'Planning is pretty pointless' – life lessons from Nigella Lawson


Words by Madeleine Dore
Cover art by Amelia Goss featuring
photography by Love Bree Photography

"You can’t plan anything. Well you can plan if you want to, but it’s pretty pointless." – Nigella Lawson

When we look at the career of someone so successful and iconic as Nigella Lawson, we tend to make assumptions that there was a grand plan behind it all, a set of carefully laid out steps to excel in the field of food and cooking.

But as her recent conversation with psychologist Hugh McKay presented by The School of Life revealed, there was never such a plan. Nigella admitted her career has been a surprise – just as many of the wonderful things in our lives are.

“It had never occurred to me that food would play any part of my job or career – I was very high-minded and would have thought it was a very strange thing to do. I was a journalist for a long time and wrote about arts and books and wrote an op-ed column," she explains.

"My late husband said I should write a book and call it How To Eat and I thought this was a nonsensical idea, but I did write it, and I wrote it because cooking had been dominated by professionals… I have no training whatsoever and I am quite a clumsy person, but it doesn’t matter, you can still cook it’s about flavour and feeding people you love.”

Both pithy and charming, during the conversation Nigella shared her thoughts on the deeper meaning of food and its connection to pleasure, meaning, belonging and creativity. Here are some of the highlights that any creative can take into their work and life.

On what cooking teaches us about life…

“Human beings have a fantasy of transformation – and when you cook things do get transformed. It is a curious form of magic.”

“You have to train yourself to have an instinct you can trust. You have work out what you want and learn when to let go of the framework – that is true of cooking, and that is true of life outside of the kitchen too.”

On how our careers and lives stem from accidents…

“Most things in life are accidents – like meeting the person that you fall in love with. Maybe you’re working five days in an office and suddenly find you are interested in a job you didn’t know existed before.”

“I think a lot of young people think you can plan everything – you can’t plan anything. Well you can plan if you want to, but it’s pretty pointless."

On how no experience is ever wasted…

“Most of my friends are doing jobs they didn’t know existed when they started work. I did various jobs – I worked in nearly every section of the newspaper and did a bit of everything – and nothing is ever wasted. You learn things and it’s interesting. If you decide exactly what it is you want to do, you’ve already discarded so many experiences you can learn from."

"In the same vein I always say you have to fail. You can’t succeed in life unless you risk failure.”

On the comfort of food and the home in times of uncertainty…

“All food is comfort food. I think when the world feels insecure, that’s when the home, the kitchen, the table, the food in front of us, feels in a way like protection against that uncertainty. The concept of home is often likened to a cocoon and I think we need that, we need to be able to go into our caves and feel safe there.”

On cooking for yourself as an act of self-respect…

“I always think it’s a pity when people say they don’t cook anymore ‘because it’s just me’ – I thoroughly believe it’s important to cook for yourself. I cooked for myself for a long time – even if it was just bread and cheese – because symbolically it’s important to say you’ll take care of yourself."

"The act of doing something – even just setting yourself a nice plate – has an impact on how we live our lives generally. You have to create your own space. We all seem to know how to be kind to other people, but we have to learn to be kind to oneself and it’s important to have self-respect. I never brush my hair when I’m by myself – but I always cook for myself.”  

On what cooking teaches us about non-attachment…

“I think in a way cooking belongs in its own category. In a way an art, yet art has to be functionless and cooking has a purpose – yet it’s demolished, it’s consumed, and that’s quite important. In a way it’s liberating and about non-attachment similar to Buddhism because the food gets eaten.”

On how human beings need a creative outlet…

“You don’t have to see cooking as an art form to see it as creative – there is an element of play we don't often get as adults."

"Human beings do need a creative outlet. I speak to so many people don't have that in their work – but some people find it through it gardening and some through cooking."

"People seem to think everything needs to be a profession, but I think sometimes it is important to have something in your life outside of the job you do.”

On the beauty in small things…

“Beauty is incredibly important, I think that more and more. Beauty is about small things –lemons on a table, they are beautiful. Beauty isn’t necessarily something you are called upon to admire – you don’t need a view, I get rather tired of views – you just need to appreciate it."

On embracing imperfections…

“When you cook, there is a moment when everything can go wrong and sometimes does. When something goes wrong, I’ve had to do something creative and what I end up with often ends up better than I had planned."

"I think there are two lessons in that: the first is that things go wrong in life all the time and that doesn’t matter, the second is that it’s how you rectify things and deal with mistakes. Children for example learn to see how their parents respond to mistakes, so there is no point in trying to be perfect."

On her advice to her 25-year-old self…

“Don’t expect yourself to not feel frightened or at times daunted, but don’t let that stop you from doing anything. A life that is so placated and un-frightening is actually quite deadening. That slight simmering of fear can spur one on to do things."

“We can talk about how we think something should be or that we should be like this, but there are many different ways of having a life.”