I woke up this morning to a text from my dad: "B.B. King passed, 89 years." This gave me a strange feeling in the back of my stomach...it seemed like just a few years ago I was with my dad in Sacramento watching him live; telling stories, talking trash, and just having a good time.
No one would argue that B.B. King is a legend. No one person has been as associated with an entire genre of music as he is with the blues. But why? What makes a legend? What gives certain people the ability to transcend their most basic mortal form and morph into something larger...something timeless. Is it skill and technical ability? Innate talent? High intellectual capacity? I don't think so. In my mind it boils down to three basic attributes:
- The Ability to Inspire
- A Unique Sense of Style or Individuality
Legends are inspirational. They have the ability to make us drag ourselves off the couch when we're feeling low. They're great storytellers. They understand how to connect with people in a very real way...a way that even the hippest marketing departments can't even come close to. They love what they do and live in the moment. They're the most alive and vibrant when they're immersed in their craft. When I saw B.B. he had a story for every song. Throughout the show I felt like I was getting slowly pulled into his world and all of a sudden the music was so much more than just music...it was like he opened up a fourth dimension for the crowd. It was incredible.
In the world of coffee I don't think these inspirational people live in labs or do "Q.C." They're not absentee owners. They don't have silly titles like Director of Business Development, and they sure as hell don't spend the bulk of their days in strategy meetings. People who inspire are in the mix. They're in their cafes radiating their passion to their employees. They know their customers - the people who are believe in them enough to make a $5 dollar cup of coffee a daily habit. They open up that fourth dimension for their employees, co-workers, and customers. People see this and take notice. It's infectious.
Legends are unique. They do things in a way that feels right to them, even if it's not in popular opinion. Breaking rules is a daily occurrence for them but they don't even think about it; they're just doing what they do. There's a certain amount of "flare" to what they do. Sometimes this flare is tied to technical skill but often it lives independently of sheer skill. Was B.B. a good guitar player? Sure. Was he the most technically skilled guitar player ever? Not even close. But if you've seen him live and you hear that buttery tone that just oozes out of his amplifier, you immediately know that it doesn't matter at all. He's got his trademark sound and it shines through whether he's hitting one note, or a thousand in a row.
In the world of coffee these types of people are the best baristas. Their brains allow them to figure out unique approaches to common, nagging problems. They fix things that no one else even realized were broken. They come up with better systems for workflow and customer service without even trying. Most importantly they do it with their own flare that comes straight from their soul...It's amazing how much people will notice something so seemingly intangible. They might not have a refractometer, know their exact extraction percentage, or even have any formal training. But their coffee always tastes delicious, and taste doesn't lie.
Legends are built over decades. They don't dabble in things and flip-flop when the road gets rough. They do what they do because they have to...because it's a part of them. There's a reason everyone knows B.B. King. He didn't become the quintessential blues musician by having a 2, 5, or even 10 year career. He's been crushing albums and touring for over 60 years. Was he topping charts the whole time? Probably not. Were all the cool kids talking about the hottest new B.B. album? Not to my knowledge. Did it matter? Hardly. This man will be seen as "The King of the Blues" for the rest of eternity. Even if you're not the who's who in the hottest social media or blog trends, it's hard to argue with a 60 year career in any capacity.
The small world of specialty coffee that we live in is so young that it's hard to draw a parallel here. For me I think of companies who continue to focus on quality and not get blinded by the shiny new object syndrome. There are so many things that can get in the way of making amazing coffee and serving it with a smile: the allure of rapid growth and the dollars that seemingly come with it, or media hype - being featured in the latest and greatest whatever it is. I feel like the people who will come out on top and stand the test of time will be the people who focus on their craft first, and let the rest come to them. They might not have the biggest companies or the most cafes, but that's not how we gauge quality here.
These three ideals are so powerful to me because they speak more to emotion and soul than money or logic - that's why they're so important. We can't all be legends, but I think a little gut check about what's really important never hurt anyone.
Rest in Peace B.B., Legends Never Die.