Celebrating the Unplanned Life


Author and journalist Nina Darnton reflects on the virtue — and value — of living in the moment

My husband recently gave me a book party to celebrate the publication of my first novel, An African Affair. The book is a thriller based in Lagos, Nigeria, where I lived with my family nearly 30 years ago. In his toast, my husband pointed out that I accompanied him to Nigeria even though it meant giving up work on a graduate degree in developmental psychology — and this, after I had given up Yale Drama School in order to move with him to New York City, when he started a job at the New York Times. He went on to list all the other career opportunities I gave up in order to marry him, raise our children and follow him, a foreign correspondent, around the world.

It was a moving toast. But in listing all the things I had given up to be his wife, he forgot to mention all the things I gained. At age 67, I am married and in love with the same man I fell in love with 45 years ago at the University of Wisconsin. We have three wonderful children, all of whom came to celebrate my book. I have seen and experienced more of the world than I ever dreamed of.

But there’s more, and this is the part that I want to stress: everywhere we went, I found something interesting and exciting to do. I tried out different careers the way today I might try on a new dress. I found a developmental psychologist in Africa and did a cross-cultural study with him that ended in my getting the degree I thought I had abandoned. I acted in plays with the community theater in Nairobi. I started to write articles and ended by being a journalist, writing about Nigeria, Poland, Spain, and then theater and movies in New York City. And finally, the experiences of thirty years ago in Nigeria — when I had no idea where my life would next take me — found their way into my first novel.

I want to raise a toast to serendipity, to self-invention and to the virtues and value of an unplanned life. I’m not claiming it’s the only route to a happy life—far from it—but it’s definitely another one and one that we are not always told about. There is so much emphasis on making plans, especially for upwardly mobile, middle class children. From the time we start school at age 5 or 6 we know that the next step is junior high and then high school. In high school we have to work hard and do well because we want to get into a good college. In college, we have to do well and work hard and choose our specialty by our third year. We have to get good grades because next is job hunting or graduate school and then we start interviewing and then, well, then there’s the next 40 years in whatever profession we’ve chosen. Often, it isn’t the profession that gives us the most satisfaction.

When I meet young people straight out of college, agonizing about what to do next, I try to tell them first to calm down. Then I ask what they enjoy doing and suggest they look for a job that follows their interests. It doesn’t have to lead to anything. It doesn’t have to be a “career path.” That will come. It is just important to take a step into life and to let the current pull you for a while. Sometimes it tosses you onto a shore you never even knew existed.

There are, of course, some lucky few who know from childhood what they want to do in their lives. I salute them. But for the rest of us, there is the forgotten value of living in the moment, as long as you remain open to new experiences and opportunities.

I have a niece who vowed since she was a small child that she would take care of her grandmother (my mother) when her grandmother got old. My mother was living in an assisted living facility in Arizona. My niece grew up there, but had moved to Massachusetts. The rules of the facility allowed people to stay there as long as they were largely self-sufficient or could be cared for by a spouse. After several small strokes, my mother didn’t meet those conditions and my father was unable to care for her on his own. My niece, who wasn’t sure what career she wanted to follow, decided to move back to Arizona and take care of her grandmother.

Everyone objected. What will you do? we asked. How will you support yourself? How will you find a career? But she insisted. She got a temporary job as a teacher in a local school, rented a house and invited both my parents to live with her. Along the way, she found she liked taking care of elderly people. When my parents died, she opened a care home for the aged, which became one of the most popular in town. It was so successful, she opened a larger one. She had a long waiting list and found that this was more than a job, it was a calling. Now, back in Massachusetts, she is enrolling in a Ph.D program in gerontology. She found herself and her career not by searching for it, but by following her heart.

My trajectory too was unplanned. But by staying open to new experiences and opportunities, I built a life I never would have dreamed of had I stayed in school all those years ago and followed my original path.

Nina Darnton is the author of the new novel An African Affair. She has been a frequent contributor to the New York Times and NPR and a staff writer for Newsweek and the New York Post. Her work has also been published in More, Mirabella, House and Garden, Elle and other magazines. She lives with her husband, the journalist and novelist John Darnton, in New York.



3 Responses so far.

  1. avatar Joan Larsen says:

    As Nina has, I too have lived the unplanned life — one that has been filled to the brim, sometimes overflowing.  Delightful, wonderful, but more than that – totally fulfilling.  How did it come about?  Not truly knowing, I would say that – from childhood – I seemed to have an overload of insatiable curiosity.  A wonderful career after college aside, I had other dreams that followed me into adulthood.

    I wanted to follow the paths of the adventurers of the time.  But how?  I wrote them, asking question after question.  Each response — and writers did respond back then — gave me hope, but more than that, guidance.  What I learned and still believe is that – most often – all we must do is ask.  Done right, there is more help than you might believe.

    My world opened wide.  . and opportunities beckoned.  There seemed a largesse waiting to be plucked once the children were well on their independent ways.  As Nina also did, I kept building on to my life, learning all I could, grabbing experiences – each leading to another – as I went.  The people I met along the way are the gold I treasure.  They too followed a different drummer, finding jobs that fulfilled them along the way.  Up until recent years, this could be done.

    Sometimes, I shake my head and wonder:  who would have dreamed that a young girl (me) that chose that profession of marketing at 18 – and actually more than loved it – would find her way into the earth’s polar regions of her childhood dreams, becoming one of the experts on the subject of Emperor penguins???  The twists and turns of the unplanned life.  

    My own thinking is that if we only go around once in life, we at least should make an attempt to follow our dreams.  It seems better to me to try and fail than to have regrets.  I often play Sinatra singing “It’s the good life . . .” and find myself planning what I might try next.  I never ever want to stop learning!!!

  2. avatar jwil5423 says:

    I agree with much that has been said. I was in too much of a hurry to work to go to university and that was a good thing. I took off and started a life full of adventure. It wasn’t until I was 35 that I did go to university which changed my career path by 180 degrees. Now, 20 years later, I’m planning to go back to university to take a completely different path. The important thing to tell the kids is to stop sweating on jumping onto the treadmill too quickly. Dip your toe, try a few things, get a taste of the possibillities, then jump in. We rush too much and notice too little. Breathe, think, wonder. That is the way to discover who we are meant to be.

  3. avatar D C says:

    What a wondeful story.  My daughter graduated from college a couple of weeks ago, and she is being a little reckless with her life right now some might think… working in a sandwich shop and planning to take a year to do a “seminary” course, and we wonder just how she plans to pay back college loans, but it’s not like she could go into teaching right now anyway with Texas having laid off teachers left and right.  I hope she finds magic in this next year, in whatever form it takes, and it leads her to a path of much happiness.  I also hope she wins the lottery to pay off those college loans.