What we know for sure: Five high-pro­file Kiwi women share their life lessons

Tim­ing, sac­ri­fice, per­se­ver­ance, lead­ing by ex­am­ple and self-be­lief – five high-pro­file Kiwi women share the life lessons they live by

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Dame Trelise Cooper

Fash­ion de­signer

“From the early 1980s, I’ve lived by the phi­los­o­phy that ‘ev­ery­thing hap­pens for my high­est good’. Tragedies, dis­as­ters, grief, sor­row, heart­break, dreams that don’t come to fruition… it’s tak­ing you on a path. Hold onto that in the mo­ment of your deep­est de­spair. If it’s some­thing that’s bro­ken your heart, con­sider how that break is al­low­ing the light in. Break­ing open can mean break­ing through. When bad things hap­pen, they send you on a new jour­ney – some­where you’d never have gone oth­er­wise. It doesn’t take away the sad­ness – the feel­ings of loss, the griev­ing, that still hap­pens. The hu­man emo­tion still hap­pens. But out of your sad­ness, you’ll be­come stronger. It’s all about at­ti­tude.

Per­haps you lost your job. Noth­ing will change that fact, but three months, six months, a few years later, you’ll re­alise, ‘Wow, if I hadn’t lost my job, I wouldn’t be on the path I am now.’ In our dark­est hours it’s dif­fi­cult to have that per­spec­tive, but the more I’ve been able to look back and see the good that has come out of bad sit­u­a­tions, the less stress I’ve had about things not go­ing the way I want them to. Of course, I make sure I’ve done ev­ery­thing within my power to bring about the ex­pected out­come. But if I’ve done that and the out­come is un­ex­pected, I ac­cept that my high­est good is un­fold­ing right in that mo­ment, and I sur­ren­der to that. I learned this les­son in my early twen­ties. I’ve al­ways been a seeker of truth on a spir­i­tual level. I’ve been on a jour­ney of seek­ing all my life. My teenage years were less than easy, and in seek­ing an­swers for all the things that had oc­curred, I came across some teach­ings. This was one of them, and I started to adopt it. It took my head a long time to get around the idea that a hor­ri­ble thing could be a good thing. But I trusted the phi­los­o­phy, and go­ing to a lot of self-aware­ness, self-help cour­ses, I could see the phi­los­o­phy in ac­tion.

Many years ago my hus­band and I had this dream of build­ing our ul­ti­mate home – ev­ery­thing I’d ever wanted. But by the time it was fin­ished, it had over­run the bud­get and my hus­band pointed out that we’d spend the next 10 years pay­ing off a mort­gage. ‘We won’t have a life or a life­style, we won’t be able to travel, and I don’t want to live like that,’ he said, and told me he wanted to sell it. We’d only been in there three weeks af­ter work­ing on it for three years! Long story short, we were in­tro­duced to a cou­ple who were in a po­si­tion to take on our big mort­gage and we es­sen­tially swapped homes, get­ting theirs mort­gage free. We lived there for prob­a­bly 15 years. But I re­mem­ber the day I had to leave, the new owner was bak­ing pies in my gor­geous kitchen, and her hus­band had sent her two dozen red roses. I had that im­age in my mind as I walked into my sec­ond­hand house and I couldn’t see the good in it at all.

A cou­ple of years later I wanted to go back into busi­ness, and hav­ing a mort­gage-free house that I could take out a loan against en­abled me to do just that. This busi­ness of Trelise Cooper has given me so much free­dom and choice, a life less or­di­nary and a dream big­ger than I could ever imag­ine. I wouldn’t have it to­day had ev­ery­thing not hap­pened the way it did. I had to hold fast to the idea that my high­est good was un­fold­ing, and it was.”

’See the good that has come out of bad sit­u­a­tions’

Amanda Gil­lies Jour­nal­ist, The AM Show

“There are three mo­ments in my life that res­onate from my child­hood, my first day at work, and a re­cent ex­pe­ri­ence. I still re­call play­ing out­side as a six-year-old, watch­ing my el­der brother play-fight­ing with a friend. The soft punches were soon re­placed by ver­bal as­saults – nasty words and name­call­ing. It was per­sonal and bru­tal. To the sound of tears, my mother marched out and said to the boys, ‘If you haven’t got any­thing nice to say, say noth­ing.’ The boys shut up and moved on. But I hung onto those words.

‘If you haven’t got any­thing nice to say, say noth­ing.’ It’s a pow­er­ful state­ment. Words can hurt. Words can dev­as­tate. And words can ul­ti­mately kill. A grow­ing num­ber of Ki­wis, par­tic­u­larly young ones, are tak­ing their own lives, dev­as­tated by the care­less and bru­tal use of words in the play­ground and on so­cial me­dia. We need to be care­ful with what we say, what words we use, and to whom.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t live a life of su­perla­tives or si­lence. I’m still guilty of a hurt­ful throw­away line, for an easy laugh or in the heat of the mo­ment. But for the most part, I try. I try to be nicer, kinder, and gen­tler; I try to be more un­der­stand­ing; I try to say noth­ing when not-so-nice words are beg­ging to be used.

And it was when one of ‘those’ words es­caped, dur­ing my first day as a print jour­nal­ist, more than two decades ago, that I re­ceived my sec­ond life les­son. I was asked to write up the Coun­try Women’s In­sti­tute meet­ing. I had been given the barely de­ci­pher­able, hand-writ­ten notes of one of the in­sti­tute’s el­derly mem­bers and told to tran­scribe them for their col­umn. I had

‘It’s so im­por­tant to be the best ver­sion

of you... for you and your loved ones’

imag­ined break­ing sto­ries, in-depth in­ves­ti­ga­tions, front-page ex­clu­sives – not this. I ut­tered a not-for-print ex­ple­tive un­der my breath and re­luc­tantly be­gan the task.

My un­cle was the Gis­borne Her­ald ed­i­tor at the time, a bril­liant and well re­spected, award-win­ning jour­nal­ist. He said to me, ‘Amanda, every story mat­ters to some­one.’ That col­umn, he said, would be read and ap­pre­ci­ated by the mem­bers, their friends and their fam­ily. I needed to put the same ef­fort, en­ergy and ex­per­tise into every story I did. The big and so-called mi­nor sto­ries had to be ap­proached the same way. It was sim­ple but wise ad­vice, and it changed my ca­reer. From that day on, it was a driv­ing force. Every story I did mat­tered to some­one – and my love for jour­nal­ism and sto­ry­telling grew.

In fair­ness, my abil­ity to tell sto­ries has changed over the past two years – I’m no longer out in the field, but in the stu­dio for

The AM Show. My alarm goes off at 3.30am every morn­ing and some­times I strug­gle with that. I get tired, I lose fo­cus and my tol­er­ance level goes down. But re­cently I got a wake-up call I wasn’t ex­pect­ing but needed.

My co-host Mark Richard­son was on hol­i­day and re­placed by sports star Gemma McCaw. We were talk­ing in the ad break and she re­marked that she tried to be the best ver­sion of her­self – ‘It’s so im­por­tant to be the best ver­sion of you… for you and your loved ones.’ Her words hit a nerve.

I haven’t been that. I’ve been too tired – to ex­er­cise, to so­cialise, to eat prop­erly, to be good to my mind and body, my fam­ily and friends. I have not been the best ver­sion of me and I didn’t like that. Some­thing had to change. And it did.

I tweaked my diet, re-jigged my sched­ule, booked a hol­i­day, and put my walk­ing shoes back on… And I am now on my way to be­ing back to my best ver­sion of me.”

Gol­riz Ghahra­man

Green MP

“The best ad­vice I ever got was to never worry about fol­low­ing the straight and nar­row path in ca­reer, or in life. I al­ways had a bit of re­bel­lion in me when it came to work­ing in the law. I didn’t go cor­po­rate – I took the wind­ing route of be­com­ing a bar­ris­ter, with all the lim­i­ta­tions of le­gal aid, work­ing in the chaos of courts and pris­ons. My dad never stopped ask­ing if I might like to give it all up for a nice cor­ner of­fice in a fancy law firm. But those law firm re­cruit­ment events we were all in­vited to at law school al­ways gave me hives. We were handed brochures with pic­tures of your en­tire life laid out in glossy print. Here’s the gym you’ll go to, here’s your yet-to-be-born chil­dren’s crèche, there’s your re­tire­ment plan. It was the life we were all meant to want but I didn’t re­late.

So I took a few de­tours. To every­one’s amused amaze­ment, I even gave up my place in a nice cham­bers to go off and do a Mas­ters in the UK. Not in a prac­ti­cal area like tax or con­tracts or even crim­i­nal law, but hu­man rights. It’s not the most lu­cra­tive, em­ploy­able spe­cial­i­sa­tion. I lived in stu­dent flats for years af­ter be­com­ing a lawyer, so I could save and took un­paid jobs or short-term con­tract work with the UN in Africa and the Hague. It was all in­cred­i­bly in­ter­est­ing but as every­one got ahead on the cor­po­rate lad­der, fix­ing a mort­gage and hav­ing big white wed­dings, I was still tak­ing every ad­ven­tur­ing op­por­tu­nity that came my way. Fi­nally, I came home and that’s when the ad­vice came in handy.

Months af­ter mov­ing back to do the set­tling down I thought I should do, I was of­fered a job in Cam­bo­dia to work as As­sis­tant Pros­e­cu­tor in the UN mis­sion to the Kh­mer Rouge Tri­bunal. It was a pres­ti­gious ap­point­ment but it also meant mov­ing, yet again, and tak­ing up a job with no guar­an­teed longevity. I felt like maybe I had had my folly, so I should just do what ‘nor­mal’ peo­ple do and start sav­ing for a house and look­ing to get mar­ried – mostly, get back to climb­ing that safe ca­reer lad­der.

Luck­ily, I talked this all through with my friend Kate, who her­self had dropped out of the law to do a PhD in po­lit­i­cal science. I re­mem­ber she calmly lis­tened to my pan­icky rant, put down her cup of tea, and asked, ‘But can you think of any­one whose work or life you re­ally covet, who you think is re­ally amaz­ing, dead or alive, who took the straight path they were meant to take?’ and there was my an­swer. I moved to Cam­bo­dia. I got to live in the most in­cred­i­ble coun­try I have ever been to. I met some of my best friends in the world. I got to pros­e­cute for the first time ever. Even­tu­ally I got to move back when I was ready, and a cou­ple of years later I dropped out of law into the wild world of pol­i­tics. No re­grets.”

‘It was the life we were

all meant to want’

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