• Motto

Ina Garten: I Don’t Believe in Making Goals

4 minute read

Ina Garten, a.k.a. the Barefoot Contessa, has become synonymous with elegant, unfussy entertaining and recipes—but she actually started her career working in the White House. Last week, Motto spoke with the Food Network host and cookbook author to discuss her trajectory and the insights that helped her get where she is today.

Motto: What do you wish you’d known when you were just starting out in your career?
Garten: When you’re in your 20s, you feel like you need to have goals and that there are so many other things you should be doing. But the more I’ve grown my business and my career, the more I’ve come to believe that goals aren’t always helpful—at least not for me. Instead of trying to plot out specifically where I want to go, I’ve always just done the best job I can on what’s in front of me and let the universe reveal itself.

When I was in my 20s, I was working in nuclear energy policy and management and budget for the White House, thinking, “There’s got to be something more fun than this.” And then I saw an ad for a specialty-food store for sale in the New York Times, and it was in a place I’d never been before: West Hampton. So my husband, Jeffrey, said, “Let’s go look at it.”

To say that I knew nothing about what I was getting myself into was an understatement. I’d never run a business before, never even had employees working for me. But when I saw the store, I thought, “This is what I want to do.” So I made the woman a low offer, thinking we’d have time to negotiate. But the next day she called me and said, “I accept your offer.” That’s when I said to myself, “Oh, shoot. Now I have to run a specialty-food store.”

Motto: So you feel that not having a specific goal in mind helped keep you open to this opportunity that turned out to be life-changing for you?
Garten: I think if you set goals, you keep yourself from really interesting sidetracks. Before I bought my store, Barefoot Contessa, I’d thought I was going to go into real estate and buy old buildings and redo them. But I loved cooking, and when I saw the ad, it just clicked.

Something similar happened later, after I had been running the store for 20 years. I knew I wanted to do something else, so I sold the store to some of my employees, not having any idea what exactly I would do next. About nine months later, I thought, “I’ll write a cookbook while I figure out what I should do.” But then I turned out to really love writing cookbooks.

Motto: Do you have any other career advice for women in their 20s?
Garten: Somebody once gave Jeffrey some advice that I love: Complicate your professional life but not your personal life. The fact that I have a really strong, solid personal life allows me to take chances in my professional life that I wouldn’t be able to do otherwise. Having that stability has really helped me be someone who jumps in the pond instead of standing on the side of it, endlessly discussing what it would feel like to jump in. It’s those times that I’ve jumped in even though I was really scared that I’ve really done the things that were ultimately the most interesting.

Ina Garten is the author of nine bestselling cookbooks. She is also the host of the Barefoot Contessa television shows on Food Network.

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Write to Robin Hilmantel at robin.hilmantel@time.com