If the Suit Fits…

You can’t hide a practiced hand

Some people talk about getting stuck in jobs they hate, about ending up in a field in which they have no interest. That’s a little bit of a misnomer. If you don’t do your job well you won’t be stuck there for long. To be stuck in a line of work you at least have to be somewhat good at it.

But it’s true that by just being good enough you can spend a long time in a job that has little relation to your skills, talents, and interests. I’ve met quite a few people who work in fields from foodservice to education who do their job, get done what needs to get done, and have no inclination towards any of what they do every day.

That is not the case with coffee. I’ve spent the past 48 hours trying to decide what made the two coffee conferences at which I spent the last two weeks so fundamentally different than all other “work events” and conferences I’ve ever been to, and  I think I’ve got it. Everyone who works in coffee is impeccably suited to their jobs.

David Neumann says coffee is not for the weak of heart, and he’s right. It’s not easy at any level, and it’s not a place you’ll end up if you’re only “ok” at what you do.  Every single trader, banker, exporter, roaster, farmer, chemist, geneticist,  agronomist, and farmer I met seemed to be tailor made for his or her coffee job.

Not only are the coffee people I’ve met suited to their jobs, they’re practiced at them. Perhaps owing to my background in dance, but I inadvertently watch how people move. And I can tell how deeply people’s work is ingrained in them through their movements. Muscle memory doesn’t lie.

For evolutionary reasons our tools have had to become extensions of ourselves in order for us to survive, and nothing reveals as much about people’s knowledge, skills, and history as how they manage their tools.

When I first arrived in Costa Rica I headed straight for a mountain farm. There I worked in the vegetable gardens, and was daily impressed to speechlessness by the way the men worked with machetes. They could chop down banana trees, cut the grass, clear a path through dense jungle, and whittle branches into spears with an effortless grace and skill. They manipulated their tool as naturally as they manipulated their own limbs.

Not all tools have to have blades to be wielded with sharp precision. At the two conferences in San Jose I was reminded how iphones can become a part of a person. People often put “iphone” at the top of the list of things they could never live without, and as a tool that connects a man to his business, it does in fact represent a means of ensuring a livelihood. Watching the way these traders and CEOs handled their phones, literally watching the pattern of movement form pocket to palm and sometimes to ear, noting the micromovements necessary to effectively use a touch screen phone, proved just how practiced they are with their tool. I could tell that these guys use their phones as many hours a day as the men on the farm use their machetes.

Maybe it seems like using a cell phone wouldn’t be that noticeable or remarkable of a pattern of movement. But think about when your grandparents try to use a touch screen phone. I’ve often seen people with a generation or two on me put the phone on the table in front of them, scowl at it, and peck at it like it’s about to explode. The subtle ways in which people connect with their tools, literally fit them into their hands, reveals exactly how much consistent repetition they have in using those them.

Muscle memory constantly amazes me; there is so much our bodies can do without any input from our consciousness. Muscle memory is the reason why I can touch type, why my friends can play the piano and the guitar, why top chefs can get their mise en plase ready with primetime-worthy speed and exactness. When you do something enough you can stop thinking about it. But getting to the point where muscle memory takes over takes time and practice.

I find one of the most fascinating parts of spending time in a new culture to be discovering what muscle memories are necessary to make that culture tick.

For example, Lucy told me about her work as an “envueltadora,” a coffee seedling wrapper. Her job no longer exists; but when she was younger she worked on hillside coffee seedling plantations. She and other women would sit in rows and wrap the root balls of uprooted coffee seedlings in sugarcane leaves for transportation to farms. For hours a day, 6 days a week, she would perform the same motion to tie the leaves around the baby plants. Even though this was over 30 years ago, as she described her work, she mimed the motion with her hands, and from that miming I could tell exactly how many hours she had spent wrapping coffee plants. People use the phrase, “I can feel it in my bones” to imply instinct, and I propose that we should start saying, “I know it in my muscles” to imply a knowledge that is far from superficial, knowledge that can only come from sheer volume of time and the intimate relationship of practice.

Evidence of just how much we can know something in our muscles is most apparent by contrast. At first glance it might not seem like that waitress is doing anything special, but as soon as you try to pick up those 5 plates and whisk them off the table the way she did, you realize it takes significant skill. Watching dads play with their daughters and try to put the clothes on Barbie, it’s instantly evident that this is not what dad does all day. He is awkward and slow and has to think about how in the world to get that rigid plastic hand through the tiny arm hole. When you compare someone who has the advantage of muscle memory to someone doing that same task for the first time, it is indisputable that our muscles have a mind of their own, that they have constant access to an inventory of finesse.

For me, observing muscle memory, the deep ingraining of motion into ones nervous system, is the most impressive aspect of travel. Watching Costa Rican grandmothers make tortillas is as stunning as watching ballerinas pirouette; both exercise the art of knowing a movement so completely and so perfectly as to execute it immaculately every time. In theory picking coffee is simple and easy, you pull a ripe berry off a branch. But I’ve watched lifelong pickers in action, and what they are doing is not simple; it is an individual art particular to cultures that cultivate coffee. Every picker has his or her certain way to manipulate the branches, to use every finger, armpit, chin, shoulder to navigate the tree and remove the fruit as efficiently as possible. This is not something you learn in a day. And it is anything but easy.

People can dress up in different clothes and adopt new accents, but muscle memory doesn’t lie, and our movements will always communicate what we’re still learning and what we really, truly, know.

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