What Julia Child Can Teach You About Community Management.

On a whim, I picked up the audiobook of Julia Child's memoir My Life in France recently. While I was just looking for a nice, engrossing, entertaining listen during commutes, I found myself thinking that I could really learn a lot from Julia Child - and not just as a cook. Her life is amazing (did you know that she was in the government agency that later became the CIA?) and her writing is full of tidbits that can be used as life lessons. I found that some of her philosophies can even be lessons for community managers.

  • You will break a few eggs. What made Julia Child so personable on television (and so ripe for parody) was how well she dealt with the unexpected. For her show, The French Chef, demonstrations were typically done in one long take. Any little slip-ups were left in, with Julia showing how to course correct before moving on. As Community Managers, we work in one long take, in real-time, with our mistakes out there sometimes. Most mistakes are pretty minor, and we can course correct and move on quickly. And a lot of mistakes never make it to our audiences. As Julia says, "if you’re alone in the kitchen you can always just pick it up. Who’s going to see?" Little slips aren't the end of everything. 
  • Make it better next time. Julia had little patience for self-deprecating remarks or excuses. "Maybe the cat has fallen into the stew, or the lettuce has frozen, or the cake has collapsed. Eh bien, tant pis. Usually one's cooking is better than one thinks it is. And if the food is truly vile... then the cook must simply grit her teeth and bear it with a smile, and learn from her mistakes.” Maybe you told your community something that, a day later, was completely reversed by your higher-ups, maybe you made a typo, maybe you forgot to turn off your scheduled posts during a crisis - suck it up, apologize, learn from it, and move on. 
  • Embrace Feedback. When writing Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Julia would test, re-test, tweak and re-test recipes again and again until they were perfect. And once they were perfect, she would send the text to a select group of friends in the US, asking them to try out the recipes and let her know everything they thought: where they had difficulties, how the common American ingredients worked, how the dish turned out, any alterations they had to make for their equipment. It was this testing that made her recipes so exact and foolproof. Without listening to our feedback, we simply work in a vacuum and don't truly connect with our community. By taking that extra step and seeking out feedback, you find ways to address issues you didn't even know existed before.
  • Titles are Hard. For such a seemingly simply title, a lot of work went into putting together the words Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The authors and editor, Judith Jones, spent hours upon hours trying different combinations, searching for the phrase that would perfectly exemplify their work. Maybe this is just a lesson for me because I have the worst time coming up with good titles. 
  • Learn by Doing. “Just like becoming an expert in wine - you learn by drinking it, the best you can afford - you learn about great food by finding the best there is, whether simply or luxurious. Then you savor it, analyze it, and discuss it with your companions, and you compare it with other experiences.” Community Management is a fairly new discipline. There are few professional training courses for it. The way most of us learn is simply by doing it, but it's so valuable to take that next step: talk to other community managers, listen to what they have to say, learn from them and throw out ideas they can use. If you're lucky enough to live in NYC or San Francisco, there's a great community of community managers that meets to talk things out. If not, seek out online haunts and get involved. 
  • Take a step back. When making a tough decision between continuing with pressing work demands or taking a planned vacation, Julia and her husband Paul repeated one of their mantras to each other: “Remember, 'No one's more important than people.' In other words, friendship is the most important thing - not career or housework, or one's fatigue - and it needs to be tended and nurtured.” Community can easily become a 24/7 job if you let it. If you find yourself frequently blowing off social functions or cutting your people time short to get back to work, it might be time to take a step back and reconnect with your friends and family. 
  • Have Fun. For as passionate about getting recipes and methods right as Julia was, above all, she felt that cooking should be fun. That was partly why she insisted on testing and testing again: she wanted to make foolproof recipes so that readers wouldn't have to worry about the outcome and could enjoy the process. You're a Community Manager. Sometimes, you get to watch videos as research for work. Sometimes, community members tell you how your community or product changed their lives. Sometimes, you get to meet really cool people. Your job is pretty awesome most of the time; have fun with it. In Julia's words: "The pleasures of the table, and of life, are infinite."

In the spirit of that last one, enjoy this video of Julia Child Remixed from PBS Digital Studios:


(Image: wisdom from Julia Child, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from flyingsaab's photostream)

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