The Tab Meets: Jonnie Penn
BETH SWORDS talks to the Pembroke student, Jonnie Penn, who also has a New York Times bestseller.
It is not everyday you find out that the bearded, inconspicuous man you share the occasional smile with round college turns out to be the author of a New York Times bestseller. Nor is it everyday that you find out the author of a New York Times bestseller is truly selfless and really very insightful without any ounce of vanity or arrogance whatsoever.
Jonnie Penn’s New York Times bestseller What do you want to do before you die? is a bucket list of things he and his friends wanted to achieve before they died. This was first off just a project between friends, then it was made into a TV series and subsequently, the book. For every wish they ticked off, they would then complement by fulfilling someone else’s. Jonnie talks in detail about the project.
Jonnie, who are you, what do you study and where are you from?
I am from Victoria, British Columbia, in Canada and study Philosophy of Physics and Logic at Pembroke. I’m finishing off my undergrad from McGill. Number 11 on the list is to get a degree, hence why I’m here. My grandparents met in Cambridge. My parents met in Cambridge. That’s not the reason I came here but, you know, number 78 is to fall in love…
Tell me about The Buried Life and What do you want to do before you die? ?
When I was in my second year of college, my friends and I went through a traumatic time. I was thinking a lot about people our age and protesting. I was studying American History at the time, specifically the Civil Rights Movement. Then, I compared it to people nowadays, in North America, and how we tend not to protest against things we disagree with. This made me question what I was doing about these things. I live in Montreal, which is known as a city of protesting, and I just couldn’t figure out the reasoning behind this inaction.
Why did this make you go down the ‘bucket list’ route? What was your thinking behind it?
As I said, my friends and I went through some traumatic times. My brother’s friend drowned, another friend took the Freshman 15 to the Freshman 45. These sorts of things were happening to many but we just didn’t talk about it. I mean, it reminds of the recent mental health survey you’ve done. Why don’t we talk about that? So, we were intrigued by all this and we asked, for ourselves, what did we want to do in our lifetime? We wrote down a list of our wildest dreams – from paying off our parents’ mortgage to planting a tree to growing a moustache to making a million dollars. Then, for every thing that we were going to do for ourselves, we would try and help someone else achieve something off of their list. So, we worked several jobs, hit the road for two weeks and tried to tick off as many as possible.
Have you always been fairly outgoing and adrenalin-seeking?
I think about death a lot. I am fascinated by death and that’s what I’ve kind of been studying here. It’s a nice reminder of what you want from life. It’s natural to do things for other people too with this mindset.
Or maybe it’s just that we’re Canadian and it’s in our genes.
How do you think bucket lists vary from person to person?
I went on Yahoo the other day and I searched ‘hope’ and ‘sex.’ ‘Hope’ had three hundred and eleven billion search results but surprisingly sex had fewer. I think hope is an underutilised resource. I think lists make things more tangible and bring abstract thoughts into reality. It makes them more achievable.
What was the hardest thing to achieve on the list?
Playing basketball with the President at the White House. We made an episode about trying to play basketball but we failed miserably. So, we labelled the episode as ‘to be continued’. A year later, we got a way in into the White House. President Obama surprised us at the courts one day and simply said to us, “I hear you guys help people…The least I can do is play basketball with you”.
As you went along, you made more of a name for yourselves, did this make ticking tasks off a lot easier?
Actually, we stopped doing the show because fame had the opposite effect. In a way, the fame we got defeated the purpose because people began to recognise us. The fun of the show was that it was supposed to be like a bunch of friends in the summer before going back to school. It is less about you and more about the action – that is the magic.
How do you sate this outgoing desire in Cambridge?
I try to listen to people and see how other people get their inspiration. I think with depression, you often feel isolated, especially in this sort of environment.
How often do you exploit the New York Times bestseller card…?
Honestly, it is such a gift to do this project. We’re just the caretakers. I genuinely feel like coming here, I had a responsibility. I’m here to learn the larger answers to some of these complex questions in the best way that I can. I am a big believer in other people because I’ve seen what others can do. I think we just need to give them a platform sometimes.
I hear you arranged the biggest speed dating event of all time. How did that go down?
One of our goals was to set a Guinness Record. So, we went to University of South Florida and filled the whole field. It was really amazing actually.
What I want to know though is the result of the Overheard at Cambridge thing. Has he found love yet? [Jonnie Penn wants you to fall in love. Girl in punt, contact the darn man].
Perhaps May Week isn’t the ideal time to start discussing charitable doings and listening to other people more. May Balls are hardly known for acting as journeys of self-discovery. However, at some point, ask yourself what do you want to do before you die.
According to Jonnie, “it’s refreshing to be reminded of what you’ve earned and can achieve.”