My Problem with Bucket Lists

Did you click on this article thinking, “OHMYGOSH! How can she hate such a thing?!”

Okay, let’s clear things up: I don't hate Bucket Lists at all.

So now that we have that straight, we can still be friends, right? Okay, good!

I actually love lists. Post-it notes plaster my desk at home, and clutter the depths of my purse (though they don't do much good there). And yes, I even have my very own Bucket List – gasp!

Bucket Lists are healthy. They keep people accountable to their dreams and help us all make our goals a reality. So it's not like I have a vendetta out against the creator of the ol' BL.

But you clicked on this article wanting to know why in the world I have an issue with writing down dreams.

So here it goes...

The check mark is worth more than the experience

The problem I have lies not with the list itself, but rather that the focus is on “ticking a box” and neglects the planning, the reflection, and taking in the moment.

Some of the most meaningful parts of life are in the preparations: planning that wine tasting trip to Italy, and the reflection afterwards: sharing stories with friends and finding a perfect place to display the bottle of wine you brought back.

A lot of times we forget that. The check mark is what we focus on. And sometimes even in the moment of experiencing a dream turned reality, we aren't fully present. When the focus is on the check mark, a Bucket List loses its purpose and becomes a glorified “to do” list. 

And yes, I too am guilty. I often fall victim to this; toting my camera and focusing more on getting a perfect shot than on my surroundings. I leave without really learning about where I am or taking in that moment.

While traversing through the bumpy Costa Rican countryside in a van, I met a guy in his mid-twenties who pointed this out rather bluntly. He had just quit his job to travel from California to Patagonia, and he made an impression that has stuck with me years later.

It wasn’t his impressive route that I was surprised by. It was the fact that he purposely hadn't brought a camera with him. Or a phone. No GoPro either. He had deliberately left all devices with which to document his experience behind.

He took one look at my camera, and gave me a pretentious speech about “being in the moment” instead of being distracted by a lens. And I get that. He went on to say that today people are collecting images just to say, "I've been there". That pictures end up being a “check mark” of sorts, ticking off some imaginary box.

For me, taking photos is the way I process my experiences and allows me to relive important moments. And while I will never leave my camera behind, I understand his message. His lecture about the “right way to travel” rubbed me the wrong way, but there are moments to this day when I hear his voice and put my camera down. 

In those instants, I remind myself to live in the moment. Observe my surroundings. Learn from those around me. Breathe. Forget about the “check mark” and instead just take it all in.

“Small moments” matter too

In today’s social media craze, it seems that an experience isn’t valid until a picture is posted on Facebook along with a gaggle of hashtags. #YOLO #livingthedream #checkedthatoff

I’m not innocent in this. Just check out my Instagram feed and you’ll find images of waterfalls, motorbikes and sunsets. And I’m not saying that these experiences shouldn’t be shared.  A lot of joy is to be had in letting others in on the big events in our lives.  

But here’s my next point: Just because a moment doesn’t take place in some far-off destination with palm trees in the background doesn’t mean it is not worthy of dreaming about.

Somewhere along the line, we were told that only huge events in exotic locations are deserving of a spot on a Bucket List.

Trekking to Everest Base Camp is just as valid a dream as planting a garden. And likewise, becoming a “local” at your favorite coffee shop is just as worthy as diving with sharks.

Learn how to bake a perfect croissant from scratch. Step foot on all 7 continents. Discover new spots in your own neighborhood with good friends. 

Big and small, every dream has a place on a Bucket List.

Every person’s list is unique

We’ve all seen lists with compelling titles like, "100 Places You Must See Before You Die" or "Your Ultimate Bucket List". They clutter my inbox (maybe I subscribe to too many travel sites!) and I actually love reading them. There’s a certain addictive quality about seeing if I’ve been to any of the places, and it’s fun to get ideas of new destinations to dream about.

But sometimes it can feel overwhelming.

After reading one list recently titled “30 Places You Must See Before You Turn 30”, I felt defeated. I had only been to 6 of the places and there’s no way I’ll make it to the remaining 24 in the 2 years and 3 months left of my twenties.

When we compare our dreams to others – whether it be a person we know or some list compiled by a complete stranger – it’s easy to feel that our dreams come short.

And sometimes, we make their dreams into our own. We add them to our Bucket Lists without even considering that we don’t actually want to bungee jump.  

You don’t like to hike? It’s okay if you don’t have “Trek the Inca Trail” on your list. Focus on your passions. Maybe it’s food, or culture, or sculpting a rockin’ bod. Your Bucket List doesn’t have to resemble the ones filling your inbox or that guy you know from way-back-when who has an Instagram feed that rivals National Geographic.

So this year, instead of festering jealousy for what others have accomplished, I will try to remind myself instead to share in their joy. And when I get another email titled “57 Beaches You Must Swim In”, I’ll smile and think that I’m lucky to live in such a beautiful world rather than sulking over the fact that I’ve only been to 3 of those beaches.

It's okay for dreams to change

It would be crazy to expect myself to want the same things I did at age 16. I’ve come to terms that marrying Ryan Gosling may never happen (I’m still holding out a little hope!), and my teenage dream of working as a bartender doesn’t really appeal to me anymore.

When we make “to do” lists, an item not crossed off signifies failure. It is important for us all to remember that Bucket Lists are different.

Bucket Lists are ever-changing, just as we are. They are like living beings – growing, and morphing with us; and therefore there is no shame in a list left incomplete.

Once we embrace that, we can accept that a dream not “ticked off” isn’t a failure but is instead an indication of how we’ve changed and grown as a person.

Final thoughts

Although “Bucket List” has become a buzzword that annoys me to some extent, I am not going to abandon writing down my dreams. In fact, I want to focus more on keeping track of places I want to see and things I want to accomplish in 2016, both big and small. But I’m going to put the emphasis less on the act of checking those dreams off.

I want to plan for them. I want to daydream about them and stay up late at night thinking about how I’ll make them come true. If they happen, wonderful! I want to relish the moment they become reality, and reflect on the experience for years to come. But sometimes dreams never come to fruition and that’s okay too.

I’ll also try to remember not to compare my Bucket List to those of others, for everyone has their own dreams and their own path to follow.

And most importantly, I want to concentrate my energy on a sense of gratitude for all I have already experienced and all that lies ahead, whether it’s on a list or not.