You can design your life at any age, as your life – this amazing design that is only yours – unfolds. If you are interested in what to do, be, or become in life, continue reading.
Two university teachers, Bill Burnett and Dave Evans from Stanford, initially designed a class to teach students how to figure out what they wanted to do next, after graduating. Because of the great success of their class, they decided to write a book to benefit people of all ages from their methodology. Their book is called Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life.
These authors found that their method is valuable for:
• People in their early 20’s, starting their career, and not knowing where to begin.
• People between 30 and 50 years, in the middle of their life or career, who are asking themselves what does their current job mean to them. They are also wondering if and how it is time to make a change because they are unsatisfied or bored.
• People in their encore phase of life. These are people in their late 50’s and above, who are looking for projects or activities to do after their career. They might be moving from the “money making” to the “meaning-making” side of life.
All these people are asking the same question: “What do I want to do with the rest of my precious life and how do I get there?”
How to Design Your Life
“A well-designed life is a life that is generative – it is constantly creative, productive, changing, evolving, and there is always the possibility of surprise.” (Burnett and Evans)
In their training, Burnett and Evans teach a number of mindsets that reveal how designers think. This methodology is called “design thinking process.” This type of thinking can be useful to figure out your life, a process usually characterized by uncertainty about the future.
In an article from the Interaction Design Foundation, design thinking is described as a methodology “…that provides a solution-based approach to solving problems. It’s extremely useful in tackling complex problems that are ill-defined or unknown, by understanding the human needs involved, by re-framing the problem in human-centric ways, by creating many ideas in brainstorming sessions, and by adopting a hands-on approach in prototyping and testing.”
Designers approach problems in a particularly creative way. They start from a state of curiosity, first trying to understand what’s going on with empathy, deeply understanding the situation. Then, they define what is the problem they are actually trying to solve.
When you design a product, it is beneficial to generate lots of ideas and not get attached to only one of them. The best ideas are used to build little experiments, which are called prototypes.
Prototyping is the process of trying those ideas out and seeing how they work in a real setting. From the prototypes, you can pick the best ideas, the ones that really work for you.
Research has proven that if you start with three ideas, and you generate ideas from there, you will have a better set of ideas. In turn, you will have a better chance of selecting something that is successful. The same principle can be applied to your life.
Studies have also shown that if we have more than five options, our ability to make a choice begins to wane—and many times completely freezes. It’s just the way how our brains are wired.
Design thinking is an innovation methodology used to design products and services, but perhaps the most interesting thing to design is your own life!
“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.” (Burnett and Evans)
Design Your Life Technique #1: Get Rid of Bad Ideas
Bad ideas are called “dysfunctional or limiting beliefs.” They are ideas that people believe are true but are not. These types of thoughts might get you stuck and hold you back, not allowing you to be generative and creative.
Examples of dysfunctional beliefs:
• Happiness is having it all.
• My degree determines my career.
• If I am successful, I will be happy.
• I should know where I am going.
Design Your Life Technique #2: Get New Ideas
This process is called “reframing.” When you reframe, you acquire a new way of thinking that frees you up to be more creative.
Examples of reframed beliefs (based on the beliefs mentioned above):
• Happiness is letting go of what I don’t need.
• I can change my career throughout my life. I’m not tied to a degree.
• Happiness is a state of being and doesn’t depend only on success.
• It’s ok to take time to figure out where I am now and take one step at a time.
Using this method you will produce more ideas, be more creative, and less anxious about the future. You will feel more confident in your ability to create the life that you choose.
Design Your Life Technique #3: Connecting the Dots
Making a connection between who you are, what you believe, and what you do is an important step in experiencing your life and your work as meaningful.
Ask yourself these three questions:
• Who am I? What is important to me?
• Why do I work, what does it mean for me?
• What’s the meaning of life, why am I here, what’s the big picture, what’s my view of the world? (This last question may be more difficult to answer)
You may want to journal about these topics to benefit more from the exercise.
“When you can connect who you are, your life view, and your work view together in a coherent way, you start to experience your life as meaningful”, says Bill Burnett. That is, a life with purpose.
Design Your Life Technique #4: Design Three “Odyssey Plans”
Imagine you could live in different parallel universes simultaneously and you could know how your life looked in each of these universes. So, you could be the writer, the scientist, the football player, and the artist that you wanted to be.
How many lives are you? How many lives would you want to develop?
Burnett and Evans propose that there are multiple “best versions of yourself” that you could achieve in your lifetime. There are many versions of you that you can play out, and all of them could result in a well-designed life. The authors call this exercise “Let’s go in an odyssey and figure out those lives.”
The purpose of this technique is to ideate your future by designing at least three 5-year “Odyssey Plans”. Always make three ideations for any of the problems you are working on to make sure that you cover all the ideas you had when you started from. That is, all the ideas that are possible.
Design the following odyssey plans:
1. A plan based on what you’re doing today. For example, continue working in the oil industry as a mechanical engineer.
2. A plan to do something totally different if your current job or industry totally disappeared. For example, become a teacher of mechanical engineering at my local college or get into a totally new field, like becoming a yoga teacher.
3. A wild plan. Something you would do if you had enough money and you didn’t care about what people thought. For example, to have my own workshop and develop mechanical fun artifacts and devices to add to cars and sell them online.
When people participate in this exercise during Burnett and Evans workshops, they generally don’t develop their wildest plan in their real lives. However, interestingly they include in their chosen plan some elements that they might have left behind in the busyness of life. Usually, this is something really important to people, like being creative and having fun, as shown in the example above.
This is a technique to ideate (imagine) all the possible ways you could have a wonderful life. There are lots of ways to be the “best version of yourself,” and not just only one. This also means that what you studied in college does not define your future.
Remember that life is an adventure. It’s a process that is constantly unfolding. Because of this, life is not a linear process. There are many pathways you can take in your life, not just one.
Throughout your life, you need to keep figuring out what you want to be and do next.
Design Your Life Technique #5: Prototype and Test
The following step is to build a prototype (sample or model) and test it. In this model, prototyping means to:
• Ask yourself useful questions: “What would it be like if I tried this?”
• Expose your assumptions: “Is this even the life I want or is it something that I wanted when I was 20?”
• Involve others with your ideas, so you can put them into the world.
• Sneak up on the future to know if this is exactly what you want for your life.
Prototype everything in your life before you try it. In design thinking, a prototype is an inexpensive and scaled-down version of the final product or its features. Prototypes are tested to know if they are effective in solving the problems identified, in this case, designing the life that you want. The next step is testing in real life the best solutions identified.
Prototyping means learning through experimentation, rather than analysis. As mentioned above, you can use your imagination to know and feel how it would be like to implement in your life something new.
Design Your Life Technique #6: Choosing Well
Positive psychology has proposed the following steps for choosing well:
1. Gather and create several options keeping a peripheral vision. Peripheral vision is a gaze that occurs outside the center point where you are looking.
2. Narrow the options to a list that you can work with.
3. Make a choice based both on analysis and gut feelings.
4. Let go and move on. Make your decisions reversible.
Pay attention to what you are doing and keep your peripheral vision open because it’s in your peripheral vision where those interesting opportunities show up. This is a way of detecting opportunities you were not expecting but might help you develop a life more aligned with a sense of purpose, happiness, or fulfillment.
You can’t choose well if you are only choosing from your rational mind. Daniel Goleman, a psychologist who has written extensively about emotional intelligence, explains that there is a part of your brain, the basal ganglia, that provide a sense of feeling regarding the decisions you make, such as gut feelings.
These feelings are important and complement the rational aspect of any decision-making process. Without involving these gut feelings you can’t make a good decision.
Make also your decisions reversible, because you have plenty of other options that you could design and prototype later. As Burnett and Evans mention, there’s no fear of missing out.
The Mindset that Helps You Design or Redesign Your Life
• Be curious. Make design thinking your embedded mindset.
• Try stuff. Use the tool of prototyping life experiences.
• Know that life is a process, and this process is not linear.
• Pay more attention to flow states. These are mental states in which you are fully feeling energized, focused, and enjoying an activity.
• Ask for help when you need it.
• Accept reality as it is. Especially, avoid getting stuck in “gravity problems.” These are problems and circumstances that you can’t change. Reframe them into something that is workable. If these situations can’t be changed, accept them.
• The older you are, the clearer you get. You are aware there are many right answers and not only one.
If someone tells you “It’s too late for you,” or if this negative idea arises on your mind from time to time, reframe it by saying: “It’s never too late to design a life I love.”
People who participate in this program develop more self-efficacy, less dysfunctional beliefs, and a greater sense of creative confidence.
“Designing your life is simple. Get curious, talk to people, try stuff, and tell your story… You will design a well-lived and joyful life.” ( Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, creators of the Stanford program Designing Your Life)
Burnett, B. & Evans, D. (2013). Designing your life: How to build a well-lived, joyful life. New York: Knopf.
Friis, R. & Siang, Yu. (2016). 5 stages in the design thinking process. Interaction Design Foundation.