Lists to live by A cure for listlessness

Many people find that writing it down is the first step to getting it done Eight things to consider in the growing trend of life lists


“Zen has no goals,” according to a traditional koan. “It is always on its way.”

If so, Rachael Hubbard, a preschool teacher in Salem, Ore., will not be accompanying it. Hubbard has many goals – 78, to be exact. And it is only by dutifully ticking them off, she said, that she has found her path toward enlightenment.

Two years ago Hubbard compiled what is known as a life list, a contract with herself enumerating dozens of goals she hoped to accomplish before she died (build a house for Habitat for Humanity, read “Pride and Prejudice,” etc.) and posted it online.

“I just felt like I was slowly getting older and was looking around saying, ‘Well, I haven’t really done a whole lot with my life yet,’” she recalled.

But once she began the journey prescribed by her list, it quickly became an addiction.

“Earn a master’s degree” (No. 5): check.

“See a dinosaur fossil” (No. 27): check.

As for her latest challenges, “become quadri-lingual” or “swim with dolphins,” well, she is only 24.

“Hey, I am actually accomplishing things with my life,” she said, “even if it’s little by little.”


Once the province of bird-watchers, mountain climbers and sufferers of obsessive-compulsive disorder, the life list has become widely popular with the harried masses, equal parts motivational self-help and escapist fantasy.


Evidence of the lists’ surging popularity is all around. The travel writer Patricia Schultz currently has two “1,000 Places to See Before You Die” books lodged on The New York Times paperback advice best-seller list, two in an avalanche of recent life-list books, like “1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die” and “101 Things to Do Before You Turn 40.”

In December, Warner Brothers will release Rob Reiner’s “Bucket List,” starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman as cancer patients who set out on a series of life-list adventures, including a Harley ride on the Great Wall of China.

Multiple life-list oriented social-networking Web sites have cropped up, inviting strangers to share their lists and offer mutual encouragement.

Even Madison Avenue has chimed in. Visa is currently running a print campaign built around a checklist called “Things to Do While You’re Alive” (and credit-worthy, presumably).


“People are dying to make this list, and most haven’t been given a chance since grade school,” said Josh Petersen, a founder of the Robot Co-op, a Seattle company that runs the Web site, which since 2004 has enrolled 1.2 million members who post customized life lists, find others with similar goals and encourage one another to check them off. Sky diving ranks 24th in popularity; losing weight, unsurprisingly, is first. “Pull a prank involving 100 lawn gnomes” is a goal shared by 65 members.

“In school you’re asked, ‘What do want to be when grow up?’” Petersen said.

“Then people stop asking the question.”

Caroline Adams Miller, a life coach and motivational-book author in Bethesda, Md., asks that her clients create their own list of 100 things to accomplish. “What it does is give you a road map for your life,” she said. “To check items off your list gives you a sense of self-efficacy, or mastery.”


There was a time when life lists seemed mostly favored by overachievers who viewed their years on Earth as heroic narratives. As recounted in “Chicken Soup for the Soul,” the motivational speaker and self-described adventurer John Goddard wrote a list of 127 life goals when he was 15, pilot the world’s fastest aircraft, milk a poisonous snake and now, at age 88, says he has checked off 110 of them. (He has yet to visit the moon.)

Last year Ellen DeGeneres asked celebrity guests to share their lists on her talk show. Orlando Bloom vowed to learn to play the bongos. Beyoncé Knowles promised to take ballet lessons.


Noncelebrities tend to use their lists to overcome more fundamental hurdles. Stacey Morris, 40, a sales manager at a housewares company in Ventnor, N.J., created a 100-item list after consulting with Miller, the life coach, because she said she felt unmotivated and “needed more focus.”

Several of her items seemed vague (“develop a more positive attitude,” for example), but the goals have forced her to take specific steps toward self-improvement, she said.

To make good on her vow to “develop persistence,” Morris trained herself to pause at work every 15 minutes to record the activities she had just finished. The point, she said, is to eliminate distractions like nonessential phone calls. She says she has doubled her daily productive hours. “Having a life list,” Morris said, “changed my life.”

When she turned 40, Jill Smolinski, a single mother and freelance writer in Los Angeles, drew up a life list that unearthed ambitions she hadn’t known she had. “The first thing I wrote was ‘live in a beach house,’” said Smolinski, now 46. “That’s weird. I didn’t even know that was important to me.”

“Within a week, I was going for walk and noticed a beach house for rent,” she said, adding, “and I’m standing in it right now.”

The list also yielded a novel. Her book “The Next Thing on My List,” about a woman who vows to live out a dead friend’s life list, was published in April by Shaye Areheart Books.


Schultz, the travel author, who has sold 2.5 million copies of her first book and has seen it spun off into games, desk calendars and a Travel Channel show, surmised that there were demographic factors behind the sudden interest in this alluring, if gimmicky, pursuit.

“Seventy-nine million of us baby boomers are at a point in our life that this is the moment to stop and take stock,” she said.

Schultz, 54, added that she had visited 80 percent of her 1,000 must-see places. “If ever there was an awareness that this is no dress rehearsal, this is it,” she said.

Those in midlife, wrestling with issues of personal worth, seem to be the target for many of the life-list books, like “Fifty Places to Play Golf Before You Die,” by Chris Santella (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2005).

But Justin Zackham, 36, who wrote the screenplay for “The Bucket List” and was one of its executive producers, argues that the life-list impulse is actually strongest among members of Generation X, like himself: those who have grown up watching boomers stress out over high-paying conventional jobs and have vowed to chart their own course.

“We grew up as a generation questioning all that,” said Zackham, whose own life list includes sky diving (check) and “get a bunch of movies made” (check). “People do more lists now because they are actually thinking outside the typical progression of what life is supposed to be like.”


Then again, some Americans lead lives too extraordinary to augment with a life list.

For his film project and an accompanying book, Zackham visited Hugh Hefner at the Playboy Mansion and asked him what he still hoped to experience. “Nothing,” was Hefner’s answer to him. “He said, ‘I honestly can’t think of anything I don’t already have.’”

meet three local list-makers

Erin Griffin of University Place has been waiting more than a year to begin ticking off the items on her life list.

Most of them involve her husband, Army Staff Sgt. Ryan Griffin, who has been serving in Iraq. His second tour of duty began three months after the couple married in March 2006. He’s due home this month, and plans to leave the Army by December.

When Ryan gets home, the couple would like to:

 • Move to the Portland/Vancouver area, where they both have family.

 • Buy a house.

 • Start their own family.

 • Change careers.

 • Buy a boat.

 • Raise a dog.

 • Travel to Europe.

And they’d like to do it all within the next two years.

“It’s a tall order, I know,” says Erin. “But we’re determined to do things on our own schedule, like we’ve always done. Not because our friends are having kids, our parents are pressuring us or because it seems like the next step.”

You can call Colleen Gray’s life list eclectic.

The Tacoma graphic designer and marketer has had a running list going since she was a kid, and she’s constantly revising it.

But the most unusual goal she’s set for herself is this: To learn to walk on her hands by the time she’s 50.

Time is ticking – she just turned 47.

She decided to start hand walking after learning she suffers from a foot problem called equinus, a condition that limits upward bending motion of the ankle and makes her feet hurt.

“I’ve always been athletic,” she says. “I can do hand stands now, but I’m not too secure. I have to be next to a wall.”

She figures she has three years to overcome her fear of falling and build the shoulder and core body strength needed to accomplish her goal.

But there’s more than hand-walking on her list. Other goals include:

 • Publish a calendar illustrating her salad recipes.

 • Publish a book on fence design.

 • Become certified in yoga instruction.

 • Learn to play guitar.

 • Plant a famous garden.

“It helps to have goals,” Gray says. “If you don’t set a path, you don’t know where you’re going.”

“I refuse to grow up,” says Erik Meehan, the Tacoma man whose life list includes building a steam locomotive and train in time for the 2009 Triennial Meet at Train Mountain in Oregon.

His train is being built on a 1:8 scale. The locomotive it’s based on is just shy of 56 feet long. He’s also building four passenger cars.

“I nearly failed metal shop in middle school,” Meehan recalls. “This is part of a challenge.”

He got interested in small-gauge railroads when he lived in Port Orchard and learned about Kitsap Live Steamers, located in that city. The nonprofit organization runs a 71/2-inch gauge railroad and offers rides for visitors.

A visit to the Port Orchard tracks “rekindled a love affair” for trains from childhood, Meehan says.

How do you build a train? Meehan is working from plans he bought from a train enthusiast in Germany. There are 6,000 parts he plans to fabricate from raw steel “with a little help from my friends.”

“I have to translate from German to English, and from metric to inches,” he says.

As if that’s not enough of a challenge, Meehan also has these items on his life list:

 • Become a News Tribune guest columnist in 2008.

 • Have at least two books and/or six articles published by the time he turns 40 in 2010.


A University Place woman is hoping to buy a home and start a family. A Tacoma man hopes to build a scale-model railroad from scratch, and a Tacoma woman would like to plant a ‘famous garden.’ Meet them on Page E5

M. “Morf” Morford


There are three things I have a compelling need to do:

• Write at least one book

• Live to be 100 in reasonably good health

• Die outside of the United States.

The first one is easiest to defend; I want to leave behind a document that represents what matters most to me. Living to be 100 (while maintaining my health) seems like a possible and reasonable goal. The third one I don't really understand, but I have had an underlying current for most of my life that it will work out that way. I just need to keep healthy, continue writing and keep my passport current.

John Donovan


To do:


Ed Kane


To do:

Bob Young

Bonney Lake

Kathy Knowlton


It seems more important to me how things are done, not so much what is done. I have known boring adventurers and deeply moving soccer moms. Even though my pride rankles at going along with a bumper sticker (of all things!), the closest I have to a life list at the moment is: “Wag More, Bark Less.”

Greg Mills Lakewood

Even though I have been working away at my Life To-Do list, a number remain:

• Try the sport of fencing

• Travel to the Seychelle Islands.

• Live aboard a houseboat/sailboat for a time

• Attend all four tennis Grand Slams – The Australian, The French and U.S. Opens and Wimbledon.

• Take a drama class

• Write and publish a book

Jan Cooper

Senatobia, Miss.

I am a senior and I have reached the point in time where I have more yesterdays than tomorrows, but I still have time for a "life list" of things to do. It just isn't a very long list.

My "life list" before I die is to have a motor home and travel to many places throughout this great country to meet and hug each person that I have been blessed to know via the Internet. Numbering in the hundreds, they have always been there when I needed them the most and I wish to personally thank each one.

Bob Minnerly Arlington, Texas

(formerly of Gig Harbor; reads TNT by e-mail)

First, I have to make my last and final list. My goals keep changing as I age.