Curse the Bucket List

Life happens when you're making other plans.

Words: Lee Tulloch

Although it seems to have been around forever, the term ‘the bucket list’ first came into common usage less than ten years ago, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. It was popularised by a Rob Reiner movie of that name, which starred Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, about two terminally ill gentlemen on a road trip, trying to do everything they had always wanted to do before they died, or ‘kicked the bucket.’

Gruesomely, to ‘kick the bucket’ is thought to derive from English slang common in the Middle Ages, where people about to be executed by hanging were made to stand on a bucket, which was kicked away so that the noose fatally tightened around the neck.

For that reason, I’ve always thought that ‘bucket list’ was a particularly unattractive expression for the ultimate journeys, adventures and challenges that a person dreams of one day experiencing. But the term is such common currency now that  ‘bucket list’ has become an adjective, as in ‘travelling on the Orient Express is a bucket list adventure.’

There are now bucket list apps you can download for your phone. The apps allow you to set life goals, such as ‘see the pyramids of Egypt’, and then track your progress towards that goal, adding photos or videos of the event as you strike it off the list.

If you actually don’t have your own list or are short of ideas for what to put on it, there’s a website for you,, where subscribers contribute suggestions that others share, compiling their own lists by checking boxes against an idea they like – ‘fly First Class’ or ‘hug a koala’ perhaps.

The communal bucket lists on the site include perennials such as swimming with the dolphins at Monkey Mia, seeing the Northern Lights, trekking the Inca trail, joining an African safari, learning to dance the tango in Buenos Aires and seeing the sunrise over Uluru. ‘Get a tattoo’ is probably more common than it should be.

Being focussed on ticking off one item might blind me to a richer experience just around the corner.

Several experiences come up on the wish list frequently, particularly physical challenges such as sky diving, parasailing, heliskiing, hot air ballooning, surfing, scuba diving and bungee jumping. Bucket lists can be a mental accounting of our fears and shortcomings and the desire to overcome them, as much as about pleasure and enchantment.

That’s probably why one of the ultimate challenges, the Mount Everest climb, has become top of the bucket list for a few. Five hundred people reached the summit in 2012 and it’s a popular corporate bonding exercise to have executives train for the base camps.  But the April 18 2014 avalanche that killed 16 Nepalese guides drew attention to the potential ecological ramifications of the trek’s popularity and the poor conditions under which the Sherpas toil.

I’ve been on tours with people who are quite literally working off a list, ticking off destinations and experiences, and then comparing them with friends back home, sort of like a leisurely Great Race. Ride a gondola in Venice. Tick. The top of the Eiffel Tower. Tick. This seems remarkably organised. But for me, being focussed on ticking off one item might blind me to a richer experience just around the corner.

I’m a believer in the proposition, ‘life is what happens when you’re making other plans.’ One of the most thrilling experiences I’ve had, one that I’d recommend for any bucket list, is a morning walk in the dunes of Arabia’s Empty Quarter as the sun rises and changes the colour of the sand from mauve to apricot. Trekking through desert was never an ambition until I found myself there as an unplanned side excursion. If I had have been fixated on another experience, I might never have made that detour.

So I don’t have a bucket list. It’s more like a bucket post-it note, with a couple of objectives on it. I could probably sit down and write a list of all the places I’d love to see and adventures I’d love to have and it would make three volumes. But seeing all of them or even most of them in this short life is a task doomed to failure.

The ultimate journey may in the end be somewhere beyond this world for us, depending upon our beliefs, but in the here and now I’m happy to operate without a list and take life as it comes.




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