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.
“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. Without action, we don’t so much seize the day as slap it on the shoulder as it passes us by.”
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…”
This is the third in a series of posts. You might also want to read Life is Short, and Fill Your Canvas. If you enjoy them, please share them – the buttons below make it easy. Thank you.
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WOW! Powerful insight and advice! Feeling challenged!
wow. You never cease to astonish me with your words and clarity of messages. Thank you for that, it was needed today.
As I sit at Helsinki airport after being in Iceland for 2 weeks (the most beautiful of the limited countries I’ve seen), I rarely take the time (stupidly) to read your articles of wisdom, you’ve reminded me of what the importance of ‘living’ your dream entails…
I love my ‘job’, but I know there’s more in it for me than just the domestic photography I do. I have more to give and to get.
Thank you for the reminder David!
David, I’m going to be the pessimist here. I love this post, I truly do, but what does one do to pay the bills after one comes home?
Acting out on the dream, the vision, and the technical processes associated with sharing your vision is all good and for me not as difficult as it once was. I struggle with the sale. A lot of people like my work, but I can’t sell likes.
The fact that sales are so hard to come by, I often find myself shooting down the goals before I even try anymore.
However, I do love this post and it is very inspiring. I just wanted to share this side of it, because I know there are others who feel the same way.
Well, the subtext of this post is that life is an adventure, and no adventure goes to plan and is without risk and fear and the uncertainty that things will work out. They require creativity and alot of mistakes and course corrections. I don’t know your situation, Michael, but from a quick look at your FB page you’re going through a rough time. Been there. Truly. More often than I wish I had been. So as a friend I’m telling you the best I can tell you: find a way to get positive, to grab the bull by the horns, and wrestle it down. In your context I don’t know what that means, but I can tell you that if the solution was obvious to any of us, someone else would have beat us to it or done it better. The solution won’t be obvious. I have several income streams that I work hard at. I hustle, hustle, hustle, to tend as many irons in the fire as I can, never knowing exactly which one will catch. Please don’t misunderstand, I’m not being dismissive or trite. It’s just that there’s no formula or template I can pass along except that you approach your work with hard work and creativity. Have you considered getting an outside opinion on your work, your business model, your marketing, etc?
Great post David.
Fantastic thoughts, David. Life can be an epic adventure as long as we decide to leave our front door!
I have followed you blog for many years now and always enjoy your posts.
This however for me is a homerun. Exactly how I feel word for word.
Thankyou for the inspiration. Again 🙂
Awesomeness. Very worth words, and a great reminder of our path and choices.
3 weeks ago I left Australia with only a small backpack, a camera, a dream and a knot in the pit of my stomach.
Many friends asked me where are you going and for how long? The answer to both questions was the same – I’m not sure.
I was told I was brave, lucky, amazing….
I am none of those things. I just decided there was more to life than what I was doing. I looked at myself and my friends and thought this is not what I want. I had a job I hated and was just working to pay the bills. So I quit.
I sold up everything and hit the road. As I write this I am in Sri Lanka soaking up everything that unplanned endless travel has to offer – and I am loving it.
Your words reinforce to me the belief that life is all about choices. We all have the chance to make a change – we just have to choose it.
Thank you as always for sharing your thoughts. It only serves to remind me that I am not alone with mine 🙂
Good luck with your healing feet and happy travels.
Have a fantastic trip, Augustine. Soak it up. Make it a brilliant story. 🙂
Thank your for this. Today was the perfect timing to read this.
This is an especially powerful series this week David. Could not be more well-timed….
Today you struck a chord deep in my heart with these words: “shackled to the job that’s slowly digesting your soul” ~ not referring to my photography business but my “other” full time job as a Special Education Teacher. While I adore that job, it is one of the highest stress occupations in the world, and it is not slowly, but speedily digesting my soul. I mean truly and literally sucking the life out of me.
I don’t know the way out, but your article today gave me some very specific ideas on how I can buckle down and make some changes. Some just little changes, here and there, and maybe even some brave and big changes, which will help me begin a path of desperate intention.
Thank you….. sincerely…
Life is indeed short and fragile. Lost an old good friend few years back. I remember 1 week b4 his passing he told me he planed to take his wife to travel to China. Well… I like this and previous two artilces and have share the previous article in Linkedin. I know linkedin is not a usual place for article like this but then I think those in “busy ness” should take a break to re-look their business of their life.
It’s interesting, isn’t it, how we can get stuck in our thinking, but we always have a choice. I run up against the “I couldn’t do that” mentality all of the time, because I work part time at my corporate job. I do it to have more time to spend with my art, photography and writing, and more time out in the forest on a regular basis. I like my corporate job, but my heart and soul need these other things too. When people find out, they often say, “I wish I could do that.” I always answer, “You can, you just have to take a 25% pay cut.” It’s fun to see the double-take, as they realize it is a choice they *could* make, but don’t. It’s a choice I make, my family makes with me, in order for me to do something good for my soul. And you know what? We are fine. We have been for years. In fact, it’s a good lesson to teach my son. It’s amazing how well things work out, when we are intentional in our choices. Thank you for reminding us.
David, I’ve been following your blog for a few months now an this post has had such an effect on me. It really resonated. It had an impact on me that I wanted to read it to my wife. Reading it out load made me pause over and over. The impact of reading out loud brought me to tears. Your words are superb. They summarize what so many of us feel and deeply believe. Thank you… Thank you… Thank you….
Well said, David. Your words really resonate with me. Spring is around the corner and it’s time for new challenges and adventures.
Just what I needed to read. On Sunday I fly to Japan for three weeks. I’ve worked and saved hard for it, to put myself and a camera out there on the other side of the world. I’m new to travelling: in the last few days I have become sucked into the morbidity of internet travel forums, the health risks of long haul flights and so on. All, I accept, a cover for the hidden inexpressible fear of having to get out there and do it. So reading this has helped. Thanks.
Pure gold, David. That’s the weight of these words.
Thank you. Again.
So true David !
I finished my college last summer(age 23 now) and was pushed into a soul-sucking corporate job ! Then something within me (must be you) cried for freedom and now I quit the job breathing immense freedom.
Now its time to check my bucket list and complete atleast 50 % of it before the current becomes too hard to handle.
Wish me well David 🙂
(PS : Becoming a travel photographer is my long-time calling. I have started on the path already. Currently reading your famous Visionmongers book !)
I feel truly blessed that at that point in my history I was steered towards your work. I have learned so much about photography and life through your vision and experiences. Thank you so much for being you, and for sharing so much of your vision and thoughts to the rest of us.
David, this is one of the most powerful statements I have read in a long time and has come along exactly when I need it. Turning 60 this year, the unintentional way I have been living my life to this point is shameful. I am so inspired by your words and can’t thank you enough for sharing them. Here I go . . . !
David – So true. Thanks for the reminder and the inspiration.
Your post reminds me of my favorite Thoreau quote; “If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”
I am leaving for India on Saturday…
Travel safe, my friend.
It’s been a while since I stopped by here but I’m glad I did.
I was lucky enough to spend most of my twenties travelling around Asia before finishing up living permanently in Japan. I’ve been here for 13 years now and find inspiration in living here everyday. Despite that it’s still fairly easy to get sucked in to the harbour and the easy life at times, but that’s something that, as you rightly point out, that everyone struggles with at times.
Yesterday I received an email from an old travelling friend from Scotland whose brother will be coming to Japan at the end of the month. He wanted me to check over his itinerary to see if there was anything he’d missed. Of course there was plenty due to time constraints, but it made me think how people are prepared to spend so much money to travel to an area of the world that I sometimes take for granted. The email arrived just as I was checking the price of a new camera that I don’t need.
3 days ago I was checking flight prices to Hokkaido next month but typically a little voice told me that I can go anytime so just put it off for a little longer. That was a foolish mistake.
Life is about experience and I’ve experienced buying camera gear plenty of times. I don’t need to do it anymore. Hokkaido, on the other hand, is the name for a vast expanse of land and culture that can be experienced over and over again.
I will go to Hokkaido.
Bravo. The power of your words lies in the fact that you live them, you don’t just write them. And as I embark on a new journey for myself in less than a month, these words will be companions of hope and inspiration along the way. Thank you, David. So much love for you, for always.