The XX Factor

What’s Next for Her? Nothing Big, and She’s Thrilled

Do you sometimes long to be bored? Have there been times in your life when you just wish you could get up in the morning, do a bit of something not-very-important, and go to bed at night with a clear mind and a light heart? It’s so rare in these ultrakinetic days for us not to have a goal, or a plan, or somewhere we have to be in the next 10 minutes. Laura Donnelly-Smith has been through enough in the past couple of years to recognize the benefits of being at a peaceful, happy place and she wrote in to tell us how much she loves the calm. Read her piece and if you can’t follow her example, you can live vicariously.

The past two years of my life have been, by any accounting, pretty eventful. Since May 2007, I lost a job, got engaged, got a new job, moved in with my now-husband, planned a wedding, got married, turned 30, became a first-time homeowner, moved into the old-but-new-to-us house we bought, and completed some significant home repair work. These events are all unequivocally good things-even the job loss, because, though stressful, it took me from a low-paying job I felt iffy about to a slightly higher-paying job I very much enjoy. So though these past few years have been a whirlwind of working, planning, and celebrating, with bouts of feeling overwhelmed mixed in, I’m not complaining. I’ve become very good at multitasking, and the payoff from each event-in joy, in satisfaction, in pride-has been more than worth the effort.


Now, however, I’m facing an unusual situation. There’s nothing big on my horizon for the first time since spring 2007. The wedding is behind me. The house-hunting is done. The move is completed. After each of these notable events ended, I took a few weeks to enjoy the downtime, knowing that the next big thing would start up pretty soon. But now, there really is no next big thing. Sure, we still have plenty of work to do on our house, but it’s more of the attic-insulating and patio-repairing sort, not the floorplan expansion variety. And my husband and I have been married for only 16 months; we’re not ready for kids just yet.

Looking at the even bigger picture, this may well be the first time in my entire life that I don’t have a larger goal or an immediate next step in mind. As a kid, there was always the next grade level, then college, then graduate school. As a young college graduate, I dreamed about having my own apartment, having a fulfilling career, having a strong romantic relationship, and having enough money to feel financially secure. I feel extraordinarily blessed to have gained these things. But it also leaves me a little lost. What do I work on now?

I’ve slowly come to realize that my comeback is not about what I’m going to do next, but about learning to mindfully appreciate and enjoy what I already have. I’m realizing I can take on “little” projects; plans don’t have to be life-changing to be satisfying or relevant. I kept a journal for 15 years, from the time I was 13 until I was 28; the journal writing dropped off right around when the engagement/ job loss/ job search/wedding planning kicked into gear. Since then, I’ve often mourned letting the journal fall aside, but felt too overwhelmed to get back to it. Now I have the time to recultivate the habit. I also recently trained to be a volunteer coach in a two-month running program for elementary school girls. The commitment is only two hours per week, and it simply sounded like fun. I don’t expect this activity to mark a milestone in my life, as many of the goings-on in the past few years have. It doesn’t have to.

For most of my adult life-and especially in the past two years-I’ve defined myself by what I was doing. I was a graduate student, or a job-searcher, or a bride-to-be, or a homebuyer. These days, I’m not any of those things. For lack of a better term, I’m just a regular person. In working to reach the next milestone, it was easy for me to overlook what I already had. So my new project is simple: Appreciate and enjoy what I’ve got. It’s going to take some work to turn off the internal voice that asks, ‘What should you be doing?’

Could I dedicate myself to finding a job outside the nonprofit world that pays me a larger salary? Of course I could. Could I plan and save for a monthlong trip to a faraway foreign country? Sure. Could I take on a more significant volunteer commitment? Yes. And someday, I may do all these things. But could I also enjoy my new husband, my old house, my interesting job, and the contentment of not needing to do anything big at all right now? Certainly. In fact, it’s looking like a more attractive possibility every day.

Laura Donnelly-Smith is an editor and staff writer at a Washington, D.C., higher education nonprofit association.