Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life

Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life

I wish I had been diligent enough to write down my mental models of the world and publish them in book form. Luckily, in "Designing Your Life", Burnett and Evans have already done all the hard work for me! The nuggets-to-fluff ratio is pretty high and they hit most of the high points. This is required reading for all college students.

The key idea of the book is that you have lots of dysfunctional mental models that are holding you back. Here are the key takeaways:

  • Forget your "passion". You have no idea what your passion is. Explore!
  • There is no right choice - only good choosing. The worst choice is decision paralysis.
  • Applying for jobs is ridiculous. Go meet people, be interested and interesting, and solve real problems.
  • Know the game you're playing. Success disasters are real.
  • Failure is just the raw material of success. You're not going to starve under a bridge. Be bold and get to work.
  • Only worry about the things you can control.
  • Happiness is letting go of what you don’t need.

My favorite highlights below:

Introduction: Life by Design

In fact, in the United States, only 27 percent of college grads end up in a career related to their majors. The idea that what you major in is what you will do for the rest of your life, and that college represents the best years of your life (before a life of hard work and boredom), are two of what we call dysfunctional beliefs — the myths that prevent so many people from designing the life they want.

In America, two-thirds of workers are unhappy with their jobs. And 15 percent actually hate their work.

In the United States alone, more than thirty-one million people between ages forty-four and seventy want what is often called an “encore” career—work that combines personal meaning, continued income, and social impact.

Aesthetics involves human emotion—and we’ve discovered that when emotions are involved, design thinking has proved to be the best problem-solving tool.

A well-designed life is a life that is generative—it is constantly creative, productive, changing, evolving, and there is always the possibility of surprise.

We decided we were going to partner to bring a new course to Stanford, to apply design thinking to designing life after college—first to design students and, if that went well, then to all students. That course has gone on to become one of the most popular elective classes at Stanford. When asked what we do at Stanford, we will sometimes respond with our carefully crafted elevator reply: “We teach courses at Stanford that help any student to apply the innovation principles of design thinking to the wicked problem of designing your life at and after university.”

  • How do I find a job that I like or maybe even love?
  • How do I build a career that will make me a good living?
  • How do I balance my career with my family?
  • How can I make a difference in the world?
  • How can I be thin, sexy, and fabulously rich?

Reframing is one of the most important mind-sets of a designer. Many great innovations get started in a reframe. In design thinking we always say, “Don’t start with the problem, start with the people, start with empathy.”

Your life is not a thing, it’s an experience; the fun comes from designing and enjoying the experience.

As teachers, we have always guaranteed our students “office hours for life.” This means that if you take a class from us we are there for you, forever. Period.

A well-designed life is not a life of drudgery. You weren’t put on this earth to work eight hours a day at a job you hate until the time comes to die.

The five mind-sets you are going to learn in order to design your life are curiosity, bias to action, reframing, awareness, and radical collaboration.

Be Curious. Curiosity makes everything new.

Many people operate under the dysfunctional belief that they just need to find out what they are passionate about. Once they know their passion, everything else will somehow magically fall into place. We hate this idea for one very good reason: most people don’t know their passion.

In truth, most people are passionate about many different things, and the only way to know what they want to do is to prototype some potential lives, try them out, and see what really resonates with them.

When you have a well-designed life and someone asks you, “How’s it going?,” you have an answer. You can tell that person that your life is going well, and you can tell how and why. A well-designed life is a marvelous portfolio of experiences, of adventures, of failures that taught you important lessons, of hardships that made you stronger and helped you know yourself better, and of achievements and satisfactions. It’s worth emphasizing that failures and hardships are a part of every life, even the well-designed ones.

1 - Start Where You Are

There’s a sign over the design studio at Stanford that says You Are Here. Our students love that sign.

In design thinking, we put as much emphasis on problem finding as we do on problem solving.

Deciding which problems to work on may be one of the most important decisions you make, because people can lose years (or a lifetime) working on the wrong problem.

It has been our experience, in office hour after office hour, that people waste a lot of time working on the wrong problem. If they are lucky, they will fail miserably quickly and get forced by circumstance into working on better problems. If they are unlucky and smart, they’ll succeed — we call it the success disaster — and wake up ten years later wondering how the hell they got to wherever they are, and why they are so unhappy.

These are all gravity problems — meaning they are not real problems. Why? Because in life design, if it’s not actionable, it’s not a problem. Let’s repeat that. If it’s not actionable, it’s not a problem. It’s a situation, a circumstance, a fact of life. It may be a drag (so to speak), but, like gravity, it’s not a problem that can be solved.

The key is not to get stuck on something that you have effectively no chance of succeeding at.

In order to start where we are, we need to break life down into some discrete areas — health, work, play, and love.

“To be a successful, high-performance entrepreneur, particularly under the extreme stress of a start-up, I can’t afford to get sick. I need to manage my health, even more now that I’m in a start-up.” Fred made some changes: he hired a personal trainer, started working out three times a week, and committed to listening to one audio book a week on a challenging intellectual or spiritual subject during his commute. He reported more efficiency at work and a much higher job and life satisfaction with this new mix.

2 - Building a Compass

You need two things to build your compass—a Workview and a Lifeview.

Our goal for your life is rather simple: coherency. A coherent life is one lived in such a way that you can clearly connect the dots between three things:

  • Who you are
  • What you believe
  • What you are doing

A Workview should address the critical issues related to what work is and what it means to you. It is not just a list of what you want from or out of work, but a general statement of your view of work. It’s your definition for what good work deserves to be. A Workview may address such questions as:

  • Why work?
  • What’s work for?
  • What does work mean?
  • How does it relate to the individual, others, society?
  • What defines good or worthwhile work?
  • What does money have to do with it?
  • What do experience, growth, and fulfillment have to do with it?

Your Lifeview is what provides your definition of what have been called “matters of ultimate concern.” It’s what matters most to you:

  • Why are we here?
  • What is the meaning or purpose of life?
  • What is the relationship between the individual and others?
  • Where do family, country, and the rest of the world fit in?
  • What is good, and what is evil?
  • Is there a higher power, God, or something transcendent, and if so, what impact does this have on your life?
  • What is the role of joy, sorrow, justice, injustice, love, peace, and strife in life?

Read over your Workview and Lifeview, and write down a few thoughts on the following questions (please try to answer each of the questions):

  • Where do your views on work and life complement one another?
  • Where do they clash?
  • Does one drive the other? How?

3 - Wayfinding

Well, there are parts of any job or any career that are hard and annoying — but if most of what you do at work is not bringing you alive, then it’s killing you. It’s your career, after all, and you are going to be spending a lot of time doing it — we calculate it at 90,000 to 125,000 hours during the course of your lifetime. If it’s not fun, a lot of your life is going to suck.

There are two elements to the Good Time Journal:

  • Activity Log (where I record where I’m engaged and energized)
  • Reflections (where I discover what I am learning)

It’s the AEIOU method that provides you five sets of questions you can use when reflecting on your Activity Log.

  • Activities.
  • What were you actually doing?
  • Was this a structured or an unstructured activity?
  • Did you have a specific role to play (team leader) or were you just a participant (at the meeting)?
  • Environments. Our environment has a profound effect on our emotional state. You feel one way at a football stadium, another in a cathedral.
  • Notice where you were when you were involved in the activity.
  • What kind of a place was it, and how did it make you feel?
  • Interactions.
  • What were you interacting with—people or machines?
  • Was it a new kind of interaction or one you are familiar with?
  • Was it formal or informal?
  • Objects.
  • Were you interacting with any objects or devices — iPads or smartphones, hockey sticks or sailboats?
  • What were the objects that created or supported your feeling engaged?
  • Users.
  • Who else was there, and what role did they play in making it either a positive or a negative experience?

Your past is waiting to be mined for insights, too — especially your mountaintop moments, or “peak experiences.” Peak experiences in our past — even our long-ago past — can be telling.

4 - Getting Unstuck

Dysfunctional Belief: I’m stuck.
Reframe: I’m never stuck, because I can always generate a lot of ideas.

Those of us fortunate enough to live in the modern world with access to some degree of choice, freedom, mobility, education, and technology spend most of our time immersed in a world obsessed with optimization. There’s always got to be a better idea, a better way — even a best way. That kind of thinking is pretty dangerous to life design. The truth is that all of us have more than one life in us. When we ask our students, “How many lifetimes’ worth of living are there in you?,” the average answer is 3.4. And if you accept this idea — that there are multiple great designs for your life, though you’ll still only get to live one — it is rather liberating. There is no one idea for your life. There are many lives you could live happily and productively (no matter how many years old you are), and there are lots of different paths you could take to live each of those productive, amazingly different lives.

As a life designer, you need to embrace two philosophies: 1. You choose better when you have lots of good ideas to choose from. 2. You never choose your first solution to any problem.

When you’re stuck with an anchor problem, try reframing the challenge as an exploration of possibilities (instead of trying to solve your huge problem in one miraculous leap), then decide to try a series of small, safe prototypes of the change you’d like to see happen.

5 - Design Your Lives

Dysfunctional Belief: I need to figure out my best possible life, make a plan, and then execute it.
Reframe: There are multiple great lives (and plans) within me, and I get to choose which one to build my way forward to next.

One of the most powerful ways to design your life is to design your lives. No, we haven’t hit our heads and that isn’t a typo. We’re going to ask you to imagine and write up three different versions of the next five years of your life. We call these Odyssey Plans.

The ground rules for listening are these: Tell your listeners not to critique, review, or advise. You want them to receive, reflect, and amplify. Find two to five people who are “there for you” and will show up for an evening dedicated to helping you design your life (or who are willing to read this chapter, at the very least). When it’s time for questions, “Tell me more about…” is a great approach that keeps the inquiry supportive.

6 - Prototyping

Dysfunctional Belief: If I comprehensively research the best data for all aspects of my plan, I’ll be fine.
Reframe: I should build prototypes to explore questions about my alternatives.

7 - How Not to Get a Job

Most great jobs — those that fall into the dream job category — are never publicly listed.

One thing that you may have noticed is the conspicuous absence of job descriptions that sound like this:

  • Looking for candidates who would like to connect their Workview to their Lifeview
  • Looking for candidates who believe that good work is found through the proper exercise of their signature strengths
  • Looking for candidates with high integrity, the capacity to learn quickly, and high intrinsic motivation; we can teach you all the rest

8 - Designing Your Dream Job

Dysfunctional Belief: My dream job is out there waiting.
Reframe: You design your dream job through a process of actively seeking and co-creating it.

Dysfunctional Belief: I am looking for a job.
Reframe: I am pursuing a number of offers.

9 - Choosing Happiness

The secret to happiness in life design isn’t making the right choice; it’s learning to choose well.

Dysfunctional Belief: To be happy, I have to make the right choice.
Reframe: There is no right choice — only good choosing.

In 1990, John Mayer and Peter Salovey wrote the seminal scholarly article launching the concept of “emotional intelligence” and proposing that, in achieving success and happiness, our “EQ” was as important as, and in many situations more important than, our “IQ,” measuring our cognitive intelligence.

It turns out that reversibility is not conducive to establishing reliable happiness with a decision. Apparently, just the invitation to reconsider and “keep your options open” makes us doubt and devalue our choice.

The key is to remember that imagined choices don’t actually exist, because they’re not actionable. We’re not trying to live a fantasy life; we’re trying to design a real and livable life. If we burdened ourselves with knowing everything about our decisions and discovering every option possible (which, of course, you should do if you’re going to make “the best choice”), we’d never decide.

Dysfunctional Belief: Happiness is having it all.
Reframe: Happiness is letting go of what you don’t need.

10 - Failure Immunity

All along, you have been developing something positive psychologists like Angela Duckworth call perseverance or grit. Duckworth’s studies on grit and self-control demonstrate that grit is a better measure of potential success than IQ. Failure immunity gives you grit to spare.

Dysfunctional Belief: We judge our life by the outcome.
Reframe: Life is a process, not an outcome.

The philosopher James Carse wrote an interesting book called Finite and Infinite Games. In it he asserts that just about everything we do in life is either a finite game, one in which we play by the rules in order to win — or an infinite game, one in which we play with the rules for the joy of getting to keep playing.

Dysfunctional Belief: Life is a finite game, with winners and losers.
Reframe: Life is an infinite game, with no winners or losers.

Failure is just the raw material of success. We all screw up; we all have weaknesses; we all have growing pains. And we all have at least one story in us of an occasion when we’ve reframed a particular failure, where we’ve changed our perspective, and have seen how a failure turned out to be the best thing that ever happened.

It’s easy for us to describe the lofty goal of attaining failure immunity, but getting there is another matter. Here’s an exercise to help you do just that — the failure reframe. Failure is the raw material of success, and the failure reframe is a process of converting that raw material into real growth. It’s a simple three-step exercise:

  1. Log your failures.
  2. Categorize your failures.
  3. Identify growth insights.

11 - Building a Team

Some groups are all about the content or the process, and some groups are all about the people. We are talking about a community that’s at least in large part about the people. You can be in a really great book club, where people do the reading and show up prepared and have thoughtful discussions on writing, narrative, and the state of civil society plus a little wine tasting on the side, and you all really like one another, and it’s great. But that’s not a community as we mean it. It really is great — don’t get us wrong. It has a purpose (informed book discussions), it has shared ground (reading novels makes us more interesting, thoughtful, and open-minded), and it meets regularly (first Tuesday of the month) — but we aren’t engaged in one another’s lives, and we don’t actually have to know one another at all to make the community work. That great book club would not likely be a place to have this conversation. A community doesn’t have to be made up entirely of intimates, but there should be some level of personal disclosure about what each person is up to and how it’s going.

Conclusion - A Well-Designed Life

Dysfunctional Belief: I finished designing my life; the hard work is done, and everything will be great.
Reframe: You never finish designing your life — life is a joyous and never-ending design project of building your way forward.

We introduced the idea of life design in this book by telling you five simple things you need to do: (1) be curious (curiosity), (2) try stuff (bias to action), (3) reframe problems (reframing), (4) know it’s a process (awareness), and (5) ask for help (radical collaboration).

Be Curious.
There’s something interesting about everything. Endless curiosity is key to a well-designed life. Nothing is boring to everyone (even doing taxes or washing the dishes). What would someone who’s interested in this want to know? How does it work? Why do they do it that way? How did they used to do it? What do experts in this field argue about and why? What’s the most interesting thing going on here? What don’t I get about what’s happening here? How could I find out?

Try Stuff. With a bias to action, there is no more being stuck—no more worrying, analyzing, pondering, or solving your way through life. Just do it. How can we try this before the day is out? What would we like to know more about? What can I do that will answer that? What sorts of things are actionable, and if we tried them, what might we learn?

Reframe Problems. Reframing is a change in perspective, and almost any design problem can use a perspective switch. What perspective do I actually have? Where am I now coming from? What other perspectives could other people have? Name them, and then describe the problem from their perspective, not yours. Redescribe your problem using some of the following reframe lenses: Your problem is actually very small. Very easy to fix. An opportunity more than a problem. Something you can just skip entirely. Something you actually don’t understand at all yet. Not your problem. And how will it look a year later?

Know It’s a Process. Awareness of the process means you don’t get frustrated or lost, and you don’t ever give up. What are all the steps behind you and in front of you that you can imagine? Is what’s on your mind actually germane to the step you’re on now? Are you on the right step, or are you ahead of or behind yourself? What happens if you don’t think more than one step ahead? What’s the worst thing that can happen? How likely is it to happen, and what would you do if it did? What’s the best thing that can happen? Write down all the questions, worries, ideas, and hopes that you have, and then ask yourself if you know what to do next. Does it feel different now?

Ask for Help. Radical collaboration means that you aren’t alone in the process. Find a supporter you can talk to about what you’re in the midst of—right now. Tell this person your situation for five minutes, and ask for five minutes of feedback and discussion. How do you feel now (regardless of what your supporter said—just talking to someone other than yourself)? There are lots of ways to get collaboration started: Build a team. Create a community. Who are all the different groups and constituencies involved in what you’re working on? Are you connected to and in conversation with all of them? If not—get going. Keep an ask-for-help journal in which you jot down the questions you want help on, and keep it handy. Each week, identify some people who can help you with some of the journal entries and reach out to them. Journal answers and results from your helpers. Find a mentor. Call your mother (she’d love it—you know she would).

Your compass is about those great big organizing ideas of your Workview and Lifeview. These, along with your values, provide the foundation for your answer to “How’s it going?” They inform you if you are on a good track for you, or are out of sync with yourself. They determine if you’re living a coherent life in which you’ve got who you are, what you believe, and what you’re doing in adequate alignment.