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The tyranny of the bucket list


Beware the barrenness of a busy life.


A “bucket list” is an inventory of places to see/ things to do/people to meet before you die. Usually this list is written down and posted somewhere. People are supposed to check off experiences as they go. Search Flickr or Twitter for “bucket list” and you’ll get an idea of the overwhelming popularity of the trend.

Today an entrepreneur I follow tweeted out “help me with my bucket list” and a link to his blog post. In blue, he highlighted his accomplished tasks, in black were the tasks yet to be done. His list was typical of a socially-conscious innovator, e.g., donate a million dollars to charity (he said he was 1/3rd of the way there), launch successful kids, golf at the Masters, etc. I perused it, curious to see if I could help him with anything. It was a typical “see this, do that” list, so really, the tasks are up to him. So why did he ask other tweeters for help? Was it an exercise in the modern skill of humble bragging? Sure, he listed his charity goals but essentially, his entire agenda was about him and how admirable his goals are.

Why do we construct these things? If we’re honest, wouldn’t we classify a bucket list as another (albeit fancier) “TO DO” list? Or do we publish our dream vacations and lofty goals to put forth an image of ourselves as International Adventurers of Mystery? Surely, we Bucket Listers don’t collect “spread peace, love, and happiness” posters on our Pinterest boards.

It’s as if we need certain notches on our belt in order to feel complete. Bucket lists are exercises in that esteem-building task of “complete-ness,” but this task isn’t risk-free. There’s a secret danger to the bucket list: Inspiration boards and daydreams take their toll. In one of Life’s great ironies, every bit of inspiration you collect on your Bucket List is a bit you take away from your energetic movement toward that goal.

Brain research shows that “mirror” neurons can simulate an observed experience so well that we ourselves feel like we had the experience. These neurons can fool us into thinking we’re great golfers like Tiger Woods or we’ve been shot down in helicopters in a battle in the Middle East. Bucket lists fool us into thinking we’ve already traveled miles when in reality we have yet to take our first step. Some experts warn against too much “visualization” for this reason: The very act of picturing ourselves at the finish may mean we never start the race.

I realize this is the opposite of the Supreme Motivational Canon that the happiness movement has been feeding us since the ’60s. But think about it: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Trade-offs hide under every surface, and this mirror neuron phenomenon, embedded in a feverish “Get it done” culture, is why we go to and from work in the same routine day after day, on the path of least resistance through the barrenness of a busy life.

The fact is, a hoarding of experiences is not much better than a hoarding of material goods. Feeling “complete” or worthy doesn’t come from base jumping the Eiffel Tower or roaring through Grand Canyon rapids. If only it were that easy! So much money spent on self-help books, therapy, illegal drugs even, could be saved up for one all-healing Himalayan climb.

Don’t believe the hype. Plastering your cubicle of photos of Fiji will only get you farther away from that paradise. Instead, do what Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps did every day of his life: picture the process. Phelps didn’t picture himself on the winner’s stand. In fact, he didn’t even picture the end of the race. Michael had a mental “videotape” of swimming his best race, down to the tiniest detail like how he held his fingers or flexed his toes, and he played that tape in his head like a movie, every day over and over. Before every race, his coach would tell him to “roll the tape” to get his whole body ready to go through the motions. These motions eventually broke world records and led to 8 gold medals.

Forget the Bucket List. If you want to get to Fiji, picture yourself at the bank, making deposits in your “Escape” fund. If you want successful children, imagine yourself being calm and collected during their next major mess-up. Focus on the journey, and its end will surprise and delight you.


Photo credit: Flickr user torbakhopper. Edited by me, Christine Cavalier

Also posted on LinkedIn.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Mike 9 February 2015, 4:48 pm

    “If you want successful children, imagine yourself being calm and collected during their next major mess-up. ”

    Wait. That can be done???


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