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Ben Nemtin is a bucket list guy. Maybe the bucket list guy. He and three close friends wrote an entire bestselling book about it—What Do You Want to Do Before You Die?: Moving, Unexpected, and Inspiring Answers to Life’s Most Important Question. They actually call their motivating philosophy “The Unburied Life” as opposed to the bucket list, but the idea is the same.

“The way we live today, it’s easy to get buried by the everyday grind; to put your dreams on the back burner until next year,” Nemtin and his friends write. “The greatest way to unbury your dreams is to write them down. Make them tangible; make them real.”

Nemtin knows something about unburying your dreams. A happy and positive person during his early years growing up in Canada, he was struck with major depression not long after starting college and dropped out, giving up a rugby scholarship in the process. He moved back in with his parents, “became a shut-in,” as he now puts it, and thought his life was more or less over.

What pulled him out of it? The simple realization that he had been living a life other people wanted him to, and that this had to stop. Nemtin’s response was to make a classic bucket list: 100 things he wanted to do before he died, with entries both silly (“Win and yell BINGO! in a crowded hall”) and profound (“Help deliver a stranger’s baby”). Then he hit the road with those three friends, traveling across the United States in a borrowed RV to make them happen. Along the way they decided that every time they completed something from the list, they’d help a stranger accomplish something from their own list.

Today, the original list is almost complete—Nemtin’s website logs just four unfinished goals, including “Make the cover of Rolling Stone” and “Go to space”—but Nemtin is far from finished unburying his life. “For me right now, it’s less about the big adventures and more about staying true to myself and making sure that I’m living for me and not other people,” he says. “One of the biggest regrets people have at the end of life is living a life that they thought other people wanted for them, not themselves. So, on my list is to continue to spread this message, to encourage people to live the life that they really want and connect that back to their professional development and performance.”

Nemtin will bring that message to ABC Convention 2022 in San Antonio this March, where he’ll present a closing general session that will use The Unburied Life as a springboard to discuss the importance of destigmatizing mental illness—and connect that to the power of doing what you really want to do. Recently he offered Construction Executive a sneak preview.

Q: You and your friends pretty quickly connected your bucket list to helping strangers with their own lists. Why was that so important?

A: Well, we knew we were going to need help with our list because it was so ambitious, and so we just thought it made sense to proactively pay that back. It just felt like it was the right thing to do. Also, keep in mind we were 19-, 20-years-old when we started this, and we were trying to find our own paths. We thought we could talk with people, ask them what they want to do before they die, learn about why they weren’t doing it and learn from them what might be some things that we could utilize as we move forward and try and find our own purpose. And then we thought, “If we can help them, then we will.”

Q: When you first dropped out of college and shut yourself off from the world, did you know that your mental health was a factor? Were you at a point in your life where you could understand and articulate that? 

A: The short answer is no. Because this was my first mental-health roadblock, I didn’t really know what was going on. I also didn’t know that other people my age—or at any age—struggled or had struggles with something similar. I really felt alone. I didn’t really want to talk about it. It was pretty clear that there was something wrong, because I had dropped out of school. I had stopped playing rugby. I wasn’t hanging out with my friends. I was in my parents’ house. I knew that I was sort of, quote-unquote, depressed, but I didn’t really know what that meant. I didn’t know that it would ever end.

One of the reasons why I talk about it is because, even now, I have friends that are super successful and have been their entire life, and they’re going through their first mental-health crisis. They’re experiencing anxiety for the first time, or they’re experiencing depression for the first time. I’ve had a lot of parents come up to me and say their kids are struggling with anxiety or depression for the first time and dropped out of school. And so, the reason why I share my story is because I felt really alone when I went through it for the first time; in reality, I was not at all. After I stopped trying to hide it and actually started talking about it, whether it be to a therapist or to friends, and then ultimately onstage, I realized that I could actually help other people. This thing I thought was quite shameful became a tool to help others.

In the beginning, it was very scary, and I’ve been through some dips since then, but since that first one, I know I’ve built up these tools in my toolbox and I have the support system around me. I also know that if I’m feeling like this, there’s probably something I need to change in my life. I know that my body’s trying to tell me something, and a lot of times it’s just telling me something like: Hey, you’re not being true to yourself. You’re not pursuing the thing that you should be pursuing. You don’t do any stuff that lights you up. A lot of times, it’s an indicator that you have to change some things.

Q: The audience that you’ll be speaking to at ABC Convention are people who work in the construction industry, whose culture is not the most open when it comes to discussing something like mental health. How do you start that conversation in this type of community?

A: I just tell my story, and the story is such an energizing and fun and exciting story, but it really started in a dark place for me. By telling that story, you see this guy who was really laid out, but then it pointed him in this direction that not only changed his life but changed tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people’s lives as well. I’m just trying to humanize the experience. Whether you’ve experienced some sort of struggle or you have dreams that you’ve buried deep down that you forgot about or haven’t been pursuing for whatever reason—my goal is just to remind people: Hey, we’re all human beings, and humans have ups and humans have downs, and that’s okay.

You need to have that awareness to say, it’s okay if I feel this way—but what’s not okay is not talking about it. With this group, it’s probably something that people don’t talk about too often. I’m not asking people to share their struggles, but what I’m hoping to do is let people know that if you are feeling like that, that’s okay. You’re not alone, and there are some really easy things you can do to help bring yourself out of that. One of those things is doing what you’re passionate about, doing the things that you love—that’s what your bucket list is.

Another thing is to talk about it. You don’t have to talk to your teammates; you can just talk with someone who cares about you or to a professional. That’s the most important thing.

Q: You make a strong connection between doing what you love and having good mental health.

A: I’ve also realized that that’s true for most people. The stuff that fills you up and brings you that sense of fulfillment ultimately brings you back to who you truly are, and the things that you truly want are going to make you feel more alive and just make you feel happier. That’s why it’s good for your mental health.

Q: What is the one takeaway you would like your ABC audience to leave with?

A: I just want them to walk away really understanding that by going after these personal passions, it’s going to allow them to do their job at a higher level. It’s going to create this work-life harmony that’s going to fuel their business and what they’re doing professionally.

And with that understanding, I want them to then understand, okay, what are the steps that I need to take to achieve those goals now that I’m going to give myself permission to do that? So, I’ll give them the steps to achieve them. I’ll help them understand the barriers that they face that block most people from going after those things, because no one wants to have regrets at the end of their life. 

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