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, then 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.
As 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, studied 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?
At 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?
(Artwork: Gambetta leaving for Tours on the Armand-Barbes on October 7, 1870 by Jacques Guiaud and Jules Didier)