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  • Ali Boston

Book Review: Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans

Ever struggled with where to take your career, or what to do next? In Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life, Silicon valley innovators and Stanford University design educators Bill Burnett and Dave Evans apply design thinking to shaping a fulfilling career. Join us for a discussion of this book on Tuesday, January 30!


Two hands select from a range of color cards in this graphic
Image: Shutterstock

What do you want to be when you grow up? If that question (still) makes you squirm, then you’re not alone. Seventy-five percent of US high school graduates felt slightly, moderately, or not at all prepared for college or a career in a survey conducted between 2019-2022 by You Science. Thirty-seven percent reported not knowing where they wanted to be in their chosen education or career path. Many of us sleepwalk from school or college into our working lives and onward. I remember being in my late twenties and in awe of people my age who talked about their careers as though they knew what they were. A 2017 survey found more than half of US workers feel they have "just a job" rather than a career.


Numerous self-help books have appeared in bookstores over the years promising to help you find your dream career. First published in 2016, Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life from Silicon valley innovators and Stanford University design educators Bill Burnett and Dave Evans has become something of an OG in this space – and for good reason.


A young man working on a design project at a desk.
Image: Shutterstock

This manual to designing your life and, principally, your work life, has its origin story in the lecture theaters of Stanford University. Noticing that many students felt unprepared and lacking the spaces to talk about their future careers, Burnett and Evans collaborated to develop an open-enrollment course at Stanford under the title "Designing Your Life." As Burnett and Evans were both designers, the big idea behind the course was to apply design thinking to the task of life design. Design thinking is a process that puts people at the center of design and helps designers (and others) “solve problems through creativity.”


The course became immensely popular, leading both Burnett and Evans themselves in a career direction neither of them likely expected. In 2016, Burnett and Evans published Designing Your Life and became New York Times bestselling authors. They’ve subsequently gone on to write a number of follow-up books and now offer coaching, workshops, and certifications on the topic. As the authors stress in the book, a key ingredient of life design is being open to opportunity.


A young woman in an apron stands proudly in front of a cafe.
Image: Shutterstock

Although the book is titled Designing Your Life, the focus is clearly on careers. This, Burnett and Evans say, is because work (in whatever form) makes up a substantial piece of the life “pie.” Life and work should complement each other, according to the authors. But the biggest problem with working out what you want to do for a living is that there’s no one clear goal or destination. In fact, it can be hard to be sure exactly what the problem is that we should be working on in the first place. Is it the work itself or our boss that’s the problem? That’s where Burnett and Evans say design thinking comes in, because it’s great at tackling these messy, hard-to-define problems. The idea is that the tools taught in design thinking can help us get better at figuring out what the crux of our problem is, and guide us through brainstorming, iterating, and “building [our] way forward.” It’s a counter-narrative to the one many of us heard when we were working out what to do with our lives, the just pick something and stick to it approach.


Burnett and Evans’ method clearly takes much longer, and involves some considerable networking, but there’s definitely wisdom in it – wisdom that perhaps we all wish we had access to early in our working lives. Luckily, the authors say there’s no bad time to start life designing. According to the authors, “a well-designed life is a life that’s generative – it is constantly creative, productive, changing, evolving, and there is always the possibility of surprise.”


A man in hiking gear stands on a cliff edge, looking at the horizon.
Image: Shutterstock

Through the lens of design thinking, planning a career is an ongoing process, not a job title you pick at school or college and stick to your entire life. The question what do you want to be when you grow up? becomes who do you want to grow into? Reframing is one of the five mindsets for life design Burnett and Evans teach their students, along with curiosity, bias to action, reframing, awareness and radical collaboration. But as well as helping their readers dream big, the authors are also pragmatic in their approach to life design. Early on in the book, they warn against “gravity problems” – those things in life we just can’t control, like the median income of poets. They’re also refreshingly open about the fact that most jobs come through people’s networks and skeptical about the success rate of "cold" online job applications (noticeably, they don't get into the social inequality of this.)


Narrated in the informal, approachable style with which you might imagine Burnett and Evans delivering their university course, each chapter in the book takes readers through a different stage in the life design process. It’s as much a workbook as it is a manual: each chapter ends with exercises or reflection questions aptly titled “Try Stuff.” There are also plenty of helpful sidebars, anecdotes, and visuals that make the book one you’re likely to keep coming back and dipping into.


Two women enjoy jogging together. The one in front raises her arms in celebration.
Image: Shutterstock

Getting the most out of the book does require a significant time commitment. I certainly found myself skipping over many of the exercises. And there's no magic bullet here. Back to the idea of life design being a process, I suspect that the true brilliance of the book will only become clear after months and years of returning to the exercises. As I read, I found myself wishing I'd had something like this when I finished college. But Burnett and Evans stress that the tools can be used whether you're looking for your next career move or approaching retirement–such is the nature of the never-ending activity of life design. That being said, for those of us who've already set off down a certain career path, my suspicion is applying the tools will be harder. That's not to say they're not useful, or it that it can't be done. What's most important is to start.

 

Join us in discussing Designing Your Life at the next MeaningSphere Book Club on Tuesday, January 30. All are welcome and reading is not required to join the discussion.


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