People love to talk about bucket lists. We love to think about the things we want to do before we “kick the bucket.” I’m no exception. I have my own “dream big” list of things I’d love to do in this lifetime. In this one wild and precious life, as Mary Oliver called it.
But lately I’ve been thinking about the bucket list concept in a different light. And it just doesn’t work for me anymore. Instead of a bucket list, I’ve been keeping a regret list. Or rather a no-regret list.
Sure, this might sound more melancholy or pessimistic. Some might even say that “no regrets” is on their bucket list. But let me explain the difference.
We all know the concept of a bucket list. We fill them up with things like “visit the Grand Canyon” or “go skydiving,” but then what happens? Do we do these things? Or do they just sit on our internal, mental hard drive, taunting us with each year that passes without crossing them off? And what happens when we do cross things off? Do we feel some kind of huge satisfaction, like our life had more meaning? Maybe. Sometimes. But not always.
The trouble, as I see it, is that we’ve been thinking of bucket lists all wrong. “We think we make bucket lists to ward off regret, but really they help us ward off death,” Lori Gottlieb wrote in her memoir “Maybe You Should Talk to Someone” (a really insightful book, but I digress). I hadn’t heard it put this way before, but I think it makes perfect sense. We fill our bucket lists with wild and amazing things, in part, to give our lives meaning, to stretch them out and fill them up – regardless of whether we do these things or not.
“The longer our bucket lists are, the more time we imagine we have left to accomplish everything on them. Cutting the list down, however, makes a tiny dent in our denial systems, forcing us to acknowledge a sobering truth: Life has a 100 percent mortality rate.”
Well, shit. But also, spot on.
I don’t want to live the rest of my life filling up a bucket list of things that I may or may not actually accomplish. I want to spend my life doing things that matter – to me and to others. Which is why I abandoned the concept of a bucket list, in favor of a regret list. In other words, instead of asking “what do I want to do before I die?,” I’ve been asking myself, “what will I regret not doing while I’m alive?”
For instance, I’d love to visit Iceland and Thailand and Russia. These are things that I would have had on my bucket list. But will I regret not doing them? Probably not.
What will I regret not doing? Spending time with family, traveling, making the difference in the life of a child. Those are the kinds of things I’ll regret.
None of this is to knock the concept of bucket lists. In fact, I love the idea so much that, left unchecked, my own bucket list would probably be a mile long because there is so much I want to do in my “one wild and precious life.” The list would be so full and contradictory that I probably would be overwhelmed into paralysis and do none of them. I need to focus on what really matters to me. Enter: the regrets – or maybe more aptly named, the no regrets — list.
I don’t want to hide behind a list of things I hope to do one day; I want to actually do things that matter. And to do that, I’ve found that thinking about potential regrets – however morbid or pessimistic that might seem – is the way for me to do it.