10 career lessons from Julia Child

10 career lessons from Julia Child

Readers, I hope you'll forgive me for writing another culinary-themed post here at Get Rich Slowly. Last week I wrote about the expense of healthy food cooked at home, and this week I can't help but to talk about something that's been on my mind as I've read My Life In France by Julia Child and Alex Prud'Homme.

My Life in France chronicles Julia Child's life from the year she arrived in France in 1948, knowing nothing about the French culture or language, nor the cuisine she would so famously present to to America in her ground-breaking cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and her television show, The French Chef.

What does any of that have to do with career lessons? One of the things that stood out about Julia as she progressed from culinary disaster to American icon was her business sense. (When they were still dating, her husband, Paul Child, was kind about her early attempts in the kitchen because he wanted to marry her.)

Of course she didn't specifically set out to achieve all that she did the day she arrived in France, or even the day she took her first cooking class. But her passion and dogged persistence made her a great chef, as well as a household name.

Without further ado, here are the top 10 career lessons you can learn from Julia Child:

  1. Invest in yourself. Julia didn't speak French when she arrived in France. In fact, she says her French seemed to get worse the more she tried to use it and she was surprised the French could understand her at all. “…my inability to communicate was hugely frustrating,” she wrote. One night after a party of mostly French speakers, she'd had it. She declared she was going to learn to speak the language no matter what it took and signed up for a language class that met for six hours each week, plus homework.
  2. Follow your passion. Julia's friends, both French and American, thought her early interest in cooking was a little nutty. It wasn't a middle-class hobby, in fact, far from it: they didn't understand how she could enjoy shopping, cooking, and serving food all by herself. But Julia, encouraged by Paul, ignored them and pursued her passion.
  3. You're never to old to learn something new. Julia was 36 years old when she started learning a new language. She didn't enroll in culinary school until age 37. Julia had a constant thirst for knowledge and didn't rest until she'd mastered or learned whatever it was that piqued her curiosity.
  4. Cultivate enthusiasm. Julia's words about food and learning to cook practically jump off the pages. While reading it, I couldn't decide if I wanted to keep reading or go cook something. Her passion is infectious, and it was something she purposefully cultivated while observing her cooking professor, Chef Bugnard. “It was a remarkable lesson,” she wrote. “No dish, not even the humble scrambled egg, was too much trouble for him…I was delighted by Bugnard's enthusiasm and thoughtfulness. And I began to internalize it.”
  5. Accept that doing anything well requires hard work. Julia wasn't satisfied to take culinary classes or write recipes off-the-cuff — her kitchen was her laboratory. While in culinary school, she'd come home from class and spend hours working out the hows and whys of what she'd learned that day. When writing recipes, she'd test every ingredient and measurement, experimenting with mayonnaise until she was certain no one could possibly have written more on the subject than she had. “I had never taken anything so seriously in my life — husband and cat excepted — and I could hardly bear to be away from the kitchen,” she wrote.
  6. Nix the self-deprecating scripts. When a recipe fell flat, Julia didn't excuse it with self-deprecating comments. “I don't believe in twisting yourself into knots of excuses and explanations…” she wrote. These types of admissions only draw attention to your shortcomings (or your perceived shortcomings). Usually you're better than you think you are, and if something really goes wrong, Julia would advise you to suck it up and learn from your mistakes.
  7. Solicit feedback from your audience. Julia was big on soliciting feedback. Paul was her main go-to, but while developing her recipes, she'd also send them to trusted friends and family members in America for testing. Did they have the ingredients at their local grocery? Were her instructions clear? Did they like her vocabulary? Julia wanted to bring French cooking to American audiences; she knew . She made sure her audience would be able to follow her recipes — and actually cared about French cooking.
  8. Expand your skill set. Julia was passionate about teaching others to cook. But to do it well, she couldn't just be a good cook — she had to learn how to be a good teacher. “I decided that, though the cooking we'd done was fine, my presentation had not been very clear…I felt I'd have to teach at least a hundred classes before I really knew what I was doing,” she wrote. Learning how to teach was helpful throughout her career, both for writing recipes and as the host of her own cooking show.
  9. Subject beliefs to “the operational proof.” In France, wrote Julia, cooking is a major art, which brings with it a certain dogmatism. But she wasn't satisfied to accept things at face value. She preferred to view everything as a theory until she'd tested it for herself. She checked her recipe on the page and in the oven, and she'd investigate the old wives' tales too. As you can imagine, it took a lot of time to perfect even one recipe. “I felt we should strive to show our readers how to make everything top-notch, and explain, if possible, why things work one way but not another,” she wrote.
  10. Know your worth. Publishing Mastering the Art of French Cooking wasn't easy. Julia's co-authors wanted to stay with an agent who hadn't replied to their communications in months, but thanks to a little networking, Julia secured a much better publishing company for their project. She knew its worth long before it was completed, writing, “Competition in this field is stiff, but we feel this may well be a major work on French cooking…and could continue to sell for years.”

Julia's career savvy isn't what she's famous for, but it is what made her famous and allowed her to accomplish her life goal: bringing French food to American dinner tables and sharing her passion with the world.

Which of these lessons can you use to make a positive change in your career or business? What can you do today to take the first step?

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Elizabeth
Elizabeth
8 years ago

Great post, April 🙂 Julia Child has always been a hero of mine because she bucked the trends — she married and founded her career in her thirties.

One of the points I like best here is Child’s willingness to master the art of teaching. I’ve a lot of people who have expertise to share aren’t willing to master the crafts of writing and teaching. (I guess that’s why ghost writing can be a lucrative career!)

Kaitlyn
Kaitlyn
8 years ago

You forgot “become a spy.” 🙂

I’m working on the “cultivate enthusiasm” part. I’m really not particularly interested in what I do (I swear, I watch paint dry. Literally), but I’m trying to learn from those who are.

imelda
imelda
8 years ago
Reply to  Kaitlyn

What in the world is your job??

Kaitlyn
Kaitlyn
8 years ago
Reply to  imelda

I’m a coatings chemist. We make the binder for paints (think eggs in a cake). One of the things we have to look for with new binders is “does it dry and how long does it take?” Can’t know unless you watch it. :p

STRONGside
STRONGside
8 years ago

To be honest, my first experience with Julia Child came from the movie Julie and Julia. While not the most fantastic movie, I did earn a respect for Julia Child.

It is inspiring to see the hard work and dedication she gave to following her passion, and to creating something that she believed in. Passive investing and smart personal finance both require similar passion and dedication.

Mondo Esteban
Mondo Esteban
8 years ago

I would say always accept free education. My company is in the IT field and I work as an analyst. Though I don’t know if my future is in the industry, my company opted to train me on SAS (a widely used programming language). I actually found it interesting and since it’s widely used, it’s a transferable skill I can bring with me where ever I go. Always accept free education.

Cara
Cara
8 years ago

Julia Child is one of my heroes. One other thing to note: she was 50 when Mastering the Art of French Cooking was published and 51 when the first episode of The French Chef aired. She didn’t become THE Julia Child until in her 50s! It’s never, ever too late.

20's Finances
20's Finances
8 years ago

Investing in yourself can be one of the most rewarding things you do. If you follow a career path that you enjoy instead of one motivated by money, I find you will be much happier.

Holly
Holly
8 years ago

Julia Child could have been a case in Working Identity, the book I am reading on career transitions. Passion for your work is the most important part of successful transition.

I take umbrage at your surprise that someone as old as 37(!) can embark on a career transition. One is never too old to start something new, and 37 is not that old. (Says someone old enough to have watched episodes of the French Chef on their original air dates.)
😉

Beth
Beth
8 years ago
Reply to  Holly

These days I wouldn’t see it as much of a surprise, but in Child’s generation women having a job at all wasn’t all that common, let alone starting a career at an age where women were considered to be past their prime.

I think Child in her own way helped pave the way for the rest of us.

29 and holding
29 and holding
8 years ago
Reply to  Beth

During “the war”, nearly all women worked. Many, including Child and my mother and my grandmother, continued to work after the war was over. Nearly every woman I know of that was alive in the 30’s and 40’s worked. Maybe the lives of my families are not as nice as a TV family!

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
8 years ago
Reply to  29 and holding

And how many of those women still had jobs — let alone careers — when the war was over and the men returned? Career opportunities for women were there, but were pretty limited.

My grandmother was a secretary until she got married. Then her job was raising kids and keeping house. She was always amazed at the opportunities I had to pursue my dreams that her generation didn’t.

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
8 years ago
Reply to  29 and holding

@29 and Holding — since writing the above, I wonder if we’re talking about the same country here. I’m in Canada, so I can only speak to the experience of women here. I wonder how many women worked at jobs that were their passion though?

Jacq
Jacq
8 years ago
Reply to  Holly

Working Identity is a great career book.

Lauren {Adventures in Flip Flops}
Lauren {Adventures in Flip Flops}
8 years ago

This is one of my absolute favorite books. I really loved how she just decided she wanted to do something and she did it. I can only hope to be so focused and accomplish so much of what I want to do.

Suba @ Wealth Informatics
Suba @ Wealth Informatics
8 years ago

It is one of my favorite book too.

One more lesson I learned ( it is already there in different forms in your post, just not explicitly) – know your strengths and weakness. If she didn’t accept her weaknesses and decide to work on them without her ego clashing, she would have never succeeded. A lot of us need that first step of soul searching and acceptance.

Joe+@+Not+Your+Average+Joe
[email protected]+Not+Your+Average+Joe
8 years ago

My wife and I still love to watch the reruns of the PBS series with Julia and Jacques Pepin. It’s great TV, and you can still see a very nice enthusiasm for her craft, although by that time she had been doing it for many years.

37 is young to start! I’m 48 and thinking of new ways to start things constantly. And I think I’m young 😉

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
8 years ago

Here’s one to add: Enter the market at the right time. Some people might wanna kill me for this, but please read before jumping. I’m not trying to diss anybody’s idol. I was never too impressed by Julia Child. First time I really watched her was with Jacques Pepin and he blew her out of the water– they were cooking peas, and while Pepin was focused on the flavor, she worried about hers “looking better” (after a wash with cold water they turned bright green–who cares?). Afterwards I’ve seen some of her old shows and, again, while she was charming,… Read more »

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
8 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

oh, crap, the lack of editing! the 50s recipes are here:

http://www.masterstech-home.com/the_kitchen/recipes/reminiscent_recipes/recipesfromthe50s.html

(the horror)

anyway, more errors to come i’m sure.

Beth
Beth
8 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

Agreed! But I think a better way of phrasing it would be “address a need in the market”. You’re exactly right about Child being a pioneer and how things would be different if she was entering the market today.

I think the same thing can be said for the rest of us. If you try to start a business in a field where there is also a lot of competition, you have to be smarter, better and cheaper than the rest. However, if you can find needs that aren’t being met and address those, you’re in a much better position.

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
8 years ago
Reply to  Beth

Yes… yes and no. I agree with you that when seeking to build a business you need to address a market need and you research that and then build your mouse trap or what not. However, I don’t think Julia Child was looking for wild success and celebrity. I think (maybe it’s wishful thinking) she was just following her passion. And she was lucky that the timing of her passion coincided with a market need. The life choice seems to be: do you follow your passion and trust your luck to the stars? Or do you pursue success by addressing… Read more »

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski
8 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

I know a lot of people who tried to follow their passions and can’t pay their bills because being an outdoor educator or a museum curator or a chef or a baseball player actually aren’t particularly marketable skills most of the time, *unless you are exceptionally good and get lucky on top of that*.

I don’t know any doctors or engineers or accountants with the same problem, though.

Beth
Beth
8 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

Of course! We should all be doctors and engineers and accountants! Problem solved.

Beth
Beth
8 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

Sorry, I couldn’t resist. You wouldn’t want me as your doctor, engineer or accountant. That’s not where my strengths lie.

I know plenty of people who did pursue their passions and have good paying jobs. However, I don’t imagine my social circle is particularly representative of the job market at large.

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski
8 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

We can’t all be doctors and engineers, but there are a lot more job openings for doctors and engineers and accountants and mechanics and roofers than there are “passion” positions like celebrity chef or professional football player or novelist. It’s naive not to temper your career choices with a bit of reality.

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
8 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

@Tyler — I love that you include roofers and mechanics there 🙂 For some people, those jobs are their “passion position”, and more power to them!

I think you’re right that we have to temper our passions with realistic choices. A lot of people start with a day job and transition into another business or career without having to take a huge leap of faith. Some people can go “all in” and make a big sacrifice. I think it has to do with risk tolerance as much as talent.

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
8 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

Yeah I’m following my passions and I’ve had to make economic “adjustments” because I don’t see a lot of money from it. I’m fine with it however– I had a doctor who killed himself– go figure. I’d love to have more money but I’m not willing to give up the way I live just for a bigger paycheck– when I did that, I’d be drinking off my paycheck come Thursday. Maybe the suicide doctor did the same. Anyway… The thing is that people have to make that conscious choice– do I do what I love in spite of the risks?… Read more »

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
8 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

@ El Nerdo — I find it easier to work in a lower-paying field and do what I enjoy because some of my family and most of my social circle aren’t into fashion, big houses, expensive cars, yearly vacations, gourmet dinners, etc. For me, it’s easier to be happy in my career because my lifestyle expectations aren’t so high. I can afford to save for retirement, have an emergency fund, have no consumer debt and can afford to help others. That’s not everyone’s definition of success, but that’s the one I hold myself too. I think we all have to… Read more »

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski
8 years ago
Reply to  April Dykman

That is the case with every celebrity. It is not the case with the 1000 people each who wanted to be a celebrity, but failed, and as such you have never heard of them. He is making the argument that in today’s environment, Julia Child would fall into the (gigantically larger) second group.

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
8 years ago

I don’t think that means people should stop trying though. Yes, people need to be realistic as to what’s going on out there — and have a back-up plan, but where would we be if people didn’t take a risk now and then?

As for the doctors, engineers, accountants, etc… I’d be curious to see how many people didn’t get into medical school or law school, or didn’t get accepted to an engineering program — or who flunked out. I have no doubt these professionals have skill set that are in demand, but how many people failed along the way?

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
8 years ago
Reply to  April Dykman

Ah, Rachael Ray– I used to have a bit of a crush on her back when she was doing the “$40 a day”– she was like a cute, fun-loving road-trip accomplice. Then something happened to her and was transformed into… eh, let’s just say my crush was crushed. Personality aside, her cooking is vile. VILE. I don’t know about her daytime TV audience– if I did, I’d be a TV executive. Therefore I can’t explain her success– like I can’t explain Oprah or Dr. Phil. I can explain Jerry Springer, but he’s off topic. What I can explain however is… Read more »

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
8 years ago
Reply to  April Dykman

Oh, for the record, I’m not saying that Julia Child made it impossible for everybody else to be successful. On the contrary! She made it possible for a lot of people to find fulfilling careers in food-related work in the USA, from farming to cooking to publishing to (of course) TV. It’s just that wild success in a new field comes to the one that arrives second (yes, second).

KSK
KSK
8 years ago

Thanks for the great post! And thanks for your post last week on cooking healthy foods at home. This Sunday in the NYTimes, Mark Bittman had an interesting piece on a similar subject, “Is Junk Food Really Cheaper.” In his article he talked about how cooking is defined as a chore and that fast food has become a crutch. He also talked about how Americans have lost the skill to put a quick, easy, in-expensive home-cooked meal of real food on the table; and how a cultural change is needed in order to change things. Really interesting article, and relates… Read more »

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski
8 years ago
Reply to  KSK

I am quite tired of these articles that present a premise as true without showing any evidence at all that it actually is. The premise is, “cooking at home is healthier than fast food.” This guy compares a roast chicken to a meal of McDonald’s hamburgers, says nothing about the health-affecting qualities of either, and then concludes that the chicken is healthier. Even if that is true (which he hasn’t shown), does he not realize that KFC will sell you a roast chicken? Or that you could make hamburgers at home? His argument is based entirely on elitism — it… Read more »

partgypsy
partgypsy
8 years ago

I agree. I would have more respect for some of these chefs if they actually went into the home of a poor family (or single mother with kids), worked with her during the time she had off in showing her how to cook, and got an idea of what her real resources are. It might be eye opening for both of them.

Kandace
Kandace
8 years ago

If you liked that book, try “As Always, Julia.” It’s an edited version of her letters to Simone Beck, the American woman who helped get her manuscript published. It shows Child’s tenacity, the way she manages her household, and her passion. It’s a great read.

Piccolina
Piccolina
8 years ago

Thank you for this post! The lessons learned can be extended to all sorts of fields and careers. I’m a writer, and I think these same principles can be applied to my own pursuits and goals.

I think I’ll pick up that book, it sounds like an inspiring read.

Allison
Allison
8 years ago

Excellent article! One of the bests posts I’ve read.

retirebyforty
retirebyforty
8 years ago

I’m a huge fan of Julia Child. I think follow your passion and cultivate enthusiasm are the two that I need to start with. I’m working in a cubicle and it is neither my passion or enthusiastic…. I’m working on an exit plan though.

Mary
Mary
8 years ago

That fired me up (and redeemed my time from what I thought was a terrible book – I didn’t enjoy it at all! We heard it on audio during a long drive from Savannah to northwest Georgia). I don’t think I’ll ever look at a book in the same way again!

Jessica Velasquez
Jessica Velasquez
8 years ago

Wonderful article! I’ve just begun an entrepreneurial journey at our family business, and I found much to be inspired by here. As a former English teacher and current stay-at-home mom, I’m entering the business world as a complete novice, which may actually turn out to be a blessing in disguise. Beginner’s Mind is a wonderful thing, and it is allowing me to think creatively and dream big about our company, Theta Plate. Thank you for added inspiration!

Carol
Carol
8 years ago

What an inspiring story. I never thought of Julia Child having lessons to teach me about career planning. (The book is going on my Amazon Wish List.)

I’m a homemaker who stopped work for several years to raise children and am now looking to start a new career. I’m in my early 50s and am encouraged by your post.

Thank you.

JP Adams
JP Adams
8 years ago

“3. You’re never to old to learn something new” – how true!

The below are living examples that we all can continue to learn into their 60’s and 70’s and even 80’s.

– Martha Stewart, 70
– Warren Buffet, 81
– David McCullough, 78
– Barbara Walters, 81
– Clint Eastwood, 81
– Supreme Court: 6 of the 9 members are over 60 years of age.

Tanya
Tanya
8 years ago

Wonderful article. I loved “Julie and Julia” and this blog post leaves me feeling inspired. Julia Child was atypical in many ways, but instead of feeling awkward or lacking confidence, she blazed forward. Her example is one we can all learn something from.

Laura @MotherWouldKnow
Laura @MotherWouldKnow
8 years ago

Love this post and the lessons – especially #3. I’ve adored Julia Child since the first episodes of her show aired and I watched them in black-and-white. My own 85 yr old mom figured out how to find my blog online and comment on it – can’t have a better role model for #3 than that!

Sherry
Sherry
8 years ago

My Life In France is a WONDERFUL book. Julie and Julia is a much better book than movie, though I did enjoy the movie. I found My Life In France very inspiring.
Another wonderful book about Julia Child, her husband and others is called Covert Affair, which is about Julia and Paul’s work for the government when the org they worked for later because the CIA. VERY interesting stuff. It’s funny to think where she started and where she ended up. =)

Robert+Zaleski
Robert+Zaleski
8 years ago

I hate to say it, but if you only have 2 examples for 10 points, just skip the examples and do the points.

I like the points BTW, it’s just hard to relate EVERYTHING to cooking and french 🙂

Pat
Pat
8 years ago

In reading through the comments here, I think too many people confuse the words “passion” and “career”, and because of this they come to the erroneous conclusion that, more often than not, it just isn’t feasible to eek out an acceptable living based on passions. As an example: my career is that of Administrative Assistant. My passions, on the other hand, are helping others, teaching and mentoring others, leading and speaking, and working in collaborative partnership with others. If I had focused only on my passions, well, the likelihood of making a good or even reliable income from them alone… Read more »

Joanne Mosconi
Joanne Mosconi
4 years ago

Loved reading this article! I am currently a student in The French Culinary Institute and I turn 37 next week. I am on a culinary journey and sometimes experience self doubt because I indulge in the idea that I may be too old! Your article helped shine a light on me highlighting how ridiculous that all is! Julia is an inspiration!

DAC
DAC
3 years ago

Me to same here! But stay focused on your passion!!

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