Is It Time To Downsize Your Bucket List?

by Debra Eve | @DebraEve

Nicholson and Freeman in The Bucket List

Why, during these times of economic downsizing, would I write about downsizing dreams?

Since 2007, when the movie The Bucket List came out, the Internet has been deluged with gigantic to-do lists.

Some bloggers imply that if you can’t list 101 items to achieve before you “kick the bucket,” you’re not creative enough.

Others maintain if you’re really serious, you should buy an iPhone app to manage your list.

Some bucket lists can be inadvertently ironic. They include items like giving blood and seeing a dead body. Why?

Where Did This 101-Item Fad Come From?

Certainly not the movie.  If you haven’t seen The Bucket List – Jack Nicholson plays Edward Cole, a curmudgeonly millionaire and Morgan Freeman is Curtis Chambers, an auto mechanic and self-taught genius. They share a room in the cancer ward.

Freeman composes his bucket list – but crumples it in despair.  Cole finds the list under Chamber’s bed, adds a few items of his own and decides to bankroll their jet-setting final months.  He outlives Chambers, a changed man.

Their list contained only 19 items, despite Cole’s millions.

Randy Pausch – The Genuine Item

The same year the movie came out, a 47-year-old computer science professor named Randy Pausch gave a lecture entitled “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams.” It went viral as The Last Lecture.

A year earlier, Pausch had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and given six months.

If you haven’t seen The Last Lecture, check it out. If you have seen it, watch it again. It will be the best 76 minutes you spend in front of a computer screen this week.

Pausch’s list contained just 6 items, which he achieved (in some manner) before his diagnosis.  They included:

  • being in zero gravity
  • playing in the National Football League
  • authoring an article in the World Book
  • being Captain Kirk
  • being one of the guys who wins big stuffed animals at amusement fairs
  • becoming a Disney Imagineer.

Randy Pausch with the Pittsburgh SteelersAs an adult, Pausch rethought certain goals, like playing in the NFL and being Captain Kirk.

He felt that playing football from grade school through college had brought him enough gratification. And as for being Captain Kirk — Pausch really wanted to be a brave and inspiring leader like his idol.

With Pausch’s encouragement, one of his grad students achieved his ultimate childhood dream — working on the Star Wars prequels.

(Remember, the prequels only existed in George Lucas’ head for decades. This kid, sure they’d be made, signed up with Pausch long before Lucas announced them in order to have the necessary skills.)

Pausch then asked himself,

Can I do this en masse?  Can I get people tuned in such a way that they can be turned on to their childhood dreams?

That’s crucial, especially for Later Bloomers.

What Is A Bucket List, Really?

All those 101-item lists on the Internet aren’t real Bucket Lists.  They’re versions of David Allen’s GTD (Getting Things Done) system ported to amorphous interests.

Allen’s first step involves capturing anything and everything that has your attention, which explains the dead bodies and blood donations.

Tatsuya Nakagawa brings it home when he says:

A bucket list should not be full of impulsive stuff that we pick up as we go along through life. It shouldn’t be like grabbing a chocolate bar off the display rack.

Nakagawa makes two more points:

  • Don’t get obsessed with big ticket items or “retail” goals.  (In other words, you don’t have to be Edward Cole to achieve the most important ones.)
  • Consider the larger context, which might include achieving your goals in a way that benefits others.

A real Bucket List celebrates living and dying with purpose. We downplay the dying part, hence “kick the bucket” — it’s an amusing phrase that has no gut meaning to modern audiences.

A real Bucket List will contain a only a few items. Chasing after 101 items distracts us from the meaningful ones, and from death itself.

When that last moment comes, each item left undone on a real Bucket List will cause such regret and yearning that you’d do anything to have your life over again.

How do you find what goes into a Real Bucket List?

You become a time traveler.  The answer will be found at the beginning of your life and at its end.

  • First, revisit your childhood dreams and ask, what do they mean?

My Childhood Travel IconAt age 7, I was going to be an airline stewardess and I had the lunch box to prove it. Later I realized that I didn’t want to serve prepackaged meals while jet-lagged, I just wanted to see the world in all its variety and uniqueness.

(I cherish my travel experiences and would be bereft without them. I long for more.)

Randy Pausch realized that he didn’t want to be Captain Kirk, he wanted to be a brave and inspiring leader.

(Pausch lost his battle with cancer on July 25, 2008.  His lecture has been viewed over 10 million times on YouTube.  I think he more than achieved his goal.)

  • Second, envision yourself on your deathbed and ask, what would be my greatest regret?

This is tougher. I’m still working on it. But it doesn’t have to be morbid. Pretend that you’ve lived an amazing life, that you can choose your time, that it’s all within your control. Yet you have just one regret, and that is . . .

Not everyone needs to jump out of an airplane.  Will you really be gutted if you don’t give blood?

I’m not truly advising that you downsize your dreams. Go ahead and come up with 101 items, or 505 items or 1001 items. Buy the iPhone app.  But call it something else, like a Life List.

Then give some thought to the difference between GTD and a real Bucket List.  Out of all those dreams, which one or two will cause such regret and yearning on your death bed that you’d do anything to have your life over again?

Photo credits: Warner Bros. Pictures; Pittsburghlive.com

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Leave a Comment

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Teresa

Love this even more than I loved Jonathan Fields’ The Bucket List Lie. The challenge for me: I remember so little from my childhood that I don’t remember really wanting to “be” anything….I may need a hypnotist for this exercise!

Congratulations on Nanowrimo! It’s an excellent reason to let you blog be somewhat dormant…and no doubt a bit of your creativity and practice over there just might seep into your blog posts! How exciting!

Hugs and butterflies,
~T~

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Debra Eve

Thanks, Teresa! Always appreciate your words. Re remembering stuff from childhood…something from that time must have opened up your ability to see and capture beauty, though it may not be obvious. I’m wondering what it was?

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DianeCapri

Thanks for this, Debra, which is even more poignant since the author who brought Randy’s story to print, Jeffrey Zaslow, died in a car accident this month. A life without regrets is definitely a goal I’ve pursued for a long time. I got the message that life is short when my father died at age 58. I was 38 then. I realized that no one lives forever. There were many things Dad had planned to do when he reached the next station, and some of them were left undone when he died. I promised myself I’d be in a better position on the regrets scale when the time comes. It’s a promise I’m trying hard to keep.

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Debra Eve

This is one of my first posts, Diane. It got spit out by the “Tweet Old Post” plugin. What a coincidence, as you mentioned, but timely. I feel incredibly lucky to have lived a wonderful (though never easy) life so far and was really hit by Zaslow’s death because we’re the same age. I still watch “The Last Lecture” every few months. Thanks for stopping by.

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Melinda VanLone

Great post, Debra! You’ve really made me think with this one. And suddenly making a Bucket List seems a lot more manageable. And meaningful. Think I might just make one now.

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Debra Eve

Thanks, Melinda. I’ve always loathed those hundred thing lists, but thought it was some kind of necessary right of passage. I made one, but so much of it ended up being trivial. Randy Pausch and Tatsuya Nagawa really made sense to me.

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Karen McFarland

See, now I want to read about Randy Pausch’s life again! And thank you Diane for mentioning Jeffrey Zaslow. I thought that name was familiar when I saw it on Yahoo, but I unfortunately did not take the time to read it. Boy we never know when we’ll kick the bucket. That said, I do not have a bucket list. I did like the movie, but I never applied that to myself. I’m old enough to start thinking about it, but like most of us, don’t want to go there. It was hard enough for my husband and I to make out a medical directive so as not to put our children in a difficult position. Thanks Debra. I can see that I should start thinking about a bucket list. :)

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Debra Eve

You’re welcome, Karen! Zaslow’s accident was so tragic, more so for us because he was on his latest book tour when it happened. I just started reading Patty Digh’s Life is a Verb, about living each day mindfully. Very powerful.

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Maureen

Inspired by my childhood friend…again! Wanna here the firsts?
1)Learn to draw the beauty of a horse (age 8)
remember…I had the Flying Nun lunch pail=fail:/
2)Study the dictionary..it can’t hurt! (@9)
3)CHEER…and work hard at it! (10)
Now) my ‘life list’ doesn’t seem too horrendous to look into (once again).
Your inspiration continues my friend…
Thanks to you,
Maureen

Reply

Debra Eve

Very sweet, Maureen. Thanks! I think the part of that Flying Nun lunch pail you need to focus on is flying (metaphorically, of course). I could never imagine you as a nun :)

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Lynn Hamilton

Hello Debra:
Thank you for this. You have provoked many thoughts…both inspirational and aspirational.
Sign me,
Lynn AKA One of your fans!

Reply

Debra Eve | @DebraEve

You’re welcome, Lynn. I found the whole thing fascinating — especially the idea that a bucket list shouldn’t just be some “catch all.”

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