This is me writing about Tim Ferriss writing about Ben Nemtin on the topic of doing things that are storyworthy.
The original post appeared on Ferriss’ blog on April 4, 2012.
If you want a lesson in boldness, and to cross things off of your bucket list, there is no better teacher than Ben Nemtin.
His story, and that of the entire Buried Life team, is amazing.
It started with a list of 100 things and a planned two-week roadtrip. Along the way, Ben has somehow managed to play basketball with Obama, throw the first pitch at a Major League Baseball game, delivery a baby (not his), make the biggest roulette spin in Vegas’ history, and much more.
Most recently, they crossed off #19: Write a bestselling book. Their debut, What Do You Want To Do Before You Die?, just hit #1 on The New York Times, which will be announced officially April 15th. To celebrate? They’re sending a copy of the book into space.
It all seems unbelievable, which is exactly why I love this guest post from Ben.
This original content covers his 6 steps for crossing anything off of your personal bucket list. There is a method. Everyone needs a kick in the ass sometimes, and this did it for me.
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 accumulate some amazing experiences in the last 5 and a half years.
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 a list we had created of 100 things to do before we died. We made a promise that for every item we crossed off, we’d help a total stranger do something they wanted to do before they died. To date, we’ve accomplished 81 items on our list and helped over 81 people.
In addition to those Tim mentioned in the intro, and among others, I’ve made a TV show, crashed the Playboy Mansion, streaked a stadium, been on Oprah, reunited a father and son after 17 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 (Need your help on this one: info here)…
Remember: 5 and a half years ago, I couldn’t tell any of these stories.
Our mission was 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 wasn’t going to make it home; I had fabricated a wedding to get time off of work; and we pretended we owned a production company to raise money for a camera and gas for the RV. The only thing we knew for sure was that we would be taking two weeks off before going back to college. The plan: 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. We were arguing about whether or not to cancel the trip, because if the camper broke down, we didn’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 that there’s something unique about us that makes us able to do these things, but the truth is the opposite. There is a formula and it’s simple.
The more items we cross off our list, the more we become convinced that anyone can do anything. The formula 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? Start a business? Reconnect with an old friend? Dive to the bottom of the ocean? Smoke a cigar with Castro? 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, the 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 recently 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 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 it. 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. And 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— a presentation, a grocery list, a birthday gift you need to buy for someone–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. And we lived on an island in Canada. We decided MTV in the States would be the place to have a show because it was the biggest and best platform we knew of for reaching people like us. So we wrote it down. And then we started filming it, because that was just the next logical step. Every step led to the next. Four years later, we were executive producers and creators of our own show on MTV.
#3. Talk about it.
Everyone knows someone who knows someone who knows someone.
After you’ve come up with your list and written it down, start talking. 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. And 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 places, oftentimes the least expected ones.
We didn’t come from money. We had an idea, we talked about it, and people showed up in incredible ways help us. Our first lawyer was our parent’s 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 a 45-minute meeting (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 was later instrumental in helping us get 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 just 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 and hid in the bottom of the cake, which was then delivered to the back door of the Playboy Mansion in a rented delivery truck. 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 at the Mansion all night with free rein. Security assumed we were just very rowdy employees.
Playboy had no idea we had been in and out, or that we had filmed our first episode. But 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 the 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 says it well: “Ninety-nine percent of people believe they can’t do great things, so they aim for mediocrity.” The level of competition is highest for realistic goals because most people don’t set high enough goals for themselves. But not only do you statistically have a better chance of achieving what may seem like an unrealistic goal, doing so fuels you. Once you feel the first high of accomplishing something major and seemingly unattainable, you want to go bigger and badder, and 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 think of. I remember Jonnie called me from his dorm room in Montreal in 2008 right after Barack Obama had been elected and Jonnie 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, which he 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. It’s a long, complicated story, and I don’t want to bore you with the details, but this is the kind of thing that the four of us chuckle about sometimes. It’s as if we have horseshoes up our butts, but it’s also happened too many times to be luck. When you dream big, you surprise yourself.
[TIM: I prodded Ben for the details about Obama, and it’s anything but boring. Here’s how it happened. First off, Obama only plays when Reggie Love is on the court. Reggie Love is the President’s “body man” or, more formally, “special assistant and personal aide,” and this b-ball detail made Reggie the man to look for. The gents called everyone they could think of (senators, legislators, etc.) who could e-mail or otherwise contact Reggie. He ultimately liked the idea, but, when passed up the flagpole, it was vetoed by the White House press team. The Buried Life had to end the “Obama” episode on a disappointing “To Be Continued…” Then, the crazy part: The President is up late one night, flips on the TV and randomly sees the end of the episode. Soon thereafter, someone approached Reggie at the White House: “POTUS is pissed.” When Reggie asks POTUS what’s wrong, he replies: “Why haven’t I played basketball with The Buried Life guys?” Reggie explains that he ran it through the press team and they refused, to which Obama replies, “Let’s make it happen.” The next time the boys are in DC, Reggie invites them to check out the White House courts. While casually shooting around, the President strolls up and surprises all of them. After 20 minutes of hoops together, they ask the President, “What do you want to do before you die?” The answer? “Be an anchor on SportsCenter for a day.”]
#6. Help others.
We’ve crossed off more than 80 list items over the last six years, but the moments that stand out the most are the ones when we’ve been able to step into someone’s life and share something real with them. I’ve been surprised by how little it takes to impact 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 often all it takes. If you’re feeling lost or depressed, you might find what you’re looking for in someone else. Into the Wild said 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 saying his biggest dream was to bring pizzas down to the nearby homeless shelter. Brent had himself spent three years living in that shelter and remembered fondly 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.
#7. Your Turn.
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.” Don’t wait. Why not start now? Post one thing you want to do before you die in the comments below.
The Buried Life is a community of 1,286,399 people answering the question: “What do you want to do before you die?”
How will you answer it?