In 1940, when John Goddard was 15, he made a list of everything he wanted to achieve. There were 127 goals in all, which included: visit every country in the world; explore the Great Barrier Reef; watch a cremation ceremony in Bali; milk a poisonous snake; and visit the Moon. Some goals were bundled together. No. 113, for example, reads: “Become proficient in the use of a plane, motorcycle, tractor, surfboard, rifle, pistol, canoe, microscope, football, basketball, bow and arrow, lariat and boomerang.”
There is a tick beside this one, marking it as done, as there is beside 109 of those original goals. In the years since, he has set himself hundreds more, writing them down as a form of commitment.
Goddard’s “Life List,” which featured in the Chicken Soup for the Soul self-help franchise, is one of the inspirations cited by people who have created what are now more usually called bucket lists. The phrase derives from “kick the bucket,” a term for death, with unclear origins, but which quite likely relates to the bucket kicked away at a hanging. It was popularized by the 2007 film The Bucket List, in which characters played by Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman meet in a cancer ward, then race around the world, packing in experiences. As in that story, some people start these lists when diagnosed with incurable illnesses and in those cases, the goals often seem to have a deeper, much more personal flavor. On Tuesday last week, for instance, it was reported that former PR executive Simon Mitchell, who has a cancer of the blood, has been pursuing a list that involves helping other people, using his professional contacts to set up meetings between seriously ill children and the stars they admire.
However, the trend goes much wider. Former US president Bill Clinton, and actresses Jane Fonda and Cameron Diaz have spoken of having a list. Last week, a man who had camped overnight for an iPhone5 said that specific experience was included on his. It was also reported that Megan Stammers, the 15-year-old girl thought to be in France with her maths teacher, had posted her own extensive list online. The last entry, fall in love, had been crossed off.
There are no end to the numbers of Web sites for those wanting to compile and share their ambitions, with a whole industry having formed around the notion of cramming in eye-popping, hedonistic experiences before you die: sky diving, mountain climbing, throwing tomatoes at the Tomatina festival in Spain and meeting pop stars. On bucketlist.org, someone proclaims their ambition to hold a baby white tiger; on bucketlist.net there are plans to fly in a hot-air balloon.
A series of books lists the 1,001 films you should see, the 1,001 albums you should listen to, all the paintings and natural wonders you must catch, in order to be fulfilled before death. While this approach can sound quite the opposite of fulfilment, an endless striving for satisfaction, that has not stopped people’s wild enthusiasm.
Are bucket lists really a good idea? It can be useful to have defined goals, of course, but the lists seem to encourage a strange blend of highly individualized behavior and conformity, a situation in which everyone is hurtling, alone, toward similar goals.
Psychotherapist Philippa Perry suggests, laughingly, that they might actually have been started “as a brilliant PR stunt by somebody who was selling swimming with dolphins.”