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How often do you realize the problems associated with a bucket list?

Today is August 30 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often do you realize the problems associated with a bucket list?” A May 2018 Stanford University School of Medicine survey of 3,056 people found 91% of them had a bucket list — things they want to do before they die. Upon reflection, however, the whole idea of a bucket list is a bit disheartening.

As with each of the Navigate the Chaos posts, the answers, choices, and decisions involved with the day’s reflection are you own. Therefore, if you wish to have a bucket list, by all means do so. If you have one, or create such an aspirational list, however, today’s reflection should help you understand the related issues. Do realize, however, that jumping out of an airplane, a task often found on a bucket list, will most likely not help you navigate the chaos in other areas of your life.

In her August 28, 2021, New York Times editorial "One Thing I Don't Plan to Do Before I Die Is Make A Bucket List," Dr. Kate Bowler, an associate professor at Duke Divinity School wrote “The problem with aspirational lists, of course, is that they often skip the point entirely. Instead of helping us grapple with our finitude, they approximate infinity. They imply that with unlimited time and resources, we can do anything, be anyone. We can become more adventurous by jumping out of airplanes, more traveled by visiting every continent, or more cultured by reading the most famous books of all time. With the right list, we will never starve with the hunger of want.” Herein lies the first problem with a bucket list. As Bowler succinctly noted “they approximate infinity.” The list is never ending. But our lives are. The first problem with having a bucket list is that it fails to help us grapple with our own death.

Writing with a diagnosis of stage IV cancer, Bowler described how a bucket list “disguises a dark question as a challenge: What do you want to do before you die? We all want, in the words of Henry David Thoreau, ‘to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.’ But is the answer to that desire a set of experiences? Should we really focus on how many moments we can collect?” Noting the nuance associated with a bucket list, Bowler acknowledged “it is much easier to count items than to know what counts.” Therein lies the second problem with bucket lists. What exactly do you put on such a list?

In his February 18, 2020, blog post "Your Bucket List Isn't Worth a Dime," Jonathan Look wrote “When I retired from my job as an air traffic controller at 50 a decade ago, and began my globetrotting travel adventures, I never imagined the things I would be able to do and witness. None of them were on a bucket list, but I’m profoundly grateful that I’ve experienced them. By opening my mind to what was possible and willingly operating outside my comfort zone, new experiences and opportunities began flooding in. Sure, I had some things I wanted to do. But after a somewhat structured life, my motivation was to live life more free-form and not limit my experiences in deference to a pre-set list. In truth, I am very fortunate not to have accomplished some of my more youthful bucket-list items. I would probably still be paying the price for them, and possibly the bills.”

Look highlights the third problem with a bucket list – your ability to seize the moment and consider doing something previously unimagined, and certainly not on your bucket list. While a bucket list may help one focus, it also has the double-edge sword of restricting one’s movement so much they fail to see a new opportunity. The backstory of Vinny Marciano illustrates such a lesson.

Marciano was one of America’s best young swimmers and, as a high school freshman, won New Jersey’s 100-yard freestyle championship and missed the U.S. Olympic trials by just 0.27 seconds in the 100-meter backstroke. He was a prodigy, mentioned in the same breath as Michael Phelps. For elite athletes, however, winning can become an “anchor around their neck sometimes” as David W. Chen wrote in "Into the Mist," an August 23, 2021, New York Times article.

With an identity often “indistinguishable from their accomplishments,” Chen discussed how elite athletes “may feel burdened by the expectation that they will always do more, more, more. What if they harbored a secret desire to stop, and wanted to start anew?” That’s exactly what happened to Marciano as he trained for the Olympics.

On a visit to Zion National Park with his father, Marciano became mesmerized by people climbing walls and buttresses. He has been climbing ever since. If he stayed a swimmer Marciano said he “saw a never-ending ladder — no matter what I did, there was always going to be something I was expected to achieve.” In other words, his bucket list would have consisted solely of swimming items: win a national championship, win a world championship, and win one, two, or more Olympic gold medals.

  • Are you so busy trying to check off to-do items on your bucket list you have ignored your own demise?

  • How did you decide what to put on the list and have you added/subtracted from the list over time?

  • Has the pursuit of crossing off items on your list interfered with your ability to seize the moment and do something previously unimagined?

  • How often do you see the problems associated with a bucket list?

  • Do you feel as though something like jumping out of an airplane, often found on a bucket list, makes you a better person than those who do not jump out of a plane?


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