Throughout our lives, there will be moments when we’ll find ourselves stuck or worried that we’ve fallen short of our potential and greatest ambitions. We might find ourselves fantasizing over a different career or another partner, wondering if it is too late to change.
In their new book, “Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life,” Stanford professors, Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, provide tools for how we can initiate meaningful changes when we’re feeling stuck without overhauling our whole lives.
For the latest in our Inspiring Reads series, Burnett, a Silicon Valley veteran and the executive director of Stanford University’s design program, describes how they’ve taken the same process designers use to develop new products and gadgets and applied it to finding greater fulfillment in our lives. And, to that end, he explains why he doesn’t make New Year’s resolutions.
Q: What is life design founded on?
Life design has grown out of design thinking. In design, a person looks for problems to solve by going out into the world. They talk to people; they use empathy and intuition to understand the problem they are trying to solve. Once designers can understand the problem, they can reframe it and come up with lots and lots of solutions. Then they create prototypes to determine which solutions are best.
For most people, they feel stuck because they have either defined their problem in a very narrow way or they’ve mixed up the solution with the problem. For example, a nurse who says she wants to chuck everything to become a singer-songwriter needs to figures out what’s really going on. Being a singer-songwriter is a solution, so what is the problem? Is it that she needs a creative outlet or something else? Problem-finding is a very powerful tool.
Q: What do you say to people who are worried that they chose the wrong path for their lives — they spent too long wandering or they settled down too quickly?
We tell everyone to start where they are. If you’re feeling restless, maybe there’s a way to fold some wandering into your life. If you’ve been a wanderer but are ready for stability, perhaps there’s a way to incorporate that, too. The research shows that most people in their mid-30s who settled early into a career and family life love both their career and their family but also wish they had more experiences when they were younger. Likewise people who took their time finding their way love the experiences they had but wish they had more stability by their mid-30s.
Most of the people aren’t going to want to go from being a chief executive of a big corporation to being a poet or the other way around, but they are going to want to find a way to have a more meaningful and purposeful life. That’s what everyone says they want, so that’s what we designed around. We encourage people to bring out some of the ideas they had put away a long time ago, and maybe they can incorporate one or two into their lives. This isn’t about blowing up your life and starting over. That’s a cathartic reaction, but it’s not a well-informed option, and it can lead you to a situation much worse than the one you were in.
Q: What are the steps for designing a life?
Begin with what you’re curious about: Ask yourself: What is it that is making you feel stuck or frozen? Is it that you’re bored with your job? Do you need a hobby? Is it your friends? What are your guiding values, and do they intersect with your work? You can figure some of this out by keeping track of what you do day to day. Pay attention to activities that give you energy and those that zap your reserves. Then start to eliminate the bad stuff and double down on the good stuff.
Once you determine what it is that is making you feel stuck, make a list of those things that interest you, then find people who are doing those things. These people are your experts; they are you in the future. Talk to them about their lives: How did they arrive where they are? Do they like the work? How much work do they actually do every day? That kind of thing. Once you do these interviews three or four times, you’ll start to see what makes you feel energized and enthusiastic. Explore that enthusiasm by trying stuff. This is the prototype-stage and how you will figure out if this thing is right for you.
If you think you want to be a yoga instructor, for example, don’t immediately sign up for hundreds of hours of teacher-training. Start by talking to several yoga instructors to determine the qualities of a good teacher. Then develop several prototypes to help you figure out whether you have the qualities of a good teacher and would like teaching yoga. One prototype might be signing up for an intensive yoga retreat where you spend a week doing 12 hours of yoga a day. If you love it, then go deeper. If you realize on Day Three that you’re bored and wish you could do anything else, then you’ve learned that you have resilience and grit but maybe being a yoga instructor isn’t your thing.
So start with curiosity, talk to people, try stuff, have experiences, determine what resonates with you, then — lather, rinse, repeat — do these steps again and again. Each time, you’ll learn something, even if that is just that you hated the experience. With each experience you have, you’ll build up your creative confidence, that feeling of certainty that you can come up with a solution to any problem. The more confidence you have in your problem-solving abilities, the more likely that you’ll be able to frame everything as a learning experience. Just keep your prototypes short and relatively simple.
Q: Is there a common misstep people make when they try to design their lives?
A big mistake people make is turning their hobbies into how they make their living. Sometimes it works, but often it creates a different set of problems. The reality is that when you decide to take your hobby — whether it is yoga, painting, writing or whatever — into the market place, you have to do it in a way that the market will pay for it. This means you may not be able to teach the yoga you want; you’ll have teach hipster hot yoga, or you’ll have to write clickbait. Crap like that. Often people discover that they may have loved doing something as a hobby but they hate doing it on the market’s terms.
Q: We’re coming to the end of a hard year, and many people are reflecting on the past and getting ready to make their resolutions. Do you have any advice for them?
Statistics show that only about 20 percent of resolutions are kept, so don’t make them. Design prototypes instead. Try stuff. Don’t say you’re going to lose weight this year; decide to prototype different gyms in your neighborhood. Try the boxing gym and the yoga studio. See which is better for you in terms of your health.
Read more from our Inspiring Reads series: