What’s Wrong with Bucket Lists?


Bucket List: 1) Reduce stress 2) Complete bucket list 3) Reduce stress created by not completing bucket list

Everyone knows what a “bucket list” is–the term was popularized by the 2007 by the movie that starred Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman.  In the movie, the two men meet in the hospital as in-patients for cancer treatment, and they embark on fulfilling their “bucket lists”–things they want to do before they kick the bucket.

The notion is not new–and the movie’s title was based on the term.  Google “bucket lists” and you’ll find all kids of lists you can steal from and be inspired by:  The Thrill Seeker’s Bucket List; Bucket List for Men; 28 Places to See Before You Die.  The Huffington Post even has an article on the Reverse Bucket List:  things NOT to do before you die.

Sounds inspiring to come up with a to-do list of Meaningful Activities.  But the idea has always bothered me for some reason, and I think it’s because of the faulty logic:

  1. Focusing on 5, or 17, or 98, or 1000 things to do before you die assumes that THOSE THINGS are the things that matter.
  2. Aiming your arrow at those few things pushes the things you are doing right now into peripheral vision.
  3. Therefore, the moments you ARE living, prior to jumping out of airplanes or crossing the country on a motorcycle are placed in your mind as not as important.
  4. Then, what if those bullseye activities aren’t as fulfilling as you had hoped?  Haven’t you ever gone to the prom and it was nowhere as magical as you had imagined it?   I think that’s what Stephen Covey refers to as having the ladder against the wrong wall.
  5. At that point, have you been chasing an illusion?  An expectation that this one thing, or dozen things on your list should be the things that count, when, after all, you find they weren’t?

Which brings me to the thing that bothered me the most about the movie.  While Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman were sitting on a mountain in Sedona or wherever, Morgan Freeman’s wife was trying to track down her husband, and essentially was shut out of the bucket list.  The movie tries to mitigate this by adding expository about some existing trouble in the relationship.  OK.   I’m sure there are people who are sorry, at the end of their lives, that they tolerated stale relationships, but maybe addressing relationships should be #1 on the bucket list as opposed to a fancy dinner with a near-stranger in Paris.

I’m not saying life shouldn’t be an adventure. and a quest for our heart’s desire.   Dorothy had to have that experience in Oz before she came right around to learning that her heart’s desire is in her own “backyard”  (a metaphor for inner self, or divine guidance, or the kingdom within).  But, the bucket list is not a mythological quest:  I think we must guard against making our bucket lists diversions from our true inner quests.

To me, a bucket list is like jumping over running streams right in front of you to chase a mirage.

My bucket list has one thing in it, and if I can accomplish it, I don’t have to worry about check marks and timelines.  In fact, the timeline for my bucket list is very, very short.

My Bucket List:

  1. Be here now.


  1. the origin of idea of the ladder being up against the wrong wall is from a book by the great mythologist, joseph campbell, borrowed by stephen covey

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