Waking up is a wonderful experience when it’s a day you’re going to do something on your bucket list. An impending check-mark is what made a rainy morning feel like a sunny one when I opened my eyes in a downtown Sydney hostel four years ago.
It never occurred to me that I might actually fail at doing this task, given that it was hands-down the easiest item on my list, and that I’d set the entire day aside for it.
Every bucket list item, if it’s a half-serious list, comes down to an actual moment in time when you realize you’re in the midst of the thing. It’s never quite like you expected but there’s a wonderful consciousness that this is it — you made this one thing, if nothing else, real.
And sometimes it is transcendent. I’ll never forget seeing the Manhattan skyline come into view as my cab rose onto the Williamsburg Bridge, or the Student Loans clerk congratulating me over the phone when I made my last payment.
Not that these goals have to be difficult. My objective that day in Sydney was to simply see a movie by myself. There’s nothing at all hard about it, but it seemed like an important symbol of having graduated from the severe self-consciousness that made it seem unthinkable when I was a teenager.
I bought a ticket to see a 3D surfing documentary at the IMAX at Darling Harbour (which is the biggest cinema screen in the world) and when I went up to stand in line, I happened to run into six people I knew, even though I only knew about eight people in Australia. “How great is this?!” one of them said. “You can see the movie with us!”
Anyway, people have been asking whether I’ve abandoned my bucket list, because I took down the link on my nav bar above, and also because I still haven’t gone to see a movie by myself.
The list is still alive and well. It did need a major edit because it was starting to get crusty with goals that seem silly or unimportant to me now. (Eat a baguette in France?) Anyway, I did those edits and the list is up here.
(I also stopped calling it a “Life List” and surrendered to the cheeky, Hollywood-born phrase “Bucket List,” only because it doesn’t require any explanation.)
The two kinds of bucket lists
There are two kinds of bucket lists: the real kind and the fake kind, or the kind the author attempts to finish and the kind that’s just a list of things the author wishes would happen to him.
I’m a big proponent of keeping a genuine bucket list, although many people think it’s silly or idealistic. I understand their objections. It seems to emphasize getting there rather than being here, and accomplishment rather than moment-to-moment experience. In my mind these are false dichotomies, and in many ways, a personalized set of “theres” waiting over the horizon (or even the possibility of them) makes here an even more interesting place.
What it does for me, more than anything, is remind me that I’m already in the middle of what’s probably my only at-bat in the game. And in that light, devoting oneself to creating an unusually rich and varied life might be the most sensible approach. In other words, it reminds you to invest your life consciously, navigating with a long-term vision rather than whatever seems to make sense this particular month or year or decade.
A bucket list isn’t the only way to do that, but it’s one way. We certainly have a way of treating life like it’s a dress rehearsal. A serious bucket list, if nothing else, reminds you that the curtain’s already up and if you want things to happen that aren’t happening, you need to be making them happen now, or getting ready to make them happen.
I understand it’s not for everyone. A lot of people probably don’t want to divide their potential life experiences between “must do” and “maybe.” But there are practical reasons to tag certain experiences as “definitely happening in my future if I have anything to say about it.”
A list can keep you from becoming complacent with ill-suited arrangements in the four major life structures (career, relationships, habits and living situation.) These are probably the biggest determinants of quality of life for many people, yet they tend to be patterns we fall into rather than strictly decide on, and we often stay in miserable or boring ones even if we don’t have to.
If I didn’t maintain a strict intention to visit a certain 15 world cities and another dozen countries, for example, I might have already given up on finding work that allows me to travel. A well-curated bucket list stretches (and keeps) your ambitions beyond your complacency zone.
Checking all your list items off isn’t nearly as important as becoming a person for whom these goals are possible. It’s not a list of needs. Nobody needs to see the Taj Mahal or run a marathon to be happy. But it might be true that making extraordinary things happen is a habit that lends itself to happiness.
Your list must change as you change, or it won’t last
A bucket list needs to last almost as long as you do, and most aren’t built to last more than a year. When I first wrote my “serious” bucket list, I also wrote a comprehensive guide on how to make one you’ll stick to, and the most important point is allow yourself to alter it as your values change. Add items as they become compelling to you, and remove them as they become irrelevant.
This seems to be a kind of cheating. If you can change the rules in the middle of the game, what’s the point? But it makes more sense when you remember that the point isn’t to simply check off a list of items. It’s to live a life beyond where your habits alone would take you. Considering an item for the list forces you to recognize that you’re either going to make it happen, or that it will probably never happen.
In my experience, if you’re not willing to edit the list, it won’t be compelling or seem realistic to you for long, and you’ll abandon it. Practicality is important (unless you have no intention of actually doing the list) and so over time certain items will no longer seem to warrant their required efforts. All of your items, if they’re really going to happen, will take real-life time and money. Any resources you devote to one will not be available for the others.
I had a lesson in this in 2012, when I decided I would see a Radiohead show on their current tour “at any cost.” I bought the ticket on a whim one day, feeling justified in flying to the nearest show wherever it was, because I figured it would be a priceless experience.
The show was incredible and I enjoyed the trip, but including airfare, show tickets, hotel, meals and other activities it was close to two thousand dollars. I don’t regret it, and it deserved to be on my list, but it was a bomb of an expenditure at the time and I’m sure I could have done it more sensibly than that.
So practicality will always influence any serious list, and what’s practical changes as years go by. When I first published my list I had done 4 out of 161 items. Now I’m at 34 out of 112. I’d still like to see the pyramids in person, but I can’t see myself booking a trip to Cairo just for that. I’m prepared to die without experiencing a hot air balloon ride, but I am determined to read The Count of Monte Cristo.
Only the sincere ones survive
A lot of you may have made lists in the past, and probably don’t know where they are now. They’re usually made with a lot of enthusiasm, but without any consideration for how these things might actually transpire in real life. I know we had to make one in high school. It had to be exactly 100 items, which is pretty much guaranteeing we’d end up with something insincere.
But there are those of us who do take bucket lists seriously for more than an afternoon, and if you make a sincere one it will largely define your lifestyle for you. People who are looking for more direction or excitement — and there seem to be a lot — could do worse than simply making a list. Inventory the things you really want to do, then consider what kind of life you would have to lead to do these things, and then rework the list until it’s both compelling and doable.
If you want to make your own “serious” bucket list, I humbly believe this post from a couple of years ago is still the best guide on the internet. When I first published it, a lot of readers vowed to make their own list, and a lot of them posted them on their blogs. If you’re one of them I’d love to hear how things have gone. Or if you aren’t, but you do have your own list online somewhere, feel free to link it below.
In other news: A while ago the great Morty Lefkoe interviewed me for a podcast as part of a series he was doing with personal development bloggers. We had a great conversation and you can listen to it (or read the transcript) here.