Saturday, April 12, 2014

The other side of the bucket list

I’m sure I’m not the first person to say this, but the problem with accomplishing a huge lifelong dream is that on the other side of that accomplishment is the realization that, for the time being, you no longer have a huge lifelong dream pulling you forward.

It seems like the worst kind of first world problem to cry that all your dreams have come true and now you have to go through the process of creating new ones. Who could possibly feel sorry for that kind of lament?

So I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, since on paper I’ve accomplished everything I’ve dreamed of, but somehow I don’t feel like I’ve come to the end of the line yet. I still feel pulled forward by things that have, on paper, already been “accomplished”

If I had to put words to the vague bucket list I had when I was a little kid it probably would have been something like:

  1. Invent something
  2. Discover something

I pretty much wanted to be an old-school naturalist, sitting under a tree in the woods and putting shit together in my head. Why do birds to X and bees do Y? What animal made those tracks in the mud, and where was it going, and what was it going to do next?  (Clearly this would have been my bucket list at age 7 or so, when animal tracks were the height of burning mystery and discovery – but I still have a huge fascination for them so really I’m not knocking it)


In my adult life, I managed to check these two items off the list hundreds of times over. I became a research scientist. I became an inventor. If my hypothetical ~7 year old me had written a bucket list on a piece of paper, and internet links didn’t exist yet, I could staple my (boring, technical) patents to it, and my (equally technical/slightly less boring) scientific papers to it and honestly say that I’d accomplished all I’d set out to do in life.

But if that was the end of it, where would I be in life? What are we if we don’t have our dreams and ideas and hopes for the future pulling us forward?

I have defined myself by my need to invent things, discover things – big and small.   I don’t even care about my patents all that much, aside from being grateful for having that section on my CV. I’ve “invented” so many more satisfying things in my life that will never be awarded patents. Workarounds for my backyard hose, a reinvention of my sprinkler, creative uses for vacation lamp timers, a cat climbing tree that makes use of an awkward corner near my kitchen. So while the patents are the tangible “proof” that I’ve accomplished that goal, the heart of the goal is just a reflection of the heart of who I am. And constantly expressing that part of me in big and small ways is what makes me happy. Not just changing my list from:

1.       Invent something 
2.       Discover something


1.       Invent something
2.       Discover something
It’s like the difference between moving to a country you love, living there, soaking up the air and water and food, making friends, building  a life for yourself there – versus landing at the airport, dashing out the door, crossing “visit Tahiti” off your to-do list and then posting to facebook: “DID TAHITI!”

Maybe my ideal ‘bucket list’ would look a lot more like
1.       Keep being a person who loves inventing things
2.       Never stop discovering

In that way, they become things that I can never really “scratch off”, because it becomes more about me always having those things as part of me. Not a memory, not a picture showing a tangible single accomplishment, not a one-time goal to touch, but something that reminds me of who I am.
Then again, maybe bucket lists – good ones (aka ones that reflect things we really want, regardless of how relatively non-triumphant or cool they may seem to others) – are a starting point to tell us who we are.  And there’s something so satisfying about having the kind of list you can scratch off, because that also fills the human need to see signs of progress.  

This morning I woke up and was thinking about what a “scratch-off” bucket list would look like for me now. 

I think it would look like this:
1.       Have visiting professor status at a university in Tanzania
2.       Have full time professor status at a university in US
3.       Link the two together so I can become a conduit of ideas and students that enrich their own and each other’s lives and education and careers
4.       Develop adventure education-based tourism business where we can all be old-school naturalists together. (what animal DID make those tracks in the mud, anyway?)
5.       Find ways any interested family member could help with and benefit from the business
6.       Go back to school again for a (specialty) Masters
7.       Buy Volkswagen Westfalia to drive around and car-camp and explore in (if it was good enough for Jane Goodall on the Serengetti….)
8.       Spend as much time as possible outside work with my family

When I try to translate that list, I feel like I’ve never gotten very far away from
1.       Invent something
2.       Discover something

(with the addition of a third)

3.       Share those things with others  

Maybe finding new ways of checking the same things off my bucket list forever is really the key to happiness. 


  1. I don't know if it's possible to ever finish a bucket list as surely we all want to continue to create new dreams? Keep inventing and discovering as it all sounds amazing :)

    1. Thanks so much Vanessa! It does sound like we should never come to the end of things we want to do, but I've found during times of stress it does seem like new dreams are harder to get excited about. This always changes in the long run though. :)