The joys of a small(er) life

By Caitlin Kelly


I found this essay intriguing, originally published on the blog, A Life in Progress (and which garnered a stunning 499 comments):

The world is such a noisy place. Loud, haranguing voices lecturing me to hustle, to improve, build, strive, yearn, acquire, compete, and grasp for more. For bigger and better. Sacrifice sleep for productivity. Strive for excellence. Go big or go home. Have a huge impact in the world. Make your life count.

But what if I just don’t have it in me. What if all the striving for excellence leaves me sad, worn out, depleted? Drained of joy. Am I simply not enough?

What if I never really amount to anything when I grow upβ€”beyond mom and sister and wife? But these people in my primary circle of impact know they are loved and I would choose them again, given the choice. Can this be enough?

What if I never build an orphanage in Africa but send bags of groceries to people here and there and support a couple of kids through sponsorship? What if I just offer the small gifts I have to the world and let that be enough?

It was a friend of mine, someone I met in freshman English class at University of Toronto decades ago, who posted it on her Facebook page.

She is often wearied by the insane pace others have set for themselves and keep setting.

It can feel like a race.

This always felt like our theme song, from Michelle Shocked:

Leroy got a better job so we moved
Kevin lost a tooth now he’s started school
I got a brand new eight month old baby girl
I sound like a housewife
Hey Shell, I think I’m a housewife

Hey Girl, what’s it like to be in New York?
New York City – imagine that!
Tell me, what’s it like to be a skateboard punk rocker?

I wasn’t exactly a skateboard punk rocker, but I did leave Canada — dear friends, family, thriving career — for New York.

When two paths diverge sharply, one to crazy, restless ambition (mine), one to settled domesticity (hers), raising three daughters, and a steady job in a smaller city, it often breaks a friendship.

One life looks too sharp-elbowed, the other ordinary and mundane (M’s word choice — I showed her this post beforehand.)

Social media can make these comparisons somewhat excruciating, with all the dark/messy bits of either choice edited out.

Life is more complicated than that.

I chose to leave Canada for New York when I was 30.

When people ask why, I answer with one truthful word: ambition.

It hasn’t all turned out as I hoped. The man I moved to be with, my first husband, proved unfaithful and soon walked out on our marriage.

Three recessions severely slowed my career progress.

Jobs came and went.

Friendships I hope would last for decades imploded.

Shit happens!

But I’ll never forget the heart-bursting joy when I exited the Sixth Avenue headquarters of Simon & Shuster clutching the galleys of my first book.

My first book, published in 2004. As someone who grew up with no exposure to guns, I was deeply intrigued by this most American of obsessions

Or how cool it was to compete for four years in nationals in saber fencing.


I now have a happy second marriage and a home in a town I love.

I have an agent, and work, and ideas and friends.

No kids. No grand-kids. No family homestead.

Do I regret my ambition, and its costs? No.

Choosing a quieter life limned by one’s own family, town or community is a choice.

Choosing a life of ambition-fueled drive, another.

Each brings its own satisfactions and joys.

Which sort of life have you chosen?

Are you happy with your choice?

32 thoughts on “The joys of a small(er) life

  1. Slowly realizing that my ambition, which is still my own, doesn’t have to be at breakneck speed. I can take the time to enjoy coffees, write, dance, and instead of aiming for a promotion every 2-3 years, im ok with one every 4-5, because I’ll have lived life.

    A concept I still struggle with, but feels right. Happiness needs time and effort too. And everyone’s happiness is their own.

  2. I lost my job last year. The long hours and pressures were getting to me and it was probably for the better. I haven’t found a job yet and I’m treating time off as my sabbatical. I’m mentally ready now to look and am trying to find something that won’t be 60+ hrs a week but still pays enough to live on.

    1. That’s a real wake-up call — often when we don’t want one, but sort of long for an escape. I was laid off from my last job after a truly miserable workplace and decided to go back to freelance instead of potentially subjecting myself to that much drama again.

      I hope you’re finding your feet again, and best of luck with the search. It’s a challenge to find well-paid work that doesn’t stress you out!

      1. I kinda knew it was coming and it was still a bit of a shock to my system. I did a bit of traveling (4 weeks!) and attended a lot of seminars from my job counseling firm. Now I think I’m in a better place mentally.
        I’m about to start a volunteer job (helping kids read) – it’s something I won’t have been able to do in my old job.

  3. I increasingly find myself wondering about the less tangible factor of success: happiness. Around me are others with both grander and more humble lives, but I wonder: how do you feel? Is there joy? Living large or savouring the moment: perhaps we all need a bit of both.

    1. It’s a cliche — but the older I get (shriek), the more this is my focus. I’ve punched my professional tickets (sure, there are a few more mts to climb) and now make more time for health, friends, art, etc. These are the things that **consistently** make me happy — while work achievements are lovely, but too often fleeting. Maybe not if you’re an architect or make legislation, but so much of our hard work is soon erased or forgotten.

      Living in/near NYC means watching some of the most aggressive people imaginable thundering towards $$$$$ and fame and power. I often feel a bit useless in the face of their DETERMINATION to be THE BEST. And yet, this week (after about a decade of trying), I finally connected with an editor for whom I’ve wanted to write…and that’s a real accomplishment that’s making me happy. It’s not a big thing to many people, but it’s a goal I longed to achieve.

      A dear friend, in Paris, when I was 26, made the point to me very strongly — that life is made up of smaller moments to be savored. If you refuse to do so, you miss much of life. Aaaah, les francais, n’est-ce-pas? πŸ™‚

  4. I couldn’t tell you what sort of a life I have chosen. Right when I think I’ve got the description nailed, something comes along, shakes it up, changes it.

    It’s a quiet life – I’m not likely to change / save the world – but it’s been pretty good so far, and importantly, it’s all mine.

    PS, I’ve been reading your posts in my feed reader for the longest time, so I just realized you have a fresh new design. Lovely πŸ™‚ Happy springtime!

  5. “Autonomy is the best feeling in the world.”

    I’m totally with you on that one.

    I’m in Germany as I write this, navigating yet another unexpected fork in the road. I’ll keep you posted!

  6. Good question. (And to answer your last question – I am in the NWT doing a coaching job that is paying quite a lot of money and that I am very much enjoying. Sorry I didn’t get back to you sooner.) I just went through six months of unemployment (my husband, too) and we are looking at a seriously long-distance relationship (he’s been offered a job in Nunavut) to recoup from the bills. The thing is that we can still recoup on my salary alone (it will just take a little longer) and we can be together, which is just an ordinary thing, a mundane thing, but that is also the most important thing. The conundrum is that he’s feeling useless (I’ve been employed a lot more than him lately) and non-contributory. So, thinking about what choice we will make …

    1. Your life is such an adventure! It’s like “where’s Waldo?” πŸ™‚

      That is a v serious distance.

      I’d vote personally for more time with your husband. Life is short and you never know. You can always (if we are lucky) make more $$$.

  7. I’ve tried to walk the middle of the road, and it hasn’t gone very far at all because I’ve been stuck. Well what I woke up to a few months ago is making a darned decision, and I’m going full out to improve myself and have ambition, do the very best for myself that I possibly can. Better than wondering if I’m screwing up every minute–if I mess up, I mess up, and move on from there.

  8. Both your story and the preceding essay resonates so deeply with me Caitlyn. I too chose I life of ambition. The drum-beat of Gotta-Do-More Gotta-BE-More set a frenetic pace that I kept up with for 4 exhausting, depleting decades. I, like you, reached for and attained lofty goals. However, for me, it wasn’t paradise.
    Now, I’m living a far simpler life, cocooned in the arms of my second wife who respects my potential but insists that we don’t need to keep reaching for more. It’s time to slow down and enjoy the breaths between leaps. And it’s time to peek back at the things that we missed on our way here.
    Thanks so much for highlighting this beautiful juxtaposition, Caitlyn. It has triggered a wonderful moment of introspection.

    1. Thanks!

      I’m a bit (cough) further down the road, agewise, which — such a cliche — really has made me slow the hell down and say, OK. I might have, if lucky, a few decades left. Damned if I’m going to waste any of it (still) trying to capture the attention of, and (briefly) impress, a bunch of people who would never miss me or my work when I’m gone, but enjoy the decreased competition.

      Yes, NYC, kids. Not a warm bath.

      I’ve enjoyed my time here and value some of it, but not the rat race. Too often, I see the rats winning. πŸ™‚

  9. That article really resonates with me. Thank you for sharing. I like to write (and think about) exactly how we choose the lives we have…not always seemingly by choice, but often small decisions end up making a big impact. Now at 40 and divorced, I feel like I’m getting a reset and it’s exciting. A little daunting, but I really get to consciously decide how I want to move forward in life.

  10. Thank you! It’s been about 4 years now post divorce and with 3 kids, I’m taking it slow but I’m feeling excited about what’s in store for me. πŸ™‚ Staying open to new possibilities while I find my truest essentials and priorities.

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