What's Wrong With Your Bucket List

If it's all about skydiving and swimming with sharks, you may be missing a bigger opportunity

by Erica Brown, Ph.D. • Next Avenue
bucket list image
Photograph: Shutterstock.com

After my 16-year-old son had a particularly fun experience recently, he told me, "Now I can cross that off my bucket list."

"You're 16, and you already have a bucket list?"

"No," he said, "but I cross off things in my mind once I do them. They would be the kind of things I would put on a list if I had one."
This convoluted thinking intrigued me. My son's list was not made up of items to check off before he dies, but an evolving account of the experiences he thinks he should have as he lives.

(MORE: What Will You Do With the Rest of Your Life?)

Still, he, too, had bought into the popular mindset that a bucket list is a roster of exciting, often hazardous activities that are seen as constituting a complete life. The idea of the bucket list comes from the expression to kick the bucket. If you are going to kick the bucket, the thinking goes, you ought to fill it with a few great experiences first.

The term gained wide popularity after the 2007 Rob Reiner film of the same name, which starred Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson as terminally ill men taking a road trip together as a way of saying a smashing goodbye to life.

It is somewhat easier to take incredible risks when there is little to lose. But what's to be gained? For one, the right to say you're not too old to dare greatly, to paraphrase the famous 1910 speech by Theodore Roosevelt. And dare greatly people do while fulfilling their bucket lists. At the website bucketlist.org, you can create your own list of aspirational antics and compare your goals to those of others. The site claims almost 50,000 participants with nearly 900,000 cumulative goals.

That's a lot to do. Better get started quickly.
Popular goals on the site include skydiving — you knew that was coming — swimming with sharks and experiencing zero gravity. I almost got the feeling that attempting some of these activities might actually precipitate death, which would most certainly compromise the actualization of any other goals on one's list.
And as you can imagine, journeys to great global destinations comprise a number of other slots: think Stonehenge, the Equator, the Sistine Chapel, the Galapagos and others. Such dreams are the basis of the best-selling book, 1,000 Places to See Before You Die, which would be a pretty depressing title if you've got only a few months to live. I wish the author had picked a less ambitious number, like 11. I might have even bought a second volume.
(MORE: Aging as a Spiritual Practice)

On the other hand, some popular goals on the bucket-list site — like kissing passionately in the rain (shared by 944 users), giving blood (581) and laughing until you cry (475) — just seem too banal to merit a place. The same goes for learning CPR or eating a slice of Spam. Really? Spam? You can't do better than that, people? Where is your imagination?

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Photo courtesy of Micha Klootwijk/Shutterstock.com

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