Women over 50 share their life lessons in a new book

When Grace Bonney became the guru of DIY and affordable design as the creator of Design Sponge, a wildly popular blog on all things home, she never thought she’d do anything else. But 15 years into that project, Bonney realized she was tired of living her life out loud on social media.

Her first stop toward making a change was the book In the Company of Women: Inspiration and Advice from over 100 Makers, Artists and Entrepreneurs. A bestseller, the book featured portraits of 100 women in various creative industries across ethnicities, religions, sexual preferences, ages and disabilities. 

While feedback on the book was positive, Bonney, who lives in Accord in the Hudson Valley, heard from readers who wished more women from rural areas and more women over 50 had been featured. They also wanted to hear from women who were not necessarily part of the creative community. 

Bonney took the feedback to heart, and the result is her new bestseller Collective Wisdom: Lessons, Inspiration and Advice from Women over 50. The stunningly photographed book features profiles of women from around America who share their life lessons. Some, like author Sara Gilbert and cosmetic guru Bobbi Brown, are famous. Others are folks none of us may have heard of, like Cecilia Chiang, a Chinese restaurant owner who walked across China before immigrating to America; Margo Real Bird, the Apsaalooke Tribe matriarch on the Crow Reservation in Montana; and the members of the Washington Wizdom, the dancing team for the Washington Wizards NBA team who are all over 50.

“One thing I took away from the book that was not expected as someone who is on the younger end of the equation,’’ says Bonney, who is 40, “is that I was insecure, thinking older women wouldn’t want to be a friend of mine. It turns out older women feel the same way. I was shocked. You have this incredibly full life. To me, you are the person who has everything to offer.”

The book has inspired Bonney, who realized it was time to begin a different chapter in her life, too. “I was having these one-on-one personal conversations. That was missing for me [at Design Sponge]. It’s wonderful to have large numbers of followers but you don’t get to talk to them in person. I missed smallness and intimacy. This book, for me, is a closing of a door for now that’s media related.” Bonney is pursuing a degree to become a therapist. “I picked a field where you are forced to be private. Every single part of my life has been lived publicly for 20 years. There is so much good from that, but it’s also a real challenge.”

Bonney hopes people will read Collective Wisdom and find pieces of advice that they can return to over and over again. One of the biggest lessons she learned in creating the book, she says, is “that the longer you live, things will not stop being hard but that’s OK. I naively went into the book thinking there would be a secret age where you don’t care about what people think about you but no, that’s not it. These are lifelong things. It’s OK not to have them figured out by a certain age.”

Grace Bonney
Grace Bonney, Author, Collective Wisdom, Lessons, Inspiration and Advice from Women over 50.
Photo by Natalie Chitwood.

The book is a series of Q&As. So with that in mind, we asked Bonney a few of the same questions she and her writers asked those who were profiled. We also interviewed three Capital Region women about their life reflections. 

What did you want to be when you were younger? 

I wanted to run a newspaper. I used to line up Barbies and create offices on every step of the stairs. I would check on their work. I am an only child and I got a typewriter when I was little. It was my primary toy. I would pretend to write newspapers.

What role did your ancestors play in your life and development?

My grandmothers died when I was young, and my mom has two sisters. We are an incredibly opinionated set. They have no fear of sharing strong opinions. They taught me that not only can you have strong opinions; you can share them and share them loudly. They taught me to defend [my ideas]. 

What advice would you give your younger self? 

I wish I could tell myself to stop caring what other people care about me. I wish I had come out as queer when I was younger. I wish I had let myself be a lot weirder. I cared so much about being best-dressed and never wearing jeans to school. In hindsight I was so uncomfortable. I had the same interests then as now. I wish I had let myself be myself. I think a lot of people struggle with the desire to fit in. 

Is that different from the advice you would give younger women today?

I would tell younger women to invest in your real community as soon as possible. Not only are we taught to compete with each other, but I really think that ageism and sexism play into this siloing of each other. I now understand we have to lift each other up. … You can achieve all you want, but if you don’t have people to share it with, it doesn’t mean as much. 

How has your sense of self-acceptance changed over time?

It’s ongoing. I think I’ve always had no problem being confident in myself professionally. I found an area I could excel in and did it to the nth degree. But learning to love myself and like myself—that’s taken time. When I was asked “Who are you?” I would lead with work. I have been trying to figure out who I am outside productivity and achievement and other things. It’s a constant process.

Can you describe a turning point in your life and how it changed you?

When I came out at 30. There is my life before that and my life after that. Not only did it end relationships in my life, but it was a moment when I needed to make decisions for myself. The turning point was when I came to realize it’s OK to let people down. As a woman, you’re trained to be a people pleaser. I’m still working on that. I realized I have to be myself. 

Anne Saile
Anne Saile
Founder/CEO of The Saile Group, retired

Anne Saile spent her career helping businesses and executives operate more efficiently. Her resume includes a stint as director of the Office of Professional Medical Conduct, where she brought New York from its position as the worst state in the nation for disciplining physicians to the strongest. “It had a real impact on patient care and safety,” she says of that position. From there, Saile joined what was then called Bellevue Women’s Hospital, and completely turned around the hospital’s finances. 

Saile, 67, formed the Saile Group in 2009, where she used her national and international consulting expertise to help companies and executives reach their maximum potential. She has been a national speaker on leadership, effective business models, and ethics and challenges for women in the workplace. She was the chapter chair of Albany Women Presidents’ Organization, an international nonprofit whose members are entrepreneurial women whose businesses generate at least $1 million in annual sales. She has served on numerous boards, and was founder and chair of the Forum for Executive Women and founding chair of Advisory Board of Women@Work magazine.

What was a turning point in your life and how has it shaped you?

The biggest turning point for me in my life was when I started getting comfortable with learning how to say no and set limits. That made me use the currency of my time in a more intentional way so that it really resulted in a richer life. 

One of the things I’ve felt about jobs and positions people hold—whether politically or in business—is that it’s important to know when to leave the party. I don’t know that I was always as good about that with boards and volunteer work, for instance. It was hard to say no. The defining moment was seeing the number of boards and that I was the chair of every single one. That was when I realized I was saying yes too much and that just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. 

People want your expertise. That’s really sometimes intoxicating. That makes people feel needed.

When do you feel your most powerful?

I feel most powerful when I follow through on a commitment that I made to myself, when I’ve done what I said I would do. Perhaps it’s something I’ve dreamed about doing. When I realize those goals, that’s when I feel the most powerful.

The other one is when I’ve been able to be of service, even to one person. That’s very gratifying to me. At the end of the day I want someone to say that I served, that this is what I’m known for. It wasn’t what a job paid, but about what I was involved with—was it meaningful and did it have an impact.

What misconceptions about aging would you like to dispel? 

Just because you’re not getting paid somehow you transition into another category in life. That’s not true. I still do many of the same things I did when I was in my 30s, 40s, 50s. Only now I have made the conscious decision to put my value of being of service to intentional use. What I am doing is working with women who have businesses or who are starting businesses or selling businesses. I help them make their transition for free. … That’s a service I’ve honed throughout my career—to give business insights to other people. I have learned from lots of ups and downs how to turn businesses around, how to raise millions of dollars for organizations. To be able to pass that on, I want to do (that) for a long time. 

What role do you feel your ancestors or the women in your family who came before you (or both) play in your life? How have they shaped you?

I came from a long line of women in my life as role models. My mother, grandmother, and aunts were optimists. I am grateful to them for their optimism and instilling that sense of “anything is possible” in me. That’s a gift that will never go away. It made me brave and gave me courage when I actually didn’t even know that I needed it. I was 23 when I realized that not everything is technically possible. My mother always told me you can do anything. I still have that voice in my head. Every child needs to hear that. 

Carolyn McLaughlin headshot
Carolyn McLaughlin
Albany County legislator, 1st Legislative District

Albany County legislator Carolyn McLaughlin has been living a life of public service ever since she returned to her native Albany after living in California for a decade. She served three terms on the City of Albany Common Council, beginning in 1997, and eventually became president of the Common Council in 2009. McLaughlin recently retired after 29 years working for the state, most recently as assistant manager in the Human Resources Department of the New York State Teachers’ Retirement System. She also worked with the New York State Division of Budget and the Department of Civil Service. McLaughlin ran successfully for county legislator in 2019 after a failed bid to become Albany’s first female Black mayor in 2017. Now 68, she working on her Ph.D. in executive leadership. “It’s taking my life’s experiences and taking it to the ultimate level for me,” she says of this new path. “It’s a credential that will open more doors for me.”

What was a turning point in your life and how has it shaped you?

When I made the decision to move back here [from California], that was a turning point for me in terms of where I saw my life going after that. When I came back here, I got invested in my community I grew up in. I never saw myself in public service, particularly in the political arena. I thought my skin wasn’t thick enough. Politics is not for the faint of heart. It’s not some high school student council that you ran for. When I was approached first, I didn’t do it. Two years later I was ready. I didn’t want to be somebody that just lived off the community. Politics is taking that volunteer work to the next level. I was involved in NAACP, Urban League, Girls Inc. [and more], and then I just took it to the next level. 

When do you feel your most powerful?

There was a day last week when I counseled my niece on something and another young lady on something and I was on a Zoom where I wasn’t leading but felt it was important to speak up on the part of other people. At the end of that day I felt really good. I felt fulfilled in that I had helped somebody. When I do something that moves someone else’s life forward and I can see it visible, that’s when I feel most powerful. At this point in my life, I have been blessed in many ways. I’m one of those people who doesn’t think you sit on your blessings. You pay them forward. When I’m doing for other people, that’s when I feel empowered. 

What misconceptions about aging would you like to dispel? 

That as you get older you have no usefulness. That is so not true. Life experience is the most valuable asset that you have. If people don’t see that, you’re missing out on so much. Millennials: the earth didn’t start spinning when you were born. You will spin a lot faster if you learn from the people who began spinning before you. Don’t disregard people after 50 …That’s the main reason I can help you is because I am older and I’ve been where you’re trying to go. Take the benefit of my wisdom and the pain I went through so you don’t have to go through it. 

At this point in your life, what have you made peace with that used to be a struggle for you?

I have never admitted this to anybody. I can see myself in my eighth grade class at my desk. I thought I would graduate high school, go to college, and get married the day after college graduation. That was the vision I had. I’ve never been married. I’ve made peace with that, that maybe I never will. It doesn’t make me any less of a person. [The choice] has made public service doable. 

What role do you feel your ancestors or the women in your family who came before you (or both) play in your life? How have they shaped you?

My mother didn’t graduate from high school but there was no stronger, more competent woman in my life. [She was] an entrepreneur, mother, wife, and a confident woman in herself. My parents bought a grocery store when I was in sixth grade. My mother ran it. I remember watching her around the dining room table counting money to make sure she wasn’t slow or would make mistakes. She was practicing. She ran the store for 25 years and put five kids through college. My father worked outside of that. Because of that I have no choice but to be who I am. I’ll never forget that. I know how to dress because of my mother. I know how to wear a hat because of my mother. She taught me how to be a lady but also how to be an independent woman. Dad died in car accident when she was 57 years old. She still ran this business. The resilience she demonstrated for the rest of her life … the strength, dignity and pride she had in herself laid a foundation for me and my siblings.

Brigid Beckman headshot
Brigid Beckman
Pastor at Unity Church in Albany

Brigid Beckman, 59, didn’t begin her working life thinking she would be a pastor. A stay-at-home mother in her 20s and 30s, she went back to college to finish her degree and become a public school English teacher in her 40s. After eight years, she left that job and her marriage to reimagine what her life could be. 

A random request by a friend to officiate at her wedding brought Beckman back to her spiritual roots as she completed a two-year program at One Spirit Seminary in New York City. From there she spent four years as a high school English teacher and director of spiritual life at a private girls’ high school in Massachusetts. Today she is pastor of Unity Church in Albany.

If you had to give your younger self advice, what would you say?

One of the things that strikes me when I look back on my adult life, which I did not know in the moments that felt really full of change and upheaval and stress and grief, is that it all works to be soil for the present moment if I let it be. I would like to tell my younger self to trust that not everything is going to work out OK but to trust listening to my own inner wisdom. I feel I silenced my inner voice for a long time. I might have saved myself a little bit of spinning into worry. 

What misconceptions about aging would you like to dispel?

That life stops at 40. My life between 40 and now almost 60 has transformed in every possible way and in ways I would never have anticipated. The personal growth I experienced, how I would learn to face challenges with grace and humility and fierceness—I feel more myself in so many ways at 59 than I have at almost any other time of my life. Also that gray hair rocks! That’s one of things I wish I had known younger. Just let your hair be gray.

What role do you feel your ancestors or women have played for you?

My heritage is not all Irish but there is a big strain of that in there. I feel a deep connection to the Celtic legends of Brigid—maiden, mother and crone—and understanding that a woman’s life evolves in different passages of time. I feel a real connection to that in my adulthood. I also have a real sense of being connected to family. Now that I’m a grandmother, I feel my own understanding of having some sense of who I come from … We’re part of something as a human family.

How have your ideas of success and happiness changed over time?

I didn’t do a traditional career path. My sense of self as successful in my 20s and 30s really revolved around family life. When I went back to school in my early 40s, success meant kicking butt as a student and growing into my self as a career. Yet I was questioning married life then and had a lot of feelings of failure about not making it work in ways that seemed important to me. Finding ways of tapping into a deeper sense of joy that was not dependent on the outer experiences was not part of my life. I did a lot of spiritual soul searching and staying open to opportunities that were completely unexpected. My new job feels like a success. It puts a lot of pieces together that have felt important to me. My inner world matches my outer expression of who I am and what I want to do. It’s the epitome of happiness and success now.

Get the book

Collective Wisdom: Lessons, Inspiration, and Advice from Women Over 50 by Grace Bonney (Artisan Books) is available at gracebonney.com

Main image: Excerpted from Collective Wisdom by Grace Bonney (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2018. Cover and book design by Shubhani Sarkar.

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