The Tyranny of the Bucket List

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My alarm went off at 3.30am. I got dressed and went out and tagged along with the procession of half-asleep travellers crowded into tuk-tuks or furiously pedalling unlit hire bikes through the crepuscular gloom.  At Angkor Wat, the hawkers were patrolling the car park with torches,

“You wan’ coffee-breakfast?”

“Not now, thanks.”

I joined the concert crowd assembling in front of the temple and sat and waited with increasing impatience for an hour or so until the sun struggled over the horizon. Is that it? I thought and went to get coffee-breakfast.

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It occurred to me later that I had seen dozens of landmarks, just as iconic, but had never before felt the need to get up in the middle of the night and watch the sun rise behind them. But it had never before been a Thing You Must Do before You Die.

It is always a must: a sternly-worded injunction, a must try … do not miss … essential … cannot leave without: never a friendly, you could do this if you want. It is like working for a manager proud of being difficult.

I have been white water rafting, but that was in Thailand which doesn’t seem to count. You have to raft the Lower Zambezi or nothing. I have been to Ibiza several times – I was there for the openings once – but I have never been to a closing party, and that is all the authors of bucket lists recognise. I am not doing very well.

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I have no chance of getting to all of the 1000 places in Patricia Schultz’s book, especially if I have to find time to read the 1001 books and see the 1001 movies listed in the Quintessence Editions. And I have not even looked at 1001 Foods You Must Taste Before You Before You Die. There are still things outstanding which I should have done before I was 25.

Come to think of it, though, it is hard to see how any one person will ever do all the things which routinely appear on bucket lists. The sort who dream of making a million, meeting the president and having things named after themselves are never going to live out of a van.

Someone putting in the work to get a book published and have an artwork in an exhibition, while becoming fluent in a foreign language, inventing something and running his or her own business, will not have the time to visit every country in the world. He or she will be hard pressed to fit in milking a cow and skinny dipping at midnight.

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In truth, I am not fussed if I never see A Clockwork Orange, and I have wrestled with Finnegans Wake before and been beaten and I am not likely to try again, and while I had the chance to go to the Golden Triangle when I was in Southeast Asia, I decided not to bother.

I have no intention of doing a runner from a fancy restaurant, I am happy to pay for my food; and I certainly do not want to get arrested. I cannot see the point of shouting “the drinks are on me” in a crowded bar, even if (which I don’t) you have pots of money; and I am not sure there is anything to forgive my parents for.

There are, as well, a load of things I have done and want to do which I have never seen on any bucket list but which will stay in my memory long after that early morning at Angkor Wat has faded.

So when I went to Peru and they told me I had to see Machu Picchu at sunrise, I ignored them and spent longer in bed.

(c) Richard Senior 2014

214 thoughts on “The Tyranny of the Bucket List

  1. I agree. I used to feel pressured to check off the bucket list items, and would feel guilty if I was in a certain place and missed a popular bucket list item. Now I just use published bucket lists to get good ideas, but I don’t feel obligated to try to complete all the tasks. Everyone has different preferences and should pursue the activities that interest them, and not worry about the activities that they have to do.

  2. A very interesting post. I agree with you totally. Bucket lists are becoming fashionable statements and over rated. The purpose seems to be to flaunt and make the others insanely jealous. I wonder how many of them get up to watch a sunrise from their backyard. A sunrise is a sunrise – with all its splendor and glory.

  3. What a fantastic post! I hate when people say “you haven’t lived till I’ve tried / done..”. I have been loved by my family, I have laughed so hard that I’ve fallen out of my chair, I have eaten delicious food, I have traveled when it could be afforded and enjoyed my home when it wasn’t. I’ve already begun living and it didn’t take a single monument or tourist trap.

  4. I like that last bit about having a load of things that aren’t any of the popular, seemingly mandated must-do stuff.

    The Machu Picchu is on my list for next year’s— hmmm, goals. I used to have a bucket list with items that never saw the light of day. Perhaps it’s just that this list has been so trivialized and commercialized nowadays that we have lost the sense of wonder attached to it. It’s just about ticking stuff off a to-do list. Or that it simply is a bourgeois concept from the outset. Bottom line: I won’t subscribe to it next year. I will just have to keep fulfilling my goals, though. Big, hairy, audacious ones. And then I will remember the moments that happen between me plotting and then achieving them.

  5. I enjoy traveling and seeing the world. I indeed have a bucket list which consists of things I really want to do. My list doesn’t change very much because it stems from my childhood. Of course, I’m open to new experiences, and the since I’m a photographer, I would have risen just to see the sunrise. But I already fancy sunrises. I’m sure my sister wouldn’t have done it, because that’s not her thing.
    Overall, I think that having a bucket list comes from within. People can highly recommend many things, but in the end the decision is mine.

  6. An amazing post, i live on board a ship and work for a cruise line, in the past 12 months i have seen about 46 different places and if i can say one thing is this, “bucket lists” are dumb. If you want to do something go and do it. Its so easy to get caught up in these tourist traps! At the end of the day if u want to go cliff jumping Do it. all in all im agreeing with you lol.

  7. What a great post. I will love to discover the rest of your blog. I would not follow anyone’s bucket list, but i have my own in my head, but taking it slowly the way it comes and ejoying every single “normal” moment too

  8. Excellent call on the extra sleep.

    For me, bucket lists are personal. End of story. What’s on mine, works for me. If you don’t like what’s on my list, well, that’s your problem.

  9. If we think photography, then to be at right time at right place must be noticed. We had no problems to wake up at 3 o’clock in the morning and to drive 537 km / 331 mi in night, thru the snow to reach:

    World’s Biggest Snow Castle.

    If man wants to get experiences, then man wants and acts according them. To us this is easy.

    • Yes that’s one of the reasons my photography is never likely to get to the next level 😉 Sure get up early, stay up late, walk all day, drive all night yo do sonething you really want to do. But I won’t again to do something just because it’s what you’re meant to do

  10. I whole-heartedly agree! I’ve always found these kinds of lists obnoxious (like, why is someone else’s opinion any better than mine???), but you perfectly put into words how I’ve always felt. Why follow a “bucket list”? Why not just go places we each enjoy, take in the sights that we care about, spend time with people we like, and just learn to be happy? That seems so much more important than fulfilling a stranger’s self-imposed list.

  11. A liberating read :-). I find that the only bucket list that makes since is what I need to do in the next 48hours, and when it comes to what I want to check off should i suddenly die in a horrible accident, it mostly seems to revolve around my family :).

  12. I agree completely. Why make going somewhere that is supposed to be a “vacation” stressful. Just enjoy your time where you are and forget the bucket list! 🙂

    • Agreed. I do think people forget sometimes that it’s supposed to be fun. Sure you learn things, and about yourself and your own culture as well as the one you’re a guest in; but it’s still supposed to be fun

  13. This is really interesting!! When I wrote my bucket list I had an idea of things I wanted it to include then I looked on the web for inspiration. I just wrote mine as a hopeless dreamer, and a kind of motivation to do something with my spare time rather than spend hours on the internet. But now I have a blog that is kind of what I do anyway! Interesting post though : )

    • Haha. Yes I think most people have some sort of bucket list, however abstract; and I agree that you can get inspiration from the best of the numerous online bucket lists and similar books. It’s just that there’s a danger of treating them too solemnly

      • I guess to me it is a purpose of having a bucket list, to ‘live’ and not simply ‘exist’.and from that perspective it becomes important to ensure that bucket lists combine an equal amount of making memories through experiencing things and visiting places, as well as spending time with family, friends and people we love.

    • Hey Nathan, and happy new year to you too. I read and liked your post. We’re definitely on the same page on this. I was thinking too about reverse bucket lists – the awesome stuff you’ve done already rather than the stuff you haven’t. I like your image of the guy on his deathbed looking sadly at the list he made in his 20’s.

  14. Well said! Sometimes pursuing the bucket list can leave behind a treasure trove of moments and memories that life is about — while on Maui, one “MUST” see Haleakala at sunrise. We spent the day before driving Hana Highway, which can be draining as driver! Another hours-long, twisty, windy drive the next day, particularly having to get up in the middle of the night to do it …. no thank you, so instead we wandered Up Country, enjoyed the relaxing Kula Lavendar Farm, tasted wine at the winery and had a leisurely lunch — and then looked at each other and decided the clouds were questionable anyway, and SKIPPED the Haleakala Crater altogether. And it was still a great trip, enjoying our stay in the laid back town of Paia. Happy 2015!

  15. Reblogged this on Love, Kayaks, and Bacon and commented:
    This…perfect.
    What you find wonderful is what matters.
    At one point in time, hiking Half Dome was at the top of my “Bucket List.” As I researched it more, I realized that not only is it beautiful but it was also dangerous and at the top of everyone else’s Bucket List as well. That being said, I wanted to do a beautiful and long hike in Yosemite but didn’t have a permit for Half Dome so I googled other hikes and found Cloud’s Rest…resting above Half Dome and 360 degrees of Sierra Nevada snow-covered mountains. It was the most beautiful experience of my life. I marked it off as my “Half Dome.”

  16. Interesting. I never paid too much attention to the “before you die” literature, and had never really made the connection with bucketlists. I’d always seen them as the custom crafted thing that Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson did in that one movie.

    Published lists of any kind are a somewhat interesting thing, are they not? I’m not particularly an existentialist, but I found myself having to go through an existential movie list I’d read off of a blog recently. I have to admit, the movies were quite fun to watch, and though it isn’t my regular watching, I’m glad that in that one instance I did refer to “the list”. As I recall, though, that’s the only list I’d ever taken seriously for whatever reason.

  17. This is a lovely little post. I have my own bucket list but it’s basically just a to do list of dumb shit I think would be fun. These ‘must do or die with eternal regret’ bucket lists are like motivational quotes on tea bags, nothing but a nice think piece forgotten pretty quickly.

  18. I watched an anime with my husband last year in which one of the characters was a mercenary who had become a priest of a future religion. The hymn his congregation was singing had lines in it like “Food is SO good to eat, water is SO good to drink… The ones who win are the ones who enjoyed it!” It brought a smile to my face and I thought, “Here’s a character who gets it.” Or perhaps the sentiment was summed up even better by Bilbo Baggins. “Adventures make one late for dinner.” There’s nothing wrong with an ordinary life. There IS something wrong with not appreciating beauty unless it is bombastic and grandiose.

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