I told her I had a few things left on my bucket list. She told me my life was a bucket list. I pulled my pen from my pocket, scribbled that down in my dog-eared little notebook. It seemed clever at the time. Like that one time when a friend told me she thought of me as Indiana Jones with a camera, a thought that made me smile for a week. Who doesn’t love Indiana Jones?
What makes me recall these details so fondly is of course that I want these fantasies to be true as much as anyone else does. I’m surrounded by friends that are one martini away from being James Bond, one adventure short of being Shackleton. My friends are hard to connect with. It’s taken me a couple weeks to get something I needed from a friend because he’s been in Antarctica, and the window was tight because he was on his way to Iceland. And when it’s not them it’s me. There’s as much a chance of us meeting in an airport somewhere on the other side of the globe than here at home. Home is a transferable concept, most of the time. But it’s an intoxicating way to live when that same poison doesn’t kill you. I don’t know one of us that wouldn’t claim to be the luckiest man or woman on the planet, and I don’t know one of us that hasn’t been told so a hundred times.
So it makes it hard, when you feel so lucky, so truly kissed by fortune, to have to waver a little and put credit where credit is due, not entirely with fortune, as grateful as we are for her brilliant, meddling ways, but squarely on our own shoulders. It makes it hard because no one likes feeling cocky or ungrateful.
But putting aside for a moment the fact that all of us live our lives floating on a raft that rides the waves and currents of circumstances over which we do not have full, if any, control, it’s the foolish traveler that doesn’t fashion a rudder and do whatever he can to get where he longs to go. The great American thinker Henry David Thoreau said the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. I think they just feel lost on the raft, desperate because the current’s too strong, the waves too big, and it’s never occurred to them to make a rudder and push across the current. It’s never occurred to them to live, instead, a live of desperate intention.
When you awaken to the truly heartbreaking brevity of life, your heart quickens. It’s easy to tape Carpe Diem to your wall, or re-tweet Mark Twain’s encouragement to throw off the bowlines and sail away from safe harbour. But without intention, it’ll fade, and the boat will stay safe in the harbour. Without action, we don’t so much seize the day as slap it on the shoulder as it passes us by.
I don’t think we’re fundamentally lazy. I don’t think it’s that so many of us don’t make it from re-tweeting extraordinary quotes to living extraordinary lives just because we never got around to it. I think many of us don’t know what’s possible, let alone permitted. Raised in a culture that honours the patterns, we went to school, got a job, got married and had kids, and it’s only somewhere after that that our souls begin to ask if there weren’t other options we might have taken. And now we feel stuck, constrained. If only people would live their lives as creatively and intentionally as they create their art. But then maybe it feels safer to take a risk or two with art, than it does with our families, our finances, our futures.
No, the reason so many never got around to it, I think, is because they never knew they had the option. And now they feel stuck. If only they had some notion of how easily we could all climb out of debt if our appetites shrunk. It’s not that we want our big screen televisions and new cars that is the problem, it’s that we want them more than the life we’re always telling others we wished we could live. We want to go to India but it seems so far off. Easier to spend $2000 on a new lens, the one we think we’ll need when we one day get around to India. Except that the new lens just put India so much further away. It’s not wanting this bigger life that is the problem, it’s that we’re choosing a smaller one every day by the accumulation of little compromises and thoughtless activities that, by now, feel like a rut, and we can’t have both. We never knew the other was so possible.
But it is. Most of my friends right now are somewhere amazing on the planet, doing something astonishing, and they’re just like you and I. Like you, they struggle sometimes to make the bill payments. They have kids and families. They have the same fears and health concerns. Yet there they are. Mongolia. Antarctica. Venice. In the coming year and a half I’ll spend time with grizzly bears in British Columbia, and Polar Bears on Hudson Bay. I’ll photograph the snowbound landscapes of Hokkaido, Japan, and the nomadic pastoralists in northern Kenya before coming home to spend a week do-sledding on Baffin Island, then diving with whale sharks in Mexico. And the dirty little secret is you can do this too. Or whatever your version is. You can. And you’re either choosing not to, for a million reasons. Or you’re choosing to do something else. But it’s a choice all the same.
There is so much power in the human will. I don’t want to make this seem so simple that I’m called out for being a dreamer, but it’s amazing what happens when you look at the calendar a year from now and with a red sharpie marker, put a line through three weeks and make a plan. Set a budget. Save your money. Make sacrifices. Sell a lens you don’t use. Put off replacing that iPhone 4. Tech is the worst way to spend money. Put 10% aside faithfully. Tighten the belt. Book the flights on points or start looking for seat sales. Cut the grocery bill by 20% and get creative with lentils and beans. Much of the world lives on a fraction of what we do.
I know. Before you say it, I know. This isn’t realistic. You’re right, it’s not. And it’s not realistic for me, either. It never has been. Not for any of us. And most people that have lived their short lives on their own terms have been told so time and time again. But still they do it. They find a way. They find creative ways around the troubling persistence of reality, their doubts, fears, and whatever constraints they have. They don’t wait until conditions are perfect. Conditions are never perfect. It could be they fail 9 out of 10 times every time they decide to cross the threshold of that next brilliant adventure. But they do it, don’t they? And when they don’t, when it all goes south, they have stories, not excuses. A couple years ago I still managed to set foot on 6 continents while nursing broken feet in the process of healing. I wasn’t brave, and I wasn’t stupid. I was just stubborn. I want to see this astonishingly beautiful planet and all her surprises, and I’ll crawl to see them if I have to.
Whatever your next big adventure – raising your kids, launching your business, seeing the world – do it intentionally. Do it with boldness. Sacrifice what you have to. Cut off the prevailing voices that tell you how impossible it is. It’s why I stopped watching television. Too many advertisements telling me what I needed to live the good life. Those voices will tell you you can have anything you want – as long as it’s a car, something shiny that the Joneses don’t have yet, anything as long as it keeps you shackled to the job that’s slowly digesting your soul. I know what I need to live a good life, and it won’t be found on television. The story that means the most to me will not be acted, but lived. I don’t want to watch Indiana Jones. I want to be Indiana Jones. Or my aging version of it. I promise you, it is possible. But it won’t happen accidentally. It happens intentionally, with many a failure. As beautiful as the words, “I wish,” are, they’re impotent next to the words, “I will…”