Can embracing your mortality lead to a more fulfilling life? Yes, says David Abend, founder of The Bucket, an online magazine that helps you live fully and die well. In this episode, David talks about all things Bucket. From the genesis of the idea more than 30 years ago, to the clarity of the “Zoo” metaphor, David explains the counterintuitive value of embracing one’s own mortality. He also introduces us to the concept of everyone having a Bucket Age — the number of years you likely have left to live — and how calculating yours can be a catalyst to making decisions that can change your life for the better.
Beth Fischer: Hi David. I’m glad to be talking to you. First off, what is The Bucket?
David Abend: Well, The Bucket is an online magazine. Our mission is to help people lead more fulfilling lives by acknowledging, even embracing, their own mortality. We have all sorts of articles, interviews, and features that help people do that.
Beth Fischer: Who’s your audience?
David Abend: Our audience is really anybody who could benefit from a different perspective on mortality. Mortality is the elephant in the room. Nobody wants to talk about death, and nobody thinks about death. We feel that if you think about it and think about how many years you have left, you’ll make choices that you otherwise might not have made that could change your life.
Beth Fischer: The name The Bucket is interesting. Tell me you’re thinking about that name.
David Abend: Well, everyone knows about bucket lists, all the things you want to do before you die. And, that phrase of course comes from the expression “Kick the bucket”, which basically means to die. I did a little research on this phrase at one point, and there’s actually little agreement about where it originated. Some say that when you are getting hanged, you were standing on a bucket and someone kicked the bucket away. Another theory says that the bucket is actually a beam or a yoke that was used to carry things and those beams were what pigs hung from when they were slaughtered. That’s a nastier vision, but regardless of the derivation, the bucket is just this association with things you got to do before you die. That’s where the name came from.
Beth Fischer: Well, the way you described it seems so much more positive. It’s much more in line with how full is your bucket.
David Abend: Exactly! We want this to be about living. There’s an irony here or paradox that The Bucket is about mortality, but it is really about living. What we want to try to do is give people that perspective.
Beth Fischer: Perspective, and it sounds like awareness of choice.
David Abend: Absolutely. I think people tend to keep their heads down. There’s a lot of reasons to keep your head down there. People have a lot of things going on and sometimes it’s hard to pick your head up and look ahead and say, “You know, they’re all these things I want to do and I want to make sure I get them done before it’s over.” I have this metaphor that I use called a zoo metaphor. Let’s say you’re taking the family to the zoo and they’re all these things. You want to see the great apes exhibit, that reptile exhibit and the big cat. You have all these things that were on your list of things to do and everybody’s excited. But, you never look to see what time the zoo is going to close. Suddenly, 2:00 comes and they say we’re closing the zoo. You say, “Well wait a second, I didn’t get a chance to do the things I wanted to do.” Everybody’s unhappy. For the most part, I think a lot of people live their lives that way. They’re not checking to see what time the zoo is going to close, and they end up feeling like they were cheated. Mortality is sad and scary, but I think it can also be a motivator to think about how much time you have left and plan accordingly.
Beth Fischer: You have this expression that intrigued me — mortality-based living. Is that what you mean by that?
David Abend: Yes, mortality-based living is just another way to describe this, which is that you live with an awareness of your mortality, that you make decisions based on how long you’re going to live. You shouldn’t be thinking about it every day. It’s really just something that we want people to have in the back of their minds. You hear a lot of talk about deathbed regrets, where people regret things they did or regret things they didn’t do. What we’re trying to do at The Bucket is help people make decisions earlier in life, so they have time to change things. It’s not like, “Okay I’m going to die in a year, and I have all these regrets and I wish I’d done something else.” We want you to think, “Gee, I’m going to die in 25 years and what am I going to do?” This isn’t about end of life decisions. This is about early in life decisions that can change the rest of your life.
Beth Fischer: What kind of content are you going to have available for people who are thinking that way?
David Abend: We have all sorts of content. We have interviews with people who live this kind of life. We have an interview with Carl Reiner and how he’s lived to be 97. We have interviews with people who have started websites about this kind of thing, just in terms of the way they live. We have feature articles that do research and interview experts on topics that we cover. We have a lot of columns, just essays from people. There’s a lot of philosophy but there’s also a lot of utility, which is really important for us. We don’t want to just give people a new perspective. We want to give them the tools to act on that perspective.
Beth Fischer: Can you give me an example of a tool you might have included?
David Abend: Well, we have the Bucket Age Calculator. That’s one of our tools. The bucket age is simply your expected life span and subtract your current age, and that’s your Bucket Age. I’m 60 my estimated lifespan is about 85 and so 85 minus 60 is 25. 25 is my Bucket Age. It’s just something, as I said before, to give you that perspective. It’s not to scare you, but it is supposed to be a kick in the ass. When we talk to about people with a Bucket Age, there’s an ‘aha’ moment that happens and you think well, everybody knows that, but it seems like something happens when they calculate their Bucket Age. That’s one of the ways we’re trying to give utility to the site. A lot of our articles are giving people a way to do things that they’ve always wanted to do, but maybe didn’t know how to. For instance, we have an article on home swapping as a way to check things off your bucket list in a way that you didn’t think you could afford. We’re just trying to give not just philosophy, but utility.
Beth Fischer: How did you come up with this idea?
David Abend: The genesis of the idea happened about 30 years ago. A friend’s mother had died of cancer at a young age and at the funeral it turns out that the whole family had built a pine coffin from scratch for her. It was a very cathartic experience for them. I remember thinking nobody else knows how to do that. This was a family who you expect would do that. They grow their own vegetables. They’re very earthy people. I was thinking there’s no way for other people to know how to do that, and there’s really no information about any kind of thing having to do with funerals. I thought maybe there could be a magazine that was about this or people could learn about that. I didn’t do anything about it for years, but I kept thinking about it. I was thinking why don’t we have a magazine like that? I realized that it was all about the taboo of death. We can’t talk about death. We can’t have a magazine about death. It was this fear of death that was preventing it from happening and that’s kind of my whole career. I’ve been in advertising doing branding. It occurred to me that the problem with death and mortality is that it’s got a terrible brand.
If you think about how to make people think differently about a brand, you rebranded. Essentially The Bucket is rebranding mortality into showing how it can be a positive thing and how it can give you perspective. It’s not that thinking about mortality is going to make you live any fewer number of years, but it could give you that perspective that helps you live them better.
Beth Fischer: Who’s your audience for this?
David Abend: The audience is pretty broad. We’re talking 50, 60, 70 year olds, people who are reaching a stage of life where they’re starting to think about these things. One of the things that people always misunderstand about The Bucket is that it’s for the aging or the elderly and even though we cover those topics, that’s not what we’re about. We’re about living a full life. We are living longer. I think that this is an over-generalization, but you know it used to be that people worked, they retired, they lived a few more years, and they died. Now you have a lot of years. You have another lifetime if you will. You have so much that you can do. I don’t think people have changed the way they think about things. They’re in this pattern and we live life linearly. We think that we need to help people think about their lives like maybe I can take a bucket list trip when I’m 50 instead of waiting until I retire. One of the articles we have is about taking a bucket list trip that requires physical activity while you still can do that physical activity, and not waiting until you’ve retired and you can’t do it the way you want it to do it. It’s really important that we’re giving people this perspective so that they can act on it because they do have a lot of years left.
Beth Fischer: Not just the perspective, but as you said including tools that are right there to sort of hang on to that thought and do a little exploring without losing the momentum.
David Abend: Absolutely. One of the things we want to do about this site is really make it mainstream. There is a whole industry called the death positivity movement. If you look it up you’ll find out there’s a lot written on it, but most people don’t even know it’s there because they’re not looking for it. You basically have a choir that is being preached to by a lot of people and there are a lot of people who are who are thinking about death in a positive way, but the mainstream is not. What we’re trying to do with the type of articles we have is make this mainstream, so that you’re reading an article about house swapping but you’re getting perspective on your Bucket Age and how much longer you’re going to live.
A big way we approach this is we’re not going to preach to the choir, we’re trying to preach to people who aren’t thinking this way yet. We’re doing that with mainstream articles and mainstream topics.
Beth Fischer: One of the glories of having an online magazine is how things can be passed around so easily. I love the idea that I would see something on The Bucket and be able to shoot it off to some friends without the hard copy of a magazine, but just the quick check this out. Maybe this should impact what we do on our annual get together next year, instead of waiting until we turn a certain age?
David Abend: It’s a great way for us to get feedback as well. We’re on Twitter, on Instagram and Facebook. We can get instant feedback from people about how they’re reacting to the idea. So far, we’ve gotten a great reaction. People are repeating back our mission to us and thanking us for doing it. It’s been great to see the positive reaction.
Beth Fischer: Thank you for listening. For more about how to get the most out of your life by embracing your own mortality go to thebucket.com. That’s the bucket all one word.com. And if you know someone you think should be on a Future bucket podcast. Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.