The life-changing magic of a bucket list

The great thing about bucket lists is that they change and grow with us. What’s on your list?

  • Oct 20, 2021
  • 934 words
  • 4 minutes
Travel goals don’t have to be complicated or grandiose; they could be something as simple as “hike in the Rockies.” (Photo: Ryan Legroulx/Can Geo Photo Club)
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The Bucket List is a 2007 film about two men with terminal illness who create a list of things they want to see and do before they kick the bucket. Morgan Freeman brings his trademark gravitas, Jack Nicholson his quirky personality, and armed with unlimited resources thanks to a handy plot device, they embark on a bittersweet journey around the world that will leave many viewers in tears. Film critics were less impressed, giving the film a 41 per cent rotten review on Rotten Tomatoes, calling it “uninspired,” “manipulative,” “lazy and condescending,” and a “garden of schmaltz.” While it failed to blow away the box office or sweep any awards, The Bucket List’s “cereal-packet philosophy” had a more profound impact. 

The movie perfectly captured a powerful and universal human desire that transcends age, culture, language, status, or class. We know that everyone, everywhere, feels a pressing urge to accomplish life goals. Thanks to screenwriter Justin Zackham, this urge finally found an unlikely moniker, which quickly spread beyond the screen. In little less than a decade, I could travel from the Arctic to Zanzibar and most people I’d meet knew what a bucket list is. Never underestimate the power of the right corny catchphrase at the right time.

Any self-help book will tell you that identifying your goals is a crucial step in helping you actually achieve them. Simply writing down your dreams can be a positive and meaningful exercise. I ask people what’s on their bucket list all the time, and the replies can be ambitious, silly, whimsical, or as simple as building a garden shed. As with your travel choices, creating a list of life goals is a deeply personal affair, and nobody has the right to judge it. Trying to keep up with Instagrammers, celebrities or neighbours across the street is the fastest way to end up disappointed, bitter, entitled, and deflated. The great irony of our hedonistic rat race is that there are no winners, because we all reach the end, and you can’t take your prizes, accolades or experiences with you.  

During their ambitious journey, Nicholson and Freeman realize there’s more to ticking off one’s dreams than they’d initially anticipated. Along with the audience, they learn that a bucket list must include the quality of the people we connect with; the positive impact we have on our environment; the love we give and receive; and the inner peace we discover as a result. Nicholson begrudgingly discovers that “kissing the most beautiful girl in the world” is not about dating supermodels. It’s about having a meaningful connection with his granddaughter. 

In my travels to over 100 countries on seven continents, I’ve had the remarkable good fortune to tick off my bucket list professionally. Take it from me: when you fulfill a lifelong dream, no confetti fall from the sky, and nobody gets a congratulatory street parade. You do that thing you’ve always wanted to do, and voila, there you are. Accomplished, elated … and already thinking about your next dream. Bucket lists are like whack-a-mole: tick one item off the top and three more pop up at the bottom.

Trying to keep up with Instagrammers, celebrities or neighbours across the street is the fastest way to end up disappointed, bitter, entitled, and deflated. The great irony of our hedonistic rat race is that there are no winners, because we all reach the end, and you can’t take your prizes, accolades or experiences with you.  

The Bucket List’s cultural explosion has been ubiquitous to the point of cliché. Lately we hear about the anti-bucket list backlash, because who needs the pressure of big dreams we can never fulfill? Nobody wants to stew in disappointment, and so this resentment is understandable. This is why it’s crucial to ground a bucket list list in reality, aspiring to experiences that are achievable and attainable. No space-walking or becoming a movie star; no racing Formula 1 cars; or winning the Noble Prize. All of which would certainly be splendid, but how about: “Take my partner to Quebec City,” “Learn how to ski,” “hike in the Rockies” or “see the Northern Lights.” Beneath every dream lies the concrete steps necessary to make it come true. Bucket lists shouldn’t sink your aspirations, they should propel you forward with just the right amount of forward thinking, planning, and subtle pressure to remind us that we’re not getting any younger. Still, it’s a personal exercise you can always abandon the moment it stops being fun. 

A bucket list is also not written in stone. As I’ve grown from a backpacker to a father of two, my travel goals have evolved, transformed, stretched and adapted to new realities. COVID has been a stark reminder of just how much we take travel for granted, and that we don’t have nearly as much time as think. What’s more, we’ve been forced to focus our bucket lists towards local experiences, and as a result we’ve discovered wonderful new places and activities.   Humans are masters when it comes to adapting, rationalizing, and finding the silver lining. As in travel, as in life.   

Towards the end of The Bucket List, Freeman challenges a stubborn Nicholson to make amends with his estranged daughter. Nicholson wants to do it, and dreams of doing it, but he’s hung up with fears and excuses and the “one days.” One day! One day? One day. As the film’s moral centre, Freeman challenges Nicholson to just do it, and in doing so he challenges us too.  “Well,” says Freeman, “what are you waiting for?”

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