Yesterday, the North Michigan Avenue Apple Store closed. The massive, domineering, four-story building at the corner of Michigan and Huron was one of the first flagship stores in Apple Retail. It was two blocks away from the condo I shared with my dad during my last years in Chicago. And for five years, starting in 2005, it was where I worked.
Before I started working there, I remember going in and marveling at the architecture, the majestic glass staircase, the astonishing see-through catwalk that connected the north and south sides of the second floor, and even the 50-seat theater that would eventually become my professional domain. But more than anything, I marveled at the employees, who seemed to know everything about everything about Apple products. I'd been a Mac user practically since birth, holding on during years where I was literally bullied because of it (I know this is hard to imagine, but I swear it's true; the Nineties were a strange, simpler time). The idea of joining the ranks of these geniuses (both those with the official "Genius" title and the hip, affable nerds who populated the sales floor) was appealing to me as I entered the job market with no idea how I would forge a meaningful, desired career out of my liberal arts degree. I wanted to be an actress and a writer. Instead, I became a theater presenter.
During my time at the store, I learned that no one there actually knew everything. Including me. I learned that it is possible for a team of 200 people to run like near-clockwork, but it takes a lot of time and energy and cooperation. I learned that asking questions is the best way to find answers. I learned that young people and older people have very different attitudes toward learning about new software, that pop singers usually want their bottled water to be room temperature, and that one woman can, in fact, set up an entire soundstage by herself if she has a big enough dolly. I learned that finagling a team of seven part-time instructors with varying availability and skillsets into a 12-hour schedule of hourly workshops is practically a full-time job, and I learned the outer limits of iCal's capability. I learned that if you spend all day doing a job that isn't well defined or understood, some people will start to wonder what you do all day. At worst, they may mistake your self-sufficiency for lack of transparency and even laziness. Under these uncurious and uncommunicative conditions, when things go right, you will be "just doing your job," and if things go wrong, you will be the only one to blame.
After I quit my job at the store, I learned that leaving a job can feel exactly like a breakup. A break up from a partner who have been good to me for a long time but who was never really right for me, and who, at the end, had begun to treat me like shit and take all I'd given it for granted. A break up that was totally necessary, absolutely for the best, and yet even thinking about some of the details of those final months can make my blood boil. My life is so much righter, I am so much healthier as a free woman, and yet I'm still not totally over it. This might be because in this break-up, the store got to keep our home, our job, our shared friends.
And now that "home" is gone.
I avoided the store for most of the two years I stayed in Chicago without it. I didn't want to see it. It was hard, too, because it was massive, domineering, and two blocks from where I lived. Next time I visit my dad, who still lives two blocks away from the corner of Michigan and Huron, I wonder what will be at that corner. Will it be covered over in drop cloths (like so much of downtown Chicago was, especially during the recession, when skyscrapers were halted midway through construction)? Or will that Apple-shaped window still gaze out at me, a skull's socket now, the formerly buzzing world behind that eye now lifeless and hollow?
Wow, that got pretty macabre. Like I said, I'm still holding on to some shit.
There's a part of me that wants to go into detail about the shit, but I know it's pointless. It is a FACT that my job at NMA was fucking cool. I got to meet amazing people and put on amazing shows and speak extemporaneously about software and hardware that had just been released earlier that day. I got to wear a wireless headset microphone and be on high-profile conference calls and get de-labeled bottles of water for celebrity guests. I once got to go to New York and was put up at the Hotel Gansevoort. And sure, I had so little money in my bank account that I couldn't afford to pay for my cab back to LaGuardia, but the irony makes the story that much better. So I'm going to close this post, and this chapter, by detailing the big lessons I learned at this first job that I still carry with me:
- Assume Positive Intent
This sentiment is a key life strategy masquerading as a corporate policy. Whether your dealing with a coworker, a customer, a family member, or a stranger, it's a lot easier if you work from a base assumption that people aren't trying to be shitty. Most of the time, we're all just trying our best. This isn't just a nice thing to do for others, it also shields us from unnecessary hurt feelings and misplaced ire.
- Under-Promise and Over-Deliver
Making claims about what we can do is easy. Doing things is often hard. Let's say, realistically, I need a week to finish a project. If I tell you it will take a week and a half, but I get it in in seven days, everybody's happy and everybody looks good. If I told you I'd have it by tomorrow, suddenly that same time frame looks like a failure.
- "I Don't Know, Let's Find Out"
This was the reason I thought every employee knew it all. If you don't have an answer, there's no need to fret; all you really need to know is who to ask. If that person doesn't know either, together you can find a third person. This was a part of the culture at the store, and it dovetailed nicely with the spririt of curiousity and critical analysis that was fostered in me during college at University of Chicago (crescat scientia vita excolatur, amiright?).
- Almost everyone thinks they're "the worst" when it comes to technology.
In day to day life, it often seems like everyone's a tech whiz and your'e the only one who's confused. I'm here to tell you, most of that is pure posturing. In the face of a professional, at their wits' end, most people suddenly claim complete ignorance. I can't tell you how many conversations started with someone telling me how "bad" at technology they were. It must have been a defense mechanism, "you can't laugh at me if I've told you I suck." You don't suck. Technology changes every week. We're all just out here learning this shit as we go. Which brings me to...
- It's a lot easier to learn something when you truly believe you can.
In my capacity as theater presenter, I also got to lead Youth Programs at the store, which meant that every once in a while I got to take a break from teaching adults how to use, say, Garage Band or Keynote and teach kids how. The classes were totally different. Adults wanted -- and expected -- to be guided step-by-step through every nuance and feature. When they couldn't immediately grasp a concept, "bad user interface" or "unintuitive design" were often blamed. And while I celebrate the questioning of the status quo, I couldn't help but notice that "unintuitive design" never came up when teaching kids. Whether they were 7 or 17, I could show them the entire process of building a song, a movie, or a presentation, and then set them loose, asking them to just raise their hands if they needed help. They didn't know how to use the software any better than adults did, but they believed they could figure it out. And then they did. This kind of faith and curiousity can serve us all, not just when it comes to technology, but when it comes to any new task we set out to master. As I've said before, sometimes in order to figure out how to do it, you just have to do it.