Designing Your Life – How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life – Book Review + Notes

Designing Your Life – How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life By Bill Burnett, Dave Evans Bill Burnett is a designer who has spent a good part of his career designing everything from Apple components to action figures. Dave Evans has worked in mechanical engineering, as VP of Talent for EA, and with large businesses developing environments that enhance the work and satisfaction of teams. Together they teach one of the most popular classes at Stanford about learning design thinking. Learn more and connect: Designing Your Life teaches you how to take a design-based approach towards your life in order to live better and optimize the life you lead in every way, and in every area. The book was co-authored by Bill Burnett, one of Apple’s original designers; and Dave Evans, a mechanical engineer, and previous VP of Talent for Electronic Arts. Bill and Dave also teach a popular class together at Stanford that teaches students how to leverage design-thinking to customize a personal + professional lifestyle optimized for maximum fulfillment. This book is based on their Stanford lifedesign class. One of the most important points the authors reiterate throughout the book is that any one can design and live-out a joyful, purposeful life — including you. Regardless of your past, your failures, or whatever skills you believe may be holding you back, remember this: when you take a design approach to your life you will learn exactly how to evaluate your biggest challenges, reframe your thinking, and try solutions as you find what works specifically for you. This design-thinking approach takes the pressure off needing to know exactly what you want and how to get it. Instead, you try options that seem interesting, enjoy the journey, and add or subtract choices as you design your life. It leads to a dynamic, energetic, and fulfilling life where you’re always growing and changing for the better. Here’s what you’ll learn about in this summary:

  • You’ll learn how to go from where you are right now, to where you want to go, to the type of person you must grow into in order to get there.
  • You’ll learn how to sort through several options and choose the one that suits you best by using techniques like way-finding and prototyping.
  • You’ll learn how to practice living a life where you can positively reframe negative situations and use them to your advantage.
  • And much, much more.
Important Quotes from the book: “You can use design thinking to create a life that is meaningful, joyful, and fulfilling. It doesn’t matter who you are or were, what you do or did for a living, how young or how old you are – you can use the same thinking that created the most amazing technology, products, and spaces to design your career and your life. A welldesigned life is a life that is generative – it is constantly creative, productive, changing, evolving, and there is always the possibility of surprise.” “In life design, we reframe a lot. The biggest reframe is that your life can’t be perfectly planned, that there isn’t just one solution to your life, and that’s a good thing. There are many designs for your life, all filled with hope for the kind of creative and unfolding reality that makes life worth living into. Your life is not a thing, it’s an experience; the fun comes from designing and enjoying the experience.” “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. That’s all we’re after here – we want to give you the best shot possible at living the life you want, enjoying the living of it, and maybe even making a difference while you’re at it. 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.” Also, The key to designing your life starts with replacing questions like “What do you want to be?” with questions like “What do you want to grow into?”

1. Accept Where You Are

“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.” The process of designing anything begins with understanding and accepting the current situation. When you are designing your life, you take the same approach. The current situation – where you are right now – will likely have problems. It’s important to figure out what the real problem is – no use designing a solution to the wrong problem. The authors tell us to approach our lives through the filter of design thinking, which works like this: Problem Finding + Problem Solving = Well-Designed Life. Dave, one of the authors was at one time enrolled in the Biology program at Stanford. Dave thought his career path was marine biology. Due to the influence of Jacques Cousteau’s show, and his favorite high school teacher, who also was his biology teacher, Dave thought biology absolutely had to be his calling. Since Dave thought his problem was how to become a marine biologist, he worked gruelingly hard at this problem. Unfortunately however, regardless of how hard he worked on his problem (of graduating with a biology degree and becoming a marine biologist), he ended up with terrible results nevertheless: he repeatedly got terrible grades, and continued to display a total lack of interest and enthusiasm for the very major he thought he was supposed to be devoting his professional life towards…. After two and a half years, Dave finally threw up his hands, declaring that marine biology just wasn’t his thing—realizing that he was unhappy because he thought he’d found his ideal problem: study to become a marine biologist, when in fact he’d been focusing on the wrong problem this whole time. Eventually Dave found his real career problem—a problem he could get really thrive within: mechanical engineering. Once he pin-pointed the right field of focus (aka: the right problem), he switched his focus to it immediately—changing majors from biology to mechanical engineering—and ended up finding much more happiness, fulfillment, and success — helping him create a well designed life that allows him to thrive. If Dave had taken a design approach, he would have been asking several questions about marine biology before beginning his studies. He would have talked to some marine biologists, and tried to get a hands-on feel for what it might be like to be one. It’s true for many of us – we take our first idea and try to make it a reality before investigating it carefully. Or, we might not see the problem for what it is. There are certain problems the authors call ‘gravity’ problems. Just like the force of gravity, gravity problems are not actionable – there’s nothing you can do about them. So they are not real problems. In life design, the only problems are ones you can take action on. Save yourself energy and frustration by accepting gravity problems, instead of trying to fix what can’t be fixed. Of course, there are ways around gravity problems. If gravity is slowing down your biking, you can get a lighter bike, or work on becoming a lighter rider, or learn to bike more efficiently. If you can’t get a job because every employer sees your five-year unemployment span and immediately declines you, while you can’t change their perceptions (gravity problem), you can change how you appear to them, by finding volunteer opportunities in your field, putting professional accomplishments down, or looking for industries that are less biased. The important thing is not to fight against what cannot be changed. Your first task is to take a Life Design Assessment. Think of your life as having a dashboard, with gauges that show where you are in different areas. The gauges range from zero (empty) to ten (full). Choose a level for each of the following: – The first area to look at is your health – including physical, mental, and spiritual. – Next look at your work. This includes all the stuff you ‘do’ both paid and unpaid. – Then gauge your play – any activity that brings you joy when you do it. – The last area is love, however you define love. Don’t feel bad if any of these are at zero. The point is to take an honest, nonjudgmental look at where you are now rather than where you think you should be. Once you’ve established a point for all of these, you know where you are, and where your gaps are. The final part of your Life Design Assessment is to write a brief explanation for each area about why you’ve gauged each one the way you have. Moving forward, this will be your “Health/Work/Play/Love Dashboard” and will help you decide where to start designing your life. Reframing dysfunctional beliefs. Before we move on to the next Big Idea, let’s take a quick look at a concept that plays an important role in the book: reframing. ”A reframe is when we take new information about the problem, restate our point of view, and start thinking and prototyping again.” – Here’s an example of a Dysfunctional Belief: “I should already know where I’m going.” – Here’s an example of what you might reframe it to: Reframe: “You can’t know where you are going until you know where you are.” There will be a lot of reframing when you design your life. Reframing allows you to look with a fresh, and positive approach at an old problem, and often eliminates problems in the process. Bottom line: we always want to be ready to recognize and reframe any dysfunctional/limiting beliefs we might be holding onto that prevent us from making progress towards our goals… Finally, before we move on, be sure to remember that the balance you want to achieve on your dashboard is very individual, and completely up to you (after all, it is your life, right?) Look for any design problems that you want to change, and be sure to let go of any gravity problems.

2. Set Your Compass In The Right Direction

“If you can see the connections between who you are, what you believe, and what you are doing, you will know when you are on course, when there is tension, when there might need to be some careful compromises, and when you are in need of a major course correction.” After you’ve decided where you are, you can begin to build a compass to point the way to your life. Building your compass will require a “Workview and a Lifeview”. Once you’ve developed these two, you can create alignment between the different areas of your life, which helps you set a purposeful direction that’s tailored specifically for you, by you. – Your Workview is approximately 250 words about what you believe about why you work, what work is for, what work means to you, how work relates to the world around you, what you believe is worthwhile work, how work relates to money, and how work relates to experience, growth and fulfillment. This is about why you work, not what work you would like to do. – Your Lifeview is also approximately 250 words about your choice of the following thoughts: why you believe we’re here, what the meaning/purpose of life is, how life relates to you and others, where family, country, and the world fit into your views; as well as good and evil, a higher power and how it relates to your life, and the roles that joy, sorrow, justice, injustice, love, peace, and strife have in your life. Next, take a look at these two together. Look at where they agree, contrast, and which might drive the other. Write down your thoughts, and seriously look at how these two can be integrated. When these two views are in harmony, you’ll have designed a more meaningful life-plan. Also, with regard to your compass: “True North” for you is the combination of these two views. Of course, since you can’t travel directly from one point to another, your way-finding towards your destination will adapt to the conditions. When you feel you’re not headed in the right direction, stop and take a look at your compass. Make sure you’re still going in the right direction for you. Finally, here’s a quick reminder to replace any dysfunctional beliefs you might still be holding onto. For example, if you keep repeating dysfunctional beliefs like, “I should know where I’m going!”, try the reframe technique we discussed earlier by replacing “I should know where I’m going” with “I won’t always know where I’m going – but I can always know whether I’m going in the right direction.”

3. Begin Way-finding

“Since there’s no one destination in your life, you can’t put your goal into your GPS and get the turn-by-turn directions for how to get there. 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.” Wayfinding is finding your way when you don’t know your exact destination. The clues of “engagement and energy” can help you with this. Start noting when you’re really engaged in something, and when you’re disengaged. Look especially for times when you experience flow – “that state of being in which time stands still, you’re totally engaged in an activity…Flow is play for grownups” regardless of whether the activity is a work activity or a play activity. You will find many activities that drain your energy, and hopefully many that sustain your energy. Again, start noting these. The authors highly recommend having a “Good Time Journal” where you note the times when you’re energized and engaged, and reflect on what this means to you. You can find a template at The clues you learn will help you see a path forward that is designed for you. Be as specific as possible about the things that increase your engagement and energy, and the things that decrease your engagement and energy. You may find that working in small groups is very energizing, but working in groups of more than four or five people drains you. Or that coaching students in a noisy studio is exhausting, but coaching students in a quiet class room is where you experience flow. As you learn, you can adjust your schedule to suit what works for you. You can also reflect on past experiences, and note where you found engagement and energy. The key is to be as specific as possible about the activity, environment, interactions, objects (ie. smartphone, hockey stick, sailboat), and who else was with you.

4. Think Like A Designer

“When you think like a designer you know how to ideate – how to “flare” – to come up with lots of options for lots of possible futures. 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.” One of the great things about designing your life is that there are no wrong answers. Designers come up with all kinds of ideas, and then proceed to try the best candidates to see what will work. You get to replace “Dysfunctional Belief: I’m stuck.” with “Reframe: I’m never stuck, because I can always generate lots of ideas.” As well, don’t worry anymore about finding the one right solution to any problem. Instead, work on generating lots of ideas, so you have lots of possibilities. Never judge your ideas. Just let them flow, write them down, and enjoy your creativity. Sometimes the craziest ideas lead to the best ideas. 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. Try mind mapping to generate creative ideas. Start with one thing you would like. Write it in the center of the page and circle it. Then branch off with any words or ideas linked to this idea. Continue by further branching from these ideas. Set a time limit so that you work fast and without judgment. Then, look at the map, and highlight a few of the most interesting ideas from the outermost layers. Try to ‘mash up’ these ideas together to form some options. When you feel completely stuck with a problem, you may be facing an “anchor problem” – a problem that won’t go away. Dave is someone who has always had a great shop in his garage. When he downsized, he felt he still needed this great shop. He had more things than room. He tried renting storage units and then slowly downsizing his things. But his small garage was still too full to be his ideal shop. He’s “anchored on this problem because he’s anchored to the one and only solution he’s been willing to accept – a perfect cars-plus-workshop layout.” The solution is to reframe, and prototype. Some options are: to reframe the goal to having a workbench plus minimal storage, or reframe to keeping one small storage unit so he can have room in his garage, or even break down the process of eliminating things to make it more manageable. Once Dave lets go of an unworkable solution (having the same garage set-up he did in a big house) he can find a working solution. When you’re stuck, check and see if you’ve anchored yourself to a bad solution. You can work on prototypes – small samples of an idea that test the waters of a solution. Be willing to “fail fast and fail forward,” into your next step.” Designers see failure as simply checking for possibilities. Now it’s time to do some more mind mapping. Get out your Good Time Journal, and make the following maps: 1. An Engagement mind map where you start with things you are interested in, and branch out with related words and concepts; 2. an Energy mind map with things that energize you, and a 3. Flow mind map beginning with experiences where you were in a state of flow, and then branching out from there. Once you’ve made your maps, take three items from the outer ring of one of the mind maps, and try to combine them into a job description. Repeat for each map, and draw a quick sketch of each job. This helps you move from “problem solving (what do I do next?) into design thinking (what can I imagine?) .”

5. Start Prototyping

“we prototype to ask good questions, create experiences, reveal our assumptions, fail fast, fail forward, sneak up on our future, and build empathy for ourselves and others. Once you accept that this is really the only way to get the data you need, prototyping becomes an integral part of your life design process.” One of the great things about designing your life is that you get unlimited tries. Correction shots are always allowed. You can start to think this way by making three “Odyssey Plans.” These are possible versions of your life for the next five years. Write out three: – one based on your current plan, – one based on what you’d do if your current plan vanished, – and another based on what you’d do if money and/or image were no object. Include a timeline with graphics, a six-word headline title, questions about the headline, and a dashboard for rating resources you might have/need, how much you like the idea, how confident you feel about it, whether the plan is consistent with your True North, and any other things you want to consider. Share these plans out loud with some friends. Look for good feedback, not critique (have that as a ground rule). When you’re ready to try out some possibilities, you start prototyping and trying sections/samples of ideas out, and then seeing where they lead. One example of prototyping that the authors share in the book is about a single parent and recent empty nester named Clara, who was ready to make some professional changes to her lifestyle. Clara wanted to move from what she believed was an unfulfilling sales career to a different career that could potentially bring her more fulfillment. She knew she wanted to help women, and began to keep an eye out for possibilities. Eventually, she got involved in mediation training which led to working for two years in the juvenile justice system, which then led to becoming involved in the Women’s Foundation of California, which eventually led Clara to what she’s known as now—a champion for the homeless in her city, and a member on a shelter’s board of directors. Now, did all of this just magically happen for Clara? Of course not! At first, she didn’t know she wanted to advocate for the homeless, but as she tried new ideas, those ideas led to more options, which eventually helped her pin-point her encore career. Clara designed the life she’s living, step by step, by thinking like a designer. She built her way forward by doing a lot of prototyping — taste-testing, or trying out several small experiments in rapid succession – until she found a uniquely fulfilling role that was the right fit for her… And guess what? You can do it too. The beauty of prototyping is simple: it gives you an opportunity to try many different ideas within a very short period of time—sometimes even as short as a single day—to see what you enjoy, what you don’t enjoy, and to potentially connect with others who might be of help if you want to continue pursuing something on a deeper level. If something you prototype doesn’t work out, no problem— simply start prototyping something else and move forward. The key is to just get started: make a list of potential career paths you’d like to start prototyping, then set a date for when you’ll try each one of them out. Another part of prototyping is a “Life Design Interview”. This interview involves getting the story of someone who is doing something that you’re interested in. It’s not a job interview – it’s a conversation with someone to find out what their job is like. Often it leads to more opportunities, but the purpose is to try out a verbal prototype of an idea. If you get the chance for actually trying it out, even better. You can engage people around you to brainstorm prototype ideas. Just follow these two rules: look for quantity of ideas, not quality, and don’t judge any ideas – yet. Ideally there will be three to six people. You’re looking for answers to an open ended question. Something like “How many ways can we think of to….” Count all of your ideas, group them by category, and give each category a name that reverts back to the question. Then vote on the most exciting, the best choice if money was no issue, the best choice for a great life… Finally decide which to prototype first – and go for it!

6. Learn How to Get a Job

“It is a wonderfully happy accident that the very best technique you can use to learn what kind of work you might want to pursue (prototyping with Life Design Interviews…) is exactly the best, if not only, way to get into the hidden job market in your field of interest, once you know what you want.” The best way to find your ideal job is not through internet job postings. But sometimes you need a job before you can move forward with other prototyping. The authors have included a series of instructions for successfully finding a job when it seems impossible. First, understand that the person who wrote the job description (by any medium) is usually not the person hiring, or the person who really understands the job. “The job description almost never captures what the job actually requires for success.” Your first action is to fit with the present job description. In your résumé, use the same words that are used in the description. This will help you get past the database control that electronically sorts applications. Use word for word as much as possible, or similar words and phrases. If you get to the screening interview, keep to a story that fits with their description. And “always bring a fresh, nicely printed copy of your résumé to an interview.” For landing a job, avoid “Dysfunctional Belief: You should focus on your need to find a job” instead “Reframe: You should focus on the hiring manager’s need to find the right person.” Now you can start designing your dream job! “Dysfunctional Belief: My dream job is out there waiting” doesn’t work, so “Reframe: You design your dream job through a process of actively seeking and co-creating it.” When you conduct your Life Design Interviews, you’re not looking for a job, you’re looking for the story of the job. Often these can lead to being asked if you’re interested in working in this field, which can lead to job prospects. Or you can ask what you can do to “become a part of this organization?” Avoid asking if there is a position for you. Instead, engage them in looking for ideas for you that will lead to your goal. Kurt was a highly qualified sustainable architect looking for a job in a new town. He submitted thirty eight targeted applications. He got eight rejections, and thirty never even responded. He continued to look online and apply with no success. So he quit applying for jobs, and started conducting Life Design Interviews – “He conducted fifty-six authentic prototype conversations with people he was genuinely interested in meeting.” He got eight job offers. During the interview for his dream job, he was asked by a board of directors how he would network and create partnerships, since he had recently moved to the area. He was able to speak directly to three of the board members, whom he had already met through his Life Design Interviews, and show how capable he was of making the right connections! “Dysfunctional Belief: Networking is just hustling people – it’s slimy. Reframe: Networking is just asking for directions.” Be genuinely curious about jobs, opportunities, and ideas. Look for ways to make interesting connections – these are often rewarding in themselves, and lead to more opportunities.

7. Choose Happiness

“Choosing happiness doesn’t mean you should click your heels together three times while wishing to go to your happy place. The secret to happiness in life design isn’t making the right choice; it’s learning to choose well.” Choosing happiness takes four steps. STEP 1 — First, take all the advice given so far to gather and create options. STEP 2 — Next, narrow the list down (if it’s too big), or brainstorm/map more options (if you’re a few short). Remember, never go with your first idea. If you have trouble narrowing your list, try breaking the options down into subcategories first. Then start crossing things off. STEP 3 — Third is to “Choose Discerningly”. This is a good time to connect to your feelings, and go with your gut. If you’re still not sure which option to use, it’s time to grok it. When you are grokking something, you are embracing the idea so fully that it becomes you. For example, imagine you had three choices for the upcoming year: take a job, go to school, or get an internship. Grok each choice by imagining for three days that the choice is your reality. Live each day with this mindset. Take a few days off, and then repeat the process with choice two and choice three. Often you will have a strong feeling for what you really want after doing this. STEP 4 — The fourth step is to “Let Go and Move On”. Do not agonize over your choice. This is just as important as actually making a choice. Instead, “let’s get better and better at building by getting better and better at letting go of the options we don’t need anymore.” “Dysfunctional Belief: Happiness is having it all. Reframe: Happiness is letting go of what you don’t need.”

8. Handling Failure

“Once you become a life designing person and are living the ongoing creative process of life design, you can’t fail; you can only be making progress and learning from the different kinds of experiences that failure and success both have to offer.” Both authors are now at a point in their life and teaching careers where they completely trust the process of life design. They even see teaching methods as always open to ideas, with no “right way” to run their classes. Not every prototype works, but that helps them learn what to do next. “Dysfunctional Belief: We judge our life by the outcome. Reframe: Life is a process, not an outcome.” When you see your life as a series of opportunities for “becoming more and more yourself and designing how to express the amazingness of you into the world, you can’t fail.” There aren’t winners and losers when you’re designing your life. There’s just discovering, exploring, and becoming. When things happen outside of your control, embrace them. Here’s how you can learn to reframe failure: The first thing you’ll need to learn is the habit of writing down your failures as they happen. This is self-explanatory: designate a place for all your screw-ups, and log them every time you fail. Once you’ve got a place to put your failures, you’ll need to categorize them into three categories: 1. Screw-ups – times you mess up when you usually get it right. 2. Weaknesses – the mistakes you keep repeating. 3. Growth opportunities – failures that don’t have to happen again. Ask yourself what you can learn from your failures, what went wrong, and what you can change next time. All of these lead to growth and better designing. As you get better at designing your life, you “become tremendously empowered by designing [your] way forward no matter what.”

9. Include Your Community

“Co-creation is an integral aspect of a design point of view, and it’s a key reason that design thinking works. Your life design isn’t in you; it’s in the world, where you will discover and co-create it with others.” The contributions and input from others are essential to help you design your life. Whether you are surrounded by community, or beginning to build your community, these are the types of people you will include: – Supporters – people that always give good feedback, and encourage you. – Players – the people actively involved in your life designing, and do things with you. – Intimates – those closest to you. Try to keep them informed, if not involved, in your life designing. – The Team – the people who will work with you to keep you on track. They will walk with you, and keep you going. – The Facilitator – this is you. You are responsible for getting everyone together, and having the agenda when you meet. With every team interaction insist on respect, confidentiality, nobody holding back, and being constructive instead of judgmental. Mentors are another important part of your community. Look for people who want to give helpful feedback and advice. (Hearing “if I were you…” is not a good sign.) When you receive good counsel, you feel more settled and clear afterwards. Work to be involved in a community that shares a purpose, meets regularly, and has common ground – often common values or a common view point. “Life design is a journey, and it’s really not as much fun to travel alone.”

10. Have A Great Mindset

“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.” While the approaches and reframing in the book may feel hard to embrace, all are there to help you become more like you. Good design “releases the best of what was already there waiting to be found and revealed.” To keep up a design focused mindset, remember these things: “Be curious…Try Stuff…Reframe Problems…Know It’s a Process…Ask for Help”. Include any personal practices that bring out good things – meditation, healthy eating, faith practices – the things that are good for you. Often you can change your life by just changing your state of mind. Look for the “why and the who” and use these to reframe the situation so you can continue to design your life.

My biggest take away from the book:

Designing a meaningful life has little to do with where you are right now, and almost everything to do with where you’re will to go + how much you’re willing to grow. Action Check List:
  • Assess your life to find out where you are.
  • Decide what area to take action on, and start gathering options.
  • Begin trying prototypes. Remember that there’s no failure, just continuous progress towards your destination.
  • Choose to think and live in ways that focus on designing your life.
  • Keep a mindset of enjoying a life of growing and learning.

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