I just read Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and David Evans recently, and it has become one of my favorite books of all time. The book outlines an innovative approach to the answer an ancient question “What do you want to be when you grow up?”, and I think humans of all ages should be asking this question, not just young adults.
Burnett and Evans, two Stanford professors, started with a problem of how do we guide college kids to find a fulfilling career path. As I was a former lost ivy-league over-achiever and now a university professor myself, I understand what an epidemic this problem is. Many of us, though smart and hard-working, can get stuck in a professional life that doesn’t quite jive with what we truly want. I, in particular, had my fair share of relapsing between “choose the right and safe option. your mama said hard work triumphs all” and “what the hell am I doing, this is quite miserable” years after college. So this book is definitely for me.
Designing your life utilizes the idea of Design Thinking, a process that startups use to innovate products that achieve market fit and make money. They adapted that concept to apply to the problem of developing a fulfilling career path — it’s a pretty damn complex problem to design for, if you ask me. Yet the book is up to that task and really evolutionary because it outlines all the important ideas needed to unlock and unleash your solid life plan.
First, it highlights an important design practice of reframing — an approach to release dysfunctional beliefs that prevent people from designing the life they truly want. For example, one might think that I would like to be carpenter, but I really cannot because I studied engineering all my life. The book walks you through common dysfunctional beliefs that most people have and point out the danger and irrationality to get you unstuck. This chapter was particularly liberating to me. Although I believe that I could do anything I would like to do with my life (and I always knew I want to start a small business), deep down I still have the fear of wasting my potential as a trained scientist. I was trapped in my past career choice. This fear has held me back from fully pursuing my dreams for years.
Second, it invites you to a compass building process where you get to ask yourself some deep questions, like “What does work mean to you?”, “What is your purpose in life?”, and “How does everyone else in the world fit in to your goals?” This exercise leads you to express who you are, what you believe, and what you do to cross-check whether they are all aligned. I got a big a-ha moment here. It’s not the first time I asked myself these questions, but it’s probably the first time after I finished my PhD. And man, I have changed so much since the last time I pondered my life goals. I have started two businesses and work in corporate worlds, which led to new beliefs and plenty of information to make better decisions.
Then the book explains that the idea of using engagement as a guide to finding the right work for you, by paying attention to moments and activities that make you feel engaged. My take on this is that we are looking for work that’s maximizing our engagement (not maximizing joy per se, because most work will induce some hardship and pain, like how writing this article gives me a little back pain right now). And I think it’s a great way to approach it. I mean most people might say they experience more joy when laying in a beach hammock compared to working their job, and it might be true for me. But I have plenty of moments in beach hammocks where I don’t feel engaged in the experience of glancing nude sunbathers so much, instead my thoughts are furiously occupied by my business plan. Would I rather choose to do what I enjoy more or engage more? The answer is clearly the latter. Laying in a hammock dominating the world in my head does get old after a while.
My favorite part of the book is when you actually do the designing. I will only talk about two phases that were incredibly powerful to me, which is ideation and prototyping. In the ideation process, you are going to come up with a few 5-year plans of how your life will progress. I definitely recommend you release the artist inside you and make an illustrated plan, as the book suggested. I find that my goofy drawings have stress-relieving affect to the point where I want to draw my alternate reality as a hobby. The framework is incredibly forgiving, as it asks you to draw at least 3 plans: plan A (your current plan), plan B (if plan A fails), and plan C (if money and social approval do not matter). It also asks you to rate each plan according to several metrics like likability (do you like it?) and confidence (can you pull it off?), and list 3 questions about the plan. I said it was forgiving because it acknowledged that no plan is going to be perfect in all dimensions and you will have some uncertainty. Also it gives us an option to lift the limitations of money and social approval, which are huge for most people.
Lastly, in the prototype phase, we start building. The bias-for-action culture of startups lead them to believe that anything can be prototyped, including your life. You will be trying out some minimal-investment versions of your most interesting choice to gather more data, involve others in your design, and hopefully iterate to better prototype in the future. My prototypes have led me to the point where I created this website and am now writing this blog. It’s all part of the big journey. And although it is a low-resolution prototype at this time, I am learning a ton and feel very confident in the process.
Now that I’ve solved the biggest problem in my life, I feel confident that design thinking process can actually solve any difficult problems! This book has inspired me to go further and experiment with how design thinking can be applied to other aspects of my life. And I’ll be sure to tell you about them in later posts. If you have not done so, I totally recommend you read the book if you too have not quite yet found an optimally fulfilling career. Enjoy!