Gratitude Lists over Bucket Lists

Three years ago, I was a man in a tortoise shell, seeking validation by accomplishing the impossible.

I had a bucket list which included running a marathon, jumping 20,000 feet out of an airplane and getting an MBA from a top business school. Now a month after graduation, having checked off all those items on my bucket list, I cannot help but cringe at my past self-importance. For I am privileged to even have had a bucket list.

During my final year at business school, I had the opportunity to do a few life-changing things that righted the ship of my perspective. The first was a service project which focused on mentoring incarcerated youth. Every week I went into a maximum security state prison to teach teenage felons about fatherhood and life skills. I had to go through a metal detector. I had to be escorted everywhere by prison guards. All openings had tightly bolted doors that required multiple keys. When I finally got to my destination to teach, I could not help but think 1) “Statistically speaking some of these young men were meant to be here” and 2) “Wow, one of these youth could have been me?” If my immigrant parents did not drill in me the importance of higher education and provide the psychological skills to cope with crisis, I could have been a similar statistic to these young men behind bars. This experience reminded me that there are some who want success just as badly as the rest of us but are not as lucky.

The next set of life-changing events were my amazing trips overseas to China and Israel. I recommend to anyone to spend some time overseas. It is a sobering reminder of the rights we take for granted socially politically and economically in the United States. In the States, our technology devices are always on. We are wired 24/7 to opine and blog and YouTube video publish on anything we want, from our pet cat using the bathroom like a human to irate protestors occupying Wall Street. So imagine when I tried web browsing in China, which notoriously practices internet censorship. To have certain websites blocked like Google was excruciating. I felt an acute kinship to freedom and democracy and my Americanism, despite the awe of China’s history and culture and the great friends I made there. I recognized how everyone in the world is not as lucky to have concepts like alienable human rights to instigate social change.

Finally when I visited Israel I learned about the complexity of religion and living in a military state. Not everything is what it seems on the 6’o clock evening news. There was a rich vitality and authenticity to Jerusalem and the people that was breathless. I floated in the Dead Sea, climbed the Masada at the break of dawn, rode a camel across the desert, and lay on my back in the cave that Jesus had laid. However to see young men and women in military fatigues carrying Uzis across their shoulders as commonly as a purse was shocking. When I was at that age I was reading Descartes and Shakespeare rhetorically spouting “To be or not to be.” This experience taught me that not everything is philosophical and can be mended with words. The line between life and death is tenuous. Therefore, we must live each day to the fullest, because nothing is guaranteed tomorrow.

There is much we take for granted in pursuing bucket lists. And that is the privilege that we have to make them. When I walked the stage and got my MBA diploma, I could not help but remember all the people that supported my dream. From my wife and son – to the Johnson Graduate School of Management community – to past teachers and mentors and old friends and my ancestry – all these people are the broad shoulders upon which I stand to make any of my bucket lists and dreams possible. And for that I am eternally grateful.

So how does completing an item on a bucket list compare to expressing profound gratitude to those who have been important in my life? Not even close. Gratitude lists are eternal even if you kick the bucket.