the cover of the book Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans

Book Review: Designing Your Life: How To Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans

Iterative improvement with the designer mindset

"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. ... And the research shows that, for most people, passion comes after they try something, discover they like it, and develop mastery—not before. I put it more succinctly: passion is the result of a good life design, not the cause. "

Designing Your Life: How To Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans (Knopf, 2016) is a fantastic guidebook that can lead you through the iterative process of turning your life into a life you love living. Burnett directs Stanford's design program and is a professor of mechanical engineering; Evans lectures at Stanford on product development and design, and co-founded Electronic Arts. The book mostly focuses on jobs and careers, but the life design principles presented could easily apply to life more broadly construed.

The book grew out of "design your life" workshops that Burnett and Evans have taught at Stanford for years. Their workshops have now made it far beyond Stanford. I remember one of my colleagues at the MIT Media Lab participating in one of their workshops and loving it. The book had a very Media Lab feel to it—full of the "design, prototype, iterate" mindset that the Media Lab loves.

The first step in designing your life is to realize that you, like most people, could improve. Perhaps you're one of the two-thirds of American workers who are unhappy with their jobs. Or one of the 15% who hate their jobs. Regardless of where you're at, Burnett and Evans emphasize that designing your life is a continual, iterative process, and there's always room for improvement.

Designer mindset

At the core of the book is five design mindsets that the authors continually reference:

  1. Be curious: play, explore, see opportunity
  2. Try stuff / bias to action: no armchair philosophizing about your life
  3. Reframe problems: helps you find the right solutions to the right problems
  4. Awareness / know it's a process: the first iteration probably won't be right; focus less on end goal than on each iteration
  5. Ask for help / radical collaboration: design is collaborative, so find mentors and community

Finding problems

The first thing to do is figure out what problems you can take action on.

"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 is not a problem that can be solved."

Burnett and Evans explain that you should work on problems/situations that are actionable—there is actually something you can do about them. They separate these problems into two groups: problems you really can't solve, and problems that would take a lot of hard work, effort, and run a high chance of failure (but maybe could still be worth pursuing).

Their point is, once you find problems that are unactionable, you can move on to actually doing something about the things you can actually change.

I'm reminded of what a Buddhist nun said on the retreat I did back in college: "If there's something you can do, why are you unhappy? Just do it. If there's nothing you can do, why are you unhappy?"

"if you become open-minded enough to accept reality, you'll be freed to reframe an actionable problem and design a way to participate in the world on things that matter to you and might even work."

Living coherently

A big theme of the book is living coherently. I love this theme. To me, it speaks to pursuing excellence over success and treating life as practice.

"A coherent life is one lived in such a way that you can clearly connect to the dots between three things:

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

Increased coherency—increased connection between your values and your actions—leads to an increased sense of self, helps you create meaning, and generates greater satisfaction. A lot of people focus only on what their work is; Burnett and Evans remind us that why we work and how we integrate that work into our bigger vision of life matters, too.

"Living coherently doesn't mean everything is in perfect order all the time. It simply means you are living in alignment with your values and have not sacrificed your integrity along with the way. "

Exercises to iteratively improve

A key feature of the book is practical exercises in every chapter, which come from the activities the authors use in their workshops. All the exercises are geared toward increasing your life coherency. The book walks you through:

  • Gauging where you are so you can determine what areas of your life need the most work
  • Considering your values in work and in life generally: answer questions like "why work?" and "what's life all about?"
  • Evaluating what brings you engagement, flow, and energy versus what bores you and drains your energy
  • Getting unstuck, finding options, reframing problems, prototyping directions
  • Job searches and the informational interview
  • Choosing what to do once you have options
  • Building a team to design your life alongside you

As the authors write:

"[F]ollow the joy; follow what engages and excites you, what brings you alive. Most people are taught that work is always hard and that we have to suffer through it. 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."

No single best way forward

Part of this book's message is that there is no one way forward. There is no best. Everyone has multiple possible ways forward that would be equally satisfying and amazing. There's no point trying to find the one thing that is best for you because there will be many.

In designing your life, you're working toward using your strengths and passions to get high engagement, high energy, high flow work. But you, like most people, probably have more than one strength. That's how you know there's more than one possible life path for you.

A big part of the design approach to life is trying stuff—prototyping. I wrote about this nearly a decade ago. Try out life paths for all your various strengths and passions. Zigzag around. Start conversations, visualize alternatives, talk to people, shadow someone, volunteer, intern, get data about how you might want to go forward. Create options.

One key reframing Burnett and Evans suggest is to turn "pursuing a job" into "pursuing job offers". It's a small difference, but the authors say it opens up space for curiosity and authenticity. You're seeking out opportunities to evaluate offers rather than trying to mold yourself into a specific job description.

"Prototyping the life design way is all about asking good questions, outing our hidden biases and assumptions, iterating rapidly, and creating momentum for a path we'd like to try out."

Then, with offers and information in hand, make a choice.

Choosing relies both on the logical reasoning of your prefrontal cortex and your gut feelings—your emotional and intuitive ways of knowing. Give yourself time to make decisions. Try, for example, imagining for a few days that you decided to do X, and not Y. Then pause to reflect. Then, spend the next few days imagining you did Y, not X. Better? Worse? Reflect again. This gives all your modes of decision making time to weigh in.

Burnett and Evans argue that the most important step in life choosing is not agonizing about the choice you've made. You could always have made other choices. You have near infinite life paths. Live the choice you've made and let go of the other options.

"[B]eing happy and getting what you want are not about future risks and unknowns or whether you pick the right alternatives; it's about how you choose and how you live your choices once they're made."

Community for life

Burnett and Evans don't discount the importance of community—not just for giving you feedback and information, but for creating a satisfying life. You don't live in isolation; you can't design your life on your own. But beyond finding people who can support you as mentors or as teammates in the life design process, they remind us that we need community to flourish:

"Community is more than just sharing resources or hanging out now and then. It's showing up and investing in the ongoing creation of one another's lives."

Wow. That's one of the most succinct and accurate ways of describing community I've ever read.

Randy and I have frequently discussed how to intentionally build community, invest in our community, and build stronger towns. If you're trying to create community, Burnett and Evans' insights into what a strong community needs are critical to understand: explicit kindred purpose, shared ground (such as shared values or a shared point of view), regularly meetings, and both knowing and being known—which involves personal disclosure and also right intention and purpose in participating in the community.

Iterative life design

I am completely on board with Burnett and Evans' iterative approach: evaluate where you are, try stuff, create options, be curious, adapt to fit your changing values and needs, keep iterating and checking in. I loved their practical exercises and suggestions. I highly recommend this book to anyone looking to improve their life. If you're dissatisfied with your status quo, if your balance is off, this book offers solid, actionable ways forward.

Near the end, the authors bring up James Carse's idea of finite versus infinite games. In a finite game, you play by the rules in order to win. In an infinite game, you play with the rules in order to keep playing. Life has both, but life design is the infinite game of becoming more yourself.

"As you begin to think like a designer, remember one important thing: it's impossible to predict the future. And the corollary to that thought is: Once you design something, it changes the future that is possible."

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