What I Learned in My Bucket List Year in Costa Rica … by Leo Tolstoy

Stu & Tolstoy CR 2018
Our bucket list year just ended, and our lives will never be the same. What did I learn with my wife and two young sons in a remote corner of the Costa Rican jungle? Having also checked War and Peace off my bucket list this year, I’ll let Leo Tolstoy, in his own sublime phrasing, answer that question for me.

“We imagine that when we are thrown out of our usual ruts all is lost, but it is only then that what is new and good begins. While there is life there is happiness. There is much, much before us.”

We tend to pick a lane and stay in it long after it feels stale, often for a lifetime … never manifesting the precious things we vow to do “one day.” That is folly. Jodi and I have dreamt of this year abroad with kids for decades, long before we met one another. And we are showing our sons that dreams can be real if you are bold enough to make seismic, disruptive changes. Leaving Wall Street to pursue art, fearing I’d be mocked forever, remains one of my best decisions. I want my children to understand that they control their destinies, and even when they don’t, their dilemmas and “failures,” be they academic, social or internal, are fertilizer in their fields of self improvement and, eventually, inner peace.


Tolstoy, born in 1828 into an aristocratic Russian family, fought in the Tsar’s army in the hairiest winter war conditions ever. His surroundings and reference points could not have be more different than our tropical paradise. Still, his characters realize something I too gained clarity on this past year – Love grows, evolves and expands. I leaned in and loved my kids and wife hard this year, through ecstasies and agonies. And felt that love boomerang back to me. I am truly happy. Because happiness is the flower that grows from loves seed. We’ve been motivated this year not by the accumulation of wealth, prestige and visibility but the pursuit of kindness and wellness, both ours and others. This paradigm shift cannot be overstated. I found the people we encountered and befriended intriguing and exhilarating. Because, if you somehow found your way to this microdot on the map called Playa Grande, you have an interesting story to tell. One which includes a conscious choice to step off the hamster wheel, walk away from people and places rife with stress and chase your bliss. Being surrounded by productive people who chose joy as a lifestyle changed our game at a cellular level. I intend to keep it that way, wherever I go from now on. 

“It is not beauty that endears, it is love that makes us see beauty.”

I’ve been with my wife fifteen years and love her more now than ever. The very first time I saw her, I thought she was cute, because she is. But today, her physical beauty is a minor ingredient in my deep and abiding admiration. The essence of my love resides in her unwavering courage and selflessness throughout our journey. She meets the daily challenges of raising our children with preternatural gentleness and patience. And she’s always game for good times and world-wide adventures. She got certified for SCUBA this year and is chomping at the bit to explore that magical universe with me and our kids. Through the prism of our time-tested bond, her physical beauty shines more each day.

Jodi and Bodhi Arenal 2019

Kai Avid Reader Award 2019

Playa Grande road

“There is no greatness where simplicity, goodness and truth are absent.”

There is one road in and out of our little beachside town. It is a fine, smooth road, though unlit and a bit scary in a hard rain at night. Just last week, a beautiful yellow line was added down the center of this black road, making it far more safe and easy to navigate. I derive a surprising amount of satisfaction from this nondescript yellow stripe. It signifies security, progress and visual symmetry. More and more, cleansed by deep nature and tranquility, I see greatness and find joy in such simple things.   

Bodhi Galapagos 2019

“He was always in a hurry to get where he was not.”

Sure, we need to herd the kids off to school each morning in a furious, last minute, “where’s my homework” rush … but in general, our pace has slowed markedly. We’ve irrevocably pivoted away from rush/grind/rinse/repeat/die to a more gentle, experiential and connective manner of filling the hours in a day. Yes, we have the financial freedom to do this, no small thing, but we each can review our relationship with money and ask ourselves if the system we are part of really serves our values of a happy, healthy, well-balanced life. If it does not, perhaps it’s time to find a new system. Most folks forget that the hamster wheel actually goes nowhere. 

Kai surf contest Tamarindo 2019

Tamarindo surf contest 2019

“Oh, how happy I am to have found it at last. Yes! It’s all vanity, it’s all an illusion, everything except that infinite sky.”

Early on in our stay here, Jodi asked me who and what I missed back home. It surprised me to realize that I missed nothing and no one. I say that with no arrogance and no judgment, for I love my friends and family with all my being. Naturalist John Muir, a kindred spirit who escaped into nature, said it best, “I am learning to live close to the lives of my friends without ever seeing them. No miles of any measurement can separate your soul from mine.” In fact, many of the folks I love most I haven’t seen in years. But that’s ok. I no longer hold any guilt around that unavoidable truth. Living a healthy lifestyle under “that infinite sky,” makes us giddy as puppies. So, we’ll see you when we see you … hopefully soon!

“Yes, I may very well be killed tomorrow.”   

I lost someone I love this year. Whether you live to 54 or 94, life goes by in a nano-second. Still, most of us tend to postpone our bucket lists until the end of our lives. Let’s flip that script! If there’s one take home message I can share, it is this – Pick up your bucket right now, walk down to the ocean, and begin pouring your dreams out into reality … before that option no longer exists.

PS. To learn more about and follow this journey in photos, both past and future, visit my Instagram @stuart_sheldon

Pura Vida!


35 thoughts on “What I Learned in My Bucket List Year in Costa Rica … by Leo Tolstoy

  1. LOVE it Stu! All truth! Live your dreams today…I’m a fellow life-lover living my dreams and aspirations in the now. Keep savoring the moments. Thanks again for being such devoted friends and hosts when Lara & I visited in January.

  2. As always, word, brother man. Ami, the boys and I are off for a month of travel in Europe, with a week hiking the Dolomites where we went on our honeymoon and said “some day we need to hike here with our kids – if we have any – and share in this wonder as a young family.” If you are staying any longer in PG, seek out Melissa and John Ryan who just bought a house there and live there year round. Contact me for details. Pura Vida.

    1. Sir Peay, exemplar of la dolce vita and fellow bon vivant … you regularly make me smile with your gallivanting about for work and play. Our lives are parallel lines in many ways. And it fills me with delight when those lines swerve and intersect. Sending love to you, Ami and boys on the madcap adventures this summer and always. Pura vida! PS. Of course, hook me up with your peeps in PG!

  3. We have always admired your drive, perseverance and perspiration to accomplish everything out of the box. This journey proved that. Love grows differently under different environments and you’ve experienced a wonderful new paradigm that will propel your lives – all of you – into the beyond. We love you and want to hear some of your adventures first-hand. Love you guys.

  4. Beautiful Stu. An inspiration. Your writing skills have progressed and expanded along with the rest of you. I know that piece took work and depth and lots of introspection to achieve! It takes fortitude, vision and courage to pull off what you and Jodi did this year. My hat is off to you all. I admire trigger pullers, excuse the firearm reference. See you this week.

  5. Stu, I can’t believe it’s been a whole year! I have truly enjoyed reading your inspiring descriptions of the unique experiences you and your family shared together. Keep ’em coming….. where too next?

  6. Stu, what an amazing experience. I keep thinking my free-spirit Lori would have followed in your footsteps. What next? please keep me posted. All my love and wonderful wishes to you all.

  7. Beautiful Stuart. Yes life is precious and time is fleeting. So….where to next or…..stay and base from there. Pura Vida mi amigos.

  8. Another very enjoyable read of your adventure! You are a very rare special soul! Look forward to exploring your pictures!

  9. Your wonderful posts give me the thrill of adventure I never experienced. How right you are to avoid that bucket list by doing it, not waiting! Stay happy and healthy and keep enjoying your precious family. Hope to see you soon. Love, Jane

  10. I hope it’s okay that I reposted on my FB page. This made me cry, Stu! You inspire me and I love how much you love life. Though I don’t see you much, I am grateful our ships crossed in SF and in Miami at various points.

    1. Dear Nic – you’re my spirit art guide, keeping me abreast of visual feasts everywhere you go. I love your ever expanding creative adventure!

  11. Mi hermano, mi amigo – have enjoyed living vicariously thru your adventures, your art and of course your words. Thanks for allowing us all in to enjoy them with you, Jodi, Jodi & Kai. When our paths cross again, wherever it may be, I look forward to that day…

  12. Hi Stuart: I’m curious…how did you prepare your kids for the move? Were they part of the decision making process? What’s next? I so enjoyed reading about your adventures and most particularly enjoyed your above overview of what you’ve taken away from your sabbatical. So incredibly inspiring. Thanks for sharing…

    1. When we first told the kids we were going away for a yr, they were mad. How could we take them from friends, school, all they knew. Our response was simply, “You’re Welcome.”

  13. You brought both tears and smiles to my face as I read your message. Your thoughts are beautiful and inspiring.
    Kudos to you and your amazing family. Anna Mae Ross

  14. Beautiful Stu! Always so introspective and inspiring! Thanks for taking us along on your journey… here’s to living bravely and boldly!

  15. STJ,

    Every word. As we’re all barreling through it, you serve as a reference point and inspiration to so many. Just when we think we’ve leveled-up, there’s always something to show us that it can be better, more connected, slowed-down, present. And often times it comes from you.

    Even more so, that wife of yours is a reference point. We can follow the Patio-Daddy-O and someday hope to learn his lessons and find similar calm. But Jodi is beyond our grasp. She’s the platonic form of a human and we can only look in awe and envy you for your good fortune to have found her.

    I hope our paths are crossed again soon, sweet man. There’s gonna be some powerful energy emanating from those eyes for some time to come and I’d love to get some.


    1. Adam – First, thanks for the single most touching comment I’ve ever received. Jodi thanks you as well. You too have taken the path less travelled and experienced its ecstasies and agonies. You have amazing stories to tell as a result. I look forward to the next opportunity for us both to share our most recent stories. Pura Vida, hermanito!

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