Note: What began as a list of 100 items to do before you die, soon became the foundation for a documentary filmed to spread a clear message of hope for four Canadians. Six years ago, “The Buried Life” was created by Ben Nemtin, Duncan and Jonnie Penn, and Dave Lingwood during their college years at a time when each gentleman was facing life’s most testing obstacles. Realizing that they had the power to accomplish all of their list items with enough hard work, they set out in an old RV to follow their wildest dreams. In the process, they also made a pact to help a stranger cross off one of their list items for every list item of their own that they were able to accomplish.
If there’s one thing I’m proud of, it’s being able to tell good stories. Not because I’m a particularly good storyteller, but because I’ve been able to do some pretty cool things with my friends.
I’ve played b-ball with the President at the White House, made a TV show, crashed the Playboy Mansion, written a book, streaked a stadium, been on Oprah, thrown the first pitch at a Major League Baseball game, made the biggest roulette spin in Vegas history, delivered a baby, reunited a father and son after seventeen years, made a $300,000 donation to charity, helped a girl find her mother’s grave for the first time, and am trying to help a college freshman find a new kidney (I need your help on this one).
Five and a half years ago, I couldn’t tell any of these stories. It was 2006 when I first hit the road with my next-door neighbor, his younger brother, and a kid I knew from high school to accomplish the “100 Things to Do Before We Die” list.
We promised that for every item we crossed off, we’d help a total stranger cross something off their list. To date, we’ve accomplished eighty-one items on our list and, interestingly enough, have wound up helping over eighty-one people.
This mission was only supposed to be a two-week road trip. The four of us never expected it to be much more, and we certainly didn’t expect to be living it five years later.
In the beginning, we didn’t tell our friends what we were doing because we didn’t know how to explain it. What we shared was really just a feeling: we were fed up and wanted something different.
We decided to move forward without a real plan. A mechanic told us that the RV we’d borrowed for our first road trip wasn’t going to make it home; I fabricated a wedding to get enough time off work; and we pretended we owned a production company to raise money for a camera and gas.
The only thing we knew for sure was that we would be taking two weeks off before we went back to college to try and accomplish as many items on our list as possible and help some people.
We didn’t have a name for the project until Jonnie was assigned a poem in English 102 called “The Buried Life.” It was written 150 years ago but spoke to the same feeling we were having at the time: the desire to unbury our lives and do the things that were important to us, not what was expected of us. There were four lines that stood out from the rest:
But often, in the world’s most crowded streets,
But often, in the din of strife,
There rises an unspeakable desire
After the knowledge of our buried life;
When I think back to this time now, I remember sitting on the curb beside our RV the night before we were supposed to leave, arguing about whether we should cancel the trip because if the camper broke down, we wouldn’t have enough money to tow it home. Five years later, I guess it’s safe to say we’ve gotten pretty good at accomplishing our dreams. I’d like to say we’re experts at it, that there’s something about us that makes us able to do these things, but the truth is the formula is quite simple. The more items we cross off our list, the more we become convinced that anyone can do anything.
For us, it just comes down to these six steps:
#1. Stop and Think About It. Really Think About It.
What is it that you really want to do with your life? Forget what you think you should do. What excites you? What feels impossible? Be honest with yourself. Your answers don’t need to make an impression on anyone but you.
For many people, us four members of The Buried Life included, the impetus to make a life change only comes with crisis. The summer before we started The Buried Life, I was struggling with depression; Dave was struggling with his weight; Duncan had lost a close friend; and Jonnie was just plain angry and disillusioned with our generation (“No one protests anymore,” he used to say). The four of us were so beaten down that we had almost no choice but to reevaluate what was important to us. Our project grew out of that frustration. Sometimes it takes a debilitating low or a crushing loss to snap you back to reality, but don’t wait for that. Ferris Bueller put it well, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
#2. Write It Down.
Simply put, it’s not real until you write it down. BY that I mean, take your dream and turn it into a project. Dreams have a funny way of staying dreams. But a project is something that needs to be done. Approach it as you would any other item on your daily or weekly to-do list. When you have a deadline, you find a way to get it done. Treat your dreams the same way. Add it to your list. You need to buy toilet paper. You need to spend the weekend in Paris with someone you love. When you write it down, you’ve taken the first step.
When we first started the project, we put things on the list almost as a joke. We didn’t think about whether they could actually happen; we just pretended that anything was possible. “#53: Make a TV Show” was a dream we’d shared since we were young. We had no filmmaking background and no connections in the business. We lived on an island in Canada. We decided MTV would be the place to have a show because it was the biggest and best platform we knew to reach people like us. So we wrote it down. And then we started filming it, because that was the next logical step. Every step led to the next. Four years later, we were executive producers and creators of our own MTV show.
#3. Talk About It.
Everyone knows someone who knows someone who knows someone. Tell everyone you know. Tell your parents’ friends. Tell new people you meet. Talk to your cabdriver. Talk to your boss. You never know whose uncle’s wife may be able to help you. Don’t just talk about it, but talk about it passionately. Enthusiasm is infectious, and people want to help when given the chance. Help can show up in the most unusual and least expected places.
We didn’t come from money. We had an idea, we talked about it, and people showed up in incredible ways to help us. Our first lawyer was our parents’ friend who had heard about what we were doing and offered to lend a hand; our first manager was my godmother; I met my first Hollywood contact while traveling in Mexico; we cold-called local companies in our hometown to raise money for our first tour.
Help often came in strange places. In 2007 we were able to finagle a five-minute meeting with Jann Wenner, legendary founder of Rolling Stone magazine, in order to discuss what it would take to cross #15 off our list, “Get on the cover of Rolling Stone.” The five-minute meeting turned into forty-five (after Jann threatened to kick us out and asked his assistant for a knife), during which time we talked about everything from protests to Bob Dylan to the difference between our two generations. We told him about some of our most ambitious dreams, including “#19: Write a Bestselling Book.” Jann wound up being instrumental in getting our book published—introducing us to a company where we met the smartest, most talented, best-looking book editor alive (hi Lia), who eventually offered us a deal.
#4. Be Persistent.
Most people give up just before they reach their goal. We all hear “no,” a lot, but we’ve come to realize that “no” usually means “not now.” Be creative in your persistence. Don’t piss people off by nagging them—think of innovative and clever ways to grab their attention. Be different, and never say die.
Last year we broke into the Playboy Mansion. We rented a giant stripper cake and decorated it like it was for the Willy Wonka-themed party. Two of us dressed up like Oompa Loompas, hiding in the cake, which was delivered to the back door of the Playboy Mansion. Security saw our homemade Playboy logo on the cake and allowed it to pass through the gates. After waiting inside the cake for six long hours (peeing in bottles and filming in night-vision), we hatched out unnoticed and partied all night with free rein. Security assumed we were just rowdy employees.
Playboy had no idea we had been in and out, or that we had filmed our first episode. When we went back a month later to ask for permission to air, they said, “If you air the episode, we’ll sue you and have you charged with breaking and entering.” We got ahold of the company’s vice president, and he echoed that sentiment. MTV told us to move on and film another episode. Our production company said there was nothing we could do. In a last-ditch effort, we decided to send Hugh Hefner a handwritten letter along with a rough cut of the episode. A week later, we received this response from Mr. Hefner himself, “You can air the episode. Just know I’m not very pleased with you boys.” I always thought that crashing the Playboy Mansion was my dream, but getting scolded by Hugh Hefner was way better.
#5. Be Ballsy.
The majority of people don’t go after their wildest dreams because they think they’re unrealistic. Tim Ferriss says it well, “99% of people believe they can’t do great things so they aim for mediocrity.” Once you feel the first high of accomplishing something major and seemingly unattainable, you want to go bigger, so you force yourself to fulfill the need all the more. Even better, the technically smaller goals suddenly seem less daunting.
We put “#95: Play Ball with the President” on the list because it was literally the most unattainable goal we could imagine. I remember Jonnie called me from his dorm room in 2008 right after Barack Obama had been elected and said, “We should add ‘Play Ball with Obama’ to the list.” I chuckled because it was so absurd and agreed. I found it humorous not only because the idea was so outrageous but also because I knew Jonnie was calling me from his “room”—a tiny space he was renting for $200 a month and shared with a washer and dryer. Of all people, we weren’t the best candidates for a pick-up game with the leader of the Free World. Nonetheless, two years later we found ourselves shooting hoops with the President in the backyard of the White House. I won’t get into the specifics of how we pulled this off because parts of it still baffle me. This type of thing has happened too many times to be luck. When you dream big, you surprise yourself.
#6. Help Others.
We’ve crossed off more than eighty list items over the last six years, but the moments that stand out most are the ones when we’ve been able to step into someone’s life and share something with them. Be nice to the people around you because you never know when you might need their help. I’ve been surprised by how little it takes to make an impact in someone’s life. Something as simple as asking the question, “What do you want to do before you die,” and taking the time to listen is all it takes. If you’re feeling lost or depressed, you might find what you’re looking for in someone else. Into the Wild says it best, “Happiness is only real when it’s shared.”
The first person we ever helped was a guy named Brent. He wrote to us in broken English that his biggest dream was to bring pizzas to the nearby homeless shelter. Brent had spent three years living in that shelter and fondly remembered the days people brought in food because those were the times it felt like someone gave a damn. When we talked with Brent in person, we learned that what he really needed was a truck. He had pulled himself out of the shelter by starting a business that relied on his truck, but it had just broken down. We knew we needed to help him find a new vehicle, but we didn’t have the money ourselves. This is the very first video we ever made, trying to track down a truck for Brent.
Your dreams are closer than they appear. There’s nothing about us four guys that makes us more able than anyone else to accomplish our goals, other than the simple fact that we’ve decided to go after them. George Elliot said, “It’s never too late to be what you might have been.”
The Buried Life is a community of 1,301,089 people answering the question: “What do you want to do before you die?”
So, I’m going to ask you the same question. Don’t wait. Why not start now? Post what you want to do before you die in the comments below.
Ben Nemtin is an actor, producer, and writer. He is a member of The Buried Life and the #1 New York Times Bests Seller What Do You Want To Do Before You Die? He can be found at theburiedlife.com, Facebook and Twitter.
* Photo by Robyn Penn, Maui Maki Photography