The Terrible Truth & Dangers of a Bucket List

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bucket list
Teotihuacan as seen from the Pyramid of the Moon.

The Bucket List Phenomenon

This past weekend I visited Mexico City for the first time. The city had long been on my “Must Visit” list because of the culture and most importantly the ruins of Teotihuacan. Ever since I climbed my first Mayan pyramid in Guatemala, I have been in love with ancient cultures and civilizations.

Over the past decade I have checked off hundreds of places from my list. There were of course iconic sights like the Eiffel Tower and the Great Wall of China and there were heartbreaking places like the Killing Fields of Cambodia, Auschwitz and Anne Frank’s House. The items on my list were/are varied, but they all have one thing in common. They drive me to travel.

As we climbed and explored the pyramids of Teotihuacan this weekend, I had a conversation with one of my friends about Bucket Lists. To start, I hate the term. For those who don’t know, a bucket list a list of places you want to see before you die. The term is so culturally relevant now that Hollywood made a movie about it a few years ago.

bucket list
Teotihuacan

In that movie, Jack Nicholson’s character is a sick rich lonely billionaire who sets off with a middle class family man (played by Morgan Freeman) to see all of the world’s wonders before he dies of cancer. I have no problem with the movie per se, but the plot is unfortunately indicative of our society. Work hard now, see everything later.

While I know the average reader of this site does travel a lot, the truth is that many people wait too long. They wait because they have school and then work and then a family. That mentality has become the American way and it is terrible. The “Bucket List” is terrible. That permission to wait, is more dangerous than you know.

Over the past 8 years I have traveled to over 75 countries. While I constantly strive to visit and explore new places, some of my favorite travel experiences have come from returning to those areas I fell in love with. Every time I go back, things are different in countless ways. Why should I only visit Paris and the Eiffel Tower once?

For me, a great example of this phenomenon is New York City. The first time I visited, my experience was vastly different than my four subsequent visits. In fact, all of my visits have been different in many ways. Why? Well the obvious reason is because I gained familiarity with city and thus felt more comfortable, but the reality is that is only part of it. I have grown and changed as a person in between every visit. I am seeing the same sights with a different perspective and a different set of eyes.

bucket list
Pyramid of the Moon at Teotihuacan.

Why would I only want to experience the world for the first time when I am old and dying? Why would I want to see the Eiffel Tower for the first time as a 70 year old? I want to see it again as a 70 year old and compare that experience to how it felt as a 27 year old, a 40 year old and a 55 year old. I want to see how those experiences changed and molded me.

The world is a complicated place and not everyone has the means or ability to travel. I grew up very poor and have been blessed to find my way within the world. I recognize it isn’t so easy for everyone. This post isn’t designed to shame anyone or make those who don’t travel feel bad, but instead to inspire. There simply is no better feeling than being in a place you have long dreamed of. That feeling almost always brings a tear to my eye.

Of course there is yet another reason to travel. Any traveler will tell you that the more you travel, the bigger the world becomes. In other words, your list isn’t long enough. It will continue to grow with all of the amazing places you see and hear about. When my family and I set off on our original 18 month journey in 2007, there were probably 20 main things I wanted to see. Now I have seen most of those things plus hundreds more and the list is longer than ever. Honestly, I can’t afford to wait until I’m old. The world is simply too big and amazing.

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The massive Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan.

This past weekend as I stood atop the Sun Pyramid in Teotihuacan, I did what I have learned to do through my travels. I stood there and allowed myself to feel gratitude and joy in the moment. One day in the past I had learned of this place and envisioned myself visiting. Just like with the Acropolis in Athens or the Colosseum in Rome, that dream had become a reality. What an incredibly joyous and empowering feeling.

The truth is I don’t care what you call your list. Just don’t give yourself permission to wait too long to see everything on it. Go out and explore. See and do what you can when you can. Life is too short and most of us won’t know our expiration date before it comes. In other words, we don’t know when we are going to kick the bucket, so why pretend we have the time?


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23 COMMENTS

  1. I love this post. You’ve hit upon so many good points. Waiting to start a list means postponing it. Having a list means checking it off and not spending enough time recognizing the importance of each culture and place. The mere notion of checking it off is a deterrent to going back. I go back again and again to certain places and it is a wonderful experience to take in a different neighborhood each time and see changes through time. Places I know well and have done this with include D.C. (where I grew up), New York, San Francisco, London, Paris, Madrid, Lisbon. My husband’s work takes him to Lisbon every year and I always join him and it has been so fun to really get to know a country that way. I, like you, really enjoy ancient cultures. I used to teach a course on this in the Western Humanities at a community college. It is a great reason to travel. Wishing I could attend to TravelCon in Vegas and say hello, but will be flying back from visiting my 100th Travelers Century Club country – Macau. Been really enjoying the blog and thanks for this post.

    • Having just been, yes George, it does.

      Great post, Shawn. I borrow from Barmey Stinson and call it the legend-wait-for-it-dary list. Scary part is that my 8 year old has had one since she could talk: Hawaii just came off, Niagara Falls went on.

  2. Your posts are getting better and better. Some have taken on a different quality lately. Less technical and more philosophical. I like it!

  3. Very well said! Funny thing is that I was just lamenting going back to places rather than exploring new ones all the time. A good mix is probably the ticket but this really resonated with me in several ways. Thanks Shawn!

  4. Great post, and especially relevant since retirement age seems to get older and older for folks; by the time some of us retire, we may not have the health, energy or adventurous spirit any more to do some of the more ambitious travel.

  5. Great interesting post.

    I believe you bring up a polarizing concept. A three little pigs story. One must choose their on path.
    I struggle with it myself daily.

    Social Media has had a profound impact to the new generation of millennials bringing YOLO and FOMO concepts to new heights and they can certainly relate to your article.

    I try to stay focused and check in with my “fulfillment” list vs Bucket List which may or may not include world travel. Definitely a difficult situation.

  6. […] The Terrible Truth & Dangers of a Bucket List. Fantastic post by Miles to Memories. “The truth is I don’t care what you call your list. Just don’t give yourself permission to wait too long to see everything on it. Go out and explore. See and do what you can when you can. Life is too short and most of us won’t know our expiration date before it comes. In other words, we don’t know when we are going to kick the bucket, so why pretend we have the time?” I subscribe to this but, at the same time, I have other life goals as well that would be hurt by traveling so much…so, to me at least (we are all different), I have always aimed to find a balance. I should do a blog post sometime about this. Yeah, I should start a TBB email list too #priorities […]

  7. I agree with everyone else this is such a great post, very well said.

    There’s a tension because on the best side of things a bucket list represents goals and it gives you a sense of achievement to accomplish them. You put it beautifully it is an ” incredibly joyous and empowering feeling” . But on the other hand it’s just a tool and it can’t measure the growing appreciation you get from revisiting a places as you point out. Recently we’ve been spending longer amounts of time abroad rather than making shorter visits, four months in Paris, three months in London etc. I a way my list has shifted from seeing certain places to getting to know them.

    My list is in my head, I haven’t written it down and in that way it’s constantly evolving, it’s not finite and as I mentioned above it’s places AND experiences, for example one thing on the list was to travel more with my mother, to share the experiences with her. Its closer to NinjaX’s idea of a fulfillment list rather than a bucket list.

    I feel the same ambivolence about counting countries, because what does it mean to say you’ve been to x number of countries? How well do we know them or even how do you count them? The Century Club counts flight stopovers for goodness sake?!! But despite this ambivalence I still count them, there’s something about quantifying that we all love. Here’s how I put it on my blog.
    http://www.somuchmoretosee.com/2013/11/when-did-i-become-counter.html

  8. I agree. I’ve wanted to go to London for 20 years. I’m going next month. I don’t know why I waited so long. But I know I won’t be making that mistake again. Sometimes I think Americans are just working for a bigger house, better car, better toys. Travel is the only thing you can buy that makes you richer.

  9. You’re so right, and I completely agree! I often call my list a bucket list, but it’s really more of a wish list. It’s way too long already to be a bucket list and getting longer all the time!

  10. And this is why you’re one of my most favorite bloggers! You have a great, genuine perspective and come across as truly wanting to help and share your knowledge with others. Thanks for all your work!

  11. nice post…. we just got back from a family trip to the SW USA….(the Mighty 5) I tend to call these spots I ‘need’ to visit my ‘lifelist’ places….. over the past few years, thanks to blogs and travel hacking sites, I got to bring my whole family to places I’d only dreamed of in the past…. Funny thing about traveling, as soon as I get back from one place, I think of many more to add to my ‘lifelist’ that I am working towards!

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