Life? There’s a book for that

Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived Joyful Life is a field guide for living an intentional life — for you to do life, instead of life doing you. While it’s just the thing for the stuck, the about-to-be college grad, and the baby-boomer eyeing retirement or an encore career, it’s really for all of us at all times in our lives.

Not another self-help book about life, you groan. This one’s different. It rejects the notion that you have to know your passion in life, arguing that most people don’t have that one thing they are passionate about, and it frees us from the anxiety of trying to figure out what we’re supposed to do for the rest of our lives. We only need to write our next chapter. It doesn’t shout, “You can do anything!” The realities of our lives are embedded in the design tools. It’s smart, playful, experiential, and it works. It’s given me a front row seat to the best show in town: watching my clients build better lives.

Bill Burnett, Executive Director of the Stanford Design Program and former tech designer, and Dave Evans, fellow tech designer-turned-founder-turned-teacher, created this course to apply design thinking to designing life after college. It quickly became one of the most popular elective offerings at Stanford. You can have the best of Stanford for under $20.

If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change

What’s in the way of good life design? We are, of course! We have to reframe our dysfunctional beliefs and the stories we tell ourselves that aren’t true, and work to solve the right problems. You can’t fix a flat tire by putting gas in the tank.

Dysfunctional beliefs aren’t true and contribute to our getting stuck. They’re outed throughout the book. Example: I should know what I am doing with my life by now. Reframe: Grandma Moses didn’t start painting until she was 70 years old.

Anchor problems can come from being stuck on a solution that has mistakenly been identified as the problem. If you don’t recognize and reframe your anchors, you can be stuck for a long time. Example: I need to get a promotion. Reframe: What’s a promotion going to do for you? Bring more money? A better title? Recognition? A team to manage? How else could you get what you want?

Gravity problems aren’t problems. They’re circumstances that can’t be changed, or are too difficult to change. If it’s not actionable, it’s not a problem. Example: Gravity makes it hard to ride a bike up a steep hill. The steep hill is not the problem: it can’t be changed. Getting your bike up the hill is the problem to be solved.

Start where you are

No wasting time on past decisions, pondering your purpose, or taking personality assessments. After a primer on design thinking and the five “mindsets” needed to design your life — be curious, try stuff, reframe problems, know it’s a process, and ask for help — you spring into action.

Bill and Dave take you on an adventure beginning with where you are in the health/work/play/love dimensions of your life, and exploring your views of life and work. Next you mine data from your daily life about what engages you and gives you energy. You use these observations to discover ideas you might want to pursue and create “odyssey plans.”

You don’t need a “Eureka!” to begin prototyping, which is a big word for getting out there and trying things. You think you want to sell everything and explore the US in your SMART car? Find people who have done a version of this. Hear their stories. Try it out for a short time. Or, maybe you’re interested in being a sportswriter. Reach out to the successful and struggling among them. Try your hand at a blog or podcast. Perhaps just a small tweak in your life or work is what’s in order. Try it. In my experience with clients, this is the most powerful tool in the book — When you reach out to the world in an open and curious way, the world reaches right back. Prototyping allows serendipity to happen.

If it’s a new job you’re after, there’s how not to get a job, and how to design your dream job and go after it. Regardless of your path, Bill and Dave provide frameworks for learning from failure and making good choices.

It takes a village

Don’t try this alone! My clients go through this with a little help from me, and lots of help from their partners, friends, and co-workers. Bill and Dave suggest forming a life design team. Their workshops are great for this.


Life is a contact sport. You have to learn proper techniques to play, get in the game and play with others, get some good coaching, suffer bumps, bruises and setbacks, enjoy spectacular moments of brilliance, and, as Dory in Finding Nemo would say, “Just keep swimming.”

Sunday Morning Reflection

Where are you in the health/work/play/love dimensions of your life? Where would you like to be? There’s a book for that.
Watch Bill Burnett’s 2017 TEDxStanford talk for more!

Sunday Morning: 106