Hike the Pacific Crest Trail. Visit Stonehenge on the solstice. Drink the sourtoe cocktail. Everyone has a list of things they want to do before they die, if time and money were no object. In the zeitgeist, this became a “list of things I want to do before I kick the bucket,” then Bucket List.
I’m here to convince you that a Bucket List is not the frame you need to make the most out of your life. Try building an Opportunity Map instead.
The Bucket List Problem
On the face of it, having a Bucket List seems like a great idea. Why not think about what you really want from your life and then commit to making these things happen? And some people are, indeed, really good at getting through their list. But it turns out, they are in the minority.
Although most of us have a Bucket List (95 percent of people surveyed by a senior living community), 21 percent change their bucket list at least once a month and we all have excuses for not getting through it. And they’re good ones! Finances (57 percent), a lack of time (14 percent), family responsibilities (11 percent). It turns out that time and money are objects after all.
Travel blogger Michael Goldstein says having a Bucket List frames globetrotting the wrong way and might even encourage people to put it off for later in life, hoping they’ll have time in retirement.
“Travel should be about life, getting out of one’s cocoon, seeing new things, meeting new people, eating new foods, etc,” he wrote for Forbes. “Bucket List marketing makes travel seem like an obligation to get through and then, mercifully, die. If I don’t make it to Angkor Wat while still ambulatory, on my deathbed will I regret not checking it off my Bucket List?”
Philosopher and writer Oliver Burkeman went even further, writing that fixating on a Bucket List meant we were missing out on the very experiences we sought.
“It’s only by accepting our finitude that we can step into a truly authentic relationship with life,” The Guardian quoted from his book Four Thousand Weeks, which represents a westerner’s life expectancy. “Once you truly understand that you’re guaranteed to miss out on almost every experience the world has to offer, the fact that there are so many you still haven’t experienced stops feeling like a problem.”
What is an Opportunity Map?
For decades now, I’ve been keeping a file on places I find interesting. At first, it was a paper map of my hometown with post-its and flyers sticking out of the pages. When Foursquare popped up, I moved it to a digital format. These days, it lives in an overlapping matrix of collections in Google Maps that I can search or navigate by theme. I call it my Opportunity Map. Lazy Southern rivers I want to kayak? You bet. Best columnar basalt cliffs of the Oregon High Desert? I got you, boo.
Somewhere on these maps are Bucket List items, for sure. For example, I will soon have visited every standing shot tower in the USA. But the Opportunity Map really comes into its own when I am going somewhere for another reason and I want to know what’s around. When my work sends me to Charleston for a meeting, I can see the barbecue place where my friend recommended the brisket. When I have a choice of highways going south out of the Black Hills, you can bet I’ll be driving via the Toadstools in the Oglala National Grassland.
One of my most developed maps is not for exotic locales but the city I live in and it has 114 pins—places to eat, handsome trees, public artworks, historical buildings I heard about from a friend. There’s nothing special about it and that’s what makes it magical. I can pull up my location on Google Maps anywhere in this city and find out if something interesting is within walking distance. It helps me explore my city and maximize my joy. And often en route I’ll discover something else cool—a street tree heavy with pears or a horse ring affixed with My Little Ponies—that goes in the map for next time!
You Can Still Make Plans
All of this is not to say that I recommend you go through life without any idea of what you want to do with it. But a Bucket List is not a plan. In some ways, it might be its opposite. If you want to get arrested at your 100th birthday party, you have to call the local cop shop and ask nicely.
It’s not what’s on your list that matters but what you’re doing to make it happen. In the meantime, if you build your own Opportunity Map and you might find the experiences you’re looking for are right under your nose.