Like many bright young minds, Morgan Mercer of St. Paul graduated from college brimming with big ideas, but unsure of how to make them real.
So 26-year-old Mercer, a freelance writer and artist, did something many of us are strangely reluctant to do:
She asked for advice — not once, but 50 times.
From January 2015 through March of this year, Mercer sat across the table from a growing Who’s Who of coffee-drinking out-of-the-box thinkers, including photographers, producers, philanthropists, editors and teachers.
Her 50 Coffees project began with practical intent, as a strategic way to figure out the kind of work she wanted to do and the impact she wanted to make. But questions such as “How do you schedule your day?” and “How much do you charge?” quickly shifted to meatier themes. Risk-taking and jealousy. Wonder and authenticity. Why, and more important, how, to resist living a safe life.
“Everyone had different strengths and something valuable to add,” Mercer said of her interviews. “That has just been incredible.” After each coffee date, Mercer teased out the best nuggets, drew an illustration of each mentor and posted the growing body of wisdom to her Instagram account (instagram.com/morgan.e.mercer).
“It’s almost selfish,” Mercer said with a magnetic smile. “I go ask for help and I get it.”
She graduated from Cannon Falls High School and studied at Grinnell College in Iowa before transferring to the University of Minnesota. She earned a bachelor of fine arts degree in art and a bachelor’s degree in journalism, interned briefly at the Star Tribune, then worked as a fashion blogger and assignment editor at WCCO-TV, Channel 4.
She’s working as a freelance illustrator and writer for a few nonprofits and magazines, and selling large-scale abstract oil paintings out of her studio in the Northrup King Building.
Last year, the self-described “big-idea person who never wanted to do anything traditional” was feeling stuck.
“I was trying so hard to architect my own life,” said Mercer, who lives at home with her parents, Galen and Lynn, and her pit bull mix, Harlow. “I wanted to grow by finding people who had already been through it, and asking them to share it with me.”
The 50 Coffees idea is not original. Her inspiration came from former WCCO colleague Erica Hanna.
“I had seen her postings about coffees,” Mercer said of Hanna. “I needed a goal. I thought, ‘I’m jealous! It’s so cool.’ Then, ‘Oh, wait. You could just do it, too.’ ”
She began her list, first meeting with friends and former co-workers. The coffees expanded to requests to meet with people she didn’t know but wanted to, “such as people working for themselves, starting their own brands, doing cool” stuff.
She contacted most people via e-mail or Facebook. Only one person declined.
“Oftentimes, people don’t give themselves permission to ask,” Mercer said. “You have to ask. So often, people you don’t think are willing to help do want to share their knowledge.”
She was thrilled, for example, when Kaywin Feldman, director of the Minneapolis Institute of Art, agreed to meet with her. The two women talked about the concept of wonder, and how to get adults to slow down enough to experience it (and not simply write it off as a delight reserved for children).
Feeling bolder, Mercer reached out to Jeff Stark. The New York University professor and artist created Nonsense NYC, which compiles a list of upcoming events of strange and unique happenings in the Big Apple, including puppet shows, street events, costume balls and guerrilla theater.
“I’d love to take you out for coffee while I’m in NY,” she e-mailed, “to chat more about your work and experiences.”
He wrote back: “How can I resist?”
Coffee date No. 49 was with Marc Winn, whom she met at a MisfitCon conference. His small goal is to make Guernsey, his island of residence in the English Channel, “the best place to live on Earth by 2020.”
“He believes in big ideas,” Mercer said of Winn, “and in not saying no.”
Addicted to this stimulating adventure, she’s working on her next list of dream coffee candidates she hopes won’t say no.
Then? A book, maybe?
“My dad keeps bugging me … ‘So, when is your book coming out?’ ” she said. “A book could be a really, really fun way to capture this, but for sure, I would like to do some interactive online story.”
First, though, she wants to set the record straight.
“Actually, I’m not a coffee drinker,” said the tea-drinking Mercer. “But having coffee is an established trope. It means sharing, talking.” She paused.
“You know what it really means? It means an hour with someone who likes the idea of helping me accomplish a goal.”