When I recount the scariest life decisions I’ve made to date—switching careers, living alone, allowing myself to fall in love—they feel inconsequential compared to some of the risks my loved ones have taken. How can I, a 20-something who lives in the same city she grew up in, meditate on taking chances when all mine have ultimately been low-stakes? Why would anyone care to listen to me rant about quitting my job or the cost of a monthly metrocard when they could read about my family fleeing Iran during the revolution?
But when I asked 15 women, aged 60 to 89, about the wildest decisions they ever made (and don’t regret), I realized what made their answers compelling was not the specific details—it was their conviction in the face of uncertainty. When Susie, 62, walked away from her first marriage, she moved to London with no guarantees that she’d be able to support herself. When Furaha, 70, gave up a comfortable life in pursuit of her greatest passion, she was given no assurances that she’d be successful. And when Barbara, 74, went back to school to study business, no one promised her she’d be able to make a name for herself in a male-dominated field. They leapt anyway.
All 15 women took a risk by betting on themselves, and whether or not it paid off, they prove that any woman who’s chosen a life of uncertain fulfillment over complacent insatiability has a story worth telling, whether that means whispering three little words or booking a one-way ticket. Maybe they didn’t save the world, but in a way they saved themselves.
What’s your wildest decision you don’t regret?
“I randomly took a course in Impressionism and absolutely went crazy about the teacher and his way of expressing the art historical context of Monet’s series. I went home, stayed up all night, and wrote to my parents (those days there was no email, cell phones, or direct phone calls between Iran and the United States). It told them I decided not to major in economics and finance, but in art history. That changed my life forever.” —Leila, 65
“When I was in searching-for-a-mate mode, there were three men I was considering. A friend recommended I pack my bags and move in for two weeks with each man to inform my inclinations. I showed up to each one (one at a time, of course), bag in hand, to sample the experience. It was fun and certainly informative. None of them made the cut and I met my husband three weeks later. The universe heard my intentions loud and clear!” —Susan, 65
“My wildest and wisest decision I’ve made that I have no regrets about was to walk away from an emotionally abusive and physically violent marriage. That takes absolute courage. I didn’t know where I wanted to go, but a friend encouraged me to travel to London, so I did, on my own and not knowing one single person. That was back in 1984. My world changed from that point on. I have never looked back.” —Susie, 62
“I traveled to Zimbabwe, fell in love with stone sculpture, and got so excited I decided to put on a show right here in New York City! So I read every book I could find and met every Zimbabwean artist I could meet, including the head of the Zimbabwe Tourist Office. Then I planned a month-long trip there to meet artists and buy sculpture. It was a huge risk—but the experience was extraordinary.” —Diana, 75
“My wildest decision that I don’t regret was giving up a great, cushy life in Atlanta to move to New York City to pursue an acting career. I owned a successful business, was paying a mortgage on my beautifully furnished two-bedroom condo, and was paying the note on my first car which just happened to be a Lexus. I was a successful businesswoman and well-respected in the arts community in Atlanta, but when it came down to it, I knew that the almost 30 years I’d put into my career paled miserably in comparison to the mystery that potentially lay ahead of me in New York City. Many acquaintances thought I’d lost my mind, but I was more afraid of not making the move for fear I would spend the rest of my life wondering what would’ve happened if I’d taken that leap. Life is very different for me in New York City, especially from an income standpoint. That said, I wouldn’t change a thing about being here (save more acting gigs). There’s far more to life than money and position. All in all, I’m quite clear I made the absolute right decision. Life is good and my dreams are coming true before my very eyes.” — Furaha, 70
“When I graduated from architecture school in 1980, at the time of the recession, I was hoping to walk into an office and get a great job offer. After all, I had studied for six years non-stop. To my surprise and disappointment, I learned quickly that no one hires you if you don’t have previous experience, important recommendations, and social connections. To find out my own voice and what architecture meant to me, I moved away from my family and friends and checked into a Zen Center, where I cleaned toilets to live among monks and study the art of meditation. It was one of the best decisions I have made in my life. I learned that Zen is a state of focus that incorporates a total togetherness of body and mind.” —Gisue, 65
“Too soon after I married my ‘beshert’, my too-good-to-be-true husband, he commenced an affair. After a year of suspicion, prevarication, agony for both of us, intermittent joy for him, and accusatory blasts from me, the affair was acknowledged and declared dead. I clearly stated that should it continue or restart, my first call would be to his eldest son. Eleven months later, I was true to my word. I have no regrets. After I confirmed the affair, I wanted to know for whom my husband had left me. I invited her for a drink. She told me that her kids thought of him simply as an old guy who was smitten with her. I did not regret confirming that her kids were right.” —Dale,* 70
“I’m pretty risk-free, except for investing in a marijuana company called Weed Women. And my divorce, but that was a moral decision. I had two little girls to whom I was a role model. I didn’t want them to think that is how a wife should be treated.” —Casey,* 64
“The wildest decision I ever made was choosing to poison my husband. He was an abusive alcoholic who loathed our children and I was done with being tortured. Conveniently, he was deathly allergic to nuts and had sealed our relationship the night we met by asking if I’d always carry his epi-pen, Benadryl, and albuterol. He loved me! Years later, I realized it would be much easier in countless ways if he died and I didn’t have to go through a ghastly divorce. I stirred a quarter cup of peanut butter into his chicken curry and served it. He wasn’t dead when I finished putting the kids to bed, so I gave him a 10 oz scotch and a second large dose of curry. Like Rasputin, he wouldn’t die. Turned out he wasn’t allergic to peanuts, which are legumes and not nuts. My only regret is that I didn’t use almond butter.” —Sally,* 71
“The wildest decision I ever made was to move to New York from Trinidad, with my cousins, Ken and Karl. But they were always there for me. They made me feel safe, every step of the way.” —Angie, 75
“I’m not really the type to make wild decisions, but back in 1973, when women were beginning to move up the corporate ladder, there’s one decision that really changed my life: I resolved to go from being a 10-year, hard-working executive secretary with a high school degree to a professional businesswoman with a college degree. I quit my ‘working-girl’ job, got a student loan, and managed to live on my savings and graduate from NYU—Magna Cum Laude. I was crashing that ‘old boy network’ and succeeding. Best decision I ever made!” —Barbara, 74
“Moving from the city to the suburbs. The country scares me. The trees felt haunted, full of evil spirits. But it was better for my husband and my baby, so I do not regret my decision. Now, we have a nice life together.” —Celeste, 62
“I’ve never taken a real risk. Even fleeing my country wasn’t a risk. It would have been crazy to stay, not go! I guess the craziest decision I ever made was marrying my husband. Love is always a risk. But it pays off.” —Behjat, 89
“I traveled by myself to the legendary rainforest of Sumatra. During my visit, I was misled by locals into a sort of rainforest sultan’s pleasure dome—a warm, wood-paneled room with a carved canopy bed, private bath with hot and cold running water and shower. I took a shower and wrote in my diary. There was a knock at the door. Someone had left a huge platter of tropical fruit for me, but there was no one in sight. I locked the door and went to sleep in the most luxurious, puffy, feather-bedded king-sized bed. In the morning I stepped out and found sweet coffee and rolls waiting. A young guy with a skinny mustache and curly hair who hadn’t been there the night before said in the Queen’s English, ‘I heard you were looking for the Hostel.’ I said that, yes, indeed, but wasn’t I at the hostel? He threw his head back and laughed. ‘No, they were having fun with you. This is the private compound of the Minister of Forestry, the hostel is just down that path.’ He pointed to a footpath in the woods. At the time, I did realize I had been foolish. But looking back now, I realize it was probably the most foolish and risky thing I’ve ever done—except maybe for the time I tried a snake blood cocktail in Yogyakarta…but that’s another story.” —Kathy, 60
“I walked away from someone I loved because I knew I’d be happier alone. I was right.” —Morgan,* 63
*names have been changed
Photos by Beth Sacca.
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