How to Write a Philosophical Bucket-list

Recently I had a crack at writing at a bucket-list: that defining list of things that you must do before you “kick the bucket”. I don’t know why it occurred to me to do this. Perhaps I’m dying and only three neurons in my hippocampus have yet noticed. Either way I think I messed it up. Majorly.

You see, I looked at other people’s lists for inspiration. Loud as a gong my mistake became clear. “Oh no!” I said. “What have I done?!”

You see, I’d written Become wise; they’d all written Go scuba diving.

Gosh! Dang! Jeepers!

Am I wasting my life? What am I doing?

Trying to live wisely, apparently. That’s according to my half-assed never-to-be-finished scuba-free bucket-list anyway. So let’s have a crack at that. Wisdom. And bucket-lists.

Why are bucket-lists so full of trivial crap? This crap is supposed to be the crap you must do before the Grim Reaper pops over for dinner and death. Yet 99% of bucket lists contain the following: write a novel,  learn a language, travel the world, and run a marathon.


Marathons must be pretty bloody amazing.

These bucket-list cliches are all nice. Yay for you. You went for a run. Good one. Nice.

But do you want a nice life? Or a meaningful life? Because all these cliche goals, this menagerie of the nice,  does have a certain meaning. They are the expressions of a certain philosophy – a poorly thought through philosophy.

The typical bucket-list philosophy is this:

  • juvenile hedonism,
  • drive-by altruism,
  • mushy sentimentality,
  • and rub-the-Jone’s-face-in-my-glory one-upmanship.

It’s the life philosophy of a Facebook photo. Look at me. I shook the president’s hand. I’m so cool. Now I can die.

Jeepers! Dang! Gosh!

This all got me thinking. What would a philosophically sound bucket-list look like? Here’s some thoughts.

First, the over-riding motivator behind bucket-lists is this idea about “living life to the full”, whatever that means. As a result recommended items include:

  • Jump in a puddle,
  • See a sunrise,
  • And watch the clouds go by.

This is nonsense! Do you really plan on watching a sunrise only once in your life? Are you a vampire who wants to go out with a bang?


Living life to the full is not for bucket-lists. It’s a habit. You do it everyday. You see a puddle. You jump in it. Life lived.

Second, although typical bucket-lists are insipid, they do allow you to see the classes of activity you can do in life. Here’s ten rough categories to help spur your imagination:

  • Becoming: change your character.
  • Learning: gain knowledge or skills.
  • Experiencing: see, touch, hear, lick it for yourself.
  • Achieving: succeed at some prestigious project.
  • Creating: make something.
  • Acquiring: get stuff.
  • Helping: make life better for other Earthlings you know.
  • Changing: make a difference in the world.
  • Locations: be somewhere.
  • Relationships: make and shape social bonds.

Pick items from each class. That way your bucket-list is more than just a bloody road-trip itinerary.

Third, please-please-please know why you are adding an item to the list. Do you really want to run a marathon? Or does that just sound cool? Item #1 on your list should be this: figure out what matters in life. Nothing else makes it on the list until you’ve answered that question.

Fourth, choose goals that take time. Seeing the Eiffel Tower can, technically, be achieved in 0.01 of a second. How is life any better for that?

In contrast, becoming fluent in French will take you a lifetime. You will soak in the language. You will be changed by the language. You’ll have to go to France anyway. Remember – these are things worth doing. They are worth taking some time. So, even if you simply must see Gustave Eiffel’s pile o’ steel, then at least do this: draw a picture of it. You will be forced to stop, slow down, and be changed.

Fifth, be careful with random trivial goals. They risk sucking the meaning from the entire enterprise. Instead give your list structure. Begin writing the grand and noble, then work down to the small and trivial. Let the lesser serve the greater. For example:

  1. Be as psychologically healthy as humanly possible
  2. learn meditation
  3. visit a Buddhist temple

Each goal flows one from the other. The otherwise trivial YOLO goal of getting selfies with a bald monk is given meaning by being part of a series of greater goals. The trivial is lifted to greatness, rather than the great  brought down to triviality.

Lastly, you might want to consider calling this list something other than a bucket-list. As soon as you say “I have a bucket-list.” you’re going to get asked, “So when are you going scuba diving?”

More troublesome, the “kick the bucket” idiom comes from either slaughtering pigs, or maybe from committing suicide. Yeah. Grim. Nihilistic gallows humor isn’t a great start for finding meaning in life.

I prefer the image of a list of plot points. Imagine you are writing a novel. Look at the main character. Certain things need to happen to this person. What  must they learn? How must they change? Where must they go? For the story to make sense – to have meaning – each question must be answered. Each answer must be brought to fruition. Otherwise the story will be incomplete. You just couldn’t kill off the main character yet.

Finish their story, then they can die.

Stories are how we make meaning of events. Life is a story we tell ourselves. So then, what are your plot points? What must happen for your tale to be complete? And yes, it can include scuba diving.






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