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Do you remember the movie “The Bucket List?” Near the beginning, Carter (played by Morgan Freeman) tells Edward (Jack Nicholson) that he first heard the term used for a freshman philosophy assignment. You were supposed to list things you wanted to do before you “kicked the bucket.” Since the movie came out in 2007, the term has become incredibly popular. A search on the keyword “bucket list” brings up 1,233 results on Barnes and Noble, over 30,000 results under Amazon books and more than 35 pages of results on Google Books.

The movie that launched over a thousand books

Judging from the plethora of titles, the bucket list concept takes the imagination in many directions. Some are specialized (Pittsburgh Steelers Fans’ Bucket List), some spiritual (What if God Wrote Your Bucket List), some localized (The Ultimate Belize Bucket List). I’ve seen published bucket list categories that involve reaching out, growing spiritually, and developing new skills, in addition to the more common thrill-seeking and travel goals. Some books provide blank pages with category headings to get you started and even sub-headings to aid you in recording your experiences. Some are entirely blank. All you need is a pencil, paper, and inspiration.

Pencil, paper, imagination . . . and maybe a few fridge magnets

Not surprisingly, I didn’t see any books attempting the “freshman philosophy student” bucket list assignment mentioned in the movie. This category lacks the one thing a bucket list needs almost by definition: a time limit. In the movie, for example, two men have been told they have less than a year to live. The fact that both of them feel well enough to travel and that one of them has unlimited funds and a private jet conveniently removes the constraints of money and health (other than the fact that they are terminally ill). Their list includes sky-diving, auto racing, and seeing amazing sights around the world. Each one has a personal goal that reflects his character. “Kiss the most beautiful girl in the world,” Edward writes, whereas Carter hopes “to help a complete stranger for the good.”

Carter’s list with Edward’s edits

Some books propose artificial deadlines (by the end of the summer, by the time I’m forty, before we start a family), but they risk reducing a bucket list to a to-do list or a New Year’s resolution. Targets like losing weight or paying off the car have their place, but they lack the now-or-never urgency that a bucket list requires. My husband, who already had cancer when he saw the movie, loved the idea and started right off with big goals which we would have normally put off, waiting for the “right time.” He wanted to see Greece and the islands with the family. He wanted to go to China. As time got shorter, his goals became short-term and more specific. He wanted to dance at his granddaughter’s wedding. And he wanted to celebrate one more all-out glorious family Christmas.

Now I’m thinking about my bucket list or lists. I keep making changes, which may mean the required urgency hasn’t hit me yet. My time limit stems from facing reality. I simply don’t expect to be as active in five years as I am today, even if health issues don’t intervene.  

The word “bucket” has multiple connotations as a metaphor which are widely discussed on line. It generally conveys a concept of container which is distinct from the old phrase “kick the bucket.” Just to take one example, toward the end of my career, when I worked in decision support, we used the word “bucket” to refer to cost categories as labor or supplies, direct or indirect.

So, I think I need at least two buckets: one for activities that are best done soon and one for things that can wait. In the first I might put seeing Petra, taking the grandchildren on a road trip to Sequoia, and finishing my next book. The second bucket can wait. By definition.         

Definitely on my list: Petra

The phrase “bucket list” is surprisingly new for one so evocative.  In a 2015 Wall Street Journal  article entitled “The Origin of Bucket List,” Ben Zimmer explains that screenwriter Justin Zackham had the idea of making a bucket list of his own in 1999. A few years later, he and Rob Reiner decided to use the phrase as the title of their movie which came out in 2007. In the movie, when Carter attributes the phrase “bucket list” to a freshman philosophy assignment he once had, he is placing the term a few decades earlier than its actual origin. It’s a fiction, but a credible fiction and one that has clearly struck a chord with many readers whether or not they saw the movie. Maybe they should put it on their bucket list.  

With gratitude:

The Bucket List. Directed by Rob Reiner. Perf. Jack Nicholson, Morgan Freeman. Castle Rock Entertainment, 2007. Film.

Pittsburgh Steelers Fans’ Bucket List. Scott Brown. Triumph Books, 2016.

What if God Wrote Your Bucket List. Jay Payleitner. Harvest House, 2015.

The Ultimate Belize Bucket List. Larry Waight. FriesenPress, 2018.


Ben Zimmer, “The Origin of Bucket List.” The Wall Street Journal, May 29, 2015.

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