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.


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