160: Sean O’Connor, part 2: Replacing coffee cups with human connection (transcript)

March 22, 2019 by Dani Mihaleva
in Podcast

Sean O'Connor

This episode is about a simple experiment that anyone can do. It costs nothing, takes no extra time or other resources besides carrying a mug with you. Everybody knows how much garbage we’re dumping in the ocean. Everybody knows they can pollute less including me, including you. This episode shares Sean’s experience cutting out coffee cups. I’d say you probably never have to use another coffee cup again but practically speaking some people they hit challenges. Sean did. So let’s hear his experience. You can probably do something similar yourself.


Joshua: Well, let’s start.

Sean: Yeah. Where do you want to kick off?

Joshua: So where do we leave things last time? We’re talking coffee.

Sean: Yeah, we were talking mostly about coffee. And we’re catching up before as I mentioned I’ve been traveling quite a bit the last few weeks and for the next six I will be on the road and the challenge I gave myself was to avoid disposable coffee cups while just in general and the sort of second-tier of that challenge was to avoid them while traveling. And admittedly that’s been a little bit harder than I expected it to be.

Joshua: You’re not alone in that reaction. Travelling is one of the two big things that hits people because when you’re not traveling you’re in a lot more control of your environment. So how did things play out for you?

Sean: Yeah. I mean I typically when I travel will bring a reusable mug but you know if I forget that, then it’s the entire challenge off for the week that I’m travelling because I didn’t plan ahead and that has happened a few times over the last, call it, six weeks since we last checked in. Yeah, I think there’s something about when you’re falling outside of the routine you’re used to, it makes it way harder to control and you succumb a little bit to impulses rather than trying to stick to decisions that you know will be better for you in the long run. So I think that comes through for me like guide choices when I’m eating, when I’m travelling, gym, schedule running, working out, etc. and specifically with this challenge you use disposable coffee cups.

Joshua: Let’s go to the details. What’s the story of what happened? What are the facts? What happened?

Sean: So one concrete example was two weeks ago, I was taking a day trip up to Rhode Island together and I did bring a disposable or reusable cup and you know driving eightish hours during the day is a [unintelligible] you want to get caffeine to get through that. So I had to bite the bullet and buy some disposable cups from the local Starbucks.

Joshua: Oh, so you mean you bought coffee in disposable cups?

Sean: Correct, yeah. Bought coffee in a disposable cup. And that’s what I’ve been trying to go avoid.

Joshua: And so that was just the one occasion? Did you… I mean that doesn’t sound so…

Sean: No, I’ve also found on the weekends that if I’m out and about catching up with friends or going and visiting family I’ve also not had a reusable cup and I tried to in some situations by, well, typically just get an espresso shot which comes in a reusable cup but outside of that it’s kind of difficult. And on airplanes especially I felt that stewardesses don’t like when you hand them a cup to fill up like they want to use the standard issue paper or plastic that they’re used to deal with.

Joshua: So you brought a mug with you on the plane and asked them to fill it and they wouldn’t fill it?

Sean: Yes, because it wouldn’t fit underneath… I walked into the back of the plane and it wouldn’t fit underneath the disposal.

Joshua: So part of me was like how come you didn’t have the disposal cup when you were at Starbucks. Then part of me is like well, he brought on the plane. Obviously he’s not like slacking here. It feels like it’s tough to go up against resistance like the world is set up with systems that work a certain way and…

Sean: Yes. And you know a lot of people when they’re doing their job day in and day out they have a process and they don’t really like to deviate it because it taxes, its exception handling and you’d rather just do things the way you know how to do them than think about how to change your process even if it’s something as small as what’s your cup you’re using. And like with the reusable cup I’ve had to figure out what size it was because that makes a big difference in terms of making drinks and how much I get charged for them.

Joshua: Well, you’re saying that people don’t like to change stuff but you’re changing stuff. What’s the difference between you and them?

Sean: I’m changing my pattern but I think for a lot of baristas to some extent it’s kind of like a production line here – they are pumping out drinks and there’s long lines and the just want to make as many mocha, latte, frappuccinos as they can as quickly as possible.

Joshua: So your choice came from… The first thing you said was you’re choosing so it’s your choice to do it whereas they’re not choosing to do it and then they also have…

Sean: Yeah and I’m forcing my preference and behavior on to them which is making them change a process that they haven’t really thought a lot about.

Joshua: All right. So you’re now talking about motivating others and changing others or the prospect of that. So how did it feel what you’re doing? Was it hard, easy, fun, difficult or what?

Sean: It’s been fun. It’s led to a lot of really interesting conversations.

Joshua: Oh, interesting.

Sean: Yeah.

Joshua: Because I thought you’re going to say like “It’s easy when I do it but when I’d have to do with other people it’s a chore.” But it sounds like some of it’s a chore but some of it is tummy.

Sean: Yes, it definitely is a bit of a conversation starter when you walk into a coffee shop and you hand them a mug that you brought in they’re not really sure why you’re doing that. I’ve also heard from baristas that they don’t like using reusable mugs because a lot of people don’t wash them before bringing them to the coffee shop and that’s gross and also that requires them to clean them out beforehand. So there’s some bad behaviors out there that people have that contribute to a negative view of reusable mugs from their vantage point.

Joshua: It sounds like there are stories behind your interactions with some baristas. Can you share a couple of stories of what these conversations…? How did the conversations start and what were they about and what was the interaction like?

Sean: Yeah at one coffee shop I go to near my office they’ve ran out of reusable mugs one day. I guess their washing machines were on the fritz so they were using the paper. And I did get a coffee in a paper mug and just started talking to the guy, the barista, and he asked why I cared so much and I asked him if he ever thought about the amount of garbage that he has to haul out to the street every day, just plastic and paper. And he really never considered it other than just a task that he asked to do at the end of a shift. And now he knows when I walk in he pulls down a shot glass a glass and I don’t really like I’m a known quantity to him now.

Joshua: And how does that? What’s the relationship like? Are you friends with the guy or are you a chore to him?

Sean: Oh, yeah. No. No, I don’t think he really… It’s not a huge burden for him because they have at that store… They have typically an ample supply of glassware and it’s not a huge difference for him whether he’s pouring a shot of espresso in that or a paper cup.

Joshua: So I think a lot of people think… The reason I’m asking is that I think a lot of people think that it’s a chore, it’s a pain but I think that if you go into it thinking, “I’m going to be friends with this person.”, then I think it creates relationships. It has the potential to.

Sean: Yeah, it does. And at the local coffee shops or in my office they know me as “that guy”. And it’s nice to walk into a place and see familiar faces and they already know what you’re going to order, how your preferences are at ordering it and if they know the back story, it just provide some little more context.

Joshua: Oh, so this is even different than I expected or thought at first that it’s not just that they tolerate you. Is it just helping them get to know you and helping build relationships that wouldn’t have been built otherwise?

Sean: Yeah, it’s definitely led to way more conversations than I’ve had in the past call it two three years of working in Manhattan and going to coffee shops.

Joshua: So did it used to be when you went to a coffee shop you would just say, “This is what my order is.”, they’d give you the order, you get your coffee and you…

Sean: Move on. Yeah.

Joshua: So you would’ve been happier if they were robots behind the counter because you weren’t really interacting with them.

Sean: Yes. It was just a production line. Now it’s a natural conversation and I’m on first name basis with a lot of the people who work at the Joe coffee shop over on Hudson Street.

Joshua: Now everyone who’s listening to me knows that I’m looking for positive things here, productive things but this is actually kind of surprising to me because I think that a lot of people… You know you can work at home, you can get a coffee at home. I think a lot of people they like to go to coffee shops in order to meet people, in order to have friendly faces and…

Sean: Yes, half the reason I’m going to a coffee shop is just to get outside of the office.

Joshua: And even though you’re getting out of the office and going to places to have presumably some social interaction you weren’t doing it. And this is actually giving you an opportunity to do that to share a little of your personality.

Sean: Yeah and it’s also sparked inside the office. It’s led to a lot of conversations with the team now. Most of the people in my office have reusable mugs that they use when they’re making tea or coffee in the office rather than using the paper cups that we have laying around.

Joshua: OK, everyone who went to college knows that when someone wants to change the temperature of a room or you have a policy for washing dishes you know someone ends up leaving notes but not actually being face-to-face and it’s always this complicated stuff. And now you’re doing something and you’re getting results but you’re not… Are you suggesting that people change their behavior or are they just following you or how did it happen that you’re getting an office to change because most people I think are afraid of doing it because, one, they think if they do it, they’ll be weird but you’re doing it, you’re making friends out of it and, two, they think they’re going to be imposing on others and they don’t want to get into that massive leadership and they want to be leaders but they don’t want to do this.

Sean: It came about pretty haphazardly. I was out grabbing coffee with some team and started telling them about the challenge I am doing and when we got back to the office somebody went to grab a cup of tea a little later and one of the benefits of being marketing teams I get to control the swag we had for conferences and events and we happened to have a box of reusable mugs that we give out at events so I just grabbed a bunch out of the box and handed them out to everyone on the team. Some people are using them.

Joshua: I mean, OK, so that’s what you did. How did it feel? Were you nervous about doing or were you just enthusiastic or were you just “This is a matter of fact thing.”?

Sean: No, it was pretty matter of fact that hey anytime we’re handing out free stuff people always respond positively.

Joshua: What you’re doing is reusing a mug. What value is this connecting to? Is it that you’re making the world a better place or that you’re connecting with people or… What are you doing internally?

Sean: Internally it’s coming from the desire just to lighten my footprint on the Earth a little bit and reduce the amount of trash I’m creating.

Joshua: Even that, I mean I feel like there’s more to it than that because that seems to me like abstract. You can’t really sense that.

Sean: Yeah. It is a little abstract but I think it’s coming from the desire to do… Intellectually I know that the path our consumerist society is on is not sustainable and that we are producing way more trash and that’s having all these ramifications down the environmental and food chain. And this feels like a small concrete step that I can take every day to reduce the amount of crap I’m putting out into the world. Does that make sense?

Joshua: Yeah, I’m hearing a bit of personal responsibility, accountability, something like that.

Sean: Yeah.

Joshua: Is it fair to say ultimately grounded in caring for the people that would be affected by it?

Sean: Yeah. And it’s also a little selfish because many times I’ve gone out up to the beach or out hiking and camping and see trash washing up on the lake or river shore or ocean. It’s kind of nasty and it’s frustrating.

Joshua: Yeah. Do you look at that stuff any differently now? I mean live in New York and it’s all over the place.

Sean: You can barely walk down a block without seeing bags of trash opened up on the street.

Joshua: And I mean that was the case before you did this challenge. Has the challenge changed your perspective of the stuff you see on the street or on the beach?

Sean: I think I just notice it a lot more.

Joshua: Because I have to say I notice it a lot more too and the feeling of just like I don’t know…

Sean: It’s kind of overwhelming. Like there’s no way you can actually make a dent in and the systems in place in the city for trash collection are such that they’re really shitty and unless the city spends a lot of money rejiggering there their policies in their waste collection it’s not going to change.

Joshua: Well, you know part of the goal of this podcast is for people to choose to pick it up themselves because the sanitation department is there to pick the stuff up. But why is it getting there in the first place? I mean this is a rhetorical question but how are people choosing to just put it all over the place? And to me you know there’s an optimism and hope and expectation of changing people’s default behavior with this podcast that’s driving me. But looking at how much trash there is sometimes I wonder if there’s any point because people either don’t care or they don’t know or they got other things that they’d rather think about.

Sean: And yeah I guess when I’m like walking around the city I’ve started to group the trash in the street into two major buckets. There’s one in restaurants and stuff are throwing things out at the end of the night they just schlep it on the curb. And a lot of times those bags will rip or and animal will rip them up and that causes trash to spread on the street. And I think that’s more of a structural issue with the way trash is collected in the city. But then in a second being like people just throwing stuff in the middle of the street because they don’t want to walk down to the garbage can at the end of the block is a bit of a personal responsibility issue.

Joshua: Yeah, I agree with that delineation or that distinction. Although I also look at it there’s just giant factories that are producing all these things and we were patronizing the factories. You know they’re getting money from us and we’re using it and people aren’t thinking about it. I mean I hope that this podcast gets really big so that people you know everything that passes through you I think people don’t even notice it. They just take it for granted that you just you fill up a garbage bag full of garbage a couple of times a week and that’s just life. But a hundred years ago before plastic that was no big deal. I mean there’d be landfills but I guess there were landfills but everything was biodegradable, everything, everything was biodegradable. But now nothing’s biodegradable.

Sean: Yes. And I don’t know if you’ve heard the story of the coal mine out in Philadelphia,

Joshua: The one that’s been on fire?

Sean: Yes, the one that’s been on fire and will be on fire for the next hundredish years I expect. It all came about because of a landfill that was full of toxic stuff and they just lit it on fire to try and get rid of it and it ended up setting [unintelligible] on fire and has now forced hundreds of people out of their homes because the ground is literally collapsing underneath them.

Joshua: Yeah. So people who are listening to this it’s like this is worth looking at because this place is on fire underground and there’s no way to put it out. And a little microcosm of our world from a certain perspective.

Sean: Yeah, not that far out from New York City or Philadelphia.


Joshua: Okay. So change topics a little bit. You had some challenges with not having your reusable mug and got some disposables and it sounds like you didn’t really like that but on the flip side you’re influencing lots of others as well and they’re enjoying it. You’re having more friendly relations with some people that you didn’t even connect with before, then you’re influencing people at your office. You several times described this as one little thing that I can do. So here I’m going to nudge a bit. If a little thing brings you a little joy, would not a big thing bring you more joy?

Sean: Yeah, I’ve actually been thinking about that and what else I can do. Coffee is one thing. Especially when traveling for work I don’t really know how to take on the challenge of prepackaged food because that’s unfortunately… I think there’s not much I can do if I don’t have access to a kitchen or stove.

Joshua: Well, I got tell you a story. A couple of weeks ago I was giving a talk in Washington D.C. and then I went down to Charlottesville and in DC I was staying at a hotel so when I got food there was courtesy of the association that I was giving a talk to I was eating food that was provided by the hotel. Then one evening there was no event.  And you know I just decided I wasn’t really that hungry and so I skipped dinner and the next morning I had a little bit bigger breakfast than I normally would. So then I go to Charlottesville and I give my talk there. And that evening I had to catch a train back to New York and I was really pressed for time. I ask the people that I’d give the talk to in Charlottesville before I get on the train, “Is there a grocery store?” So they say, “Yeah, here’s a grocery store.” So I got like five minutes to go to the grocery store. I opened the door, I look at it and I’m like there’s all this packaged food all over the place and there’s some [unintelligible] by the front and I’m thinking, “I don’t want to get just fruit because I’m a bit hungrier than I would think just fruit would do for me.” And I’m like what I do normally if I was in my own kitchen I could cook stuff and I just… Do you know what I had for dinner that night on the train ride back? I had three zucchinis and a mango. And I thought, “Who eats zucchini? Am I getting too weird now?” Wait a minute. If I am at like some wine and cheese event and they have hummus or Baba Ghanoush or something oftentimes they’ll have zucchini that you can just dip in it. Just raw zucchini.

Sean: Yeah, just raw zucchini slice.

Joshua: So I just cut the zucchini and in the bathroom before I got on the train I washed them off and then I just ate them like a hot dog.

Sean: Nice.

Joshua: And you know what I found out? I think I said this to someone else on his podcast. I forgot who I said it to. But when I was a kid I didn’t really like zucchini and I don’t eat it that often but it’s really sweet. I couldn’t finish… I had to pause between each zucchini to let my mouth recover from how sweet they were and actually I looked it up later – zucchini is a fruit.

Sean: Is it really?

Joshua: Yeah. It’s kind of like tomato there.

Sean: Oh, yeah.

Joshua: You know in a culinary sense they’re a vegetable. But in I don’t know but in botanical sense… So I was kind of surprised to find something I thought of was like very healthy as being very sweet, more sweet than I could handle without pausing which I guess is what happens when you go without Ben & Jerry’s for a long time and that kind of stuff.

Sean: Huh. That’s pretty fascinating.

Joshua: Yeah. It turns out that like there’s convenient food out there besides fruit that isn’t bad.

Sean: Yeah. I know some of my friends who are more into the ketogenic diet when they travel carry around cans of sardines, avocados and things like that to make it easier to manage the challenges of hotel food and eating out.

Joshua: So I’m going to do something with you that I haven’t done with anyone yet which is to see if you want to go for a significantly bigger next step. I don’t mean to put you on the spot but you’re also describing a positive experience or an expense that sounds at least emotionally rewarding. The reason I haven’t done it before is that I want to support people in what they want to do and not to impose on them. On the other hand, now that I’ve done a few dozen podcasts…

Sean: You want to push people a little bit further?

Joshua: You know ultimately I don’t want to have a whole bunch of people who just use less coffee mugs or disposable coffee cups – definitely better than nothing. But also I think once that mindset shift happens I think people like the prospect of going for more. And here’s a blog post I wrote recently. People often ask me, “If you don’t eat packaged food, what do you eat?” or “If you’re not flying, what do you do?” And then there are two answers to that question. One is “What you’re looking for.” and it’s worthless which is I can tell you specifically what I eat but if you really care, that’s not sufficient for you because it’s not going to help you. You’ve got to figure for yourself. If you don’t care it’s wasting my time and energy for me to answer that question because you’re just like “I don’t want to be a dancing monkey.” And if you’re not really caring you know sometimes people ask stuff because it’s what comes to the mind. But if you really do care a way to find out, if you really want to find out, I don’t mean you you but this is what I’ve been saying to everyone who has asked me that… You tell yourself I’m not going to get packaged food and give yourself time and say, “I’m just going to figure it out.” And one of two things is going to happen: you’re going to die of hunger or you are going to figure it out. I guess you could give up. Like if you say, “I’m going to travel and not eat these bars.”, then you’ll figure it out. Like I’m pretty sure you’re not going to die.

Sean: Yeah. I would definitely figure it out in one way shape or form.

Joshua: And I can tell you that if you do not try, you will analyze forever and never find out. The main thing is the challenge. You’re probably never going to sit down and say, “I’m going to be traveling this time from Friday through Tuesday and so all I do for breakfast lunch and dinner for each….” No. You’re not going to do that, I can tell you.

Sean: Yeah. No, absolutely not.

Joshua: But if you go and you say, “I’m going to figure it out.”, then you’ll figure it out. So I am going to have stick that in the mix of what you’re thinking about and see if anything comes out. I think also with the traveling you know I just signed his contract to give talks in Salt Lake City and I negotiated, not negotiated but I made sure that the contract which originally said that I would be reimbursed for my flights, we changed the wording to say “I’ll be reimbursed for my travel” because I’m most likely going to take the train to Salt Lake City and possibly get… I’m looking into an electric vehicle and seeing if there are solar powered charging stations that go the whole away. Whether that solution will work for others or not is secondary to the main point which is that if you…

Sean: Well, for you.

Joshua: For me it may work but the reason I mentioned it is not because I’m suggesting everyone take the train between New York and Salt Lake City but I’m saying that if you have the mindset of “I can do this.”, then you figure things out and actually leads to like you said for yourself interesting conversations and relationships you didn’t think about, stuff like that.

Sean: Yeah. [unintelligible] that mindset of looking for the solutions definitely re-frames the entire situation.

Joshua: It sets you in the mindset of problem solving like “How am I going to do this? I can do this.” It’s like fun from a certain perspective. Like I want to do this thing. I can probably do it. Let me see if I can figure out how and it becomes different. I suspect that if you say, “I’m just not going to do any more of these bars.”, you’ll figure something out and you probably like what you’ve come up with more.

I’ve actually found I used to do a lot of those bars when I was in business school because I’d just go downstairs on the way to school and there’s a little deli down there to get my bars and not until after I stopped doing that did I look back and realize these bars didn’t make me less hungry. I don’t know your experience but I would eat them and I’d find out myself just as hungry later as I was before.

Sean: Yeah. For me they’re kind of just… They’re not a meal replacement. They’re just additional calories source.

Joshua: Now here I’m like injecting something which I don’t if I should but I’m going to do it anyway.

Sean: Go for it.

Joshua: You know there’s fruit, nuts.

Sean: True. You mentioned I thought [unintelligible] that you buy most of your nuts [unintelligible].

Joshua: Yeah. In my cupboard right now I have like I don’t know 10-20 pounds of nuts just… No, not that much. I have 10 pounds maybe of cashews and some almonds. I have mostly cashews. And then every now and then I’ll get some walnuts or some Brazil nuts or something on sale. I got a bunch of peanut butter which they also… There’s a machine there so it grinds it from the [unintelligible].

Sean: Cool.

Joshua: Yeah. I like the taste better and the texture.

Sean: Yeah. And you bring your own container and it shoots it right into that?

Joshua: Yeah and partly I eat all these nuts because you know I put less and less oil all the time in my food and now there’s almost no oil. If I didn’t eat these nuts, I don’t know if I’d have… I don’t know how much fat I’d had in my diet. It’s like I just kept putting less and less in it and I didn’t miss the flavor. And then when I put the nuts on top I’m like that tastes really good, plus the texture. Anyone listening…

Sean: Especially [unintelligible].

Joshua: Yeah. Or all of them. I mean they all taste really good. You’ve got to pair them right. And so yeah. Whoever’s listening, if you want to come over and have some of my vegetable stew and taste the nuts on it, it’s really good. So all right. I’m going to leave that with you. We won’t schedule the next one unless you want to but this is my first time nudging someone to take on a significantly bigger challenge. Actually you know some people have given up… It looks like they’re going give up cars so it’s kind of ramping up on its own for people who are on the podcast. Yeah. So far everyone who is doing it no one’s gotten to hear the podcast from someone else because as we’re recording now it’s pre-launch so no one’s heard it. I guess after it’s been out I don’t know what’s going to happen when I start interviewing people who have heard it before. They’re going to come in having done their own challenge first and now they want to do a bigger one. I don’t know.

Sean: Yeah. I’m not sure but I think that [unintelligible] people or hearing people’s stories about how they’ve grappled with the challenge and then trying to figure out what’s next.

Joshua: Yeah. So that’s my challenge to you now is to think about that. And if you come up with anything, then that will be something we talk about next. I guess after you’re back in New York and we’re getting coffee in reusable mugs.

Sean: Sounds good.

Joshua: I like how I brought that full circle.

Sean: I do too. That was nice.

Joshua: Any message for listeners? Something to leave off with, advice or thoughts or whatever?

Seam: It’s not as hard as you make it up to be in your mind initially.

Joshua: Oh, you could be saying that yourself about the bigger challenges.

Sean: Yeah. Oh, wow. Way to bring it full circle again.

Joshua: I would say that was going better.

Sean: Yeah.

Joshua: So good. So I’m going to leave that for now as the introduction for the next conversation that we’ll have when we’re in person back in New York.

Sean: Cool. Thanks, Josh.

Joshua: Alright. I’ll talk to you then.

Sean: Yeah. Take care.

Joshua: Bye.


I wonder if you can get by never using another disposable coffee cup again. If so, I predict you’ll develop relationships with baristas that is you’ll replace conflict between your environmental values and actions that is if you value not polluting and you’ll replace that with increased humanity, maybe even friendship. I hope also hearing my episode from about 18 months ago. This is about 100 episodes before my most recent ones. Maybe hearing my inexperience starting a podcast will motivate you to start your project whatever it might be. I predict you’ll be surprised at how fast you learn, how much you learn and how much you’ll influence others.

Read my weekly newsletter

On initiative, leadership, the environment, and burpees

We won't send you spam. Unsubscribe at any time. Powered by ConvertKit

Leave a Reply

Sign up for my weekly newsletter