Why I decided to beef up my bucket list (and stop hiding from failure)

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold…

–W.B. Yeats

Staring at the sea makes it surprisingly easy to think. A few weeks ago, while sitting on one of Guam’s beautiful beaches, I started thinking about all the stuff I’ve done in the past few years–incredibly improbable things that happened, blessings and weird things like marriage and finishing college and friends and Pacific islands. A lot of it is more or less documented on my own bucket list, which is full of the kind of feel-good things that lend a bit of inner satisfaction every time I cross something off.

Scuba diving.



Road trip from West coast to East.

In my situation, the biggest challenge associated with all those things was financial, not personal. I’ve never been deathly afraid of heights, for example, so skydiving wasn’t a huge milestone for me in that sense. So many of my crossed-off items are more a collection of spectacular, unforgettable memories than real accomplishments.

For many bucket list items, all you need is the right location or the right amount of money or the right friend to go along for the adventure. The problem with my bucket list? Not many things on it actually require work or perseverance. The ones that do are also the easiest to put on hold.

A Google search for “bucket list” yields 155 million results. On BucketList.org, you can make your own life to-do list, sort each item, collaborate with friends, and find inspiration from the bucket lists of others from around the world. What’s trending on their front page today:

BucketList.org Screenshot

Have a mud fight. Try a fried Snickers. Travel. Fly a kite. These are the trending “goals.” They’re whimsical and fun. They sound like just the kind of thing we need more of–acting like a kid a bit more, getting out of our box a bit, doing something just for us

In case you don’t know what to do with your life, Yahoo Answers has tons  of suggestions for your bucket list, from “eat the hottest pepper in the world” to “party on a yacht,” “dye your hair green,” “try weed,” and “make mistakes.”

At some point, our culture’s life goals become reduced to a list of the whimsical or the exotic or the taboo things we find fascinating. It’s like we’re stewing a bouillabaisse of our own boredom and then daring one another to take a sip.

A relatively new (but powerful) movement thumbs its nose at generations past who worked toward specific goals and instead embraces the anti-goal: the theory that making goals at all only hurts us in the end and prevents us from enjoying life to its fullest. 

Screen Shot 2014-02-14 at 4.50.28 PMSuddenly, it’s much more popular–and much more zen–to be as anti-goal as possible (like the author of the article from which the above quote was taken). After all, if we’re persevering for something in the future, we could miss the chance to eat a deep-fried Snickers in the now. Heaven forbid.

We scoff at the few individuals who still make New Year’s Resolutions. We’re up-to-date enough to know that making resolutions never works anyway.

There are countless articles out there published in everything from Psychology Today to various scientific journals outlining all the reasons we should stay far, far away from the dangerous trap of goal-making. Why?

The inherent problem with goal setting is related to how the brain works. Recent neuroscience research shows the brain works in a protective way, resistant to change. Therefore, any goals that require substantial behavioral change or thinking-pattern change will automatically be resisted. The brain is wired to seek rewards and avoid pain or discomfort, including fear.

–Ray Williams, “Why Goal Setting Doesn’t Work

Williams says that because (a.) goals require life change and (b.) change makes us uncomfortable,  (c.) goals are inherently demotivating and should be avoided. Using this type of logic, it would follow that we should avoid change as much as possible because of the psychological distress it causes us.

And Williams isn’t the only psychologist to take this view:

The optimally striving individual ought to endeavor to achieve and approach goals that only slightly implicate the self; that are only moderately important, fairly easy, and moderately abstract.

–L.A. King and C.M. Burton

This last statement was published by the American Psychological Association in an article titled “The Hazards of Goal Pursuit.

We shouldn’t make goals, experts say, because we could fail. And that would be bad for our self-esteem. It seems that the “optimally striving individual” shouldn’t strive at all.

So we make goals like “fly a kite” and “get a tattoo on my butt,” because we’re still kind of driven to accomplish something, as long as it doesn’t implicate ourselves in anything important or difficult. Any more direct or specific an implication could lead to failure, which is a potentially devastating power against our psyche.

I’m all for living and spending each moment purposefully. But there’s got to be more to purposeful living than having mud fights, taking a vacation to India, or jumping out of airplanes–which seems to be where Culture at Large is telling us the meaning in life is to be found. In ourselves. When we do things that bring out the kid (or the rebel) in us.

There’s a lot to be said for that kind of living. Sometimes I go for long walks in the pouring rain just so I can jump in the mud puddles along the way. Sometimes those are the moments that make life beautiful. But by themselves, taken to an extreme, they’re the moments of a child’s life–a childlike happiness rooted in a single moment and nothing else.

Is sheltering ourselves in failure-proofed rooms full of fried Snickers worth it? I don’t know about you, but I like to think my psyche’s a little tougher than the American Psychological Association gives it credit for.


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