Brad Butler: How Coffee Transformed My Life at TEDxGoldenGatePark (Transcript)

Brad Butler

Full transcript of Brad Butler’s TEDx Talk: How Coffee Transformed My Life at TEDxGoldenGatePark conference.

Listen to the MP3 Audio: How Coffee Transformed My Life by Brad Butler at TEDxGoldenGatePark (2D)


I was dying and needed a cure. I was 27 years old, my body was falling apart, and my mind was screaming for help. I was a real estate loan officer. I had everything I was supposed to have wanted. But I was miserable. I had tailored suits, this beautiful tie collection, a personal shopper, I even had a driver.

And when I’d wake up, in my million dollar penthouse, slip on my Ferragamo loafers, and walk to the window, I’d call my driver and I’d let him know, “Hey, Tony, it’s OK man, if you’re a few minutes late.” Because that would give me another couple of moments, to bask in the sunlight of that window, before heading to the office.

We called it “the bunker” — it was a complex maze of glass walls without windows. I’d spent 11 hours a day in the bunker, selling loans on the phone — like this one, to qualified buyers. And I would spend my time — building these relationships, investing all my time and my passion into building these relationships, but they were relationships that I couldn’t keep, because as soon as they were approved, they’d be sold to the bank. Then I’d just start over again, for the next month, building new relationships.

I felt like Sisyphus, who’s that Greek king with the eternal punishment of rolling this immense bolder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down again, repeating the process forever. I would start relationships that I couldn’t keep — it was a zero-sum game. I was spending my time for money, and that just wasn’t enough, so — I quit!

The realization came while I was standing with my cousin Brandon, overlooking the San Francisco cityscape from our balcony, when he said something to me that I will never ever forget. He said, “Hey Brad… Bro, is this view really worth a million dollars?” and then he went on to tell me, “I was enjoying my life more when I was living in this shoebox apartment in The Tenderloin, and, even though it was a shoebox, at least I was able to spend my time how I’d wanted. At least I was able to spend my time playing the sax. And at that moment, I thought, “That’s it!”

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I was trading my time for the very things that I’d wanted back. I was trading my time for time, which is exactly what I wanted. So I have a question for everybody out here in the audience: How many of us out here, want our time back? Want to own our time to do the things that we want to do? I see most people raising their hands now — You want to spend your time in the way you want to — And that’s how I felt.

So the next day in the office, as I was packing my desk into a box on the ground, my boss Mikey walked in with three leads, and he said, “Hey, Brad, I have three new leads for you, man — I picked these out, handpicked them just for you.”

Now, Mikey is one of the most generous, interesting, totally awesome persons that I’ve ever met, but I looked at those three leads, and I thought, “These are three relationships that I’m going to build, but I can’t keep.” So I gave my boss Mikey a hug, I grabbed my box, and I walked down that long corridor of glass walls without windows for the last time.

And I was very inspired at this time, because I’d learned something that was incredibly valuable. I’d learned that — “You can spend your time making money, but you cannot spend your money making time.” It’s a one-way street — right?

And so, the time I was investing and the relationships that I was building were more valuable than what I was getting in return. So I quit my job. However, I felt trapped.

I felt trapped because the life I was living cost me 11 hours a day inside a windowless bunker. The things I was buying and my monthly condo payments — were preventing me from doing the things I’d wanted to do. But I knew there had to be a way out. I realized that, instead of possessing my possessions, my possessions were possessing me.

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So I started looking at advice from the persons that were living their lives around me. Now, at the time, my cousin Brandon and I, we had our condo, he owned nightclubs and — he had great hair. Really, great hair! And he used to tell me, “Hey, Brad, I’m going to tell you a secret — if these clubs ever fail, my fall back plan is going to be as a hair model.” And he was serious and — I always thought that was funny and — from an outsider’s perspective he had a fantastic life. But, in reality, he was just as miserable as I was. Because he was spending all his time in the clubs, instead of spending his time doing what he’d wanted to do, which was playing the saxophone.

Now, this was in stark contrast to my cousin Matthew, who was a produce buyer of real food, a local organic food store. He would buy clothes second-hand, mend them himself, spend his time doing, well — basically anything he wanted to do — riding his bicycle, hanging out with his friends. I was standing at my luxury penthouse, and I was like — “Man, this guy has exactly what I’m looking for!” Matt owned his time, and he owned his life. Having autonomy and owning your time are the most valuable possessions you can ever have.

And I knew at that moment, that if I was going to buy my life back, I would have to sell my image. So I packed my winter clothes into trash sacks, and dropped them at the shelter before heading to the airport. We were in the dense jungles of Panama, heading south from Oaxaca, Mexico, through the tropical rainforests on this crazy wilderness expedition. We’re searching for something from memory, something that we once had, but it had been taken away from us.

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This was our family’s farm at Washington State. I remember visiting my cousins in the summers, and helping out in their gardens. Always searching the swamps in the forest for that perfect tree, in order to build a tree house. But then the developers came, they cut down the forest, they filled in the swamp, and they tore down the house that my dad built. But we were making something that would not be torn down. It’d be built from the blueprints of nature, with cornerstones of community and sustainability. We’d stick together as a family, we would grow food from the land, we’d invite expats down to come, live in our tree houses and enjoy a simpler way of life, together, in our Eco-Village.

And in the furthest country south after 9 months of this arduous trek through every country of Central America, we found exactly what we were looking for. They were the coffee farms of Boquete, Panama. And they were an ecological paradise. Their operations were built like the systems of a living organism. The fields, where they would grow their coffee, were in the forests themselves. And they would use every part of the coffee plant in its own production — there was no waste. For generations — for generations, they’ve been working together as families, growing their coffee, living from the land. And for a moment, as adults, in this far, far away forest — we were kids again.

But it wouldn’t last. Because their farmers were in danger too. Apparently, getting expats to come visit paradise is not the hard part. It’s getting them to leave. So they’re coming down by the hundreds, and they were buying up the land, and building their houses for retirement. So that night, in Mr. George, this local’s bar in Boquete, Panama, we made a plan, that we’d bring back home with us from paradise. That night in Mr. George, Bicycle Coffee was formed. This is our family’s company.

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