Xavier Magazine

What a Card

Just a year ago, Karen Gladstone’s life was normal. Good, but normal. She had a decent advertising career in Chicago, great family and kind friends. She ate the food she liked, listened to music she enjoyed and wore clothes that suited her.Until one day in a drugstore, when everything changed.

Gladstone was nearing her 29th birthday and—fearing introspection and the inevitable mental and physical decline that loomed just over the horizon when she turned 30—she decided she wanted to push herself beyond the limits of her day-to-day experiences. But how? She liked the idea of other people telling her how to stretch her limits—having them write her “bucket list,” so to speak. But she needed something else. Something more. That’s when it hit her.

Standing in line at Walgreen’s, she found herself staring at a pack of playing cards. Fifty-two cards in a deck, she thought. Fifty-two weeks in the year. Eureka.


[Check out all of Karen’s cards, watch videos of her exploits and go “beyond the deck.”]

She bought the deck, went home and compiled a list of 52 people she could send the cards to: family members, friends, coworkers, acquaintances and even ex-boyfriends. Some of the people she had known since childhood. Others she wasn’t sure even liked her. She was undaunted.

She mailed each one of them a card and a note: “Please write a challenge, task or test on the card and mail it back.” The goal, she explained, was simple: Each week leading up to her 30th birthday, she would randomly pick a card from the deck and give herself seven days to perform whatever challenge they put before her.
She trusted them to pick something different, something unique, something that took her out of her comfort zone. And they did. It also turns out most of her friends are jokers.

Since her deck came back, Gladstone has enrolled in a pole-dancing class, gone on a blind date, juggled soccer balls for charity and spent a workday dressed entirely in yellow. She has crashed a Nigerian wedding and set up an entire personal desktop computer (plus accessories) for Internet browsing in a busy Starbucks café. She has empirically proven that 1,567 licks are required to reach the center of a Tootsie Pop, has attended Mass and taken communion every day for a week and gone without food and water for 24 hours. She has hidden in crowds dressed up as Waldo, performed a stand-up comedy routine and filmed a Mentos commercial, during which she jumped in a fountain and kissed a stranger.

Some challenges introduce her to entirely new sub-cultures. A former colleague with a divergent taste in music sent her to see a hard-core punk concert, for example. The night was made memorable by thrashing fans, cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer and an impulsive lead singer who sent the crowd into a frenzy when he suggested, “Everyone hit everyone else in the head!”

Gladstone not only survived the night, she bought a T-shirt, got it signed by the lead singer and proudly wore it to work the next day. “They really are great people,” Gladstone says of punk music fans. “They just enjoy different things.”

Halfway through, she’s already deemed the idea a success, although the year’s not up yet and she could be in for some surprises as she continues to draw cards.

She is growing suspicious, for instance, of her brother’s smirk when he asks how her year is going. He thinks his challenge is the best. “I don’t know how you’re going to accomplish it,” he tells her, “but I’m excited to see you try.”

Gladstone says the idea didn’t spring from a midlife crisis, or even a quarter-life crisis. “I thought, ‘I’ve got a really great life going here. Now that I am reaching this turning point, what can I do to turn up the volume?’ ”

Turn up the volume, it did. But it’s done something more: It’s taught her that the project—and life—is about more than her and her challenges. Every week she receives emails from people who say they follow her on her website,, and are living vicariously through her adventures. She has inspired some to tackle challenges of their own, and live more creatively.

It’s about more than setting random weekly goals, accomplishing them, then selecting another, she says. “It’s about using creativity to enhance your overall life. Do something different, don’t just go with the status quo and move along in life.”

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