I want to make espresso that hits every part of the pallet and makes the eyes light up every time I pull a shot. I want my milk to blend in with the crema  in a way that makes you feel like milk and coffee should just get married and have babies, because they where meant for each other. I want my latte art to be a rossetta or a heart or a tulip every time I pour. This is all I want.
   Reality is, I've been a barista for a year now, (not counting the 80's and early 90's which I've blocked out) and I am getting better and better at the craft, but I don't have that natural intuitive feel for the espresso the way my more experienced co-workers have. For example I just got on shift yesterday and had a couple, who drive 10 miles for our coffee, order 2 americanos,  one decaf, one regular. When I handed the woman her coffee she took a sip and made a FACE, my heart sank, anything but that flipping sourpuss face! To make it worse the guy wasn't happy with his either. I told them that I really appreciate them letting me know so that I could fix the problem and remake their coffee. They did go away happy. But I was left thinking and obsessing on what went wrong.
  In retrospect the shots did not look up to par, so why did I serve them? I think the line intimidates me sometimes and I fall back to just getting people out the door.  Do the best baristas make a bad coffee once in a while? When does this become second nature? 
   I really did kind of toss and turn last night. I thought about the amount of crema on the shot, how long the crema lasted in the shot glass, the grind needing to be tighten, the grind needing to be coarsened, the amount in  the portafilter, the weather, the age of the bean, the time it took the shot to pour, the...... 

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"In retrospect the shots did not look up to par, so why did I serve them? I think the line intimidates me sometimes and I fall back to just getting people out the door. Do the best baristas make a bad coffee once in a while? When does this become second nature?"

It becomes second nature only with experience. I've been working behind the bar for 3 years now, and still occasionally pull shots that I'd rather forget about. And while I'm in no way close to "the best baristas," yes, even the champs make mistakes.

I will say this: the fact that serving a bad drink to a regular keeps you up at night means that you're dedicated to your trade, and trust me, your skills will get better with time.

Keep working and reading and pulling shots and losing sleep over the ones that blonde two seconds early!
I know I sink my share of shots. I've handed quite a few subpar drinks to customers too, not realizing a mistake until its too late. Its no fun to realize, or have the customer point it out, but it can be very motivating. The important part is that you work to keep it from happening next time.

Pay attention and trust your judgment when it comes to quality - if it doesn't look good, do it again. Don't fall into the trap of letting quality slide when things get busy. Customers will be far more forgiving of a longer wait if the drink is great.

As far as the whole "second nature" thing goes... a reasonable substitute is internalizing a sequence or set of guidelines. Even if you have to mentally run down a checklist every time for a while, your results will be great. I still run through a mental checklist when things don't seem to be flowing right.
Always accept that you will have a shot here and there that should not be served. It's recognizing it and not serving it that makes you a great barista. Creating espresso is like walking a tightrope between heaven and hell. Walk carefully, and don't get lost in the horizon.
And don't forget, when it comes to "the line" it's going to take a hellofa lot longer to fully make the drink twice (ie- making the drink, the customer being dissatisfied, telling you they are dissatisfied, you stopping the current drink, remaking their drink, etc) than it is to re-pull a shot.

Our setup allows the customer to fully see everything we are doing. When a customer asks why I pulled a shot and then proceeded to throw it down the drain, sometimes all the further I'll explain is, "Yeah... you didn't want that one..." Normally followed by a reassuring, "Much better" after I make the necessary adjustment. This shows the customer that I care. They begin to gain confidence in us.

Making adjustments is going to happen all day. You already know this. Recognizing this fact and acting upon it makes you great, recognizing it and not acting on it makes you a "barely-barista" worthy of a green-apron and nothing more. :)

When it comes to the choice, choose greatness! (or something else really cheesy and heroic like that)

-bry
It's very easy to over-analyze things when it comes to espresso(just spend a few minutes over on HB, lol). All you have to know is this - your skills are great if you can pull a decent shot into a cup complete with generous amounts of flecking on the top utilizing slightly inferior "starter" equipment. Case in point - I'm here in Dallas right now in a house that's currently in the process of being sold. There's nothing in here really except a bed, television, laptop, and a VERY abused through the years Saeco Classico(with a pressurized PF no less) along with a not so much abused refurbished Rancilio Rocky grinder. Pulling a decent shot requires eyeballing, temp surfing, and A LOT of guesstimating!
There are a a lot of variables to take into account when pulling great shots. I use a quick mental checklist

Are the shots pulling @ proper time. I prefer a 19 sec shot?
Is the grinder calibrated, grinding the proper grind?
Is the machine clean?
Recognizing a bad shot is great, serving it is not. Next time you want to serve it..try drinking it and see how it taste.

At least you care enough to share your story, honestly at that.
Good luck and keep up your quest for the perfect shot.

Go to the best place you know of and get one of their espresso shots, you will see the difference. If you are in NYC go to 29th & Broadway Stumptown Coffee or Mott street Gimme Coffee
Bryan Wray said:

Our setup allows the customer to fully see everything we are doing. When a customer asks why I pulled a shot and then proceeded to throw it down the drain, sometimes all the further I'll explain is, "Yeah... you didn't want that one..." Normally followed by a reassuring, "Much better" after I make the necessary adjustment. This shows the customer that I care. They begin to gain confidence in us.

I like this approach. If your shop is doing things right, customers will have started to notice that the drinks they get from you taste better than at the alternatives. Some may be wondering why that is. Anything you can let them see that will be different from the other guys will help them understand.

Also, you want to emphasize the human aspect of your job. Superautomatics are only getting better and more prevalent, and we'll be better off in the future if we can continue to get the message out now. Having a real barista behind the counter makes a difference.
Thank you for all your suggestions. The mental guideline checklist is a big help.

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