Uncovering your 'buried life' and other mental-health tips

Hosted by Neil Amato

Ben Nemtin, the keynote speaker May 5 at the AICPA & CIMA Employee Benefit Plans Conference, thought he was going on a two-week road trip with some friends 15 years ago. That trip lasted years, changing his life and those of many others they encountered. Nemtin also shares why it’s more important these days to talk about mental health, along with some of the inspiration he got from seeing complete strangers realize a few bucket-list dreams.

What you’ll learn from this episode:

  • Why Nemtin says he became depressed as a university student and member of Canada’s national team in rugby.
  • The meaning behind The Buried Life, the title of a reality show that starred Nemtin and three friends. It’s also the title of a book they wrote.
  • Why the four friends decided to involve others instead of focusing only on their audacious bucket list.
  • The reasons mental health awareness and honest discussion are more important to Nemtin now.

Play the episode below or read the edited transcript:

To comment on this episode or to suggest an idea for another episode, contact Neil Amato, a
JofA senior editor, at Neil.Amato@aicpa-cima.com.


Neil Amato: Joining me on the Journal of Accountancy podcast is Ben Nemtin. First, I want to start with the concept of the buried life. It’s part of the title of a book you wrote. It’s the title of an MTV reality show that followed you and three friends around. Tell me more about that, the buried life.

Ben Nemtin: Well, ironically, it started in a rather dark time for me, when I was in my freshman year at university. I grew up in Victoria, B.C., in Canada, and I was, at that time of my life, I was a really happy guy because I had an academic scholarship to a great university. I was on the national rugby team, which was – rugby in Canada is a big sport, especially the West Coast of Canada where I grew up. But I put a lot of pressure on myself to succeed and because of this pressure that I was putting on myself to succeed academically and in rugby, I ultimately started losing sleep and I was worrying about the World Cup that was coming up that I was playing in. I played fly half, so I was kicking the field goals, so it was a pressure position.

And because of this lack of sleep, because of this worry, I slid into a depression, and this depression was something that felt like it came out of the blue. I never experienced anything like it, and I was unable to go to school. I was unable to go to rugby practice. I became a shut-in in my parent’s house. And for someone who was really an A type, loved being around people and had a lot going for me on paper, this was a complete 180.

And so it was many, many months that I was sort of stuck in this depression and tried many things to get out of it, but ultimately, it was my friends that came and they kind of pulled me out of the house and they convinced me to come work with them in a new town for the summer. And I really didn’t feel like going, but I thought I’ll just go and then I’ll say that I’m not enjoying it and I’m gonna come back home.

But a couple of things happened out of that. I started talking about what I was going through for the first time to my friends and I realized that I wasn’t the only one that was going through some of these feelings. I started meeting young people that were inspiring. I got a job, so I started feeling some self-worth. And out of that summer, ultimately one of the things that I realized was I was really affected by the people I surrounded myself with and I was inspired by these young people that I had met that were my age that were doing really incredible things like starting their own businesses or they had already traveled around the world.

And so I decided to try and only surround myself with people that inspired me and that led me to a friend of mine who I didn’t actually know very well, but I knew him as a filmmaker from my neighborhood, and I thought, man, I want to make a movie. And so I called up this kid. His name was Jonnie and he’s on board to make a movie. We get his older brother, Duncan. We get our other friend, Dave, and we don’t know what this movie’s going to be about, but we all feel there’s all these things that we’ve always wanted to do but we’ve never done them because they felt like they’re almost buried.

And Jonnie at the time, he was a freshman in English class, and he got assigned this poem called The Buried Life. It’s a 150-year-old poem, and it’s by a poet named Matthew Arnold. And it talks about the same feeling we’re feeling, which is we have all these things that we want to do but we haven’t done them because they’re buried. And we have moments when we’re inspired, but that gets buried by the day-to-day. And so we thought, OK, let’s call this movie that we’re going to make The Buried Life, and let’s unbury our dreams, these things that are hidden deep inside us.

And we decided to ask a question, what do you want to do before you die? And it’s kind of an odd question for 19-, 20-year-olds to ask themselves, but for us, the thought of death made us think about life, and so when we asked this question, there were many answers. And we started to write down the answers to the question, what do you want to do before you die, which ultimately grew into this list.

And so we wrote this bucket list together and we pretended we could do anything. We pretended we had all the money in the world. And we just thought if we could do absolutely any of our wildest dreams, what would those be? And so we wrote this pretty audacious bucket list and we thought, let’s go after this list and let’s also help other people accomplish their bucket list. And we’ll go on a road trip, and we’ll ask strangers what’s on their list, and we’ll see if we can help them. And we’ll also accomplish, or at least try to accomplish, our bucket list.

And so in the summer of 2006, we bought a camera on eBay, we built a website with our 100 dreams, we borrowed an RV, and we fundraised by cold calling companies asking, basically looking for sponsors and people to fund this film. And we got a local juice company to pay for our gas. And we hit the road for this two-week road trip.

And the unexpected thing that happened was that people wanted to help. Strangers started reaching out. They heard about us. We started to make the news: local news, and then provincial news, and then national news. And so we got flooded with emails of people saying, “Hey, I saw your list online. I can help you cross off No. 9, ride a bull,” or, “I can help you cross off No. 42, make a toast at a stranger’s wedding. My best friend’s getting married. I’m the best man. I can get you in.”

And then people started sending us their dreams asking for our help. So, we got inundated with dreams from people from all over the world asking for help with these dreams. “Can you help me sing with Beyoncé? Can you help me get up in a hot-air balloon? I’ve always wanted to play Augusta. I’ve always dreamed of riding a horse through a drive-thru.” And then people starting to write their bucket list and go after their dreams, as well.

So ultimately, this two-week road trip, it ended up lasting over 10 years. We would do it the next summer, and the next summer, and we’d go after bigger goals and bigger goals. And over time, these list items that we originally had written down that I was convinced were impossible, things like make a TV show, write a New York Times bestseller, sit with Oprah, have a beer with Prince Harry, play basketball with President Obama. Over time, they ended up happening.

And so we convinced ourselves that anything is possible, that the impossible is possible, by virtue of continuing to charge towards those dreams and through the help of other people. And ultimately, realized that the times that we were able to help other people accomplish their dreams, whether that be help a father and son connect, or reconnect after not seeing each other for 17 years, helping a girl overcome a fear of heights, or helping a young woman who lost her mom in Katrina find her mom’s grave that she did not know where the grave was.

To helping someone get his dad who was homeless an apartment, helping a homeless man get his first truck so he could start a landscaping business. All these gives, these dreams that we were sort of helping others, sort of resonated more than the big dreams we were accomplishing on our list.

The journey was very unexpected. As I said, it was sparked by a decision that I made to consciously surround myself with people that inspired me. I didn’t expect that one decision to completely change the path of my life. And along the way, learned a lot about that it’s human nature to push our personal goals, that we continually feel buried by the day-to-day. This is not a new feeling. It’s been happening for hundreds of years. And most people continue to push their personal goals until they realize they’re out of time. Seventy-six percent of people on their deathbed, they don’t regret the things they did. They regret the things they didn’t do.

So, a lot of the work that I do is encourage people to look at those things that are important to them, and ultimately, helping them understand it’s not selfish to have these personal goals. It’s actually service. When you do the things that you love, you’re more alive. You can serve others better. So, actually it’s important for your wellbeing. It’s important for those around you. It’s important for your career to have work/life harmony and to be fulfilling those things that are important to you. It’s important for organizations as a whole to support their people to have personal dreams and goals, and go after them, and how that allows the organization to thrive.

So I uncovered a whole lot of things that I was not expecting to uncover, and especially things around mental health and wellness, and how this has allowed me to increase my mental fitness, and allow me to navigate the ups and downs by making sure I take time to do the things that are important to me, and create that resilience through these outlets and doing the things that I think are important and purposeful to me.

Amato: And they truly are. Thank you, that was an excellent intro to your topic and how your life has gone these past, gosh, I guess 15 years. One of the videos I saw, I’m pretty sure it was Jonnie, but forgive me. I get the brothers mixed up. I’m pretty sure it was Jonnie who said, “I feel like there are people out there who need this message as much as we do.” And that stuck with me because he obviously wasn’t older Jonnie at the time, and so this whole notion that you guys realized to make this about other people and not just be like, hey, this is the four dudes on a road trip. How did that hit you that you were going to make it about other people?

Nemtin: There’s two reasons. One, when we thought about the film, we just thought that a film of helping people accomplish their dreams would be way more interesting than a film about us accomplishing our dreams. At the end of the day, who cares about us? Let’s go and help other people do the things that they want to do and so that’s what the film was going to be about. We weren’t even going to be in it. And then we were surprised to learn that people were inspired by us going after our dreams, as well.

They were triggered to think, “Wow, they’re going after their bucket list. I wonder what’s on my list. I want to do some things on my bucket list.” And ultimately, came to this idea that when you do what you love, you inspire other people to do what they love. So that’s an amazing ripple effect that’s created. So, that was one of the reasons why.

The other reason we thought was our list was so ambitious, we were clearly going to need the help of other people to accomplish any of them. We didn’t have the means. We didn’t have a lot of money to pay for things to make these things happen. So we knew we were going to be relying on other people and so it just felt like it made sense that we would help other people accomplish their dreams because we were gonna need help, and so that kind of felt like the right and intuitive thing to do.

So, I think that in retrospect, that is, and throughout the life of the project, was the most — that was it. If you boil it down to sort of the essence, that connecting with people in that way — and really the first person we ever helped was a gentleman named Brent who was living in a homeless shelter and we were able to get him a truck to start up his landscaping business. That moment when we drove the truck up to him and tossed him the keys, that was the first time we’d ever gone out of our way to help anybody that we didn’t know.

And it was such a deep and meaningful moment. He just bear-hugged me and started to cry, and we were, all four of us, did not expect to feel the way we felt that day, but we all thought, wow, we gotta keep doing this. This is what this is about. And so from that day forward, it was just ingrained in sort of the DNA of what we were doing, and so it, yeah, I think in the beginning, we didn’t realize the depth of it until we actually experienced it, and then once we did, we committed to having that be front and center of what we were doing throughout the life of what we were — the journey.

Amato: One of the more popular recent articles that we at the Journal of Accountancy have published is by a CPA who was writing first person about depression and his struggle with it. So, we know it’s a topic that’s important to readers. In your mind, is it fair to say it’s become more important to address because of what the pandemic has done to work life and home life?

Nemtin: Absolutely. I mean, you just can look at the numbers. The last time I checked or the article that I read last, I think the feelings of depression and anxiety had risen 400% since the pandemic began. And I think we can all see it. We can see it in ourselves. We can see it and feel it with those around us. Everyone is under more stress, and that will ultimately lead to a myriad of different feelings. Also, I think the conversation is more widely accepted and acceptable now than it was even when I started speaking about it, three, four-plus years ago.

Even with the MTV show, we made a point of talking about it on the show and helping someone who struggled with a mental illness and because we wanted to normalize the conversation. I wanted to talk about my struggles with depression on TV, as well, because we felt like that was the best way for us to make an impact in normalizing the conversation at a larger scale.

And so you can see that this conversation is starting to bubble up, which is so important because I believe that talking about it is the most important thing you can do. I think if you can talk to a professional, that’s the best, but if you don’t have access to a therapist, talking to someone that cares about you is incredibly important as well. And I just feel as though there’s still a stigma around therapy, which I don’t think makes any sense. I think everyone should be so lucky to have a therapist.

Would you play basketball without a basketball coach? You could, but you’re much better with a coach, and that’s all a therapist is, is a life coach that will help you navigate blind spots that you can’t see, give you tools that you can use to excel as a human being, to perform as a professional. It’s personal development is professional development. It has definitely come a long way in terms of the stigma around mental health, but it still is there.

So, I’m not surprised that that story of one of your members that talked openly was so well-received or at least piqued so much interest, because everyone has mental health. No one is immune to the ups and downs of life. We all struggle with our mental health. That’s just what it means to be a human. Humans have ups and downs. You can’t get away from that.

Now some of us will have deeper downs. Some of us will struggle with different things. Some of us have trauma. There are different types of trauma that cause us to struggle with different things, but we’ll all go through a mental health crisis. That’s just from the research. Whether it’s because of a divorce, or a death of a loved one, or stress, we will go through a crisis in our life.

And so if we just kind of step back and say, OK, look. We’re all human beings and it’s OK to have ups and downs. But when I hit that down, I need to know that I can talk about it and then look at, OK, what are things that I can do to move through this. And that’s why I talk about resilience toolkit, which are habits that I have found in the past since I hit that first depression really help me to navigate those ups and downs. Things like gratitude, things like proper sleep, things like exercise, things like taking a digital detox or getting out in nature, helping others. We can kind of dive into some of those, if you like, but the idea is that you build your own toolkit so that you can navigate some of the ups and downs that initially will come your way.

But I think even just stepping back from that is understanding that everyone is human and that we go through it, it kind of makes you feel a little bit better because you’re not alone. And the biggest thing is to not feel trapped and not feel alone, so that you know you can go to someone when you’re feeling that stress, that anxiety, the feelings of depression. Because what you’re really doing is when you reach out for help, you’re opening the door for that person to come back to you in their eventual time of need, and that is an incredibly powerful door to open when you do that. So, yeah, it’s a really important conversation.

Amato: You’ve spoken around the world. You’ll be speaking in early May at the Employee Benefit Plans Conference. Obviously, you have certain things you’re always going to say, but how is your message maybe different this year?

Nemtin: I think that I’ve definitely built the resilience tool kit and leaned into the mental health conversation a lot more because of what’s happening right now. There’s a lot of silver linings from the pandemic, and I think one of them is it’s forced people to slow down for a second or face things that maybe they had been brushing under the rug. So, there’s two different things. One’s slow down to think about, OK, what, geez, what’s important to me? What do I want in my life?

And the second, for better or worse, by slowing down, you have to face things that maybe you’ve been pushing off. And so, ultimately, that, in the long run, is a good thing, but in the short term, that’s hard when you have to look at those things. And so what I’ve tried to do is just say, look, no matter where you are right now and how you’re feeling, really what a bucket list is, at the end of the day, is it’s a reflection of where you are and the things that are going to bring you joy and happiness. So that can be climbing Everest. That can be traveling to the Great Barrier Reef. All the things that you think of when you think of a bucket list — travel, adventure, yes, those things definitely can be in a bucket list.

But that’s only one category of your life, and there are 10 different categories of life. There are your emotional category of life, intellectual, there’s professional, there’s spiritual, there’s material, there’s service, adventure and travel. So, where you sit right now, what’s going to bring you joy and happiness? There’s no right or wrong answers with a bucket list. The only rule is that it’s important to you. So is it spending more time with your pet or your kids, or is it reconnecting with that someone that you’ve lost touch with because you’ve been so busy the last couple of years traveling so much, or is it taking more time for you, reading every night, going for a walk every day, something to do with your fitness, your health and wellness.

So I’ve just tried to give people permission to look at what they need to be the best version that they feel they can be right now and then try to build some structures of accountability around those so that you don’t forget about those things. Because as I said, what happens is that those things on our bucket list get buried. Human nature is to continually push those things because there’s no deadlines, where we have deadlines at work. We can’t push those things. So if something comes up that’s more important, we say, “Oh, this personal thing, I’m gonna do it later. I’ll do it next week. I’ll do it next year.” Most people push it until they reach their deathbed.

So, how can we create some accountability around these personal goals to drive us forward so that we don’t continue to push them and have that regret of inaction at the end of our life? Because they are so important to our wellbeing and they are so important to our performance professionally. And so that is sort of what I’ve been focusing on is a bucket list is different for everyone. But that’s OK, and the important thing is that we take time to think about what those things are, and then we create some sort of structure of accountability and create inspiration through action so that we don’t regret not doing those things because we know that they’re important to us.

Amato: Again, that was Ben Nemtin. If you want to hear more from him, you can sign up for the AICPA & CIMA Employee Benefit Plans Conference, an event that features him as the keynote speaker on May 5. We’ll have a link to that sign-up in the show notes for this episode. You can also find more from Ben on advice for organizations in a future article on journalofaccountancy.com. Thanks for listening to the Journal of Accountancy podcast.