I’ve been thinking about bucket lists lately.
It started when my wife told me that a friend of ours was celebrating his next birthday with a 30-day hike on the Pacific Crest Trail.
This was followed by her asking about my bucket list—what was my dream trip or goal or whatever—and I didn’t really have an answer, not a good one anyway, which bugged me a little.
I’ve always believed that setting goals, bucket list goals or otherwise, is an incredibly productive exercise. The bucket list perfectly embodies a point I’m always trying to make: Goals, in and of themselves, are overrated, but goals as part of a system of positive habits can be powerful.
"Goals, in and of themselves, are overrated, but goals as part of a system of positive habits can be powerful."
But here’s the rub: Bucket list have become so common and predictable that they’ve been pummeled into near meaninglessness.
These days it’s easy to mock the bucket list, to dismiss it as an empty exercise in tone deaf consumerism and narcissistic delusion.
But this isn’t entirely fair. There’s nothing wrong with the idea itself. At its core, a bucket list is simply a catalogue of goals. Goals provide direction. They make us accountable. They inspire us and sometimes inspire others and they provide a benchmark for determining whether we are actually succeeding. These are good things.
And because a bucket list tends to target challenge and adventure, it holds a special place among lists. It’s not a list of chores, obligations, or dreary tasks. It’s infused with hope and optimism. These too are good things.
Most importantly, bucket list are, well, fun.
So instead of dismissing the bucket list as another casualty of social media and our modern cult of self-promotion, I’ve decided to give the bucket list a chance.
Below you'll find four simple ground rules that reframe the bucket list. The idea is to lay the groundwork for a list that is a little more principled, a little more science-based, a little more pragmatic, and hopefully lot more meaningful.
Ground Rule #1: Aspirations, Not Goals
So far I’ve described a bucket list as a catalogue of “goals.” Broadly speaking, this is true.
A goal, by definition, is a concrete objective, a finish line, or an outcome. More loosely, the word “goal” implies pushing limits and stretching abilities. All of these definitions are true regarding bucket lists, and this is how most people approach bucket lists—they target “goals.”
But this, I think, is part of the problem. A generic term like “goals” tends to invite generic results.
A better approach is to target aspirations, which is different from targeting goals in a subtle but important way. The word “aspiration” comes from the Latin word “inspirare,” which means “to breathe spirit into something.”
The point here is that a list that targets aspirations invites a higher element than a list that merely targets goals: Goals are accomplishments in a nonspecific sense. Aspirations are accomplishments in an elevated sense—they feed your spirit.
Now hold on. I know what you might be thinking—that I’m getting squishy and new-agey here by telling you to “feed your spirit.”
I’m simply saying that it’s more worthwhile in the long term to consider what inspires you (that is, what breathes life into you) than it is to simply target generic outcomes (that is, to target goals). How you interpret this suggestion is up to you.
Adding a aspirational element to the bucket list process prompts question that wouldn’t necessarily arise with the conventional goal-driven approach. A week in Paris sounds amazing, but does it feed your spirit? Sky diving pushes your limits, but does it breathe life into you?
Aspirational elements don’t often make bucket lists, but they should. Conventional bucket lists tend to focus on the predictable, the tangible, and the purchasable. As a result, most bucket list end up being different versions of the same things: “kiss the Blarney Stone” or “swim with dolphins” when they could be so much more.
Ground Rule #2: Beware the Avatar
A bucket list is only useful if we are clear-headed when we conceive it. The problem is that we are rarely as clear-headed as we think we are.
I’ll explain with a familiar example: Most people join a gym because they want to be healthier—at least that’s what they will tell you (and that’s what they tell themselves)—but the truth is sometimes different.
What they really want is an identity. They want to be “fitness guy” or “crossfit girl.” The health component is secondary. Joining the gym is a means to an end.
Not everyone does this, obviously, but it’s still a useful example because we all know someone right now who is living out a variation of this self-deception.
The same psychological dynamic can play out with bucket lists if we don’t pay attention.
Here’s how it usually happens: Bucket list are popular these days on social media. Social media by its very nature encourages us to conjure an alternate persona, an avatar, a version of ourselves who is more exciting and put together than we really are. It’s hard not to do this. Most of us do without even knowing it.
In these slight-of-hand performances, bucket-listing becomes a handy way to promote the avatar.
The catch is that the avatar (the fun-loving "travel guy" or the free-spirited "adventure girl") gets all the attention and your true self is ignored.
It’s what the Austrian psychologist Alfred Aldler called a “life lie”—a way of being that prioritizes outward perception over inner values
It’s one thing to aspire towards a better version of yourself; it’s another thing entirely to pretend to be a better version of yourself. A bucket list needs to encourage the former, not the later.
"It’s one thing to aspire towards a better version of yourself; it’s another thing entirely to pretend to be a better version of yourself. A bucket list needs to encourage the former, not the later."
If a trip across Europe feeds your spirit (see ground rule #1) then, by all means, save up your money, go to Europe, and have the time of your life. But always question your motives: Are you being driven by values of self-betterment (curiosity, wonder, adventure, etc.) or are you just conjuring an avatar of the person you wish you were too cover up the person you really are? This is a tough question, but a good one.
Ground Rule #3: Don’t Target Happiness
This rule sounds counterintuitive at first.
After all, it makes sense to think that the quickest path to happiness would be to target goals that we associate with happiness. But it isn’t
I’ll explain with an example: Think back to your high school. I'll bet you knew a kid who tried way too hard to be popular. Remember him? How did that work out? The same goes for happiness. You can’t will it into being. The harder you strive for happiness, the less likely you’ll find it. You don’t find happiness; happiness ensues.
Happiness is marketed and packaged as a goal (this car will make you happy, this trip will make you happy, and so on) so it’s tempting to believe that achieving our goals will make us happy, but this is rarely the case.
Here’s why: Happiness is not a destination or a something you acquire. It’s a side effect.
"Happiness is not a destination or a something you acquire. It’s a side effect."
And happiness cannot be qualified. If you say “When this happens I’ll be happy” you’re just the dog forever chasing his tail.
Raising a child. Falling in love. Learning. These are all enriching experiences, not goals. That’s why they are so fulfilling. That’s why they make us happy.
The point here is that focusing on happiness causes us to over-value the temporal and the finite. It turns our bucket list into a shopping list. It turns our achievements into trophies.
This what all the gurus and masters and saints have been trying to tell us for years. Rumi. Jesus. Teresa of Avila. Lao Tzu. They’ve all tried to tell us the same thing, but we’ve never been good at listening.
The truth of the matter is that the best among us don’t need bucket lists. They are happy in their skin and comfortable in the now and there is nothing that a bucket list can give the that they don’t already have.
"The truth of the matter is that the best among us don’t need bucket lists. They are happy in their skin and comfortable in the now and there is nothing that a bucket list can give the that they don’t already have."
But the rest of us need to learn how to get to that place. Or maybe, to put a sharper point on it, the rest of us need to learn how to get back to that place.
Remember when you were a kid and you just ran around the playground playing tag or chasing butterflies and you weren’t thinking about how the hell to be happy or what you needed to accomplish? Remember that place? Well, maybe finding that place again is the whole point of a bucket list. Maybe the bucket list, if it’s approached correctly, can teach us this.
What does this mean in practical terms? Simple. Don’t worry about happiness. Leave it out of the equation. Focus on meaningful experiences and the rest will take care of itself.
Ground Rule #4: Small Wins Are Important Too
The conventional bucket list usually includes big ticket items (diving in the Great Barrier Reef, surfing in Bali, etc.) which is fine. There’s nothing inherently wrong with grandiose aspirations.
Even if our aspirations are slightly pie-in-the-sky, there’s a compelling case to be made that imagining or looking forward to something is rewarding in its own right and sometimes better than actually having it.
But it’s incredibly important that grandiose aspirations are balanced with a helping of achievable aspirations. There is plenty of science that supports this approach.
When you accomplish something—even something modest—it activates the reward center of the brain. We get a jolt of dopamine, which makes us feel good, which inspires us to want to achieve more. In other words, small wins set off a positive chain reaction for even bigger wins later on.
Here’s the challenge: Social media has inflated our expectations. We see so many images of people doing over-the-top, spectacular things (kayaking off waterfalls, swimming with whale sharks, and so on) that our metric for success gets skewed. Our brain is tricked into thinking that we need to compete with social media’s purveyors of cool, which of course is an unwinnable game.
So for every grandiose dream that you put on your list, throw in a few humbler and more achievable aspirations. Learn to bake a killer loaf of bread, for example, or make a pledge to read every night for a month.
Better yet, choose small wins that lead, like stepping stones, towards a big win. For example, if a triathlon is on your bucket list, then set yourself up for success with a handful of achievable targets related to that goal. Make a pledge to swim twice a week, join a local biking club, read Born to Run.
Small wins are less sexy and less post-able than grandiose adventures, but in the long run they are infinitely more rewarding and motivational.
Let’s be clear, bucket lists won’t solve our problems. Ticking a box in itself won’t transform us. But a list like this is a concrete way to think about who we are and what we want to become. And this to me seems important.
As I mentioned already, goals provide direction. They make us accountable. They inspire us and sometimes inspire others and they provide a benchmark for determining whether we are actually succeeding. And when we think of our goals as aspirations, they become even more powerful.
But a bucket list is an empty exercise unless we really put some thought into its component parts. It requires a process and careful introspection. What drives our choices? What feeds our spirit? What is the true path to our ideal selves?
"What drives our choices? What feeds our spirit? What is the true path to our ideal selves?"
The term “bucket list” derives from “kicking the bucket,” a euphemism for dying, which means that creating a “bucket list” is fundamentally a way of thinking about what we hope to do before we die.
Thinking about death, even if it’s done obliquely, can be extremely useful because it invites us to consider our legacy. It makes us wonder how we will be remembered.
Ask yourself: Will anyone remember how many boxes you checked off on our bucket list? Not likely. They will remember the type of person you were. Were you kind? Were you loving? Were you honest? Were you courageous?
As we’ve discussed, laying down some bucket list ground rules is important and helpful:
- Target accomplishments that feed your spirit
- Aspire towards a better version of yourself
- Focus on experiences, not happiness
- Embrace a “small win” approach
Understood correctly, a bucket list should be more about enrichment and character than accomplishment. It should be less a motivation to go places and more a motivation to acquire experience and wisdom. It should be fun, but it should also be meaningful.
Keep in mind, sitting around musing over bucket list possibilities is enjoyable, but it won’t get you anywhere. Making a list is a first step, not an accomplishment. Ultimately, the bucket list is really no more than a device. The rest is up to you.