“Man sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then sacrifices his money to recuperate his health.”
One of my greatest joys in leaving the tech industry was terminating my email account at Oracle. That was another leash I did not mind removing. As a marketing manager, I performed most of my job through email. I managed independent software vendors (ISVs) who ran their software on Oracle systems. These ISVs were all over the world, so emails were flying into my inbox 24 hours a day. I had the weekends to breathe, but as time zones go, Saturday mornings would see emails from Asia, and Sunday evenings, they started flying in from Europe. It was relentless and required constant attention to avoid getting in the hot seat with an important partner.
I love email and what it enables. But I hate it more than I love it. My brain was not made to operate in this way. Even without my tech job, I can’t seem to avoid using email. But I did find a way to keep myself from being enslaved to it. Working at Trader Joe’s (TJ’s) has made all the difference in the world. In my interview, I was told,
“We don’t do email at Trader Joe’s.”
Are you kidding me? How can a company survive in today’s information-driven economy without email? A Freakonomics podcast titled “Should America Be Run By … Trader Joe’s?”(1) hinted that they are doing quite well without email, and much more, that grocery store chains accept as modus operandi. I believe TJ’s is on to something.
Most of us would agree that society would be better off slowing down and incorporating more rest. Much of the chaos and societal ills we see in the world today can be attributed to our being overloaded. Dr. Richard Swenson nailed it in his 2004 best-selling book about the space that once existed between ourselves and our limits, “Margin”(2). To take away that space is like reading a book without margins. You won’t get very far. That is what is happening today; we are exceeding our limits.
Email is a classic margin-eater. It not only devours our free time, but also creates a continuous 24/7 flow of information that can spew data like a fire hose on full force with nobody holding the nozzle. A small amount may hit the target, but most is wasted water, causing grief and exhaustion for all involved. We all have experienced how email has transcended into our personal lives and at work. Even a vacation can create a backlog of emails that is enough to make you wish that you never left.
Yet, we must acknowledge that email is a way of life today. There is no getting around it if you want to accomplish something that involves more than just yourself. Approximately 333 billion emails are sent every day. That’s 3.5 million emails per second!(3) Email is the preferred method of communication in almost all situations.
An interesting (and humorous) read about how email has impacted the mainstream business world is Dan Lyons’ “Disrupted: My Misadventures in the Start-Up Bubble.” Dan describes how HubSpot, a Boston start-up, was positioning its product as a means of reducing email spam:
“Our spam is not spam. In fact it is the opposite of spam. It’s anti-spam. It’s a shield against spam – a spam condom.”
Just under forty years ago, none of us were doing email at work. It had not been invented. Looking back now, it was wonderful. Email first found its way into my work environment in the mid-1980s as I launched my high technology career at ROLM Corporation. We worked hard at ROLM without email. Yet when I left the office to come home, I was truly done. My work stayed at the office.
Then IBM purchased ROLM in 1984 and we were introduced to IBM’s PROFS (Professional Office System), which was IBM’s first email system. Most of us viewed PROFS as a joke. It simply relayed information from IBM corporate, which had minimal impact on my day-to-day duties. It was like reading Morse code intended for the navy when you were in the army. I could go weeks at a time without checking my inbox and often made fun of those (mostly management) who seemed to spend an inordinate amount of their day doing it.
By the time I left Oracle 25 years later, about two-thirds of my day was spent navigating email. The volume was suffocating. Even in meetings, I was only half-listening as I browsed my “urgent” messages. Like the Israelites crossing the desert in the Bible, email became a cloud that followed me home and on my vacations. Improvements to the cell phone networks soon delivered email exchanges to my phone. Holy cow, I could send emails while sitting on the KT22 chairlift at Squaw Valley surveying my next ski run down (“Hey Mark, is my tax return ready yet?”).
Transitioning to Trader Joe’s
Leaving Oracle and my email inbox behind was great, but Marla and I still needed to find health insurance for our family. COBRA(4) is expensive! As we explored options, I decided to go into our local Trader Joe’s to complete a job application. No appointment was necessary. The application was quick—it only asked for my high school education.
Ha. This should be fun!
Next thing I knew I was sitting on a milk crate in the back of the store. Amelia (the Captain of the store) asked me a question about when I was available to work. Our discussion went something like this:
“I think you’re a good fit for Trader Joe’s. When would you be available to work?”
“That is complicated for me. Could I send you an email on the days and times?”
“We don’t do email at Trader Joe’s.”
“We don’t do email at Trader Joe’s.“
Mike [extending my hand to shake]:
“When can I start?”
Those words were music to my ears. Without a thought, I decided to give it a try. I am coming up on my fifth year at the store and have loved every day of it. When I punch out at the end of my shift, I am content to know that I worked hard to get the job done and can go home satisfied (and tired). Whatever is left behind gets picked up by the next shift. I’m working harder and resting more than I have in a long time. On payday, a TJ’s Mate hand delivers my paycheck with a sincere thank you. It may be missing a digit or two from my tech days, but the culture at TJ’s has won me over. As a life coach, I now understand the value of smiling and laughing all day. This is what I envision work in heaven to be like!
Here are my top ten reasons I like working at TJ’s:
1. “We don’t do email…”
When I enter the store, I turn off my phone. No email. If we need to communicate, we go face-to-face or ring bells. It is refreshing. I have more margin.
2. We’re on a ship.
We’re all at sea on a ship in the South Pacific at TJ’s. Our jobs are crystal clear to keep our boat on course. One Captain (button aloha shirt), a couple of Mates (different aloha shirts), and the rest of the Crew Members (“Crew Member” T-shirts) communicate by ringing bells that allow us to be “armed to the teeth” to react to our customers’ needs on a moment’s notice.
3. Variety is the spice of life.
Each shift is divided into eight blocks (for each hour). Each block designates a different job in the store for that hour. At the top of every hour, we all switch jobs. In one shift, I work many different jobs to keep the store stocked, organized, clean, and profitable. It sounds simple (and it is), but it makes my day fly by hand-over-fist, and helps me learn the entire store operation.
Meetings (called “huddles”) are 5-minute stand-up gatherings in the back galley to communicate important news about keeping things “ship shape” in the store. No muss, no fuss. Quick and simple instructions with some good food and grog to sample, and then all hands back on deck to help wow our customers.
5. Fist bumps, handshakes, and hugs.
Every day I get fist bumps, handshakes, and hugs from my fellow crew members at TJ’s, even at the end of a shift when they leave. This surprised me at first. If I were to exhibit this behavior at Oracle, I might end up at the HR office. The first couple of shifts I experienced this, I thought these folks were leaving the company! It does wonders for morale.
6. Happy people.
Employees at TJ’s are happy, which makes the customers happy. I am happy to work there. It’s “hunky-dory.”
7. Everyone plays.
When I started at TJ’s, I wondered why they hired me. Then I saw others they hired, and I wondered why they hired them! It took me a while to understand their strategy. It’s like AYSO (American Youth Soccer). Everyone plays at TJ’s. They employ people with special needs who work right alongside the rest of us. It gives those individuals a great sense of pride to be a part of the TJ’s crew, and the benefits to all, overall, are huge.
Many of my co-workers are my young adult children’s age. They are fun, energetic, and full of interesting insights on life. Most of them have other jobs or school or both. They are all “gung-ho” to make a future. They talk to me like I am one of them. At T’Js, I am.
It’s a kick.
9. Hard (physical) work.
Trader Joe’s business model is all about very high volume to attain very low prices. I soon discovered the considerable amount of physical labor involved in accomplishing that. Like the pyramids in Egypt, it all happens one block at a time. The physical effort to move all that product in the back door and out the front door every day is significant. I walk an average of 4 miles and lift an untold amount of weight every day in the store. I have never felt better. I’m getting paid to go to the gym.
10. Just be you.
TJ’s tells you they hired you because of who you are, not who they want you to be. So, the word on deck is to “be yourself.” For those who know me, that is dangerous! I wear shorts and my Hoka’s to work every day. And I love dressing up for the holidays.
Eat. Drink and be Scary at Trader Joe’s
- Podcast: “Should America Be Run by … Trader Joe’s?”
- Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives by Richard A. Swenson MD
- Source Earthweb: https://earthweb.com/how-many-emails-are-sent-per-day/
- “The Federal COBRA Act gives workers and their qualified dependents the right to continue paying for their workplace health insurance if that coverage would end due to a qualifying event.”
Really enjoyed this Mike!
Hey, Mike! Does Trader Joe’s hire 75 year-olds?
Steve, you are hired today if you can make it up to our store!
Wonderful story, Mike! I remember during our bike trip someone said,:You own Trader Joe’s????” And you replied no, that you worked at TJs . Made my day!
Thanks Anne — that gave me a good laugh!