I have a confession to make. Years ago, whenever I was shopping and waiting in the checkout line, I would secretly make fun of some of the other shoppers. As you know, checkout lines are filled with impulse items – batteries, candy, gum, tabloid newspapers and other high-margin items that are never on sale. If the person in front of me picked up one of these items and placed in on the conveyor belt, I would think to myself “Look at you – you are so undisciplined! You just see something and you grab it. I am clearly a superior shopper because I have a list, from which I do not deviate. I know exactly what I want and how much it costs, and I am not tempted by the store’s amateurish attempts to make me spend more than I had planned. Unlike you, I am methodical, I stick to the task at hand, and I am not distracted by small shiny objects or celebrity gossip”.
My rigid attitude started to change after I re-watched the movie Dead Poets Society. As you may recall, Robin Williams portrays an English teacher at a private boys’ school who impresses upon his students, the importance of the phrase carpe diem. While I was congratulating myself for being organized and disciplined, I failed to realize that during the execution of my plans, unexpected opportunities would often arise. I was so focused on my list that I neglected to even notice or take advantage of them. What I had pejoratively labelled as impulsiveness can often be a good thing, if applied judiciously.
A few months before re-watching Dead Poets Society, I was doing some shopping, and I remember seeing a nice polo shirt on a clearance rack; it was marked down 40%, and it just happened to be in my size. I should have bought it immediately. Instead, I pulled out my phone and took a picture of it so that I could hold the picture up to some pants in my closet, determine how well it went with each colour, and calculate how many decent-looking combinations it might yield. As you’ve probably guessed, when I returned to the store later that week, the polo shirt was gone. For some reason, I keep forgetting that other customers shop at this store, and I assume that all of the merchandise will magically remain on the shelves, waiting for my return. Now I have a lovely photo of the polo shirt, but not the shirt itself. Clearly, I am a doofus; don’t you be one as well.
Dead Poets Society reminded me that life, and the many opportunities contained within it, are ephemeral. If we spend too much time analyzing the risk/reward ratio of a decision, then the window of opportunity may close. The Nike slogan is a good example – Just Do It. I’ve now adopted a revised version for myself: Don’t just do it – do it now!
I applied this philosophy when I was in Rome. It was my first time in Italy, and while walking around St. Peter’s Square, I decided to take the advice of a friend and sample an authentic Italian gelato, in order to enhance the cultural experience. When I found a nearby street vendor, he wanted 7,000 lira (about $7). I thought this was outrageous! Seven dollars for a couple of scoops of gelato? I could buy two litres of Chapman’s ice cream at the No Frills supermarket for $3; even a small tub of Häagen-Dazs was (at the time) only $6. However, I thought about it some more, and weighed the cost against the experience. Years from now I won’t notice that my bank account has seven fewer dollars in it, but I will regret the missed opportunity. So I bought the gelato, and enjoyed myself immensely as I lived in the moment, and experienced simultaneously, the sights, sounds and tastes of Italy.
In addition to carpe diem, another phrase that has entered the public consciousness recently is “the bucket list”. It refers to a list of things that we want to accomplish before we die, or to put it more colloquially, before we “kick the bucket”. The list could be mental, or you could actually write out your list and cross off the items as you accomplish them. Each person’s bucket list is unique. In 2007, a movie called The Bucket List was released, and starred Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman as two men who have a terminal illness. Amazon.com has dozens of books touting this philosophy, with titles such as Make Your Own Bucket List, The Adrenaline Junkie’s Bucket List and 1,000 Places To See Before You Die.
If you’ve made your own bucket list, then start ticking off those items now – don’t wait. I think we humans have a habit of distributing things evenly. For example, if we’ve made a “To Do” list for today, then we will do the chores at regular intervals throughout the day, so that we’re not overworked. Similarly, if we create a bucket list, there is a natural tendency to think “I’m 35 years old, so I’ll probably live another 50 years, and during the first 40 years, I’ll be in fairly good health. There are about 40 items on my list, so I can check off one item per year and get everything done”.
This approach does make sense, if we are lucky enough to live out our lives completely, in good health, and with enough money. However, good health cannot be taken for granted. Even tomorrow is not guaranteed. Reading a newspaper or watching the news is a constant reminder that our lives can be cut short at any time. There are continual reports of traffic accidents (including pedestrians and cyclists), tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, building fires, wildfires, civil unrest and violent crime. If you live in a large city, how many times have you heard this phrase on the nightly news “It was a deadly start to the long weekend…”?
Television commercials may depict retirement by showing us images of an affluent older couple on a yacht (or in the above example, whiling away the afternoon hours on a backyard swing), but that’s not a reality for most people. Our health deteriorates and our mobility decreases even before we reach the age of retirement. In one example that hits close to home, a gentleman in my Toastmasters club had been in the workforce for almost 50 years and told us that he was looking forward to his retirement; he would finally have the time to do everything he wanted. Less than two months after he retired, he started experiencing health problems that were severe enough to limit his activities. He is now practically housebound, and is no longer to attend our club meetings, much less do all of the things that he had planned for this part of his life.
I know you’ve heard that life is a journey, not a destination, and that we are supposed to enjoy ourselves along the way. I agree completely, but I’m going to go one step further and recommend that you don’t try to spread your bucket list goals evenly across your anticipated life span. Start crossing things off that list as soon as you can afford the time and money.
You probably have the following, understandable concern: if I actually complete my bucket list, then I’ll take a deep breath and say “OK, now what? I’m bored”. In my experience, bucket lists are never static. Within ten years, you will invariably add one or more items to it. Even my own daily “To Do” lists don’t always get completed because I am often adding items to them throughout the day. The same principle applies to bucket lists. More items will be added to your list after you see a movie, browse a travel magazine, watch a documentary, or peruse a friend’s vacation photos. Furthermore, the increasing rate of change and technological advances in our society gives us so much opportunity to explore, and to learn new things. In my opinion, we – no mater what our age – will never feel that we’ve lived long enough or that we’ve accomplished everything.
If you want a carpe diem reminder, then read advertisements or watch commercials. Even if the items are on sale regularly, advertisers know intuitively how to appeal to our sense of urgency, through the use of phrases such as “act now”, “sale ends soon”, “limited-time offer”, “our biggest sale of the season” as well as the blatantly obvious and redundant “get yours now, because when they’re gone… they’re gone!”. Let’s put the same sense of urgency into our own lives. Do as much as you can, and don’t wait – do them now!
Finally, take some time to direct your gaze outward and offer a kind word or a good deed to those you care about. Their lifespan is also limited, and their journey can end unexpectedly. If there is something important that you want to say to a loved one, say it now; don’t wait until the funeral service. Although it’s a poignant scene, in my opinion there’s nothing more pointless than people who apologize, or pour their hearts out to a gravestone.
I’ll leave you with the words of Herb Magidson, performed by Guy Lombardo:
Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think,
Enjoy yourself, while you’re still in the pink,
The years go by, as quickly as a wink,
Enjoy yourself, enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think.