The Worst Advice I've Ever Gotten

Give away everything you know.

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Give away what you can.

When I first learned that coffee could be more than just a temporary job—that it was a wide and vast field I could explore and engage with in myriad ways—it was because I was lucky enough to meet a few folks who had made this industry their livelihoods. In those early days, one of them gave me a simple piece of advice to guide my onward career path: Never give away information for free.

What a terrible pile of garbage! Worst of all, for a long time, I believed her.

On the latest episode of Boss Barista, I talked to Chris McAuley, founder of getchusomegear, an organization that redistributes equipment and funds to marginalized baristas. Folks can request boxes of coffee gear, apply for grants, or access insights from the education team, like resume help and career advice.

The catch? There is no catch.

Chris runs getchusomegear without any expectation of reciprocity. If you request a box of gear, and provided the team can accommodate your request, you get a box. It’s that simple.

Every part of this, I want folks to know that there’s no expectation. With the original getchusomegear application for baristas, I think there’s like, eight questions, and one of them is, “What’s your name?” And another question is, “What’s your address?”

Those are the hardest questions that you really need to answer. Because I think some programs that I’ve seen outside of coffee have just asked so much from people and just wanted them to bare their souls, to get a thing that they should already have access to. And I don’t like that. And I think that’s ridiculous.

I’ve been sitting with that shitty advice rolling around my brain for years—in part because I believed it to be true for so long, but also because I know the person who gave it to me meant no harm. She wanted to build me up and give me the tools I needed to jumpstart my career. She didn’t want people to take advantage of me, and likely felt that her own value was tied up in what she knew. That’s understandable in our capitalist society, which teaches us that knowledge is a commodity that’s best hoarded rather than freely shared.

But what does it mean when being successful in my industry relies on keeping information away from others? It’s an ugly picture: It means withholding, even actively working, to ensure others don’t have the same tools I do.

It isn’t just coffee, of course. This dynamic plays out in almost every workplace. It’s the co-worker who won’t show you how they do something, or the manager who refuses to invest in your professional development. It’s the boss who makes you sign a non-disclosure agreement to regulate the knowledge you pick up on the job, fearing that you might take the skills you acquired elsewhere.

It doesn’t have to be like this. Everyone has heard the saying: “Rising tides lift all boats.” When something good happens for some, everyone benefits, in other words. But unfortunately, as Chris details in an anecdote, we’re still a long way from putting this belief into practice:

Chris: …My experience with coffee educators that I’ve worked with is that they want you to know some things, but not too much. And if you look different then it’s harder for you.

Ashley: Can you talk a little bit about that? Because I think I was reading an interview that you did, I think with Sprudge, that when you would show up specifically saying, “I want to learn,” or, “I want to do more,” you were met with that wall of, “Oh, you can learn a little bit, but don’t learn too much.”

Chris: It was like, “Are you going to take my job?”

Yeah. Bringing some things to folks in leadership at places I’ve worked at and being like, “Hey, I really want to do this for the staff. I want us to make these educational materials about the different coffee processes and like, you’re a [coffee] buyer. So let’s talk about this. Let’s make this a collaboration because you also buy the coffee that we sell, so let’s get it, let’s sell more coffee. So we can make more, so you can pay us more.”

But the dude felt very threatened by that in a way that the energy that he was giving off, he felt like I was after his job. And I’m like, “No, I don't want to work with you.” [laughs] Well that was maybe mean…

Information has become currency, and what’s so admirable about Chris and getchusomegear—and other programs that encourage mutual aid—is that they completely devalue the currency of information. Information is not to be traded but shared, used as a common good for the collective. If anything, I hope getchusomegear inspires you to give something away.

We can’t ignore the actors in systems like this. Power and information are most often concentrated and hoarded by privileged people with means, typically to the detriment of those without.

What happens when we let go of our self-protective tendency to keep back information for ourselves, and the expectation that we should be remunerated for every gesture? How different, how much better, could our lives become?

It’s hard to untrain yourself, to get in the habit of expecting nothing in return. And it’s important to recognize that that option is not always available for or relevant to everyone, especially those who have been historically exploited by those in power. It really depends where you’re at.

I also want to be clear that “giving things away” doesn’t mean devaluing your expertise, especially if you are a content expert and especially if you’re offering your services to those with means to compensate you. As a writer, I will (generally) not write or edit something for free. But as a coffee person, I’ll try my best to give guidance and help freely when I can. There’s a difference between doing something for free for those in power and giving away what you can to those without or for the betterment of the community.

For anyone with the means to do so, Chris and getchusomegear have created a supremely clear, tangible example of what it looks like to give without expectation. Just send someone a box of gear, and don’t ask for anything in return.

Remember that when others around you are doing well, we all benefit—and if your success relies on keeping information secret, then it will always be precarious and in danger. Opening up, sharing resources, and giving freely isn’t just beneficial for the folks who need that access, or for the industry at large (coffee and otherwise)—it means liberating yourself from those fears, and from capitalism’s model of false scarcity.

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