Do you ever wonder if you could be getting more out of life? Even if you feel satisfied and grateful most of the time, do you ever think about how to keep moving forward? The good news is that it’s never too late to design your life. And two Stanford professors have written a book to help you apply design thinking to the task.
Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life* by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, grew out of the popular classes they teach to undergrads as well as students in Stanford’s Continuing Studies Program. Burnett is the Executive Director of the Stanford Design Program. Evans co-founded the Life Design Lab and lectures in the Stanford Design Program. They both have extensive product design experience in Silicon Valley, including at Apple and Electronic Arts.
This post reviews the book from the perspective of a reader at midlife.
Why design your life at midlife?
You might think of your 20’s as the typical time to “design your life.” And it is. However, midlife is another point when people tend to reflect on where they’ve been and where they still want to go. By midlife, you’ve accomplished some things. Maybe not as many as you thought you would back when you were 22. But you can still list significant things you’ve done over the years.
At the same time, by midlife most of us have a greater appreciation for our own mortality. You’ve barely passed the halfway mark in your own life, but still you sense that the years are counting down. This isn’t a bad thing. It actually can help you embrace risk and try something new. You might finally get up your courage to try that thing you’ve been thinking about for a long time.
That’s why you need to read this book. It showed me that midlife may just be the perfect time to design your life. Here are highlights and my personal insights from Designing Your Life.
It’s not about identifying your passion
Right up front the authors state, “anti-passion is our passion.” My immediate conclusion was that I was going to love this book! I’d heard I needed to identify my passion for so long that I’d developed passion anxiety. I worried that my failure to focus on a single driving passion was holding me back from living my best life.
Yes, I realize this notion is silly. But you know, I’m tired of hearing that I need to focus on my passion if I want to make a difference in this world. So when the book told me you can design your life without pinpointing your passion, I was all in.
Designing Your Life lets you take an analytical approach to figuring out what you want to do. It helps you apply design theory and practice to the topic of your life. The exercises at the end of every chapter allow you to gather data and ideas specific to you. You’ll gain the confidence to make small or large changes. In short, you’ll design your life going forward from wherever you are now.
5 key mindsets as you design your life
Burnett and Evans orient their application of design principles to life planning with five key design attitudes:
- Be Curious. Ask questions. Be open to new ideas, see opportunities everywhere.
- Try Stuff. Have a bias to action. Don’t get hooked on a single solution, experiment.
- Reframe Problems. Step back. Identify dysfunctional beliefs that prevent you from making changes in your life.
- Know It’s a Process. “Life design is a journey; let go of the end goal and focus on the process and see what happens next.”
- Ask for Help. Great design requires “radical collaboration.” Mentors and a supportive community will help you design your life better than you can do alone.
I read these five points and thought of several parallels:
- Mindset*, by Carol Dweck
- Curiosity and Beginner’s Mind principles of mindfulness and meditation
- Fail Fast, Fail Often*, by Ryan Babineaux and John Krumboltz
- Change Your Brain, Change Your Life*, by Daniel Amen
Designing Your Life’s “mindsets” compare to current trends in business and psychology.The book’s premise may not be new. But its approach can be valuable in helping you design your ideal life.
Start where you are: define the problem
No matter where you are on your life journey, that’s your starting place. You may feel stuck. You may want to judge your present situation as “bad.” But instead of jumping on the first solution you think will change your situation, spend time defining the problem. You have to make sure you’re working on the right problem.
You may have to get rid of dysfunctional beliefs like, “I should already know where I’m going.” The book suggests a reframe: “You can’t know where you are going until you know where you are.”
The authors recommend a dashboard of key indicators to help you assess where you are now. Using something resembling a gas gauge, you rate the following aspects of your life along a continuum of “empty” to “full:”
This dashboard may help you define a sense you already had that something was missing from your life. The data you uncover here will inform your priorities for the future. Before you do that, however, you need to couple your experiences with your beliefs.
Build your personal compass: become a wayfinder
This next exercise is harder. You have to define your Workview and your Lifeview. Workview means your present view of Work. It’s not a specific goal like you’d put on your resumé. Your Workview is bigger. It encompasses questions like, “Why work?” Or, “What defines good or worthwhile work?” It usually includes activities besides those you’re paid to do.
Then you define your Lifeview. This entails answering questions like, “What’s the purpose of life?” And, “Is there a higher power or God? If so, what is its impact on my life?”
Your own True North
Your Workview and Lifeview combine to form your own True North. The authors liken the process of designing your life to ancient explorers’ practice of “wayfinding.” Wayfinding, according to the book, is the art of “figuring out where you are going when you don’t actually know your destination.”
I love the image of designing your life as finding your way. In building your personal compass, you connect three key elements:
- Who you are
- What you believe
- What you’re doing
Write it down
The book tells you to write down your answers, to complete all the exercises. I’ll admit, however, that I resist writing stuff down. When I’m reading, I just want to read. Yet I probably should go back and do the exercises – not just think about them. For example, I could think I’m connecting my identity, beliefs and activities. But if I write it all down, I might notice an inconsistency I hadn’t seen before. Putting down your observations and ideas in writing forces you to clarify them. In addition, the more effort you put into the task, the more you’ll get out of it.
Evaluating energy and engagement
A key step in wayfinding is what the authors call The Good Time Journal. This journal, which is available along with other tools at the Designing Your Life website, tracks your activities over a couple of weeks. For each thing you do, you rate your level of “engagement” and “energy.” After you collect a week’s worth of data, step back and note your reflections.
The book relates “engagement” to the concept of “flow” as researched by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi*. You experience “flow” when you’re operating in your sweet spot. It happens when you’re working on something challenging, meaningful and enjoyable to you. When you’re experiencing flow, you’re “in the zone.” You may not notice time passing. You may feel a sense of calm or inner clarity
We can’t spend all our lives in a state of flow. But as you design your life, you want to look for that thing or combination of things where you experience high engagement and positive energy. As you reflect on your Good Time Journal, consider also past experiences where you felt engaged and energetic.
My own activity log
I didn’t have to log my own activities for long to see a pattern. This pattern was also consistent with memories of other times when I’d experienced a sense of flow.
Activities where I felt engaged/energetic:
- researching and writing my blog
- doing physical exercise
- organizing my tennis team and playing tennis with friends
- extending hospitality toward old and new friends
Activities where I had low engagement/energy:
- routine errands and cooking, household tasks
- dog walking and training
- many of my current volunteer activities
Reflections for designing my life:
- I’m happy when I’m learning, writing, communicating
- Exercise is important to me
- Tennis is social and a way to use my organizational skills
- Practicing hospitality brings joy to me as well as to others
- I should find ways to spend less time on things I might be able to delegate
- I should unwind several of my volunteer commitments
These results don’t surprise me. “Following the joy” is hardly a new concept. Also, I’ll never get rid of all the unpleasant or boring things I have to do — that’s just how life is. But seeing my list on paper helps me identify changes I need to make if I’m going to find that elusive state of flow more often.
There is something powerful about grading your activities for the engagement and energy they give you. The rest of the book helps you take this information and use it to design your ideal life. Which, remember, is wayfinding – not determining your final destination.
Continuing with the journey metaphor, the authors tell you to develop three alternative versions of the next five years of your life. You represent each version graphically along a timeline, giving it a six-word title. You list key questions each alternative is asking. And you evaluate it with yet another dashboard — the gauges this time are Resources, Likeability, Confidence and Coherence.
Mind mapping and brainstorming techniques can be helpful as you plan your odyssey. The book emphasizes that you shouldn’t allow judgment to limit your creativity. At this point in the process, you want to generate lots of ideas – even crazy ones have value.
Your odyssey plans should highlight personal as well as work goals since your life has multiple aspects. For example, you may draw up a timeline that includes starting your own business, training to run a half-marathon, and taking a special vacation with your spouse.
Odyssey planning may be most helpful if you’re feeling stuck and/or trying to make big changes in your life. But it doesn’t seem useful to me personally. Drawing pictures on a timeline, making up six-word titles and filling out new dashboards is more than I need at this point. Depending on your personal situation, however, the process could help you map out an exciting new plan for your life.
Prototyping is my favorite among the book’s recommendations for designing your life. Prototyping contrasts with independent activities where you dream and journal about your future. It’s based on Design Mindset #2, “Try Stuff.” In the life design context, prototyping means seeking out conversations and short-term experiences that will help you find your way forward.
Prototyping can resemble informational interviewing, but it often has a broader scope. You want to learn the other person’s story. How she started doing what she’s doing now, what her day looks like. What she loves and hates about her job (and by “job” I mean any sort of activity you’re investigating).
What you don’t want to do is to make the interview about you and your experience or qualifications. In fact, the authors discourage you from calling it an “interview” at all. They encourage you to view these prototyping conversations as ways to hear an interesting story and make a personal connection.
The book gives hints on using brainstorming to identify prototype interviews and experiences. It also offers a sample script you could adapt to ask someone to meet you for a prototype conversation.
Why prototyping works
Life design prototyping offers a low cost, low-risk way to find an activity you might really love. Yes, asking people to talk with you can be scary at times. But most people enjoy talking about themselves and are flattered when someone wants to hear their story.
Another aspect of prototyping is volunteering or doing short-term projects in areas that interest you. Such efforts can help you gain more insights than you might discover otherwise.
Job hunting, happiness and failure
In its last few chapters, the book moves to apply principles and offer philosophical perspectives. There are chapters on job hunting, choosing happiness and dealing with failure. These chapters are more relevant for younger students than for someone at midlife. At the same time, they remind you of solid advice you’ve probably heard before. You may want to skim these sections as you build your own life compass.
Practical, worthwhile read
The book presents a new angle on the perennial question of what to do with your life. Its “hook” is to use design principles that, although simple, are legend in Silicon Valley. Building on backgrounds with Apple and Stanford’s trendy d.school, the authors apply design thinking to life planning. This approach works equally well for people of all ages: it’s never too late to design your life.
Designing Your Life emphasizes creativity and quantity of ideas, while still making the process data-driven and analytical. Burnett and Evans push you to keep asking questions until you drill down to the right question.
I like the book’s practical, hands-on approach. It seeks to demystify life design. It rejects a vague, magical notion of “finding your passion” in favor of “wayfinding,” of searching for your next step when you don’t know your destination.
The book values “trying stuff” over thinking and dreaming. It tells you to prototype alternative partial solutions rather than wait to develop an (untested) perfect solution.
Valuable midlife design resource
Whether you’re early in your career or reevaluating your options at midlife, I recommend that you check out this book. To get the most out of it, do the exercises. Write stuff down. You might even work through the chapters with a friend. If you prefer to do a class or workshop, check out the “Resources” page of the book’s website. There’s even an online course.
The goal of life design, remember, is not to “turn you into a different person.” Its real goal is to “make you more like you.” People at midlife sometimes talk about reinventing themselves. But most are looking to remodel their lives, not to bulldoze and rebuild them completely.
Find your way forward
As you work through the book, some of your observations may prove disruptive, startling or enlightening. Yet even jarring information doesn’t mean you have start over. In fact, you can’t start from nowhere: a first principle of life design is to “start where you are.”
Don’t judge or regret your past. But use past and present insights to drive your creativity going forward. If you pay attention to the ideas in this book, you can make changes that help you feel more energetic and engaged with what you’re doing. You can design a life you’ll love, a life that brings you joy.
Join my journey through midlife
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