Astonishingly, not only do I genuinely have a bucket list – an amalgamation of disparate things that I want to experience or achieve in my life – I’ve actually done a lot of things on that list. At some point last year I emerged in a billow of steam from the sauna of everyday life, pleasantly dazed and lavishly embellished with a fluffy towel, long enough to realise that I’d done so many of the things that I would have to make a new list.
So, through the wardrobe I stepped, parting the coats to the mystical, snow-dusted world beyond; that place of wild and skittish ideas forgotten and buried under the monotony of life as a grown up. I’ve groped around the far reaches of my mind, patting frantically at invisible prey under the sofa like an over-stimulated cat, to remember what my uninhibited child self wanted to do when she reached adulthood, with all the agency and possibility that that brings.
What this metaphor-heavy preamble is eluding to is that I’ve always dreamed big and had this inextinguishable furnace of ambition smouldering inside that urges me to constantly be pushing to the next thing; to get out there and do stuff.
I was surprised, then, to discover people who not only don’t have lists of goals and experiences they wish to achieve in their lives, but were genuinely taken aback to learn that I do have such a list, eying me in disbelief as though I had just burst in the room dressed as Henry the Eighth panting that there are several angry baboons outside and I urgently need some acorns.
“You have a bucket list?!”
“Yeah! Don’t you?!”
What I’ve gradually realised during my prolonged expedition into the enigmatic tundra of travel is that, surprisingly, satisfaction doesn’t come from racing around trying to tick physical experiences off some list, no matter how ambitious or far-fetched. The really groundbreaking things – the self-realisation, growth and genuine gratification – come from the smaller, intangible stuff that happens in between.
One of my most disappointing discoveries about life as a grown up is that it is infinitely more boring than I was expecting (a subject I discussed a couple of years ago). There are no ceremonious moments, no grandiose senses of accomplishment, no one there outside the office at 5pm to give you a certificate for getting through another day as a grown up. Happiness is so often fleeting, fading again into the well of boring chores and tedious work and exhausting responsibility. It’s very human to think that achieving things will make us feel better. But now it seems obvious to me that crossing things off a bucket list couldn’t possibly make us happy. Happiness just doesn’t work that way, it turns out.
Over the last two-and-a-bit years I’ve learned many lessons that are so valuable, yet easily overlooked. I’ve realised, for example, that I can find support from within. Being on my own on the other side of the world with no one to turn to, very little money and no idea what I was doing, I just had to figure it out. I had to be resourceful, think outside the box, somehow pick up the pieces of my exhausted, overwhelmed self and do whatever it took to keep going. Whatever it took to survive, really. I know now I’m made of far tougher stuff than I thought, and how capable I am in all kinds of weird and difficult situations.
I’ve realised that no matter where I go in the world I can make friends. It seems silly now, but one of my biggest fears when I left the UK was that I wouldn’t be able to make new friends. I wouldn’t have believed it then, but making genuine connections with people anywhere I go actually seems to be one of my greatest strengths.
I knew I wanted to feel better, though I didn’t know how or what feeling better would look like. When I think back to the person I was in 2017, it is obvious the extent to which I have become more comfortable in my own skin. I’ve learned that feeling better comes from accepting yourself as you are. From allowing yourself mistakes and from being your own fan. I have, slowly, painfully, clawing on my belly one weary grasp at a time through icy mud and years of self-deprecation, learned to like who I am. It was revolutionary. That process, I think, is worth so much more than patting a turtle or going to Machu Picchu.
Speaking of Machu Picchu, often the monument or activity you had revered in your head for so long is not as good as you expected when you finally get there or is ruined by crowds of people trying to take photos for Instagram. Such is the reality of travel these days. Diving a little deeper, what actually is so gratifying about visiting an attraction or looking at a bit of nature or going skydiving or swimming with dolphins? A sense of wonder perhaps? A feeling of achievement? Yet, here’s a big, new agey question for you: are we even present enough in the moment to experience things when we’re there? I know I certainly wasn’t for a very long time.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of living life through a smartphone, moving from one place to the next in a stream of selfies, worrying more about the exposure or what your hair looks like than being there. Many people seem to be doing things just for the likes on social media, craving that easy, cheap hit of dopamine that comes from other people’s online approval. The most astonishing fact I learned when I visited Hobbiton last year was that 40% of attendees have never seen the Lord of the Rings or Hobbit movies. Why do they go? To make their friends jealous, apparently. Imagine that! Those people would have derived almost no pleasure from the experience because none of it would have made any sense. That’s the level of materialistic instant gratification in which we seem to have found ourselves. Being present is almost unnatural, especially for us in the Western world.
However, let me tie all these thoughts together neatly almost as though I planned it all along. Having a bucket list and doing the things on it has led me to these more abstract yet surprisingly groundbreaking discoveries. The two seem to exist in tandem. While it is a mistake to expect lasting gratification merely from having or doing the list, I think it’s good to have the structure of a set of goals to open up the possibility for such important intangible experiences. Doing things outside your regular routine and comfort zone is crucial to personal growth; perhaps to overcome your fear of something, or let go of a habit that isn’t serving you, or just to attain a different perspective. Plus, life just passes you by if you don’t have goals and constantly work towards them. Nothing causes me to awaken suddenly with a shriek in the depths of a moonless night like the thought that I might awaken suddenly with a shriek in my mid-sixties realising that time has raced through my fingers like grains of sand and I’ve done none of the things I wanted to achieve in life and suddenly it’s too late. But the key to getting the most out of your bucket list is to teach yourself to be more present. Not just when you’re bobbing face down in a warm turquoise ocean looking through plastic goggles at colourful fish darting around the silent world below, hand poised in case of passing turtles, but every day.
If you and I, dear reader, were sitting opposite each other at a small round table in the corner of an empty café, I would pause here to take a sip from the dregs of my now-cold coffee and thoughtfully look sideways out the large window gathering condensation. You would look down at your empty cup briefly before asking, “So what’s left to do on your list?” And I would say, “That, my friend, is a secret”.