The real lessons in life come the hard way – through experience. Four women from different generations share with Cat Rodie the biggest truths they’ve learnt.
BABY BOOMERStand-up comedian, actor and radio personality Denise Scott, 62, lives in Thornbury, Melbourne.
Lesson We all age – you just have to get on with it.
"I really believed I'd age well. I thought I would look after my body and stay fit. I planned to stay positive – I'd keep working, travelling and having adventures. Now when I see myself on TV I nearly die with shock at how wrinkled my face is.
The reality of ageing has been very humbling. I have acute arthritis flare-ups that inhibit movement and make me cry with pain. I have a skin condition that means I have to cover my arms, neck and back. I have become forgetful. My eyesight is stuffed. I put on weight by simply breathing. I have a moustache and beard.
My lightbulb moment came on the opening night of Disappointments at the Adelaide Fringe festival last year. My leg was swollen like a tree trunk, I couldn't walk and the arthritic pain was excruciating.
I badly wanted to have a weep but there was no time. I had half an hour to have a shower, get dressed, get my face on, and head to the venue. And that's when it hit me – this ageing business, with its physical failings and accompanying pain, was here to stay.
I knew then that I had to learn to live with it. I told myself, 'Okay, lady, you've got 10 minutes to cry it out and then 20 to get ready.' And so the 'power weep' was born!
To a degree it's been cathartic, but at the same time I am also thinking about the next phase of my life. Although I love working, I don't want to keep working so hard.
I thought that as I got older I would be able to cope with performance anxiety better, but it actually is worse than ever – I guess that is part of the job. Sometimes every part of my being screams, 'I can't be bothered doing anything. I just want to stay in bed, and drink.' But of course I do get up and get on with life. You can't avoid ageing. You have to accept it with as much grace and dignity as you can muster. We need to strive to rise above the difficulties, and when you're not lying on your bed having a quiet weep, get out there and make the most of every moment."
Valerie Khoo, 47, lives on Sydney's northern beaches. She is a writer and artist, and CEO of the Australian Writers' Centre.
Lesson Focus on those things you're naturally good at.
"In my mid-30s, I went through a very busy period where I juggled as much as I could. There was lots of material out there at the time that encouraged women to lead really full lives. The message seemed clear: you can do everything and be anything; you should suck the marrow out of life.
I really wanted that and I took it to the extreme, cramming in as much as I could. I ran two businesses and also freelanced as a writer. At the same time I had an active social life and pursued self-improvement hobbies, such as learning French.
My life was jam-packed. I'd work a full day, go to a class at the gym, meet my friends and go out dancing until the small hours and then go back to the office to do my tax. When I look back it seems insane, but at the time I thought it was normal: 'I've got the energy, so why not?'
I was also driven by the idea that you should strive to learn new skills and improve on the things that haven't come naturally. I did lots of courses and studied subjects I didn't know much about, like complex tax laws. I even attempted to learn how to code an app. If there was an area of my life in which I could be doing better, then I spent time working on that.
My lightbulb moment came one day when I was feeling particularly overwhelmed. I read a quote that said: 'Your genius is what comes naturally to you.' It hit me square in the face and made me wonder why I was spending so much time on the things I was not naturally good at, and no time at all on the things I found easy and fun. I decided to experiment with focusing on the areas where I had a natural talent.
Life has become a whole lot easier – and a lot more fun. Although I think self-improvement is important, it's more effective and gratifying to focus on your strengths. I improve faster and I get more satisfaction, reward and joy from it. I don't stay up all night reading the tax act anymore, I ring the accountant. Instead of coding my own app, I pay a developer to do it.
I still have a busy life, but I'm packing it with fewer things. I've finally learnt that although you can do anything, you can't do everything at the same time."
Lesson You have to consciously work at having a healthy body image.
"As a size 14-16 model, people see pictures of me in swimwear and lingerie and assume I'm naturally confident about my body. I get lots of comments on Instagram from women asking, 'How do you love yourself every day?' And the truth is, I don't.
Loving myself is like being in a relationship with someone else – you see flaws you might not like, not just in looks but also in actions. But ultimately you love them, so you find a way to forgive them and move forward.
Having a healthy body image is something you have to consciously work at. It's being thankful for what you've got and embracing that, instead of punishing yourself and pining over things you don't have. My relationship with myself comes first, because if it's lacking then every other part of my life will suffer.
My lightbulb moment came during a restrictive diet – I'd become obsessed with calorie counting. One day I ate a few Tim Tams, then panicked about the calories. I went kayaking for two hours to work them off.
I suddenly took a step back and thought, 'What am I doing? This isn't fun!' I got home and made myself eat two more Tim Tams, enjoy them, and forget about calories and kilojoules. These days, I think that actively forgetting all that information stops me from obsessing and villainising food. I know now moderation is key, I treat my body with respect and I've been pretty much the same healthy size for a decade. I've not been on a weight-loss diet in such a long time.
I think that shift was the start of prioritising the health of my inner life rather than letting my external self dictate what was going on inside my head. For the most part it's true that if you get your mind right, everything else that is meant to be will follow.
Project WomanKIND is about celebrating individuality. As women, we are bombarded every day with other people's expectations of how we should be, especially how we should look and act, and we don't realise how much that affects us until we talk about it. We need to recognise that we are all unique.
If you're worried about what you look like all the time, you're missing out! Wear that dress or bikini, and do it with confidence, because if you're enjoying the skin you're in then nobody will doubt you. Life's too short to worry about stretch marks and cellulite and tummy rolls. We're all just lucky to be here, so let's spend more time enjoying and less time worrying about things that ultimately don't matter."
Law student Olivia Hill, 17, moved to Darwin from New Zealand when she was 13. She has just started her own social media strategy business, OH Enterprises.
Lesson Don't worry what other people think about you.
"As soon as you tell someone you're 17 and you're going to run a business, they look at you like you are insane. A lot of people have tried to discourage me. My bank manager told me that I was too young to start a business. A lot of my uni lecturers tried to put me off, too – they told me that either the business will fail or my grades will drop.
I was 11 when I first got Facebook and 12 when I got Instagram. Social media has been a blessing and a curse. It was a great way to keep in touch with my friends from New Zealand, but I also found it very draining.
Social media can make you feel so inadequate – everyone seems to have the perfect life, or the ideal body. Even though I know it's not real, I still feel pressure to present my life like that. None of my friends would go on Facebook to complain about life. You need to make everything look perfect. Having social media in high school really adds to the pressure young people are already feeling.
My lightbulb moment came when I told my mum I was worried about what people would say when I announced my new business venture on Facebook. She said that whether I was rich or poor, happy or sad, fat or skinny, people would always have something negative to say. From that day on, I've stopped worrying about what other people think.
I wish I had learnt this sooner. In high school, I was the typical popular head cheerleader. I constantly got judged – just because I was blonde and had a certain body, everyone thought I was just some airhead chick who was never going to go anywhere. Now I know that they were wrong."