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
Dame Trelise Cooper
“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.”
“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’