Inspirational quotes: the best pieces of advice you will ever read from women who have been there

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Looking for some words of wisdom? From Mindy Kaling’s guidance on rejecting timelines and Hillary Clinton’s instructions on growing thick skin, to Reese Witherspoon’s advice on overcoming rejection, the life lessons of these 12 remarkable women will inspire you to move on to bigger and better things. 

Everyone has times when a few words of wisdom seem to fall into your lap at exactly the right moment. You might be feeling broken-hearted, disillusioned with your job, or convinced that you’ll never achieve your dreams. But then you stumble across a story that speaks directly to you, so much so that it seems as if it was created specifically to find you, guide you, and help you on your way. So we forge ahead on a new path, richer for the knowledge of someone who walked in our shoes, and marvel at how their counselling managed to change the course of our lives.

In reality, of course, most of the inspirational advice that seems so individually tailored to our lives is borne from universal human experience. But that doesn’t mean that it loses the power to transform our lives, or even just our day. Whether we’re looking for a quick pick-me-up, or a more meaningful boost to set us on the track towards bigger and better things, some of the best life lessons can be found in the stories of our favourite celebrities. From Mindy Kaling’s guidance on rejecting timelines and Hillary Clinton’s instructions on growing thick skin, to Reese Witherspoon’s advice on overcoming rejection and Ava DuVernay’s recommendations on giving yourself permission, find inspiration in the life lessons of 12 remarkable women below. 

Inspirational quotes: Jacinda Ardern on imposter sydrome 

Inspirational quotes: Jacinda Ardern on imposter sydrome

Jacinda Ardern broke ground in 2017 when she became the world’s youngest female leader as prime minister of New Zealand, and the following year, made records as only the second serving prime minister in history to give birth. Lauded as a positive role model both for her socially progressive policies and work towards gender equality, Ardern has frequently espoused the belief that no door should be closed to women, not least in the workplace. 

“Never feel like you have to tick all of the boxes on everything to be able to feel like you can do a job,” she told Forbes. “I have heard it said many times before and it is so true. If you sit and wait to feel like you are the most confident person in the room you are probably going to be left by yourself.

“I know there was a mindset that led me to this place. It wasn’t that I found some miraculous way to overcome the natural self-doubt, particularly the heightened self-doubt that women tend to feel. It was more that I eventually just said yes.

“There was no time to over-prepare or rehearse, the only choice I had from that day forward was just to be myself. I feel like that has served me well. I don’t think that the next generation should fear just being who they are, rather than confirming to an expectation of what they are meant to be.”

Inspirational quotes: Michelle Obama on building bonds

Inspirational quotes: Michelle Obama on building bonds

In her memoir Becoming, Michelle Obama chronicled her journey from growing up in a poor neighbourhood, to standing on the world’s biggest stage as the First Lady of America. As she shared her thoughts on her own identity as being black, a woman and a mother, she also imparted lessons about how revealing our own narratives can often help to overcome societal differences. 

“Let’s invite one another in,” she wrote. “Maybe then we can begin to fear less, to make fewer wrong assumptions, to let go of the biases and stereotypes that unnecessarily divide us. Maybe we can better embrace the ways we are the same. It’s not about being perfect. It’s not about where you get yourself in the end. There’s power in allowing yourself to be known and heard, in owning your unique story, in using your authentic voice. And there’s grace in being willing to know and hear others. This, for me, is how we become.”

Inspirational quotes: Reese Witherspoon on overcoming rejection

Inspirational quotes: Reese Witherspoon on overcoming rejection

Last year, Hollywood actress Reese Witherspoon shared a personal story of failure on her Instagram, to show how a particularly crushing setback had enabled her to cultivate the perseverance she needed to pursue her dreams. 

“So many stories on Instagram focus on success, but sometimes it’s important to remember that rejection or failure can really be a great help in our lives,” she began. “When I first started as an actor, I went on an audition for a part that I wanted more than ANYTHING. This was an incredible movie with a huge male movie star as the lead. I had three callbacks, then a screen test and one day my agent called and said, ‘You didn’t get the part, the lead actor liked working with the other actress more’. Oh boy, did I cry. Ugly tears. For three whole days. But I recovered. And I got a different job. It wasn’t the same and I never watched that movie (!) but I learned so much from that experience. 

“Over the years, I lost as many parts as I got. I was always considered TOO something. Too short. Too feisty. Too energetic. I once got told I seemed too smart to play a young female character. I’m not gonna lie, sometimes all the rejection would hurt my feelings, I would take it personally. I definitely cried in the shower a lot in my 20s. 

“What I didn’t know then was: rejection teaches you perseverance and how to get tough. And you also learn… not every path is right for you. My friend Kerry Washington always says ‘Rejection is God’s protection’. You are on a path that is made for YOU. Sometimes the universe is protecting you from a bad job or a toxic relationship. So remember next time you fail at something or someone leaves you heartbroken… let yourself be sad, grieve what didn’t happen for a minute but move ON. Better things are waiting for you.”

Inspirational quotes: Serena Williams on learning to ask 

Inspirational quotes: Serena Williams on learning to ask

Being told ‘no’ can often feel like a stinging personal rebuke, but according to Serena Williams, the greatest women’s tennis player of all time, pushing yourself out of your comfort zone by learning to ask questions can be a strong antidote to self-doubt.  

“Don’t be afraid of the word no. It doesn’t mean it’s a bad result. It just means try again,” she told the Huffington Post. “You can’t be afraid to ask, because if you don’t, no one else is. If you just go out there and not be afraid of the negative result, you’ll be surprised. You may get a positive result.”

Inspirational quotes: Ellen DeGeneres on staying true to yourself

Ellen DeGeneres may be a household name with 63 Daytime Emmy Awards for her self-titled talk show, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, but according to the comedian and host, her early years in stand-up were characterised by insecurity and self-doubt. That was, until she decided to stay true to her identity.

“Early on in stand-up, people told me to be edgier and curse, but that’s just not who I am,” she told Good Housekeeping. “It’s not my style of humour, and that held me back for a while. I was neither the girl next door nor the ingenue, so nobody knew what to do with me.

“When I was coming out, someone gave me the Martha Graham quote, ‘There is only one of you in all time’. You’re unique, and you’re supposed to be. It’s not up to you to try to change it or question it. You’re supposed to be exactly who you are. I took in that message. I always remember it. It’s not up to me to question why, who or how I am. I just accept who I am, and I don’t judge myself.”

Inspirational quotes: Oprah Winfrey on finding your calling

Oprah Winfrey
Taking to Twitter after the event, Oprah Winfrey revealed that the fall really had been as painful as it looked.

In 2015, after 25 years in show business, media mogul Oprah Winfrey divulged everything she’d learnt about finding your true calling on the final episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show

“Everybody has a calling, and your real job in life is to figure out what that is and get about the business of doing it. Every time we have seen a person on this stage who is a success in their life, they spoke of the job and they spoke of the juice that they receive from doing what they knew they were meant to be doing.

“It lights you up and it lets you know that you are exactly where you’re supposed to be, doing exactly what you’re supposed to be doing. And that is what I want for all of you and hope that you will take from this show. To live from the heart of yourself. You have to make a living; I understand that. But you also have to know what sparks the light in you so that you, in your own way, can illuminate the world.

“Maybe it’s 20 people, maybe it’s 30 people, 40 people, your family, your friends, your neighbours, your classmates, your classroom, your coworkers. Wherever you are, that is your platform, your stage, your circle of influence. That is your talk show and that is where your power lies. In every way, in every day, you are showing people exactly who you are. You’re letting your life speak for you. And when you do that, you will receive in direct proportion to how you give in whatever platform you have.

“My great wish for all of you who have allowed me to honour my calling through this show is that you carry whatever you’re supposed to be doing, carry that forward and don’t waste any more time. Start embracing the life that is calling you and use your life to serve the world.”

Inspirational quotes: Meryl Streep on finding the bigger picture

In 2017, Meryl Streep, the most-nominated actor in the history of the Academy Awards, spoke about learning to put her aesthetic value, the element upon which she was frequently judged for suitability in the film industry, into perspective with other things that were important in her life.  

“I spent far too much time when I was younger thinking about how much I weighed,” she told The Guardian. “If I could go back, I’d say, ‘Think about the bigger picture.’ Of course, it’s a visual medium. We think about our looks. I don’t bring a suitcase with my dossier in it to an audition, I bring my body, so you can’t moan about the fact that you’re judged on your looks: it’s showbusiness. But the other thing is that you’re representing lives, and lives look all different ways and shapes. That’s one thing I do see changing, and it’s really good. It makes the cultural landscape richer.”

Inspirational quotes: Mindy Kaling on rejecting timelines 

Inspirational quotes: Mindy Kaling on rejecting timelines

When actor and author Mindy Kaling delivered Dartmouth’s 2018 commencement address, she took a moment to remind all the new graduates of the importance of self-confidence, the need for women to support each other, and why it’s perfectly OK to break social conventions. 

“After my daughter was born in December, I remember bringing her home and being in my house with her for the first time and thinking, ‘Huh. According to movies and TV, this is traditionally the time when my mother and spouse are supposed to be here, sharing this experience with me.’ And I looked around, and I had neither. And for a moment, it was kind of scary. Like, ‘Can I do this by myself?’

“But then, that feeling went away, because the reality is, I’m not doing it by myself. I’m surrounded by family and friends who love and support me. And the joy I feel from being with my daughter, Katherine, eclipses anything from any crazy checklist.

“So I just want to tell you guys, don’t be scared if you don’t do things in the right order, or if you don’t do some things at all. I didn’t think I’d have a child before I got married, but hey, it turned out that way, and I wouldn’t change a thing. I didn’t think I’d have dessert before breakfast today, but hey, it turned out that way and I wouldn’t change a thing.

“So if I could impart any advice, it’s this: If you have a checklist, good for you. Structured ambition can sometimes be motivating. But also, feel free to let it go.”

Inspirational quotes: Hillary Clinton on growing thick skin

Inspirational quotes: Hillary Clinton on growing thick skin

At an event for her family foundation’s No Ceilings project in 2014, former First Lady and US secretary of state Hillary Clinton told a crowd of New York University students that the best advice she could offer women in positions of leadership in the public eye was to “grow skin like a rhinoceros”.

“When you look at the challenges of being a change-maker and being willing to buck the establishment, it’s important to learn how to take criticism seriously but not personally, and to do that you have to be willing to hear what others who are your critics are saying and to evaluate where they are coming from,” she told the crowd. 

Inspirational quotes: Ava Duvernay on giving yourself permission

Inspirational quotes: Ava Duvernay on giving yourself permission

Acclaimed film director, screenwriter and founder of distribution company Array, Ava DuVernay, is well used to breaking boundaries as a black woman working in the film industry. The lack of representation, diversity and opportunity during her early career, she recalled, was something that gave her the determination to forge her own path.

“As a black woman filmmaker there isn’t a lot of support – there aren’t many of us around – so instead of not doing something, I figure out a way to do it without support,” she told The Guardian. “As you start to create your own work, you attract help from like-minded people; you can never attract it if you’re sitting still.

“The landscape has changed since I started my distribution company in 2010; we have Netflix, Amazon, all these streaming platforms. It’s an incredible time to be an artist, especially for those who had been left behind. I find it very exciting to think, ‘I’m not going to continue knocking on that old door that doesn’t open for me; I’m going to create my own door and walk through that’.

“I always say: work without permission. So many of us work from a permission-based place, waiting for someone to say it’s OK. So often I hear people asking, ‘How do I get started?’ You just start. It won’t be perfect. It’ll be messy and it’ll be hard, but you’re on your way.”

Inspirational quotes: Elizabeth Gilbert on finding your calling

Inspirational quotes: Elizabeth Gilbert on finding your calling

In a video masterclass on creativity, bestselling author Elizabeth Gilbert explored the differences between hobbies, jobs, careers and vocations. Though we can frequently confuse these four distinctly areas of our lives, she explained, the key to finding true fulfilment lies in finding our higher purpose – even if our day job remains a source of strife. 

“A vocation is a calling. A vocation is a divine invitation. A vocation is the voice of the universe in your ear saying we want you to do this thing, use your talents and gifts and make this thing. Vocation, it comes from the Latin – a calling, to be called. A vocation is the highest possible pursuit you can do.

“Writing was my vocation for about 7 to 10 years before it became my job. Long before anybody was interested in what I was writing… writing was my sacred vocation. I had a commitment to my vocation that said: I will do this for as long as I breathe regardless of whether anything ever comes of it and in the meantime I will have a job and what I will not have is a career.

“Here’s the thing. My career as a writer might end some day. The publishing industry might end some day, people might decide they don’t care about my books anymore, and my career as a writer will end, my vocation will not. If you have a hobby or if you have a vocation, you can live a creative life at the same time as living in the material world.

“Think about those words: hobby, job, career, vocation, decide where you stand on all of them and don’t let go of this incredibly fierce self-accountability that it takes for you to recognise that you are in control of all of these things.”

philosophy is the wellbeing beauty brand inspiring you to look, live and feel your best, and is the official partner of Stylist’s Remarkable Women Awards 2020.

Images: Getty

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Christobel Hastings

Christobel Hastings is Stylist's Entertainment Editor whose specialist interests include pop culture, LGBTQ+ identity and lore.