9 brilliant women share their greatest life lesson

We asked some excellent women for their best bit of life advice. Here’s what they said.

When we spend time chatting with truly brilliant women, we want to bombard them with questions. What do you think about this? How did you do that? What should I be doing with my life?

Alas, these women tend to be quite busy and so don’t have time to answer every burning question that pops up on the hour. But in honour of International Women’s Day, we managed to pin eight excellent women down and ask them for their greatest wisdom.

While we didn’t get to ask these activists, politicians, business owners and life coaches what we should have for breakfast, we did ask them perhaps the one question that really matters: what’s the greatest life lesson they’ve learned?

Here’s what they told us. 

Dawn Butler, MP

“Pick your battles,” says Dawn Butler.

“The best lesson I have received in life was ‘pick your battles’. When I was younger, especially when I was a GMB union officer, I would fight everything. I was very uncompromising like that; I wanted to fight every single injustice I saw, and I loved a challenge. But I remember someone telling me to pick my battles, because I simply was not going to win them all on my own. They told me that I would exhaust myself by taking on every cause and that I would end up having no fight left at all, which would be no good for anyone.

“Over time, as I gained more and more experience, I realised how important this advice was. I learned to reserve more strength, to be kind to myself and to know my limits. This means that when I do choose a battle to fight, I have the energy and endurance to give everything. The truth is, it really is OK to let someone else pick up the slack sometimes, as there will always be another battle down the line.”

Catri Barrett, life coach and founder of The Curiosity Club

“I allow myself to make mistakes and forgive myself for them,” says Catri.

“My greatest life lesson? That I’m a perfectionist. I always thought perfectionists were the stereotypical ‘type A’ high-achievers. I never felt like I was doing enough; I procrastinated and my bedroom was always messy, so I never considered myself a perfectionist, until a few years ago. 

“Recognising that it was my unhealthy perfectionistic beliefs and unrealistically high expectations of what I ‘should’ look like, be doing, feeling and experiencing that were causing me to constantly feel as though I was falling short changed all areas of my life. 

“I no longer attach my self-worth to the outcome of things. I allow myself to make mistakes and forgive myself for them. I try new things even if I’m bad at them, and I recognise when it’s the fear of failure causing me to procrastinate so I can break the cycle. 

“Ironically, since I’ve lowered my standards, I am far more ‘successful’ thanI ever was before.”

Stephanie Yeboah, author and journalist

“Stay ready so you don’t have to get ready,” recommends Stephanie.

“One lesson I’ve learned that has changed my life for the better has been: ‘stay ready so you don’t have to get ready’. As someone who loves to stay incredibly organised (it’s the Taurus in me!), I find that having a Plan B and C already mapped out in advance has saved me in so many troublesome and difficult situations, whether it’s getting stranded while solo travelling or having to prepare last minute for tragic events, I’ve found that taking extra time to come up with alternative plans has always saved me in the long run.”

Rachel Parris, comedian

Rachel Parris’s best life lesson: “Friends need watering.”

“My biggest life lesson: friends need watering. 

“Two things about me. 1) Most of my houseplants have died. 2) I love houseplants.

“I think I used to be pretty crap at friendship; I took it for granted. I had school friends who I was still in touch with and uni friends who formed a bit of a gang, and when I got into improv, I felt like once again I’d found my tribe.

“But I’d let things slide – life was busy, for all of us, and I’d forget birthdays, flake out on parties and, crucially, forget to ask that vital question, ‘And how are you?’

“When you’re the comedian in your friendship group it can be easy to fall into being the entertainer, the storyteller, but that’s not conducive to good friendships or to an equal share of… sharing.

“I’ve got better, I hope. Now we’ve all been through some of the regular tragic things life throws at you. No matter how busy your life, even if it’s uncomfortable orbad timing, I believe it’s important to make an effort for friends. Don’t assume you’re the one going through the ‘difficult thing’; everyone has difficult things, and they might be going through something too, maybe something worse.

“Reply to the text, send the card, go to the dinner if you can, because you can’t save up your love and then drench them in it all at once; it doesn’t work that way. Your friendship will wilt. Friendship needs a constant steady drip. If you love your friends, remember them, make that effort, water them regularly.”

Advice From Strangers by Rachel Parris is out in paperback on 23 March.

Phway Aye, CEO and creative director of Gabar

“The kind of energy, drive and intention you put into anything is normally what you get out of it,” says Phway.

“I think one of the biggest lessons that I’ve held dear, in both business and in life, is the idea of ‘reaping what you sow’ or ‘like attracts like’. 

“I’ve always been taught from a young age that the kind of energy, drive and intention you put into anything is normally what you get out of it – not in terms of a literal translation or a zero-sum exchange, of course, but in terms of the positive or negative or neutral energy that you receive back. 

“I try to look at all of my encounters, and personal and business decisions, especially with my beauty brand Gabar and in my home life, in the same way: if I expect a room full of positivity, am I also stepping in with positivity? If I hope for growth and abundance, are my mindset and actions aligned and expressing so? 

“It’s much harder to do than say, of course. We don’t feel our best every day, but it’s an important reminder that we really do have the ability to steer our own ship in life and create the kind of reality that we want – if we let ourselves. It’s an empowering and life-altering belief and you can often see the successes of this kind of mindset quite quickly. 

“We’re all faced with different hardships in life, big and small, and re-empowering yourself this way can help pull you through certain moments and help feel less of a victim to life’s pretty unpredictable circumstances.”

Helen Pankhurst, activist

“Finding ways to encourage laughter and joy even in the most serious of contexts helps no end,” Helen shares.

“The question of life lessons made me think immediately about my motto, which is ‘fun and purpose’. I came up with this moto to summarise the desire that I had and have for balance, for work and rest, but also for bringing joy to my work. Having the motto has helped me to recalibrate when needed. Finding ways to encourage laughter and joy, even in the most serious of contexts, helps no end, I think – it builds resilience and just makes everything better.”

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Nicola Mendelsohn, VP Global Business Group, Meta

“You must do the thing that scares you,” says Nicola Mendelsohn.

“I’ve learned so many important lessons over the course of my life, but if there’s one I’ve taken to heart time and again, it’s Eleanor Roosevelt’s advice: ‘You must do the thing you think you cannot do’. Or, as I like to think of it, you must do the thing that scares you. 

“How has that played out in my own life? Well, every time I’ve been offered a new job or taken a new role, I wonder if I’m up to the task. But over the years, I’ve found that the decisions that made me a little nervous have often paid the greatest dividends and brought me the greatest satisfaction. And I strongly believe that the only way to build true confidence and competence is to succeed at things where you thought you might fail. It’s a lesson I teach my kids. 

“And I’m asking my teams at Meta this year to be a little bit more fearless, too. It’s natural to want to play it safe, but the rewards are so much greater if we can push ourselves to be bolder.”

Calypso Barnum-Bobb, life coach

“You have to trust your intuition and follow your expansion, no matter how scary it feels,” Calypso says.

“My number one life lesson is that you have to trust your intuition and follow your expansion, no matter how scary it feels. Choosing what feels like the safe and easy option or staying ‘comfortable’ will quickly transform into deep, skin-crawling, life-limiting discomfort. You can’t sweep it under the rug; your truth will keep getting louder the more you try to block it out. And when you follow that calling – that voice deep inside that feels equal parts terrifying and exciting – the world opens up in ways you could never have imagined before. 

“I’ve learned this lesson time and time again (because once is never enough, right?), but it really stuck a few years back when I fell in love with my best friend, who’s a woman. After being with guys my whole life, it was a trust fall like no other and one I tried to ignore and limit. There was so much on the line – my friendship, my sexuality, acceptance from those I love the most – but everything inside me said it was right so I spoke my truth and so did she. Six years later we’re still together.

“Now I make space every day to connect with that inner voice and it’s something I share with my clients too. It’s like a compass, pointing me in the right direction so that life continues to feel aligned, alive and mine.”

Nafisa Bakkar, author and CEO of Amaliah

“Try to make decisions based out of hope and not fear,” advises Nafisa.

“Fellow business owners will know that business becomes your whole life, especially in the early days. One of my biggest life lessons has come from my business journey and that has been to always try to make decisions based out of hope and not fear. It is one of the biggest keys to a fulfilled life, be it professionally or personally. 

“Eight years ago I quit my job to give my startup idea, Amaliah, a go. If I had stayed in [my old] job it would have been out of fear that I can’t build a company, fear of failing and feeling embarrassed, fear of not being able to make money and survive. I literally quit on a hope and a prayer – my actual hope was just being able to say I tried and not regret that I didn’t.

“Eight years later, Amaliah is the leading media company in the UK for Muslim women. I’ve just also become an author with Harper Collins, with a book called How To Make Money – An Honest Guide To Going From An Idea To A Successful Six-Figure Business

“Amaliah and the team has achieved stuff I never imagined. We’ve worked with a dream list of clients including Spotify, Universal, Dove, Lush and Waterstones and built such an incredibly beautiful community where we reach 7.2 million each month and are inundated with messages of gratitude and love from Muslim women.

“Our circumstances can sometimes mean we are bound to the fears and the fears are often very real! But the hope you feel is also real, just a little harder to believe in sometimes. When you interrogate if you are staying in a job, a relationship, a situation, upholding a societal standard, not doing something you love, out of fear, and choose a small hopeful step instead, even if it is tiny, it means that you’re giving the chance for the hope to grow and sometimes it ends up snowballing into a big life transformation.”

Images: Getty; courtesy of case studies

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