Designing Your Life
March 17, 2023

Designing your life – a great book to get unstuck in your career

By Paul Laughlin

One of the regular requests I hear from mentoring clients is to help them think through their career options, to be more intentional about designing their life. Ok, they don’t use that final bit of jargon. But that is what they mean. How could they think through what they want and how to achieve that?

After years of somewhat productive “thinking environments” (see Nancy Kline) with clients on this topic, I could see the need for some help. A resource or approach to help them better find their way and stick with the journey. The book I am recommending in this blog post is such a guide. Perhaps better thought of as a conscience or travelling companion. One who will help you take a fresh perspective.

Designing Your Life is a thoroughly enjoyable book written by Bill Burnett & Dave Evans. Two experts in the field of Design Thinking. This book is a result of the course that they teach at Stanford University, on applying design thinking to designing your life. It has gone on to become one of the most popular of all elective classes at Stanford. Given how engaging this book is, I’m not surprised.

What this book covers on Designing Your Life (career)

Although everything covered in this book you can apply to any aspect of shaping the life you want, its primary focus is on careers. Helping those whom might feel stuck (what do they want?) or trapped (why do they do this job?) to see hope & move forward. It is divided into 11 chapters with broadly three foci.

After some engaging storytelling in the introduction (the book is full of human stories), the first focus in on you. That’s right, your favourite subject! All joking apart, it helps you notice what matters to you & get clearer on what you want. There is a very helpful Compass exercise at the core of this. The second focus is on taking action. A number of exercises and approaches are recommended. They focus on revealing more options and prototyping some of those options to discover what works for you.

Finally, the focus turns to choosing (or what is later called “becoming“). Out of what has been learned by talking to others & living different options, how to do two things well. First, how to choose. This alone is a very helpful chapter for all those who periodically go down the rabbit hole of ‘analysis paralysis‘. Secondly, having chosen, how to let go and move on. This really spoke to me, as an all too often regretter. The chapter has much helpful advice on how to embrace your choice and focus on living it.

How this book helps you experience Design Thinking

The content of this book is engaging and helpful, but its greatest asset in my opinion is how it shares that wisdom. Chapters are short enough to each be read at a single sitting and made up of short sections. They also have a common structure. Design thinking theory is brought to life through anecdotes and human stories. Text is peppered with simple twin circle diagrams to show both a dysfunctional belief & a reframe. There are some crackers and they will make you smile in the same knowing way as observational comedy.

Each chapter also ends with a set of practical exercises, headed Try Stuff. All are easy to understand and you can immediately see the relevance even if some feel daunting. Many include journaling and reflective practice. Many also include talking to others, collaborating with others and trying doing something new. It is just as well that there is also a chapter on how to become immune to failure (not that you don’t fail but it doesn’t hinder you).

Five design thinking principles, or mindsets, also pervade this book. At each stage of focusing on Being, Doing or Becoming, you can see how they help you see more clearly and make progress. Those 5 principles are the following:

  1. Be curious
  2. Try things (have a bias to action)
  3. Reframe problems
  4. Stay aware that its a process (you don’t arrive)
  5. Ask for help (use radical collaboration)

What did I take away from this book?

Having read this book, what stays with me? A few things are particularly memorable. First, the tools to help you get clear on where you are now & what you want. The ‘health gauge’ reminded me of the ‘different accounts of your life’ exercise in “Drift”. The means of building your personal Compass was also very effective (focussing on your WorkView, LifeView and Good Time Journal). They helped me get clearer on what I want in my future and I can see would help mentoring clients.

Next for me would be the engagement with others through interviewing in the middle of this book. As a natural introvert, I too easily slip into wanting to think it all through in my own head. Then come down the mountain with the answer. Their advice on having conversations with others just to better understand what they do is full of great ideas. They also include a well-deserved critique of the traditional approach to job hunting and much wisdom in common with that I read in “Talent”.

Finally, in the final chapters of this book, I was struck by the power of radical collaboration. Of engaging others in your journey. Their identification of the different roles of people who could help (Supporters, Players, Intimates & Team) made good sense. It was also heart warming to read how the role of my church and faith can help provide the community that is so powerful on this quest. Another opportunity for me to reconnect with my purpose and values, as I’ve shared before.

Could this book help you with Designing Your Life?

If you are feeling confused about what you want from your career or how to find what you will find fulfilling, I heartily recommend this book. If, like Dante, you have woken up in the middle of your life and the way forward seems quite unknown – this book could really help. Even if you are just curious and not yet satisfied with what you spend so much of your life doing. I recommend that you give it a try.

Why not buy this book, try the exercises and share with me/us what it enables in your career journey. It would be so encouraging to hear the stories of data & analytics leaders who have being creating a life they love. I should also let you know that there are tons more useful resources for clients and coaches on their website here:

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