Apr 18, 2022

Why You Should Ditch the Bucket List

Why You Should Ditch the Bucket List

Why You Should Ditch the Bucket List

Nathan King

The "Bucket List" has become a popular concept to make life more meaningful. But unfortunately, it misses the point.

People declare faraway, exotic, exciting places as items on their bucket list. These places are the most desired places to see in life. They visit them, later reporting to friends that they "did" the Louvre, or the Grand Canyon, or Angkor Wat. But what does it mean "to do" a place?

The Bucket List reveals the frenetic, splintered spirit of our age: cram your life full of as much excitement as you can. It turns even the experience of awe and inspiration into transactions amongst the other items on your to-do list:

Bucket list items are just tasks.

But life's meaning comes from something other than checking boxes. The richest activities derive their value from being, not from doing. We need both kinds of activities, but we can easily tilt in too far of a certain direction. Author Oliver Burkeman points out in Four Thousand Weeks the benefit of separating activities in two categories:

  1. Telic Activities - "telos", from Greek, means "ultimate aim." These are activities with a clear outcome. You paint your house. You sell 20% more product this year than last year.

  2. Atelic Activities - the opposite of an activity with an ultimate aim. You take your wife to dinner to...be with her. You meditate. You take a walk in the woods.

Powered by the Bucket List, our mindset turns the experience of being into a purely "telos" driven concept, where even the most glorious places become transactions to do.

There is a better way to experience a new place.

18th century English poet William Wordsworth offers an example. He wrote a poem of his visit to Tintern Abbey, a ruin of a medieval abbey that lies in the lush countryside of southeastern Wales (a place that is no doubt on many bucket lists!). His poem reflects on the two visits he made to the place – which is striking in and of itself since bucket list items are usually one-and-done.

His poem illustrates an atelic activity. A meditative reflection, it unites the second visit with the first. His visit:

  1. Reminded him that his first visit to the place had helped him in the years that followed during times of weariness. It had given him comfort, and he pondered that it had helped him to show others small kindnesses that he otherwise wouldn't have.

  2. Expanded his perspective, helping him to see how all of life fit together.

  3. Revealed to him how much he had matured in the intervening years between the visits.

  4. Made him grateful for his life, and in particular, a loved one (his sister).

He didn't "do" Tintern Abbey. He visited a place and stopped to let the experience shape him. His experience inspired him to use his gift of writing. The result was a poem which is still read, over two hundred years later.

Intriguingly, the atelic activity of visiting a place more than once – pondering it, contemplating his own life in light of what he experienced there – had the bigger impact on his life, eventually reaching others as a poem.

This is the value of visiting beautiful and, compared to our own worlds, often strange and mysterious spaces. To interact with them, to let our experience reflect off of them, to learn about ourselves, and our humanity.

But we skim when we reduce the natural and historical marvels of the world and humanity to something like a stamp collection.

Ditch the Bucket List. Go visit a single place. Savor it. Explore it. Explore yourself in it. Let it summon your own gifts to contribute to those in your life. Go back to it again and see how you've been shaped by it.




I help leaders and teams achieve clarity and alignment so they can reach their potential


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