Why you should kick the “bucketlist”

Bucket_list_posterIt’s never been a great idea to plan any aspect of your life around a buzzword popularized by a terrible movie. And Bucket List, starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman as selfish dying strangers who run off in their final days to tackle a handful of testicular-swelling tasks, happens to be a terrible movie. It got panned on its release in 2006, yet it spawned an epidemic of “bucketlists,” apparently changing for good how holiday-going, law-abiding taxpayers plot out the rest of their lives.

Bucketlists are everywhere. If you don’t know how to make one, Google “how to make a bucketlist” and you’ll find 135,000 options of tools or suggested lists to create their own to share and one-up friends’ checklists on Facebook before the monster marmots rise and put an end to us all. Since the film, even the New York Times and Guardian have gotten in the act, with a spike of “bucketlist” refs for everything from “learning to tango” and “being a ref” to “getting a divorce.”

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Bucketlists are travel goals. But who said goals are a good idea?

A funny 2009 Harvard study called “Goals Gone Wild” shows how, at least in the workplace, goals have had negative side effects like corroded relationships, a jump in unethical behavior and (worst of all for travel) a narrowing focus. Writing about it, this New York Times article worries of goals that “rather than enhancing our lives, they can quickly become the entire point.”

Sort of like how too many of the contestants on Amazing Race act like complete asses.

One alternative, as Peter Bregman put it in a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, is to scrap goals altogether and simply build and follow a focus. He wrote, “A goal is a result; an area of focus is a path.” I liked that, particularly for its travel metaphor, so emailed him to see if he felt the same about bucketlists for holidays. He told me that as the traveler understands the point is “the journey” or “pursuing an experience,” and not the goal, it’s fine.

Are we sure that distinction isn’t often lost? I’m not.

An even bigger problem about creating a life’s holiday check-off list is that it’s inherently limited whatever knowledge you have before you set out. At the expense of what you don’t know about a place, or places you hadn’t even heard of yet.

Most people, for example, have heard about the cable cars of San Francisco. If all one wants is to ride one in their life and sing “Rice-a-Roni,” that’s perfectly fine. (And I used to love the ad too.) But know there are better alternatives for seeing San Francisco, like the restored streetcars from the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s that local commuters use on Market Street. Riding one is cheaper and definitely feels more historic, with the driver ringing the bell all the way down to the Castro, where you can catch an Alfred Hitchcock double-feature at the art-deco Castro Theater. It’s a theater to arrive early, so you can see David Hegarty pump out show tunes on an elevated Wurlitzer organ to warm up the local crowd, before clicking a switch to slowly descend before the giant movie screen.

That experience is very San Francisco, and very fun. Even if you’re of the few who don’t sneak in liquor.

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I will never knock someone who’s ill and trying to make the most of limited time. (This bucketlist blog by a 17-year-old who succumbed to cancer in January, is a heartbreaker worth reading.) But I think a “focus,” as Bregman put it, works better for most of us.

I didn’t write a bucketlist when I set out traveling on my own, and if I had, it certainly would have missed on many of what would become my favorites:  cities like Berlin or Montreal (below), regions like the Mekong Delta (above right) and Languedoc-Roussillon, countries like Burma or Colombia.

I did have a consistent focus though — particularly toward unheralded places (for instance I picked Nebraska over the Caribbean for my first guidebook) with a dash of inspiration from rock bands, funny historical failures and college football. Following my interests and instincts got me where travel works best for me: ear to the ground, giddy and wide-eyed, hopeful of helping reverse an unfairly negative perception of a place, perhaps staging a poorly acted reenactment or two, but certainly being open for whatever may come.

And maybe that’s it. Not a bucketlist, but creating something like a “FocusMap.” It’s worked pretty well for me.

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About Robert Reid

Robert Reid is a travel writer (Lonely Planet, New York Times, ESPN), travel expert (Today Show, CNN's Headline News), travel videographer (76-Second Travel Show) and travel artist (don't ask).
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14 Responses to Why you should kick the “bucketlist”

  1. Dana McMahan says:

    I’ve always been too ADD to have a bucket list, and my ideas of what I want to do change from year to year (really, from minute to minute). I like the idea of getting a little more organized with a focus map to make sure I accomplish some things I want to do before I get old and decrepit. Lately I’ve been loving sports adventures on travel – I suppose that could work as a focus! :) Thanks for the food for thought.

  2. Robert Reid says:

    Yes! Sports in general strikes as a perfect approach.

  3. The worst thing about “bucketlist” is that it’s a hideous cliche. The herd mentality in the way we express ourselves makes for bad reading.

    That said, travel goals done right open you to unplanned travel experiences. Chances are, if you don’t have a goal to hike the Tongariro Alpine Crossing (just an example), you won’t just happen to find all sorts of cool stuff on the way there. So the goal brings the spontaneous into play, whether you will it or not. And that’s really what you’re getting at, it seems.

    Thanks for writing a very cool post! Consider me subscribed.

  4. Robert Reid says:

    Dub-Jus, agree. There’s no real right/wrong way of doing it. But it becomes just about a pre-made list, it can be limiting. Plus the film was terrible.

    Thanks for reading.

  5. Deirdre says:

    Most of the times I’ve enjoyed most have been when I found things I did’t already know about, when I was surprised. In Paris I’ve tried to have a picnic in a different pak every couple of days and, as a consequence, found a whole lot of different parts of Paris the I otherwise wouldn’t know about. In Hanoi I tried to find as many lakes as possible; hanoi is way more diverse than I could have imagined. In Istanbul I spent days trying to buy a bath plug and explored all sorts of odd little areas. Actually shopping for some ordinary item is a great way to explore a city. A bucketlist isn’t going to work for me.

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  7. Hannah says:

    I like the idea of an area of focus instead of a bucket list. My sister and I are travelling together in Latin America, mostly with neither plans nor solid goals. As we’re reaching the six-month point, I’m considering writing a blog post on what I want to get out of the next few months, but I don’t think they can be called goals or a bucket list. An area of focus is an excellent way to describe it. Ours so far have included exploring what Latin America can teach us about sustainability, tending toward overland travel and living as locals do rather than flying from city to city, finding opportunities to immerse ourselves in the Spanish language, discovering local food specialties in family-run restaurants and market stalls, and seeking out microbreweries. These aren’t list items to be ticked off and never thought of again, but ongoing projects. I can’t wait to discover what new themes and passions we’ll pursue as our trip progresses! Thanks for your article – you’ve got a new blog follower!

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  9. Tom says:

    I’ve never had a bucket list, per se. Instead, I’ve sort of had this random “that sounds cool” list which I’m doing in no particular order. Usually by “cool” I mean almost anything that exhibits human accomplishment, whatever the culture. So, I guess to fulfill my bucket list, I’m going to have to go almost everywhere. Loved the article. You have a new fan.

  10. thecastleman says:

    I look at bucket lists as a starting point, top level idea, aspiration, location or event to visit in the future. It was a cheesy film!

    Love you idea of a FOCUS and focus map, I tend to list all the places and experiences I would like when visiting an area. In fact with a young family we get the kids to research online and read as much about an area and choice something to do that they would like and we all do it together.

    Visualising this is an easier think to do nowadays with various social media platforms, I also think we can get more from connecting to local experts online, and engaging with them. I use an app called N+OTES to collect links, comments and data for my research. Even with all the planning, when I get to a place, I want to know where the locals go, you see so much more.

    Off to FOCUS on my next trip, map included, love the post Robert.

  11. I completely agree with you, Robert! Great post. I’ve always followed my instincts and interests as well, and it’s worked out well so far.

  12. Bhadz T says:

    Do not let anyone block your way. Go for your happiness. Travel until you are enjoying.

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