Designing Your Life:
How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life
by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans
After finishing this book in January of 2022, I wrote,
"Although I can always take exception to some of the ideas an author promotes, for a book with this much depth and breadth, I'm going to give this book five stars."
My clippings below collapse a 269-page book into 8 pages, measured by using 12-point type in Microsoft Word."
Here are the selections I made:
Dysfunctional Belief: Your degree determines your career. Reframe: Three-quarters of all college grads don’t end up working in a career related to their majors.
Janine is also not alone. In America, two-thirds of workers are unhappy with their jobs. And 15 percent actually hate their work. Dysfunctional Belief: If you are successful, you will be happy. Reframe: True happiness comes from designing a life that works for you.
Dysfunctional Belief: It’s too late. Reframe: It’s never too late to design a life you love.
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.
Think Like a Designer
forward. Designers build their way forward. What does that mean? It means you are not just going to be dreaming up a lot of fun fantasies that have no relationship to the real world—or the real you. You are going to build things (we call them prototypes), try stuff, and have a lot of fun in the process.
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. These are your design tools, and with them you can build anything, including a life you love. Be Curious. Curiosity makes everything new. It invites exploration. It makes everything play. Most of all, curiosity is going to help you “get good at being lucky.” It’s the reason some people see opportunities everywhere.
Try Stuff. When you have a bias to action, you are committed to building your way forward. There is no sitting on the bench just thinking about what you are going to do. There is only getting in the game. Designers try things. They test things out. They create prototype after prototype, failing often, until they find what works and what solves the problem.
Reframe Problems. Reframing is how designers get unstuck. Reframing also makes sure that we are working on the right problem. Life design involves key reframes that allow you to step back, examine your biases, and open up new solution spaces.
Know It’s a Process. We know that life gets messy. For every step forward, it can sometimes seem you are moving two steps back. Mistakes will be made, prototypes thrown away. An important part of the process is letting go—of your first idea and of a good-but-not-great solution.
Life design is a journey; let go of the end goal and focus on the process and see what happens next.
There’s a sign over the design studio at Stanford that says You Are Here. Our students love that sign. You might say it’s somewhat clarifying. It doesn’t matter where you come from, where you think you are going, what job or career you have had or think you should have. You are not too late, and you’re not too early. Design thinking can help you build your way forward from wherever you are, regardless of the life design problem you are facing.
Problem Finding + Problem Solving = Well-Designed Life In design thinking, we put as much emphasis on problem finding as we do on problem solving. After all, what’s the point of working on the wrong problem? We emphasize this because it’s actually not always so easy to understand what our problems are.
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.
Despite the tsunami of negative feedback, Dave persisted, because he had this set idea in his mind of his destiny, and he kept working away at the “problem” of getting his grades up in biology. He was so focused on the what-he-had-in-mind problem that he never looked at the real problem—he shouldn’t be majoring in biology, and his idea of his destiny had been misguided from the beginning.
A Beginner’s Mind If Dave had known to think like a designer fresh out of high school, he would have approached the problem of his college major with a beginner’s mind. Instead of assuming he knew all the answers before he asked the questions, he would have been curious.
We also tend to get mired in what we call gravity problems. “I’ve got this big problem and I don’t know what to do about it.” “Oh, wow, Jane, what’s the problem?” “It’s gravity.” “Gravity?” “Yeah—it’s making me crazy! I’m feeling heavier and heavier. I can’t get my bike up hills easily. It never leaves me. I don’t know what to do about it. Can you help me?”
“Poets just don’t make enough money in our culture. They’re not respected enough. What do I do about it?” “The company I work for has been family-owned for five generations. There is no way that, as an outsider, I’m ever going to be an executive. What do I do about it?” “I’ve been out of work for five years. It’s going to be much harder for me to get a job and that’s not fair. What do I do about it?”
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. Here’s a little tidbit that is going to save you a lot of time—months, years, decades even. It has to do with reality. People fight reality. They fight it tooth and nail, with everything they’ve got. And anytime you are arguing or fighting with reality, reality will win. You can’t outsmart it. You can’t trick it. You can’t bend it to your will. Not now. Not ever.
Remember that the key thing we’re after here is to free you from getting stuck on something that’s not actionable. When you get stuck in a gravity problem, you’re stuck permanently, because there’s nothing you can do, and designers are first and foremost doers. We recognize that there are two variations of gravity problems—totally inactionable ones (such as gravity itself) and functionally unactionable ones (such as the average income of a full-time poet).
We are going to help you create the best-designed life available to you in reality—not in some fictional world with less gravity and rich poets. The only response to a gravity problem is acceptance. And this is where all good designers begin. This is the “You Are Here” or “Accept” phase of design thinking. Acceptance. That’s why you start where you are. Not where you wish you were. Not where you hope you are. Not where you think you should be. But right where you are.
In order to start where we are, we need to break life down into some discrete areas—health, work, play, and love.
And by “healthy” we mean being well in mind, body, and spirit—emotional health, physical health, and mental health.
Work. By “work” we mean your participation in the great ongoing human adventure on the planet. You may or may not be getting paid for it, but this is the stuff you “do.”
Don’t for a minute reduce work only to that which you get paid for.
Play is any activity that brings you joy when you do it.
The question here is what brings you joy purely in the doing. Love. We all know what love is. And we all know when we have it and when we don’t.
Love comes to us in a wide range of types, from affection to community to eroticism, and from a huge array of sources, from parents to friends to colleagues to lovers, but they all share that people thing. That sense of connection. Who are the people in your life, and how is love flowing to and from you and others?
The exercise below is going to help you figure out where you are and what design problem you’d like to tackle. You can’t know where you’re going until you know where you are.
The Health / Work / Play / Love Dashboard
Dysfunctional Belief: I should already know where I’m going. Reframe: You can’t know where you are going until you know where you are.
Health is at the base of our diagram because, well, when you’re not healthy, nothing else in your life works very well.
If you’re beginning to think like a designer, you will recognize that life is never done. Work is never done. Play is never done. Love and health are never done. We are only done designing our lives when we die. Until then, we’re involved in a constant iteration of the next big thing: life as we know it.
1. Write a few sentences about how it’s going in each of the four areas. 2. Mark where you are (0 to Full) on each gauge. 3. Ask yourself if there’s a design problem you’d like to tackle in any of these areas. 4. Now ask yourself if your “problem” is a gravity problem.
So let’s talk about the question that’s a little bit harder—what is your quest?
Why am I here? What am I doing? Why does it matter? What is my purpose? What’s the point of it all?
What is work for? Why do you do it? What makes good work good? If you discover and are able to articulate your philosophy of work (what it’s for and why you do it), you will be less likely to let others design your life for you. Developing your own Workview is one component of the compass you are building; a Lifeview is second. Now, Lifeview may sound a bit lofty, but it’s really not—everyone has a Lifeview. You may not have articulated it before, but if you are alive, you have a Lifeview. A Lifeview is simply your ideas about the world and how it works. What gives life meaning? What makes your life worthwhile or valuable? How does your life relate to others in your family, your community, and the world? What do money, fame, and personal accomplishment have to do with a satisfying life? How important are experience, growth, and fulfillment in your life?
He came to the realization that he could be inspired by people like Martin Luther King and Gandhi, but that didn’t mean he had to walk their same path. He ended up redesigning his life as a thought leader and writer—still working for the same goals, but in a way that was less about imitation and more about authenticity.
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?
For this exercise, we’re not interested in what work you want to do, but why you work.
Just as you did with the Workview, please write a reflection on your Lifeview. This should also take no more than thirty minutes and be 250 words or so.
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?
Coherency and Workview-Lifeview Integration 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?
True North So now you have an articulated and integrated Lifeview and Workview. Ultimately, what these two views do is give you your “True North.” They create your compass. They will help you know if you’re on course or off course.
Dysfunctional Belief: I should know where I’m going! Reframe: I won’t always know where I’m going—but I can always know whether I’m going in the right direction.
Dysfunctional Belief: Work is not supposed to be enjoyable; that’s why they call it work. Reframe: Enjoyment is a guide to finding the right work for you.
Wayfinding is the ancient art of figuring out where you are going when you don’t actually know your destination. For wayfinding, you need a compass and you need a direction. Not a map—a direction. Think of the American explorers Lewis and Clark. They didn’t have a map when Jefferson sent them out to travel through the land acquired in the Louisiana Purchase and make their way to the Pacific. While wayfinding to the ocean, they mapped the route (140 maps, to be exact).
What you can do is pay attention to the clues in front of you, and make your best way forward with the tools you have at hand. We think the first clues are engagement and energy.
People in flow report the experience as having these sorts of attributes: • Experiencing complete involvement in the activity. • Feeling a sense of ecstasy or euphoria. • Having great inner clarity—knowing just what to do and how to do it. • Being totally calm and at peace. • Feeling as if time were standing still—or disappearing in an instant.
Flow is play for grown-ups. In the life design dashboard, we assessed our health, work, play, and love.
You may be wondering, “Isn’t tracking my energy level kind of the same thing as tracking how engaged I am?” Yes and no. Yes, high levels of engagement often coincide with high levels of energy, but not necessarily.
Here’s another key element when you’re wayfinding in life: follow the joy; follow what engages and excites you, what brings you alive.
Work is fun when you are actually leaning into your strengths and are deeply engaged and energized by what you’re doing.
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)
you can make log sheets using the worksheet at the end of this chapter, which has little gauges for how engaged and energized you are by your activities (or download it at www.designingyour.life). You can also just draw gauges (or whatever engagement and energy symbols you like) into your journal book. Do what works for you—just get the information down on paper.
The second element of the Good Time Journal is reflection, looking over your Activity Log and noticing trends, insights, surprises—anything that is a clue to what does and doesn’t work for you. We recommend doing your Activity Log for at least three weeks, or whatever period of time you need to be sure you capture all the various kinds of activities that arise in your current situation (some activities may only come around every few weeks). Then we recommend that you do your Good Time Journal reflection weekly, so your reflections are based on more than just a single experience of each activity.
The idea is to try to become as precise as possible; the clearer you are on what is and isn’t working for you, the better you can set your wayfinding direction. For instance…What you initially logged as “Staff Mtg—Enjoyed it for once today!” might, after you’ve looked at it again, be more accurately restated as “Staff Mtg—Felt great when I rephrased what Jon said and everyone went ‘Ooooh—exactly!’ ” This more precise version tells a much more useful story about what specific activity or behavior engages you. And it opens the door to developing even greater self-awareness. When your entries have that kind of detail in them, your reflections can be more insightful. When journaling your reflection on the log entry about that staff meeting, you might ask yourself, “Was I more engaged by artfully rephrasing Jon’s comment (getting the articulation dialed in just right) or by facilitating consensus among the staff (being the guy who made the group’s ‘Now we get it!’ unifying moment happen)?” If you conclude that artful articulation was the real sweet spot of that staff meeting moment for you, that important insight can help you be on the lookout for content-creation opportunities over group facilitation opportunities. Take this sort of observation and reflection as far as you find helpful (and no further—you don’t want to get stuck in your journal).
It’s the AEIOU method3 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?
Mining the Mountaintop 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.
Good Time Journal 1. Complete a log of your daily activities, using the worksheet provided (or in your own notebook). Note when you are engaged and/or energized and what you are doing during those times. Try to do this daily, or at the very least every few days. 2. Continue this daily logging for three weeks. 3. At the end of each week, jot down your reflections—notice which activities are engaging and energizing, and which ones are not. 4. Are there any surprises in your reflections? 5. Zoom in and try to get even more specific about what does or does not engage and energize you. 6. Use the AEIOU method as needed to help you in your reflections.
Dysfunctional Belief: I’m stuck. Reframe: I’m never stuck, because I can always generate a lot of ideas.
She had spent a long time trying to do the right thing instead of doing what was right for Sharon.
Dysfunctional Belief: I have to find the one right idea. Reframe: I need a lot of ideas so that I can explore any number of possibilities for my future.
Look, it’s simple. You can’t know what you want until you know what you might want, so you are going to have to generate a lot of ideas and possibilities. Accept the problem. Get stuck. Get over it, and ideate, ideate, ideate!
Designers learn to have lots of wild ideas because they know that the number one enemy of creativity is judgment. Our brains are so tightly wired to be critical, find problems, and leap to judgment that it’s a wonder any ideas ever make it out! We have to defer judgment and silence the inner critic if we want to get all our ideas out.
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.
The mind-mapping process has three steps: 1. Picking a topic 2. Making the mind map 3. Making secondary connections and creating concepts (mashing it all up)
Step two is making the mind map. For this, you take the original idea and write down five or six things related to that idea. Be rigorous in writing down the first words that come to mind. Now repeat this process with the words in the second ring. Draw three or four lines from each word, and free-associate new words related to these prompts. The words that come up for you do not need to be associated to the words or question in the center, only the word in the second ring. Repeat this process until you have at least three or four rings of word associations.
The next step is to take this random association of words and highlight a few things that might be interesting (or that jump out at you) and mash them together into a few concepts. You want to pick from the very outer layer or perimeter of the mind map, because that is the stuff that is two or three steps away from your conscious thinking. Even though being outdoors eventually took Grant to bicycle racing and Usain Bolt, in Grant’s hidden unconscious these are all linked back to his original prompt. Grant pulled out the random words that seemed interesting—in this case, explorers, tropical beaches, pirates, kids, exotic locations, and bicycle racing. Then he took these individual components and mashed them up into a couple of possible ideas.
And, more important, he’s starting to think that it’s not about finding the perfect job, it’s about making the job he has “perfect.”
David Kelley, the founder of the d.school, says you often have to go through the wild ideas to get to the actionable good ideas. So don’t be afraid to come up with crazy stuff. It may be the jumping-off point for something really practical and really new. Also, you should create your mind map on a big piece of paper. You are looking for lots of ideas—so make your map as graphic and as big as possible. Go out and get a giant piece of butcher paper or a large white board, and have big ideas.
The big move here is to get rid of the image of the perfect garage and reimagine a different result or steps along the way. If Dave keeps the picture of his old, perfect garage (the solution) pasted on that refrigerator door in his mind, he’s never going to get anywhere, because it’s too hard. Too hard doesn’t work. This isn’t a gravity problem—it’s not impossible. It’s just that Dave’s stuck because he’s anchored himself to a solution that can’t work.