Why I Drink Coffee Everyday
A battle between my body and mind have always kept espresso just out of reach. Yet still, coffee is the mind filler.
Coffee doesn't energize me in the traditional sense. A triple-shot latte does not wake me up. It does not physically affect me at all. Instead, coffee alters my psychology in a nuanced way: it makes me slightly optimistic. Not enthusiastic, hyper, or upbeat. Just ever so slightly, kind of a little bit, imperceptibly optimistic.
Over the years, I've learned to strategically deploy this effect. I time it such that a wave of optimism crests right in the middle of my most important meetings. At Facebook, I wielded this power masterfully. Coffee was my not-so-secret weapon. It was the fuel that kept my mind out of the cynical designers' "how might we think about this from first principles" vortex.
It hasn't always been this way.
When I was growing up, I battled intense bouts of rosacea. I learned to avoid all kinds of "trigger foods" (literally everything worth consuming). Coffee and alcohol were prime offenders. I avoided both. I didn't drink alcohol – literally not a sip – until I turned 21 at university in New Zealand. I was dejected to learn that drinking eight beers lived up to its reputation as a rosacea instigator. The next morning I was red as a Red Stripe.
Rosacea flushing doesn't feel like blushing. It stings. It hurts. It's endlessly distracting. It can be debilitating as it's difficult to focus on anything else, even if the outside world just thinks you're sunburned or perpetually embarrassed. My years of lurking in rosacea support forums would confirm this mindset is very common. You get fixated on the feeling, which causes anxiety, which exacerbates the feeling, and so on. It's a devilish condition, and not just because it turns you red.
My biggest trigger was unexpected attention. I could handle planned attention – speaking in class, doing an interview, or even playing a concert – I melted if the attention was a surprise. Something as minor as spontaneous small talk with a cashier would cause my skin to burn and prickle for the next few hours. I can still remember being 15 and buying PC Gamer at Barnes and Noble. The cashier asked me which games I played, and that was all it took. Instant pain.
Until college, attention was my main trigger. It wasn't until that night in Dunedin when I reluctantly added alcohol to my list of things to avoid. Unexpected attention, the sun, spicy foods, carbohydrates, sugar, exercise, heat, cold, and now alcohol.
I wasn't about to try coffee anytime soon.
Everything I did was guided by how my rosacea would be affected. It was like being saddled with strict chaperone. A social handicap that would compel me to decline dinner invites, go home early, wear oversize sunglasses or cart a fan around to blast at my head. Just to avoid that burn. That deep redness.
All of which I’m sure sounds trivial. Who cares, right? Compared to real health problems – trauma, disability, sickness, or yeah especially the specific form of prostrate cancer that killed my father 30 years too soon. Who gives shit if your face turns red?
It sounds silly, I know. Maybe I have better perspective now, but it would be hard to understate the mental anguish I used to be able to conjure when my skin was burning from the inside. It felt real enough, even if only relatively.
I did whatever I could to avoid it.
There is no cure for rosacea. Dermatologists don't know how to fix it, and if they can control it at all, it's usually by accident after years of creams or pills. More likely, it just goes away on its own, which it's known to do, mysteriously. It can come back, but it is not uncommon for it to periodically subside.
After college, my rosacea cooled off. Not completely – people still think I spend my weekends at the beach ("looks like you got some sun!") – but the piercing blotchiness faded and left behind a permanent, pinkish hue.
This was when I invited coffee into my life.
I was 23 and had just cofounded UberConference (now Dialpad). I was responsible for our new office's layout and furniture acquisition. We had a full floor at 275 Front St and had just removed the cubicles from the previous tenant. They were a cable company in the early phases of extinction. We struck down their staid, old-world boxes and planned to erect a forward-looking "open layout" (this was back when open-layouts were a very controversial new concept. The first time around). I hired Steelcase to design our layout, provide a fleet of standing desks, and ultimately deliver them to our office at 5am one Tuesday morning. Someone needed to be there to greet them and that someone needed to be wide awake.
I woke up early, took the 1-California bus through Chinatown into Fidi, and meandered into Illy Coffee in the Embarcadero Center. If you've never ordered a coffee before, espresso drinks are intimidating. Latte, cappuccino, ristretto, etc – it's not obvious that for this one category of beverage you can make an entire menu using the same two ingredients, using different quantities, ratios and temperatures. (This is why Black Jet in Bernal is such a special spot – their menu is presented as a question how much milk you want. The espresso is assumed, the only decision is ratio.) I ordered the only thing I'd heard of: Café Latte.
I was immediately taken with its reluctance to ask for my approval. The latte was standoffish. Unlike any beverage I'd ever had, its initial taste seemed to be intentionally bad – artfully sour – like a defense mechanism to repel the weak-minded. I felt inconsequential to it, and as with anything, I became spellbound by its confidence. I drank all of it before meeting with the Steelcase burlymen.
I didn’t turn red. That was the first thing I noticed. The next was that I didn’t feel anything. No jolt. What changed was my perspective; it resembled excitement more than anything else. Not like weapons-grade excitement – just a tiddilybit – the same amount you might feel when you remember a new episode of Succession is on tonight. A little bump, but in this case, it was a sustained flow of positive anticipation.
Ten years later, I coasted into Saint Franks, the boutique coffeeshop Facebook had tucked into its newest building. Like every room in Building 20, it looked unfinished – plywood walls, polished concrete floors, and the type of furniture you only buy if you have a roommate. It was 9am and by this point – as a grizzled coffee veteren – I knew if I drank exactly two shots of espresso, I'd be a full-tilt optimist by the time my design critique was underway. I was temporarily openminded to new ideas, which was the inverse of my resting "grumpy pessimist" vibe.
It's funny how pessimism is interpreted as intelligence. Venture capitalists employ this tactic more than anyone I've met (maybe eclipsed by reporters, but their pessimism comes across as ignorance). They’re critical of everything. Their negativity is so broadly applied and so certainly delivered, that it's interpreted as wisdom. By comparison, optimism can seem naive or foolish. After years of exposure to this well-regarded posture, I adopted it myself and had trouble shaking it when I needed to.
I have observed that not the man who hopes when others despair, but the man who despairs when others hope, is admired by a large class of persons as a sage.
John Stuart Mill
Even if pessimism seemed smart, it wasn’t suitable for collaborative work. Coffee became the way out of my negative mindset. Similar to the way werewolves are able to participate in polite society in daylight, that was me under the influence of coffee. So long as the sun was out (coffee'd up), I was a helpful coworker. If I mistakenly got caught out after dark (back to back meetings), I turned back into that mean kid in art school. This made timing exceptionally important. I learned to keep my day afloat with well-timed lattes – usually I only needed two a day, but toward the end of my time at FB I was rounding the corner on three.
The problem is I have a small bladder.
If I drank three cups of coffee in a day, I had to pee at least once every hour. This isn't normal, and it's even less normal to get up up twice in a meeting to use the bathroom. But what choice did I have!? Either I'm a decent person, peeing every twenty minutes, or I'm a monster who can sit still in one place for six hours. By the time I needed more than three cups a day to stay positive, my bathroom requirement became too much to bear. I had to quit.
I left Facebook in 2018. It had nothing to do with The Reasons. But it may have had something to do with coffee.
Well obviously not, but it is darkly poetic that the drink which I once couldn’t stomach, for fear of igniting my face, temporarily became my literal mind-fuel, only to eventually revert back to stoking a lowly, physical, social liability.
Thank god for WFH.