The Power of Manic Lists

Pondering the near future at Crater Lake

I have a tendency to get overexcited. Every now and then I get into a quasi-manic planning mode and dream up a million beautiful and exciting futures. It’s this inclination that leads to twenty-book-tall stacks of library books or the excited downloading of twenty new podcasts. It’s what makes me research YouTube lessons for sign language…and Italian. On the same day. And I make lists. Places to travel, things to learn, books to read, adventures to undertake. I have an entire journal dedicated to these lists. I’ve never figured out what brings on these wild-eyed episodes, but I love them. I look at my lists scribbled on the backs of class notes or in journals when I wake up at 3:12 am with the sudden burning desire to become a ship’s cook on a scientific voyage to Antarctica. Turns out such inclinations almost always strike me alongside the urge to learn viola and also to take up bird watching. It’s one darn thing after another, crowding into my life in a delirious jumble.

I love it. And I strongly advocate such recorded flights of ambition and fancy for everyone, but especially for college students.

Write down what your wild dreams are on some idle Thursday afternoon, and see if they match up three Tuesdays from then. Pay attention. I'm a committed advocate for writing things down, and this applies in the area of wild adventure planning as well. Let yourself dream... and then remember what you dreamed.

One of the most intense episodes of this manic planning I have experienced was my sophomore year, when I was suffering the commonplace malaise that comes with the second year of college. I was unsure of myself in my major, and was dissatisfied with my sense of purpose. I had found a couple of volunteering opportunities, but nothing that grabbed my passion. Nothing that felt like a calling. I was drifting a bit.

I started to make lists. Then I found some great books about life as an unconventional “twentysomething.” Then I realized that I wanted to study abroad for the spring quarter of my sophomore year, rather than waiting for my junior year. I decided to go to Chile, bought the ticket, and assumed that impending adventure would calm me down.

It didn’t. The lists kept coming, and have pretty much ever since. Adventure just feeds the sense of wild purpose. But so does too much time in one place. I have a perpetual sense of “much to do, much to be done” that’s stuck with me for ages.

These lists are erratic, and probably of the type that would strike terror into the hearts of most parents of college-aged students. I want to do and learn and experience so much.

But here’s the thing: the lists are just for me, and just to dream. They’re not a manifesto of my next three years, and I don’t feel compelled to tick off “completed” list items. It’s not that kind of list. These are big, wild dreams. These are satisfying flights of fancy—the kind of thing that keeps you imagining beautiful horizons and better versions of yourself.

I will probably never learn to play viola. That inclination came and went. It’s written down to remind me of that sense of wild enthusiasm. I haven’t quite given up on the trip to Antarctica, or the idea of being a crew member on a ship. But I don’t feel any pressure to move in that direction.

However, in the course of that list making I did name dreams I have since made real. I imagined myself writing a novel, skydiving, living in Europe.

These list items have actually happened.

That's me, skydiving one week after my undergraduate thesis defense, and one week before graduation.

These lists are different than goals.

I believe absolutely in making and writing down goals: both of the grand long-term variety and the smaller, immediate type. I have a long-term dream of being a writer, and a shorter (but still ambitious) goal of publishing a book.

I don’t think it’s coincidence that these same topics keep coming up on manic lists. The first step toward the dream of publishing a book appeared on several lists before the first step, “writing a novel,” happened on the heels of a manic moment in a particularly snowy winter. If you want to do something, and it stays on your mind, pay attention to it. Keep a list to prove to yourself what your dreams actually are. And if they're important to you, turn them into goals and get to work.

If I wanted to borrow from the “left brained/right brained” analogy for writing, then the lists are the first draft/brainstorming session. It’s instinctive and reactive: it’s a stream-of-consciousness flow from dream to dream, with your list becoming a physical manifestation of both profound desires and passing flights of fancy. I have a poet’s soul: I believe both are valuable. But then your conscious brain takes over and works with that list to choose solid goals. And then time and the world get in and muddle up your interests and experiences into new passions and different directions.

I can’t really imagine myself without these lists. Just as I also can’t imagine myself without a sense of calm direction. I know where I’m going… except there’s also this pull toward some unexpected and exhilarating other future.

I suggest that everyone should keep lists. I would advise two sets: wild dreams and targeted goals. Some items might appear on both. Record the dates, and when things change start the list anew, rather than deleting changes of plans. Take note of the things that reappear over time. Recognize both that there is urgency (life is short) and that there is long potential (I plan to still be adventuring as an old woman).

And now, for your entertainment: two of these manic lists. Just try to guess what I imagine actually might come to pass. (Please excuse the messy handwriting and sometimes questionable spelling.)

List written on November 16, 2012. I have since been to two of these places.

This manic list was written on November 28, 2012. Clearly I was in a crafting mood.


Do you keep lists? Do you write down your goals? If you had to pick eight wild, beautiful things you might want to learn/experience/witness/etc., what would they be? What if the pressure of actually doing them was taken away, and the question is just to dream? Leave some fanciful notions in the comments below!  

If you liked this post, please check out "Unconventional Twentysomethings," "Imagined 'Plan B' Futures," and "Saying 'Yes.'"