There is only one success: to be able to spend your life in your own way. ~ Christopher Morley
The principle of the life list is simple. You list all the things you want to do in life, and cross them off as you do them. Try to do them all before you die.
It’s easy and fun to make one, but to create a list of dreams that will actually come true is not quite as simple as merely writing down what you want.
You may have made a life list before. Where is it now? Probably in a landfill, like most life lists. It’s too easy to let life get in the way. You get busy, tied up with more immediate concerns, and your dreams become less and less relevant to your actual life.
But not everyone’s list gets abandoned. John Goddard is known best for living out the ambitious life list he made at age fifteen.
Even though it includes many difficult and humongous items (for example, number 113 is “Become proficient in the use of a plane, motorcycle, tractor, surfboard, rifle, pistol, canoe, microscope, football, basketball, bow and arrow, lariat and boomerang,”) as of today he’s checked off 111 of his 127 goals, and some are partially complete.
Why did that 15 year-old boy’s list go on to define a lifetime of achievement and adventure, while most life lists are eventually forsaken?
Because he really meant it.
The Two Keys: Intention and Integrity
Everyone has a purpose in life. Perhaps yours is watching television. ~ David Letterman
The most important rule:
Make this a list of intentions, not wishes. Most life lists are wish lists. They’re a joy to make, but most are only good for an afternoon of giddy daydreaming. This is because the authors have no real intention to do the things they dream about. For the few hours it takes to draft a list it almost seems like these goals really are going to materialize out of thin air. It’s like you’re at a grand buffet of experiences, taking whatever you want for free. I’ll take a Harley Davidson here, a Tuscan getaway there…
Making the list is easy. But ten years later, the hike in the Pyrenees, the Boston Marathon, and the million-dollar business never happened, because they were only what you wanted to happen, not what you wanted to do. A person can accomplish an incredible amount in one lifetime, but only what they actually intend.
Make sure the list has integrity to you. A list with integrity is one you take seriously. This is essential. You have to revere this list, working from it for years to come, rather than just drawing it up and slowly forgetting about it. So don’t add items on a whim. Think about what they entail. Do you actually want to go through the ins and outs of learning Italian, or were you just daydreaming after watching The Godfather?
Make sure each item has real, personal significance, and isn’t just “This would be kinda neat.” Anyone could add “see Mount Fuji” or “learn karate” to their list but if you aren’t prepared to pay for a trip to Japan at some point, or spend months in karate class, then these experiences aren’t personally significant enough for you to make them happen. Let them go. Pick something better.
Filling your list with frivolous, “hey why not” fantasies is the perfect way to make sure you don’t follow through. If there are too many items that don’t inspire you to act on them, you’ll stop working on the items that do, and the list will be doomed.
Keep the list pure: important items only.
Here’s the litmus test for potential list items: imagine yourself actually going through with it, including all the legwork. Imagine as many physical details of the experience as possible. If the thought doesn’t fill you with enthusiasm, if it doesn’t make your soul grin, it doesn’t belong on the list. Would you honestly enjoy reading the entire works of Shakespeare? In reality, few would, and few do.
Be audacious, but not unrealistic. Dream big, but know that at the end of the day consideration must be given to the amount of time and money each goal will require. “Own an NFL team” requires eight or nine figures of capital to make a reality, so unless you intend to spend years of your life striving to reach that astronomical level of income, leave it off. It won’t happen.
If you want to read Modern Library’s 100 best novels of all time, be aware that you are committing to thousands of hours of reading books that you may not like at all. Maybe tone it down and make a short list of classics that really do interest you. It’s far better to check off a big accomplishment than give up on a humongous one that you don’t really want.
Remember, every item you add to the list is going to make the rest more difficult to some degree. You can accomplish a lot in one lifetime, but there is only so much time and money (and patience) to go around. The smaller your list, the more likely you will honor it. After all, unless you want relatively little, you can’t do everything you want to do. If you aren’t sure you want to do it, leave it off until you are.
Whittle it down to the truly important, and try to picture what kind of lifestyle is going to be required support it. Cost-versus-benefit really is a factor here: it would be cool to stand at the North Pole, but the thrill of it probably isn’t worth the time or effort for the vast majority of people.
How to Keep the List From Stagnating
A list can be doomed from the start if the intention and integrity aren’t there. So before we get to the fun part, here are some crucial points to make sure you end up with a list you have faith in.
Forget trying to come up with exactly 100 items. Or any other specific number. The act of paring (or inflating) your list to such a clean number betrays a lack of intention to actually make these things happen. Notice Goddard’s list has 127 items.
Make all the items clear, check-off-able things. There must be a specific moment when you can say “YES! I did it!” without question.
Most of the lists you will see are full of vague desires like “eat healthier,” rather than doable goals.
- Vacation in Provence
- Attend Burning Man
- Learn to play “Stairway to Heaven” on guitar
- Own a house outright
- Travel the world (The whole world? Impossible.)
- Exercise every day (Miss one day and it becomes technically impossible.)
- Stay in touch with people (Who? How do you know when you’ve done that?)
- Be more forgiving (More than what? “Be” is not the best verb for a list of things you want to do.)
Be willing to change your list as life goes on. I think the reluctance to do this is why most lists get abandoned. At first this sounds like a prescription for non-commitment, but changes are necessary to maintain the list’s integrity. Inevitably, there will be items you come to realize are no longer important to you, and there will certainly be items you want to add.
But don’t take these changes lightly. Never add an item you can’t see happening. Even Goddard had “Appear in a Tarzan movie” on his list, which he now considers to be an irrelevant boyhood dream. It is still unchecked.
I find it quite incredible that he was able to plan his life so clearly at age 15, and I don’t think most people can do that. So don’t force yourself to make a “final” list. Do an initial period of brainstorming, then add items as they capture your heart. When you recognize that an item no longer compels you, think about deleting it.
Remember it’s not all or nothing. You don’t have to finish the whole list. Goddard is in his eighties now; he probably won’t make it to the Moon like he’d hoped, but I don’t think he’s sobbing over a wasted life.
The list is forever a work in progress, bound to change a little as you change.
Reject the “Bragging Rights” motivation. Eliminate any items if you’re only doing them so that you can say you did. This is a list of experiences you want to have, not a legacy of reasons you should be admired. Be especially wary of goals like “visit all 50 states.” Does it really matter if you don’t set foot within all of the arbitrary political boundaries that make up the States of the Union? Isn’t the point to see the landscapes and people, not to tick off boxes?
Litmus test for this one: would you still do it if you weren’t allowed to tell anyone? Climb Everest? Read War and Peace? Really?
Ask “What specifically do I want to do?” Sometimes an idea might really excite you, but it’s not precisely the experience you’re looking for. For example, on my list I initially had “Attend Oktoberfest in Germany.” I’m sure it would be great, but all that I really want to do is drink beer from a ridiculously huge beer stein at a party in Germany. If I don’t make it there at the right time of year for Oktoberfest, I can still accomplish my dream.
Would a two-hour layover in Heathrow airport satisfy your “Go to London” goal, or is it an evening stroll along the Thames that you dream of?
With every item, dig deeper. What do you really want? Is “Visit Egypt” enough, or do you want to stand before the pyramids? Do you want to “take a singing class,” or do you want to sing onstage? Do you actually want to study marine biology, or just swim with dolphins?
Remember, this list is your life. Depending on how ambitious your list is, it probably represents how you’re going to spend most of the rest of your life. If you treat your list as things you hope to get around to, you won’t find the time and resources. If you’ve got thirty-five countries to visit, you’re not going to be able to sneak them into the same lifestyle you’ve been living, unless you’ve already got an excess of spare time and spare money, or you already make a lot of effort to travel.
As of right now, you invest all your time and money somewhere already, so these life list items will be taking the place of something, not simply added on top of your life as you know it.
The list will very much define your lifestyle if you’ve got some big goals. The course of your career, family life, and daily habits are all going have to be adjusted for these things to happen. At any given time, you should be “adjusting” towards at least one of them. “Bowl a perfect game” would be an incredible experience, but even the best pro bowlers seldom achieve it. If you don’t want to spend your years becoming a world-class bowler, best leave it off. Remember, each item is a target, not a wish.
Avoid goals that depend on luck or other people’s co-operation. “Have lunch with the Pope” is probably setting yourself up for disappointment. Same with anything weather-dependent. “Cross Tower Bridge in the fog,” is possible but would require some luck and patience, while “Wait out a hurricane in a cave” is a real longshot. For each, ask yourself “Can I make this happen?”
Don’t necessarily omit items just because you’ve already done them. Ok, this is optional, but I think it helps to remember that you aren’t starting from zero. You know which experiences you’ve had that were ones you always wanted to do. If they really were significant goals at one time, put them on the list, already crossed off. They deserve to be there. But be strict with these; don’t add “Go to Los Angeles” just because you’ve been there, unless you always dreamed of it.
Don’t add easy items just to improve your “score.” Everything should have real emotional significance to you. Don’t add a list of cities just because you know you’re going to visit them soon. And definitely don’t add stuff like “Get an oil change.”
Beware of “one chance only” goals. The scope of a life list is your whole life, so specific times or dates should be avoided. For example:
- Run the 2011 New York Marathon
- Lose 20 pounds by December 31
There is a place for time-specific goals in life, but I’d advise keeping them off this list, because they can become impossible, sapping the integrity of your list. “Run a New York Marathon” is probably good enough. Setting a target date makes sense, but keep it off the list. You can always make another attempt.
Add small items too. Small, easy goals are helpful because a) it reminds you that not all meaningful accomplishments are huge and difficult, and b) you can cross something off this week if you want. “Pay for the car behind me at the toll booth” or “Try sake” are great examples. But they do have to be experiences you really want, not straw men to knock off. Remember: integrity is paramount.
Keep a “To Look Into” list. This is also an essential component to a healthy life list. Don’t be so quick to add something to your list just because it looks cool at first glance. Look into them first. Is it really worthwhile?
Remember that every item you add will take limited time and resources. You can make the really important things happen, but it’s too easy to keep adding exotic countries and neato skills to your list that you will never feel compelled to achieve.
Keep a running list of candidates for your list, but don’t put it on if you aren’t sure you intend to do it.
The Fun Part
Now it’s time to begin the rest of your life. The only ingredients required are imagination, integrity and intention.
Here are the steps:
Have fun with this. Dream. There are certainly already experiences you know you want to have. Write them down. Don’t worry at this point about how you will make these things happen. Suspend fears about money, difficulty or criticism. But do make sure they aren’t frivolous.
Consider what you want to do in the following areas:
- Travel (Tour China, see Angel Falls, camp in the Australian outback)
- Skills and knowledge (Speak Spanish, learn to write calligraphy, know your constitutional rights)
- Experiences (Drink in an Irish pub, play in a band, drive a Ferrari)
- Career (Own your own company, become a partner at your firm, quit the industry you’re in)
- Finances (Make six figures, become debt-free, donate 10% of your income to charity)
- Relationships and family (Have a child, trace your family tree, get married)
- Physical feats (Run a marathon, do 100 pushups, do a wheelie on your mountain bike)
Of course, no need to limit yourself to those.
Also, check out other people’s lists for ideas:
- John Goddard’s Life List – Must-see
- 43 Things
- Creating a Bucket List – A mishmash of life list articles, including hundreds of ideas for goals
- Project 183
You don’t need to worry about getting every single goal down, you can always add items later.
2) Make an *official* list.
Pick a format. Pen and paper is just fine, but if your penmanship sucks you might do better to keep it in a word processor so it’s more attractive. You can also do it online, at 43 Things.
Add the items you intend to make reality. But keep your wits about you. Nothing gets on this list without these litmus tests:
- Am I doing this because I want to experience it, or just because I want to say I’ve done it?
- Do I honestly intend to invest the amount of time, money and energy this will take?
- Can I picture this actually happening, given the lifestyle I intend to live?
Remember, without integrity and intention, all is lost. Keep it real. If you only end up with 11 things that you truly intend to do in your life, that’s great. Better than 100 wishes. What we’re trying to avoid at all costs is a list that you forget about or stop looking at.
3) Give it a once-over and cut anything that isn’t truly compelling or that you can’t see happening. Be brutal with this, because every questionable item you eliminate frees up time and money that can go towards the really important ones. By paring it down you are making it more likely to succeed at what remains.
4) Put it in a prominent place. Print it out, or do up a good copy on nice paper, and post it somewhere where you will see it every day. It deserves that much. Remember, it’s your life, not a side project.
Public accountability is great. Create some by showing people. Post it on your website if you have one.
5) Pick one item you can do fairly soon, and take a step towards it right now. You should have some items that aren’t too difficult at all, maybe something you can even get done today. If not, take a significant step right now. The bigger the better. Imagine what it would feel like to actually go ahead sign up for French classes today, or even book a flight. Always be working on at least one item, preferably several.
Crossing Them Off
As I mentioned, knocking off the whole list isn’t the goal. It’s just a collection of goals. Getting them all would be spectacular, but even fifty percent of the average person’s list would represent an incredibly rich and notable life, with an abundance of stories to tell.
Those moments when you do achieve them will be precious indeed. And they will be specific, glorious moments: heaving yourself up the last step of the Matterhorn, tying on your black belt for the first time, clapping shut the rear cover of Crime and Punishment. Dreams do come true, if you make them.
This Thursday I will be publishing my own life list, such as it is, and adding a permanent page on Raptitude where you can see its progress any time.
I would love to see yours, or at least hear some of your life list items. Please share in the comments!