What I Learned from Julia Child on Friday Afternoon

Posted 08.10.2009

 My wife, the healthy food blogger (www.thewholegang.org), and I played hooky from work last Friday afternoon and went to the 1:10 pm showing of the new movie, Julie and Julia. (We were there with all of the retired folks and I concluded that that looks like a pretty sweet gig.)  Anyway, it’s a great movie – two thumbs way up from both of us. Anytime you have Meryl Streep (as Julia Child) and Stanley Tucci (as her husband Paul Child) acting together you’re well on your way to a great movie.

Julia1In case you’re not familiar with it, Julie and Julia tells the story of two women, Julia Child, who revolutionized cooking in the United States with the publication in 1961 of Mastering the Art of French Cooking and Julie Powell, who in 2002, made a name for herself by cooking and blogging her way through the more than 500 recipes in Child’s cookbook in one year.

A lot of the reviews I’ve read of the movie (like this one from Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post) love the Julia Child parts and hate the Julie Powell parts. The basic argument of the critics is that it is so much fun to watch the passionate, talented and humorous Child create herself that the segments that focus on the self absorbed and whiny Powell aren’t as entertaining or compelling by comparison.

Looking through my leadership lens (as is my wont), I think those criticisms miss one of the more subtle points of the movie.  That point is that world changing success takes time and a motivation that goes beyond the desire to be famous. In his New York Times review, A.O. Scott notes that with Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Child changed 20th century culture in her domain in the way that Benjamin Spock’s Baby and Child Care and Dr. Seuss’ Cat in the Hat changed theirs. Julie and Julia does a wonderful job of showing the joy, resilience and sense of mission that Julia Child took first in learning the craft of French cuisine and then in the eight years that she and her partners put into creating a book to share what they had learned with an American audience. As the movie shows, Julie Powell’s motivation in blogging her way through the cookbook was to stand out in some way and make herself feel better in comparison to her seemingly successful friends. In terms of motivation and life purpose, the two just don’t stack up against each other and neither does the impact of the two women’s work.

For my wife Diane and me, a critical moment in the movie was when, during his State Department assignment in post-World War II France, Paul asks Julia, “What is it that you really like to do?” She laughingly replied, “I like to eat!”  From that realization sprung her passion and ambition to immerse herself in French cooking.  And from that passion and ambition sprung the greatness of her life’s work. 

Do you want to be happy? Do you want to make a difference with your life and your leadership? Get someone you trust to ask you that question, “What is it that you really like to do?” Pay attention to and trust your answer and then look for ways to act on it. You may not come up with Mastering the Art of French Cooking but I’ll bet what you do come up with will be great in its own right.