Lists Can Drive Me Or Can Numb Me

Before 30 List

Right before I turned 27, I created a list called “30 Things to do Before Ivan Turns 30″. It was in part a response to the advice given by people over 30 for what twenty-somethings should do and what they wish they had done at that age. Some of things I came up with for my list were based on my pursuit of the positive, blissful feelings I had when I read about or see images for for the places I wanted to visit and the activities I wanted to do.

Through this list, I did many things that I was quite proud of. One of the first items I completed was dancing in a flash mob, which required me to step out of my comfort zone (even to join the group in the first place!). I checked off two things on the list by taking a solo train trip across the country and visited New York for the first time. Using that as a practice run, I then traveled around the world by myself in what I nicknamed “Little Big Trip”, visiting twelve places in nine countries and hitting eight things on the “Before 30” list in six weeks, including seeing the aurora borealis (northern lights) and walking on the Great Wall of China. I still look back at the experience from time to time with awe and surreality, amazed that I actually pulled off something like this.

Age is Just a Number

At the same time, as I was completing many items on the list, I had trouble feeling those blissful emotions that I was expecting. I thought that dancing in a flash mob would feel as joyful and perfect as I did watching it; instead, I was often preoccupied with hitting the right steps at the right time. When I visited Tokyo on my Little Big Trip, I thought I would become absorbed into the Japanese culture and explore the city like a local, but I was only there for four days and I knew a very small amount of Japanese. As a result, it made me feel a little out of place.

As I made progress in my Before 30 list and continued to feel underwhelmed with the things I had completed, I asked myself why I really wanted to do the things on the list. Even though I knew this going in, I realized that the list is mostly arbitrary and tying it to an age deadline made little sense. The phrase “Age is just a number” also came to mind and I suddenly felt conflicted to continue with the list because the phrase implies that age is a state of mind, and people’s mental age is more powerful and important than their chronological or biological age, so they should be able to do whatever they want at whatever chronological age they want. While I support this line of thinking, I also believe that people’s biological makeup and physical age play a role in how old they feel mentally, so a fifty-year-old person feeling like a twenty-five-year-old mentally would still probably have physical limitations that prevent them from enjoying a whitewater rafting trip as much as a chronological twenty-five-year-old would. And that pulls me back to the original premise, taking advice from older people for things I should do while in my twenties.

Value of Bucket Lists

I remember hearing Oprah, one of my life guides since my mid-twenties, say that she doesn’t believe in bucket lists (though in other interviews she still seemed to have a short list of things she wanted to accomplish.) The way I interpret her approach is that instead of making a list of things to do sometime between now and when she dies, she would seize any opportunity to do them as soon as she could.

Similarly, I learned that instead of thinking that I must do everything on the list before I turn 30, I should use it as a reflection of my goals and priorities and as an idea bank to either do the original thirty things on the list or do something that embodies the same spirit, whichever I felt was doable and compelling. Therefore, whether I complete the list becomes less important; it’s about moving with urgency and taking advantage of any opportunity that come my way. Acting with urgency also prevents me from the overanalyzing and over-planning that lead me to lose interest over time and building up the hype and expectations for something that would consequently underwhelm me.

Lists in General

I usually start a list when I needed to clear my mind or to remember multiple things for later. Surprisingly, it’s subconsciously therapeutic. It makes me feel like everything is under control, like I’m making progress, and that motivates me to continue working. And if that list is a checklist, it’s practically twice as fun because I would have the pleasure to check it off when done. That’s why I enjoy making lists.

However, the momentum and excitement from making lists can also lead me to go overboard, adding more items and subcategories, making them longer and more complex. This becomes a problem when I go back to review or reference them. Long, multi-level lists are hard to quickly scan through and intimidating to tackle, causing me to want to put it off until “I have more time.”

With my Before 30 list, even though completing some of the items left me feeling underwhelmed, the experiences were still rewarding and led me to new opportunities. While dancing in a flash mob may have been less heart-warming than I thought, being in the flash mob group allowed me to make so many cool new friends to socialize with and check out other activities and events in the area. Even though zip-lining felt less thrilling than I imagined, it opened up my mind to try other outdoor activities and find a sport that could potentially give me the thrill I was seeking. And most significantly, while having been to six of the seven continents felt just like another day of traveling, the trip itself was the experience of a lifetime, and it infected me with the travel bug, and sparking ideas for other itineraries and travel styles hopefully for the near future.

Lists are useful to get things done, and there’s probably a set of best practices somewhere that would make it work most efficiently and effectively. But ultimately, with or without them, what matters is the drive one needs to make things happen to live their best lives.


3, 7, 8, 9, 10, 14, 16, 27, 30.

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  1. Pingback: Part 8: Venice — Little Big Trip 2014 | Ivan W. Lam Blog

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