An “impossible list” pushes our limits and clarifies our goals.
When I hit my 50s and 60s, I began to wonder, What will I do when I grow up? Where will I put my time, talent and energy? More than once I tried to ignore the questions and drift happily from day to day, but the questions nagged at me. Then I came across Joel Runyon’s Impossible List. His credo was simple: Don’t settle for what’s possible. Aim for the impossible.
This was a design principle for life — this was a design principle for my life!
A charge ran through my body. I ripped off a sheet of graph paper, settled into the couch, and let my mind wander through interests, values, activities and sources of joy. Bit by bit, I built out my impossible list.
- Retire early
- Complete and publish a novel
- Visit all 61 U.S. national parks
- Run a 10K
- Move to Santa Fe
- Run for political office
- Visit all the states in America
- Open a book store
- Dive back into local theater
Focusing on the Vision
I have a clear vision of my impossible list. I stand on a peak overlooking a vast landscape. Slowly I spin around and see one peak, then another and another until I am surrounded by peaks, some high, some low, some close, some distant. Each peak represents a destination point on my impossible list. Whether I reach the destination point depends on the direction I take, how I prepare, the roads I travel, the choices I make, the commitment I make and the energy I apply.
I am a person who lives with big questions in life, and even I hit the wall a few times. For example, I didn’t expect the impossible list to be so daunting to create. Then again, why wouldn’t it be? It’s a design for life. Nor did I anticipate the level of doubt I faced regularly. I buckled down and discovered that self-exploration and self-direction were invaluable, adding richness, clarity and shape to the design of my life.
When something inspired me — quotes, photographs, books, beauty, excellence, posts, articles, conversations, dreams — I pulled out my impossible list and added a milestone, a reference, an example. Unlike my bucket list, my impossible list pushed me forward, lifted my personal challenges and dreams out of the daily fray and held them visible. The list is not easily checked off. Entries on the list require time, patience and planning. The impossible list gives me fuel. It’s a promise I make to myself to turn dreams and druthers into plans of action in education, health, spirit and pure joy.
Topping my first impossible list was early retirement — not a vague time horizon, but rather an explicit plan of action to halt full-time work early enough to explore new ways to enrich my heart, mind and soul. A permanent sabbatical from work. I ceased listening to admonishments that I was too young to stop working or that I would be bored if I did. I was young enough, healthy enough and fit enough to commit now to new challenges and experiences, and the only way I would be able to enjoy the experiences fully was to extract myself from all-consuming work.
Making the Impossible Possible
With early retirement now on the impossible list, I asked myself real questions: Could I condition myself mentally and financially to retire early? Could I reconfigure my life to enjoy new experiences without having a paycheck to lean on? Would I change my mind and go back on the decision? The opposite, in fact.
I began to formulate a roadmap to retirement, and I discovered several things. One, my job was not my life. After more than 40 years working full out and traveling through a near infinite number of airports, I was eager to seize my time back. Two, my financial situation was secure, buoyed by decades of hard work, smart investments, no credit card debt and no children to put through college. Three, I had an insatiable appetite for learning, and I planned to use my time to perfect new disciplines and adopt new skills. Four, I could spend time with my husband, PJ. We could jump into experiences that filled us with joy — Broadway theater, world museums, travel, cooking classes, Game of Thrones, wandering aimlessly through Costco — without constraints in time or vacation or clock alarms.
I retired from full-time corporate work in April 2017, riding a wave of congratulations from friends and colleagues. Not for a moment did I second-guess the decision. Instead, I basked in my freedom. I smiled broadly, slept soundly and laughed raucously. I marked early retirement as “complete” on my impossible list and filled my time with soul-soothing activities — writing, memoir, blogging, volunteering, community gardening, traveling and yoga.
Two months later I again took out my impossible list and re-examined and adjusted it. Skydiving stood out, unreasonable and reasonable at once. Jumping out of a plane seemed risky and terrifying, my subsconscious filled with scary warnings in my mother’s voice. I was convinced — and I still am — that skydiving would be the most exhilarating experience of my life. Why did I place it on my impossible list? Before I could register for a jump, I needed to meet the skydivers’ weight target, and that required substantial time and commitment. I dove into a weight loss regimen, mindfully cared for body and spirit, and experimented with vegetarian and vegan cuisine. I hit the weight target, I adopted the weight and wellness regimens, and I added the new cuisines as pillars of my life. When my skydive partner balked, I stalled. I assure you: I will complete my skydive within a year — solo or with a friend — and, with exhilaration, mark it as complete on my impossible list.
Stepping into the Future
Each entry in the impossible list requires a roadmap of paths, activities, mindsets, learning and choices. I plan vacations by the U.S. national parks and states PJ and I can visit. I delve into local and state politics to understand how our country got where it is, turning myself into a political activist in the process. I immerse myself in real estate apps, traveler sites and Google Earth to investigate Santa Fe and where I want to live. Of course, moving to Santa Fe means stepping out of my current life and attachments in favor of the new, and that, as I think of it now, warrants a secondary slot on the impossible list. As for becoming a published writer, I tackle the challenge nearly every day, building out chapters, plots, what-if ideas and outlines; enrolling in writing classes; and exposing work through blogging and critiques. It’s a life designed for growth and discovery, and I feel alive.
When I was much younger, I played a board game called the Game of Life. Each move along the game board represented a direction, a life decision and a series of options. If I went in this direction and made this decision, certain options would open up. If I went in that direction and made that decision, certain options would close. The impossible list is my own Game of Life — the future as a series of peaks and directions underpinned by roadmaps of decisions and choices. Laying out the impossible list reveals that nothing is impossible.