Person: Mike McFall
Location: Biggby Coffee Headquarters in East Lansing, Michigan
“Do you ever wonder how your life would be if you’d made one decision differently?”
Mike McFall asked me this question as we sat in his office at the Biggby Headquarters.
The question came after he recounted the events leading up to the year in high school that he spent sailing around the world for a study-at-sea experience. His mom had picked up a brochure about the program, thinking Mike might be interested. He was somewhat intrigued, so he filled out the application and threw it on his coffee table—where it sat for weeks, forgotten amongst the various items coffee tables tend to accumulate.
While sitting on the couch one afternoon, his mother unsurfaced the application and consulted Mike, “Do you still want to do this, or should I toss it?”
Mike figured since he’d filled it out, he might as well mail it. The decision changed his life. It was—unsurprisingly—an incredible experience that shaped his perspective, introduced him to new ideas, and ultimately helped him get into a very selective college despite his lackluster grades.
“How would my life be different if I had just let my mom toss the application?”
We were sitting in his office—a room with a round table and chairs with bare walls (he’d recently moved in and hadn’t gotten around to decorating). When I arrived, he gave me a quick tour of the office that ended at the mock Biggby store where new franchise-owners learn the ropes.
He told me the story of his experience at sea after I mentioned that my first, and one of the most important, lessons learned during 52 Cups had been that life never goes according to plan. Mike understood what I meant immediately. Living in Lansing, Michigan, and working as the President of Biggby Coffee hadn’t been in his forecast when he’d graduated from Kalamazoo College in 1994.
A research project brought him to Lansing. While working 20 hours a week on the project, he had an abundance of time and scarcity of money, so he dropped off an application at every coffee shop in town. He ended up at Biggby, which at the time was a small one-store operation, founded by two MSU alumni, that sold about 300 cups a day.
He’d been working there a couple of months when one day he went for a walk with the co-founder, Bob. He didn’t explain the details—and I didn’t ask because I liked the mystique of the story—but the walk had turned into a four-hour ordeal that ended with an agreement between Mike and Bob to start a business venture with the other Biggby co-founder and grow the small coffee business.
It didn’t happen right away. In fact, the idea was pretty much dropped. But Mike was patient and when the time was right the deal went through; Mike became the President of Biggby while Bob remained as CEO. That was over ten years ago and the company has come a long way since Mike’s barista days. They have since grown to over 100 stores and sell 33,000 cups a day.
Mike’s story captivated me. I love it when people jump on a big opportunity without knowing where it will lead. That’s what I’ve done my whole life, and it’s led me into remarkable experiences. It was obvious Mike and I had similar mindsets. It seemed every story I had, Mike had one to match—with an additional piece of wisdom thrown on top.
It was also great that I was able to give him some insight as well. We started talking about uncertainty, specifically regarding career paths. This time it was Mike who mentioned something I understood immediately, “People follow the path—corporate job, marriage, kids, mortgage, etc.—because it’s a safer route.”
It’s nice to follow a route that many have followed before, because uncertainty is difficult.
That’s something I’ve discovered in the last six months. There isn’t a rulebook when you’re paving your own way; you’ve got to make your own decisions and live with the unpredictability of where those decisions will lead. That’s a lot of pressure on your shoulders, which explains why all too often we opt for the path of least resistance.
Back when I started the project, I was planning on finding a corporate job like everyone expected I would. I was stuck in the mindset that there was a certain recipe for success; almost like a boat coming into the dock. If I got on the wrong boat, or missed it altogether, I would be setting myself up for failure. But 52 Cups has helped me realize that’s not the case at all.
Life is what you make it—and you get to make it whatever you want.
That’s why I decided to stop looking for a job and instead am taking a two month backpacking trip to Europe right after graduation. This is one of the few times in life I’ll be truly free of obligation, and I want to take advantage of that.
What’s going to happen while I’m in Europe and what will I do when I get back to the States? I don’t know. It’s a state of mind that is at the same time both incredibly exciting and terrifying. The uncertainty has produced a small knot in my stomach that never goes away. Some days I barely notice it; other days it’s overwhelming.
I used to look for ways to make the fear of uncertainty go away, but failed every time. Then a conversation with a good friend helped me realize that the uncertainty never goes away.
Choosing to live an unconventional life means choosing to take on more risk with less certainty.
The fear of the unknown is the price you pay for the opportunity to make a remarkable life.
So I have decided to embrace the uncertainty.
That doesn’t mean I like it. It means I don’t fight the awful feeling in the pit of my stomach because it reminds me that I’m pursuing an authentic life—the life I want, not the one setup for me by someone else.
I recounted this revelation to Mike, and it was clear he liked the sound of it. He’d spent his whole life living unconventionally, he’d just never used that term to describe it. Mike told me several stories that illustrated he’s never been one to follow the crowd and it’s clear his strategy has paid off.
I often draw conclusions and then question whether I’m making the the right choices or if I’m just acting as a naive college kid and ignoring reality. Mike told me not to second-guess my choices—following the crowd isn’t the answer, even though I’ll encounter a lot of people that will try to tell me otherwise. That was reassuring to hear, and will be a helpful reminder on those days when I feel like giving in and taking the path most followed.
You can’t predict what opportunities life will bring—like a friend making a recommendation for a life-changing experience, or an unexpected walk turning into something more—but the unpredictable moments are the ones that keep life interesting and fun.
So instead of worrying about what life will bring; embrace it!