The DONE list: Reflections on my first 40 years

So…I have a milestone birthday coming up later this week. Statistically, people’s 40s tend not to be their favorite decade. There is evidence across cultures (and even across species! Some studies suggest apes suffer this too) that mid-life is marked by some serious malaise.

Part of this narrative is that your course is set, but you haven’t done the things you hoped, as a young person, that you’d do. Frequent blog readers know I made a List of 100 Dreams (part 1, part 2, part 3) a few months ago of things I’d like to do at some point in my life. In order to counter the “what am I doing with myself?” narrative, I’ve also spent some time pondering things I’ve done in my first forty years that I’m happy about.

If you’re approaching a milestone birthday — or even if you’re just trying to be grateful for your life on a normal Monday — I highly recommend making a DONE list like this. It certainly helped on this rainy Sunday when I’ve got a serious case of laryngitis that kept me from performing with my chamber choir this morning. More broadly, life can kick you in the teeth sometimes, but it can’t take away things on your DONE list.

So here goes….

I married a good guy. Pure luck — or fate? I met him at the second bar of the night I was visiting on February 15, 2003. We got married 18 months after meeting, so the marriage itself featured some getting to know each other, but 14+ years in, so far, so good.

I have four wonderful, adorable, spirited children. I’m enjoying seeing who they’re growing up to be (including, now, a guest blogger!) We all went out to dinner to celebrate my birthday on Sunday night and it was…OK. Better than when we had, say, a 4-year-old, 2-year-old and baby. We are slowly moving into the big kid stage.

I graduated from the Indiana Academy for Science, Mathematics, and the Humanities. This is a (public!) residential school in Muncie, Indiana, for juniors and seniors. It was not easy for me. I’d pretty much coasted through school before, so when I showed up in the fall of 1995, I had to learn how to work. My first semester grades weren’t good, but I figured out how to study, and I got straight As from then on. Really truly earning my grades was one of the biggest confidence boosting experiences of my life. It’s one of the reasons I’m passionate about kids being challenged to the extent of their abilities. I gave a speech at graduation and then — fun fact! — came back twice more to give commencement speeches as an alum.

I graduated from Princeton University. This was a great experience as an undergraduate (hello, taking writing classes from Joyce Carol Oates and John McPhee?) But I think I appreciate it more as an alum, being part of such an incredible network of people. Doing two panels at the She Roars conference, for instance, was really fun.

I am working as a writer. I wanted to be one when I was growing up, and here I am! I am writing fiction and non-fiction. I’ve written 8 books under my own name. I know these books have positively affected people’s lives. I get emails about this, and I’m thrilled when people tell me they decided they could go for that promotion, or go back to work after maternity leave, or have another kid (!) Or even the small stuff: the family that took a weekend trip to the beach instead of staying home attempting to do “nothing,” for instance. And they loved it.

I gave a TED talk. It now has 7 million-plus views! While I grew up knowing I wanted to be a writer, I didn’t have this same pull toward public speaking. However, I did like being on stage as a kid. I once sang a solo (at age 9!) in front of something like 1000 people. Now that I am doing a lot of public speaking, I’m reminded how cool it is to be up in front of a big group, really feeding off that energy and giving people an enjoyable experience. In general, I don’t use PowerPoint. It’s just me up on stage — a one-woman show.

I’ve written for a lot of cool publications: the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, USA Today, Fortune, Fast Company, etc. I think I have a particular thrill seeing my byline in big newspapers because I had a job for a while in college delivering all these newspapers.

I co-founded a podcast (with my amazing co-host)! Best of Both Worlds is growing rapidly. This has been a really fun addition to my life over the past year and a half. I wish we’d started it earlier!

I’ve traveled to cool places. I’ll make this a sublist, with some of the more intriguing locations. In my mind, I haven’t traveled as much as I wanted to, probably because I never did a European backpacking tour as a young person, which in my mind is what a well-traveled person would have done, but when I look at the list, I realize that I’ve seen a lot. I have:

— Seen the big 5 in Africa. I’ve visited game preserves in Namibia (Etosha!), Botswana, and South Africa (twice).

— Traveled around India, seeing the glittering Taj Mahal one night and then visiting a slum the next morning. I saw tigers in the wild. My husband and I made this trip when Jasper was 5.5 months old, which I know a lot of people wouldn’t have done, but it was such an amazing adventure and I’m so glad I went.

— Lived in Australia for four months during college. During that time, I saw Uluru, the Great Barrier Reef, a show in the Sydney Opera House, and I spent a week hiking in Tasmania (that’s where I read Ulysses the first time; I liked the wandering parallels). I also stopped someone from my tour group from going over a waterfall when we were up near Darwin.

— Visited the red light district in Bangkok. I traveled around Thailand, and spent time in the beautiful islands, but Bangkok is just a surreal place in many ways. Memorable.

— Biked through Vietnam, and saw Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

— Shopped in a souk in Marrakesh. Then my husband drove us over the Atlas mountains. We stayed in a desert town for a night, then drove through various argan tree groves (with goats) to wind up in a walled beach town on the coast.

— Biked along the desert border between Israel and Egypt. Under the moonlight, it was magical. On the same trip I visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and Bethlehem too.

— Partied all night in a little red dress in Brazil. (This was at age 22, but the dress still fits! I wore it to my husband’s office Christmas party last year, though with a more respectful black wrap).

— Done Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Pretty sure this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, because I don’t like crowds or cold weather!

— Had high tea at Cliveden House in the UK with my kids, which I list only because we then saw that Meghan Markle stayed there right before her wedding. Of the various UK places I’ve seen over the years, I was probably more taken with Stonehenge and the Isle of Skye (location of To the Lighthouse).

— Stayed at the Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone. While out running one morning this summer, I saw Old Faithful erupt pretty much all by myself (like with 2 other people). Given the crowds there during the day, this was a pretty cool experience.

— Visited the Andes in Peru. Ate ceviche in Lima.

— Eaten sushi in Tokyo and seen the cherry blossoms in Kyoto.

— Traveled up the Norwegian coast on ferries between the fjords, and on a different Norway trip, spent a June day around the solstice in Trondheim, when it was light much of the night. My husband and I actually got caught in a snowstorm on a mountain on the summer solstice, which was crazy.

— Visited all five of the seaside towns comprising Cinque Terra in Italy.

— Saw the spring tulips in the Netherlands – just rows and rows of them in the country side and at Keukenhof. On this trip we also saw the little village in the north of the country that my grandfather departed from many years ago.

Anyway, some cool places. A few other items from the DONE list:

I ran a marathon! I finished Big Sur in California back in 2010. Runner’s World said that if you were only going to run one marathon in your life, this should be it. I may only run one marathon in my life, so good thing this was it!

I have run for 700-plus days straight. I may not run fast (at all) but at least I run consistently. Plodding, but consistently.

I have sung in Carnegie Hall. Lincoln Center too. And DAR Hall, curiously enough, as choral back-up for a Dave Brubeck concert. I was 22 at the time and I am 99 percent sure I did not understand how amazing an opportunity that was. So much is wasted on the young.

I’m singing again, after a 6 year hiatus. I sang in the Young New Yorkers’ Chorus for 8 years. During this time I helped found the Competition for Young Composers, which has commissioned dozens of works from people who are now really big names in the choral world (Abbie Betinis, Joshua Shank, Ola Gjeilo, etc.) These days, I’m really enjoying singing with my church choir (if there was Sunday’s laryngitis incident…)

And here are a few things I’ve DONE that scared me at the time…but I did anyway.

Went on a roller coaster with inversions. Only one, the Aerosmith one at Disney, but still!

Zip lined through the rainforest in Nicaragua. Like up in the trees. I’m really scared of heights. Fears are relative; my little brother is a serious rock climber. My mother and I just have to look away when he posts the photos on Facebook.

Unmedicated childbirth (not that I had any choice on kid #4’s speedy delivery)

Submitted an op-ed to USA Today while I was an intern there. It was my first big publication piece, and writing regularly for them for years wound up opening up a lot of doors.

Moved to NYC without a job, just because I’d always wanted to live there. So many good things came of that decision. Sometimes you just have to trust things will work out.

There’s more birthday content to come later this week. In the meantime, why not take a stab at your DONE list?

23 thoughts on “The DONE list: Reflections on my first 40 years

  1. My Done list:

    Was born in a car! I couldn’t wait!
    Moved to Vancouver, BC post college, and worked there for four years
    Have had four careers/businesses: teaching ESL, weight loss counseling, freelance writing, business management training/coaching
    Provided training and consulting services to businesses and organizations throughout the US and in Canada, India, Israel, Bosnia, Mexico, Paraguay, Nicaragua, Ghana, Uganda, Kazakhstan
    Overcome my childhood belief that my body was not OK
    Lost 30 pounds
    Fell in love with movement
    Bicycle-toured in the US, Canada and 15 European countries
    Ran three marathons
    Hiked and backpacked in the Cascade Range, the Sierras, White Mountains of New Hampshire, the Southwest, Nepal (Muktinath trail), the Andes, the Inca Trail to Macchu Picchu, the Lycea trail in Turkey, and more
    Walked the Camino de Santiago the year I turned 50
    Walked the Coast to Coast trail across the width of England the year I turned 60
    Survived and grew from a violent assault in my young 20s
    Survived the loss of 2 family members in my young 20s
    Helped to raised two stepdaughters, one partly singlehandedly
    Bought a home in Mexico
    Became fluent in Spanish
    Maintained a profound love relationship with my husband for 40 years

    1. @Louisa- I love this! Quite the walking/hiking list especially. And being born in a car – I guess you were doing your thing, already then 🙂

  2. I love this! I made my (first) 100 Dreams List to celebrate my 40th birthday. So far there have been bumps but I would say that my 40s have been pretty amazing. I think I will do my DONE list for 45. 🙂

  3. My milestone birthday was last year but here goes.
    Moved to NYC knowing only 1 person and stayed (my 19 year anniversary in NY will be 1/8)
    Graduated from a top 20 medical school (after being out of school for 6 years)
    Completed internal medicine residency
    Completed Endocrinology fellowship
    Established a thriving endocrinology private practice
    Helped so many people feel better and be healthier through my work
    Married a fantastic man
    Had 4 great kids (while in medical school, residency, fellowship and starting my practice)
    Moved to a great NYC suburb, bought a house and established an amazing network of local friends an neighbors
    Established a reputation as an expert on endocrine disease is pregnancy
    Earned an award of “Honours” in the Royal Academy of Dancing examinations twice
    Performed in the Nutcracker 3 times
    Attended my state university on an academic scholarship and graduated with honors
    Traveled to Europe (several times with kids), Asia and South America (Africa and Antarctica are on the list)
    Scrubbed on a cadaveric kidney transplant the day before going into labor with my son
    Met Walter Cronkite
    Stood on the stage of the New York State Theater
    Learned to play tennis (as an adult)
    Drove the PCH from San Diego to San Francisco
    Gave a well-received talk at a biology meeting (to people I suspect knew more on the topic than I did)
    Published several abstracts and book chapters
    Learned to be a competent home cook and baker
    Joined the board of not-for-profit I am passionate about

    1. @Gillian – great list! I doubt many people have performed in the Nutcracker and participated in a kidney transplant the day before giving birth.
      As for the biology talk, I highly doubt the audience knew more than you did.

  4. I work in college admissions and so I’m familiar with high schools in Indiana and I always been curious which of the residential high schools you attended! Curiosity satisfied 🙂

  5. When I made a list of 100 dreams, it made me feel a little bummed, like I wouldn’t achieve anything on the list and was far behind where I wanted to be, so I made a second list of things that would have been on the list had I made it earlier in life, but that I had since achieved. It helped to realize that some things that I now take for granted (graduate from my dream school, live in Chicago, work as an editor) were once major dreams.

    1. @Kate – exactly. It’s easy to take the DONE stuff for granted, since these things are just part of our stories, but at some point that story was not yet written. We had to write it! And we did! Yay for us!

  6. This is such an inspiring way to approach milestone birthdays. I am putting in some intentional effort to revise my view of aging/make sure I don’t succumb to society’s youth-worship as I begin to leave at least extreme youth behind me. So far this has only involved reading books on the subject and listening to some podcasts by women 5-25 years older than I, so a DONE list would be a great addition.

    I had a milestone birthday this past summer, and even at the time I felt really good about it because I had defended just two weeks before – a great capstone to a great decade. In a way, I can see I went into that birthday (my 30th) with a short and sweet done list about my twenties: met and married a wonderful man, had my daughter, and of course the PhD. So far this decade (all 6 months of it) has not been what I imagined, but plenty of time left 😉

    1. @Ashley- that sounds like a pretty good tally for your 20s! Not bad at all. Here’s hoping the rest of your 30s are wonderful!

  7. I love the idea of a DONE list! I’m celebrating my 50th birthday in January. I was already planning to start my List of 100 Dreams during the Christmas break. My youngest child is graduating from high school in May 2019, so I will be starting a new chapter of my life shortly, and I am excited about the possibilities. Now, I plan on also creating a DONE list. What a fun way to reflect on my blessings and accomplishments! Thanks for sharing, Laura. Happy Birthday Blessings!

    1. @Katherine – thanks for the birthday blessings! And yes, here’s to a new chapter, with much DONE and a lot of dreams to anticipate too!

  8. Happy early birthday! I love this idea. I’m turning 37 on Sunday and as I edge closer to 40, making a list like this seems like a great idea. Plus pulling out some of those things off my 100 Dreams List that I want to accomplish before the next milestone birthday (visit a 4th continent, eat at a Michelin 3 star restaurant, complete a triathlon…)

    1. @Amanda – this is a great idea, to think about what you’d like on the DONE list by the time you turn 40. I bet all those could happen in the next 3 years. Maybe in the next year even?

  9. This is so great! I love your list. I turn 37 tomorrow, yay for December birthdays!
    Your list is really inspiring. Thanks for sharing.

  10. You inspired me to create my own list. That DID make me feel good 🙂
    Next I think I need a list of things to accomplish BEFORE 40. I have 17 months!!

  11. I love this idea of a done list! I have been doing something similar that I call my “Did It” list. I include a list of good things and bad things because you learn and grow from both! Some of the things on my list.
    – Studied abroad in China — went there never having been out of the US before, knowing no one and not knowing a word of the Chinese language at the time
    – Married a wonderful man (& continue to have a great marriage)
    – Modeled to pay my way through college.
    – Survived & grew from a sexual assult in my 20’s.
    – Read over 500 books since I started tracking at age 10
    – Moved across the country
    – Got a job with a Fortune 500 company

    Happy Birthday Laura!

  12. Congratulations Laura on reaching your milestone birthday – hope you had fun.
    I really like the idea of a Done list, because a To Do list looks great… until you either realise that you’re not going to get round to completing it, or simply see it as a nagging, wagging finger berating you for falling short… yet again! A Done list is much more encouraging. I’m halfway through my forties now, and while I obviously experience those ‘What have I actually done with my life?’ moments, I think it’ll be nice to reflect back on what I have achieved before I’m officially closer to 50 than 40 in the middle of January! Thanks for the inspiration, and I hope your 40s are kind to you.

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