Monday, January 22, 2018

Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett & Dave Evans - A Review

Burnett and Evans of Stanford University developed Designing Your Life from a popular course they taught together. With their design background, they bring a fresh perspective on how to approach some of life's challenges for which there is no 'right' answer. Their main approach is the idea of reframing challenges. For example, the notion that 'Your degree determines your career' is reframed by noting that 75% of college grads end up working careers unrelated to major. Instead of aiming for success as a means to a happy life, they argue that happiness springs from a "designing a life that works for you" and noting that it's never too late to start designing your ideal life.

 What does it mean to have an ideal life? Many people, myself included, have spent many years shaping a life as a goal-directed activity: get good grades, admission to a particular school, work towards a certain job. However, much like a dog chasing a car, what does one do when you 'catch' your goal? For small goals, you may move onto your project, but if the pursuit of a fixed goal is the organizing principle of your life, you may find yourself suddenly adrift. Burnett & Evans counter that designing a life does not involve a clear goal, but is instead "generative - constantly creative, productive, changing, evolving, always with possibility for surprise."

I lose the authors a bit at their next point. They view passion as the result of good life design, not its goal. To me, passion is both an input and an output. Without passion, how would one know where to invest their energy and attention? Presuming the initial efforts yield positive results, that should increase one's sense of passion for the work, leading to further investments.

Their notion that "if it's not actionable, it's not a problem" is helpful though. Many times I find myself perseverating on so-called "problems" that I cannot actually act upon. Reminding myself helps to focus my efforts on the areas that are truly under my control. We all want to feel secure that our actions lead to a future we are comfortable with, that we are in control of our fates, even if we acknowledge that the future is unpredictable (as argued in Stumbling Upon Happiness, perhaps happiness itself comes from being in control). Burnett & Evans flip the script on this notion by positing that by designing something, you change the future that is possible.

To start designing, it is important to start with your values. What actually matters to you? The book introduces the idea of coherency, which is the idea of living in alignment with who you are, what you believe, and what you are doing, while not sacrificing your integrity. After defining these notions, they go on to describe a Workview and a Lifeview, which are your personal responses to the purpose of your work and your life. Used together, they form a compass to guide whether you are on the right path or not.

Once you have these fleshed out, they suggest using wayfinding to guide your next steps, by seeing how your energy and engagement respond to different endeavors. Ideally, you are looking to achieve a state of flow, the feeling of being completely engaged in the activity on which you are focused. That's right - no email alert, tweet, or notification can distract you when you are in this state. Achieving this is not easy, but that is okay. You want to collect data about yourself and peak experiences to build a life that fulfills you.

I often feel that I am stuck or need to find the perfect idea, but the book argues to reframe this by reminding myself that I can generate many ideas, and can explore many of them. Instead of trying to find the "perfect" life, accept that there are multiple great lives that are possible and we get to choose which one. To test out different theories, it helps to build prototypes. For example, if you are dissatisfied in a sales job and think you might want to teach, why not try tutoring students on the weekends to see how it fits?

You want to generate 3-5 options. To help, ask people you already know how they approached such decisions. I am not naturally inclined to network, but when reframed as asking for directions or help, it makes the effort a little easier. At this stage, make the best choice possible, let go of the rest, and move forward. Remember - you can always design your way into something else if you need to in the future. Lastly, you are not alone in this journey. Ask for help in living and designing your life from others.

The book suggest several exercises to help catalyze your thought process. They are admittedly a little bit out there, but a bit of forced discomfort can actually help you be honest with yourself. As Richard Feynman once said, "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool." I cannot say I did all the exercises, but the ones I tried were helpful in letting me see where I was getting in my own way.

Designing Your Life will not give you a specific plan on how to fix your life. And that's the whole point! There is no one-size-fits-all plan. What it will do is help you spark thoughts about how you can help yourself.


Tuesday, January 16, 2018

2018 Houston Marathon Reflections

I completed my third marathon this past Sunday, finishing the 2018 Houston Marathon in 4:43. Even running with a friend, I still had a lot of time to let my mind wander as the miles went by (especially the later ones!). I figured I should write down those thoughts - how I felt about the race, what I appreciated about it, what I learned from the experience - with the hope that it helps others out there as well as prepares me for my next race.

The starting line was near the George R. Brown (GRB) convention center. My buddy Joe and I reached the pre-race area at about 6:30 AM. The race started at 7:00 AM. I had been originally assigned to Corral A, but after having to retrieve a forgotten pair of gloves and a not-so-quick pit stop, we fell back to Corral D. The later corral did not get to the starting line until about 7:30 AM. Luckily, despite temperatures in the thirties, I felt pretty comfortable in my long-sleeve technical shirt and shorts. After slowly walking up to the starting line, we got off to a smooth start.

For the first 11 miles or so, we ran within our planned range of 8:45 to 9:00 minutes per mile. Just before mile 11, my parents surprised us by cheering us on from the sidelines, as we turned off University Blvd to head towards Westpark / Galleria area. Joe started to have knee trouble and I could feel my calves start to slowly ache, but at the halfway mark, I was still within my expectations at 1:58.

That's when the wheels started to come off. First my calves went, followed by my quads. I was soon reduced to a run-walk combo, running a few minutes until the cramps returned, then walking until I felt them fully subside. Fortunately, mentally I was good and felt that I had good energy levels. Just didn't have the legs underneath me. I settled into a 14:00/mile pace for the last 10 miles or so until happily crossing the finish line right outside GRB.

What did I learn / relearn from this race?

  • You perform how you practiceKnowing that the course was flat with favorable temperatures, I was hoping to improve on my PR of 4:14 with hopefully a sub 4:00 time. However, skimping on training because of winter weather was my undoing, and it showed in the latter miles.
  • Be honest with yourself about preparation
    I had a training calendar set out, and while I roughly kept to it, there were still too many runs skipped or cut short if I wanted to meet my goal.
  • Run the race you have, not the one you want
    As I was realizing mid-race that I would not be able to keep up, remembering this helped me be at peace with falling off and letting go of my original expected finish time. Like life, races are full of unexpected factors and you must adapt to them. How you feel about the race will map more closely to your expectations rather than your actual performance.
  • Run each step mindfully
    What I mean by this is, early in the race, running mindfully meant keeping a consistent pace even when it felt easy to go faster. Later in the race, it meant listening to my body and not pushing it into a cramping state or worse, injury.
  • Be grateful
    Even as the race got away from me, being grateful helped remind me to stay focused on what was working & the road ahead, rather than what went wrong & what might have been.
Speaking of being grateful, here is what I am thankful for about this race:
  • Finishing safe & sound
  • Having my family there to support me and enjoy the event
  • Being able to run with my friends and mutually support each other during the race
  • The support of friends who did training runs with me & sent messages of support
  • Near ideal weather conditions, with cool temps and clear skies
  • Well-organized event with sufficient supplies at each station
  • Great crowd and positive atmosphere
Despite the mild disappointment of not meeting my original expectation, I am pretty happy with the run and motivated to keep it up and find races in the future that I can better prepare for. Here's to the next one!