The case for bucket lists: a reflection on Kel Rossiter’s op-ed

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Last week an op-ed by Kel Rossiter came out in The Seattle Times, titled “The case against bucket lists.” He’s against bucket lists as he sees most people pursuing¬†them, with his main points being that bucket lists…

  • should be only for people imminently kicking the bucket
  • define and confine us by
    • encouraging people to collect experiences as objects
    • being¬†used like activity resumes for¬†social status

His solution was that bucket lists shouldn’t be a list of things to get through but “a list of things that truly, deeply and authentically inspire us. Let our list be about what we want to do, see, accomplish and learn while we are alive.¬†Beyond define, beyond confine, let our lists liberate us.”

While I react rather defensively to his title and the tone throughout the article, I mostly agree with it (though not the imminently dying part).

So let’s talk about the death issue¬†first. It’s not a topic many people like to talk about. In fact, even saying I have a bucket list makes some people uncomfortable because it reminds them of death.

As far as I know, my death isn’t going to happen any second now.¬†However, I’m aware (as many people are) that death is a daily possibility.¬†I’ve had experiences¬†with the deaths of friends and family members,¬†and I know several people with chronic life-threatening diseases. I also have friends from around the country and the world who live or grew up in circumstances where at any moment, increasingly common¬†violent acts¬†end lives.

Because death is a reality, whether or not I have a doctor saying I’ll die soon, it makes sense to me to appreciate every moment and make the most of the time I’m given, no matter how long it is (I think Kel and I agree on this).

My bucket list (and the retrospective list) help me appreciate many of¬†the things I’ve been able to do, see, and experience, and to remember the people and stories around those events. However, Kel argues that this isn’t the case for most people, that instead of appreciation, it generates¬†“a checklist of accomplishments that can be rattled off at a cocktail party.”

He writes:

“when we begin to view experiences […] as material objects to be placed in a bucket, something of the experience itself dies. Just as you can‚Äôt put water in a bucket and call it a river, you can‚Äôt put experiences in a bucket and call it life.”

I agree, but based on the people I know, I don’t have the sense that bucket lists cause this type of thinking. Apparently, the bucket list people he meets¬†are very¬†different from those I meet. Those I know (and me too)¬†don’t approach list items as one-and-done collectibles. It’s not saying you “did Seattle” because you went to the Space Needle, Pike Place Market, and drank coffee at the original Starbucks. It’s not doing an activity¬†just for the sake of crossing it off the list because it’s one more¬†thing¬†to brag about.

Yes, sometimes you do things on the list and never do them again, for a variety of reasons. For example, racquetball was on my list (added after I met a few people who really enjoyed it and I thought it might be a good experience). I tried it¬†once, to see what it was like, and¬†I¬†never plan on playing again, because I really didn’t like it. But that’s the same¬†the approach I use when deciding to pursue¬†recreational activities whether they’re on my list or not.

Perhaps that’s the difference – the bucket list shouldn’t be a¬†checklist of things that’s separate from our¬†regular lives yet¬†somehow still represents “truly living.” Instead, it should be¬†a part of enjoying¬†“the liberating world of play,” as Ken writes, “that¬†captures the individual imagination”¬†and inspires personal growth.

I’ve had people scoff at my list because I include so many “little things” like riding in a convertible, learning to flip/twirl a pen around my fingers, or eating in a restaurant on my own. It seems to me that those are the people that Kel is upset with, the¬†flashy goal-gathering achievers¬†that value only big accomplishments rather than celebrate daily experiences.

My list contains both big and small goals, and only the goals¬†that truly spark something in my mind make it to my¬†list, regardless of whether¬†they’re things other people think should be on there. Despite having this public goal list blog, my list is really¬†only¬†for me. It helps me remember the things I want to do and to keep focused on¬†making the most of the days I have, instead of wasting time on social media or video games.

Online, I use my blog¬†as¬†a place to¬†write regularly, which is my most-loved hobby, and as a way to inspire other people to achieve their dreams.¬†In real life, while I talk about my list often, it’s usually (I’m not perfect) because I want to¬†find common ground to¬†start a conversation (we all have dreams and things we want to do, whether¬†or not we have it in an official¬†list).

My list has helped me become more confident, more open to other people, and less afraid of new experiences. When I talk with other people pursuing life goals in a similar way, they tell me about experiences that have also challenged and developed them as people.

There’s a driving force¬†in all of us, something that pushes us¬†to want to experience more, and more deeply. Kept within healthy boundaries, this doesn’t¬†prevent us from¬†experiencing life as¬†it’s happening, but can help us to¬†live inspired and intentional¬†lives, not for bragging rights, but for personal growth, as Kel encourages.

So he’s not really making a case against bucket lists as the title claims. He’s¬†just cautioning us¬†to make sure it doesn’t become the end goal itself,¬†or get in the way of what’s really important. And that’s definitely something¬†we can agree on.

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