We are often bombarded with statements like, “Keep striving!” and “Never settle.” These seemingly motivational statements keep us on a path of determination that keeps us moving towards our goal. Or do they?

What if I were to tell you the key to grad school is not to “never settle” but rather to settle momentarily, until your next endeavor? That’s what I experienced, and that is where I think the magic happened.

I took 10 years to complete my doctoral program, and had two children in the meantime. By the time I was finishing my internship, most of my matriculating cohort had passed their licensure exams and were starting their careers. I had a sense of urgency come over me every day. I started looking at post-docs before I had finished my internship. I started thinking about opening my own practice before I landed a post-doc.

And in all of that rushing, I had forgotten why I entered this field in the first place. I had the relational pressure of my husband telling me to get a job already, I had the financial pressure of not being able to cover expenses or do fun things, and I had the existential pressure of doing something with my life while having the eyes of two little humans watching me.

I crumbled. I completely spiraled. I missed sessions with my clients; I withdrew in group supervision; I stopped writing my dissertation. I basically quit. But something happened during that dark time. Something magical.

One day, my mom asked me a question: Why did you get into psychology in the first place? I took a few breaths and answered confidently: “I’m so curious about why people do things!” I took a few days to rekindle my love for psychology and conjured up fond memories of sitting in child psychology in college and becoming obsessed with attachment.

I thought back to my master’s program and savored the feeling of inspiration I had hearing my professor talk about consumer psychology. I realized after a few weeks that what I was doing in my internship, the post-docs I was considering, the time and energy I was investing in eventually starting a private practice—none of it was what I really wanted to do, and none of it was related to why I loved psychology.

I needed to stop dreaming a dream I didn’t even want to come true. In the coming weeks, I had another lovely tidbit come into my mind: Right now, your role is to be a mom and finish your internship.

I immediately thought, “Yeah, but then what?” Now pause right now and reread that question: Then what? How many times do we ask ourselves that as students? How often are we asked that by our friends and family? Even our professors and mentors are guilty of asking us that daunting question: Then what?

That was the moment when I stopped and said that’s enough. I’ve had enough! There is no “then what,” there is simply right now. I stopped replaying the story I told myself on my commute to my internship: “I’ll be happier when I’m done with school and have a PhD.” I worked hard to rewrite a new story with constant affirmations and wrote several times over and over my new story: “I am content where I am.”

Before you stop reading, start scoffing or rolling your eyes, hear me out. Content does not mean settling; it means being peacefully and currently satisfied.

It means being satisfied with being a first-year student and not knowing your track of specialization. It means being at peace waiting for match day or clearinghouse.

For me, it meant being satisfied with being a mom while the rest of my peers were professionals. That came with a slew of things to accept, like pumping in between sessions (I was nursing my infant at the time), taking a two-year part-time internship so I could work 20 hours instead of 40 hours a week. And above all, it meant not asking myself: Then what?

Being content is not easy. It’s certainly a practice that you must actively work at, and you must fail up. Fail up – when you fail at something but learn something so key in the process of failing that you progress.

When I would get swept away with what others were doing on LinkedIn, I considered that failing up because I had failed by just being still with where I was in my process. But in getting distracted by what others were doing professionally, I gained a list of skills I wanted to learn.

When I would daydream about being a published author, I failed at being present in the moment, but from the daydream came a goal and a list of inspirational authors and books I wanted to read.

Part of the process of being content is going to be failing up. I eventually finished my internship, and then I catapulted myself into a job search for who I was currently: a doctoral student with two master’s degrees and a desire to learn more about why people interact with products the way they do. Did I know what products? No. Did I know what company? Not really. Was I content with just knowing what I wanted to do? Most definitely.

I ended up taking a job at Google as a UX researcher. I eventually left that position to become a researcher of adverse childhood experiences so I could write more and have opportunities to lead workshops and get public speaking practice.

I’m content right now in my position because I know it’s my launchpad for what’s coming. Someday I’ll take the leap off my current lily pad onto the next venture. I know I’ll spend some time getting my balance, letting the water settle around me and finding peace on that lily pad, and then I’ll jump again.

Ready, set, go.

Bre Gentile, PhD

Bre Gentile brings over 10 years of clinical psychology experience to her work, with the last three years being in innovative research at the Center for Youth Wellness in San Francisco. Prior to joining the research team, she spent time at Google where she conducted user research on their hardware. Before that, she worked as clinical advisor at X2AI, where she created content for chatbots delivering on-demand mental health. Bre holds a doctoral degree in clinical psychology. When she’s not teaching dance classes at Equinox in San Francisco, you’ll find her enjoying chai and London fogs at playgrounds with her two sons. She’s always available to geek out on resilience factors and use machine learning to predict outcomes in trauma.
Bre Gentile, PhD