arts, Black poetry—there’s something very inspiring about all of it for me. So at least once daily I’m reading something, even if it’s just a poem, I get poems into my inbox in the morning. I’m subscribed to several Substack publications where amazing, beautiful writers are laying their hearts bare and it’s coming directly to my inbox.
I have all kinds of Spotify playlists for whatever mood I’m in. I try to immerse myself at least in small ways daily in things that don’t have anything to do with my job. It’s really important to me.
It was actually a big life change that inspired me to go to Ethiopia … I just was in a mindset of, “Everything that I want to do, I'm doing it. And I'm going to give myself all the joy that I have not experienced for so long.”
I feel like part of me has learned that it’s just not possible to do anything if you’re running on empty. I know what it feels like to be burned out and I’ve experienced that. And I still experience that, and I think just doing little things daily to try to stay inspired is just a great way to navigate that.
This conversation stopped me in my tracks, because it reminded me that I have to replenish my own cup to keep moving forward. It’s easy to write off reinvigorating pursuits—like taking time to read a book, or step away from a task—as time-wasters. But on reflection, these are the moments that offer up unmatched clarity and creativity in my life—and I’m a better conduit for ideas when I feel like my body is being cared for (by me!).
Immediately after my interview with Neichelle, I went for a walk. It was a reminder to re-center the practices that I know replenish and satisfy me. And after recording the I AM NOT A BARISTA episode, I tried to once again structure my days around those three aforementioned tenets. For instance: As a freelancer, I know I work easily at night, which means I can allocate daytime to the fun stuff—waking up slowly, reading a book, or going for a walk for coffee.
It’s worth acknowledging that I’m very privileged to be in this position. When I still worked behind the bar, finding moments of inspiration wasn’t as easy as walking away from a computer screen, and it was a struggle to know how to keep my focus. At some point, I started “banking” transformative moments of customer service, because they were the only thing that kept me from feeling dehumanized as a barista.
I still share this story of a friend I observed at a coffee shop in San Francisco: A woman walked in complaining about the price of a latte. She went on and on about the price of espresso in Italy and how it was much cheaper—and much more “authentic”—in Europe. Instead of trying to justify or argue with her, my friend excitedly said, “Oh, you’ve been to Italy? Why were you there?”
He continued to ask her questions about her trip. She paid, tipped, and left. This happened in 2014, and I recounted this story as recently as yesterday. The way my co-worker deftly pivoted that interaction still inspires me.
My relationship to inspiration has changed as my work has changed, and I wanted to share the things that are keeping me inspired right now:
My friend, Ben Wurgaft, wrote a piece for Standart Magazine called “On Missing Cafés,” and there was a moment as I was reading that I could almost hear his voice speaking the words out loud. He references an essay by George Orwell called “The Moon Under Water,” where Orwell recounts his most adored pub—only to reveal that it’s a fabrication, an amalgamation of all the things he wished a singular pub could be.
As I read Orwell’s essay, it took me back to how I know Ben—he was a regular at a café I worked at in Oakland, and would always make time to share a few words and inquire about myself and the other baristas. In reading his words, I ached for the camaraderie that cafés naturally build.
Listen—I was a twenty-something dirtbag once, living in New York and doing dirtbag things like sleeping on the floor of a café I worked at because I was out all night and had to open in two hours, or couch-surfing for a full month because I had no place to live. If you’ve ever been a dirtbag, Granados’ book is a resounding reminder of how much you learn about yourself when you’re going through the process of figuring it all out.
Lomas was the winner of Season Three of The Great American Baking Show—and then her season was canceled after only one episode. She spends a good portion of her cookbook sharing anecdotes, often detailing the tension she felt between pursuing a degree in law and baking. It reminded me of the power of personal storytelling and chronicling your own journey—and her recipes are straightforward and produce delicious results.
“The Bobbys” commemorated the final episode of the show’s longtime, now-retired co-host Robert Krulwich. Every year, Krulwich gave out a series of awards called “The Bobbys,” commemorating items of importance to his own life. The categories were entirely personal and subject to change, like “Best Short Story” (which did not have to be a newly published short story, just one that was new to Krulwich), or an award that celebrated the most glorious moments of the year.
Krulwich kept a journal of all the past Bobbys winners, which reminded me of the need for personal absurdity and individual rituals. It also reminded me of a time when I used to make seasonal goals:
“The Other Latif” is a deep dive, six-part series where reporter Latif Nasser tracks down the only other person with his exact name—and ends up telling a story about citizenship, Guantanamo Bay, and sunflower farms. I love this series because it was well-reported, but also because it started with one little thread: “Who is this person with my name?” It’s such a simple question, and I think it could have easily been cast aside. Stories like this are reminders to follow those small ideas, and to see where they lead you.
Lastly, I’ve been drawing inspiration from my friends. In particular, I have a friend from college named Andrew, who I’ve known since 2008. He’s the type of person who always stays incredibly present during conversations and is easy to joke with. I hadn’t talked to him in a few weeks, but I was thinking about him and how much I admire his ability to be in the moment.
What are your inspirations? What are the rituals that keep your well replenished? I’d love to hear your answers—please share below!
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