Leadership Library Review: Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life

December 2017

Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans (Knopf, 2016)

What are the big take-aways?

This book offers the key insights, exercises and recommended thought habits from the “Designing Your Life” curriculum that a pair of Stanford design educators have taught for years in their Life Design Lab.  Its underlying premise, which arises from the disciplines of engineering and innovation, is that we cannot “think” our way forward in life; instead, like designers, if we want to move forward we must “build” our way into the future.  How do we do that?  By harnessing the generative power of curiosity, proactively embracing change, making prototypes, reframing beliefs and challenges when we get stuck, and approaching life design as a collaborative process that one does not undertake alone.

In addition to the approaches and activities of life design, the book also offers super-practical advice on conducting a job search (see chapters entitled, “How Not to Get a Job” and “Designing Your Dream Job”).

Why do I like it?

I like Designing Your Life because I agree with the authors’ underlying philosophy.  On page 32, Burnett and Evans say their “goal for your life is rather simple: coherency.  A coherent life is one lived in such a way that you can clearly connect the dots between three things:

  • Who you are
  • What you believe
  • What you are doing” [their emphases].

For followers of this blog, you will recognize that what they are referring to as “coherence” is what I often describe as “leading an integrated life.”  The book offers a process for helping the reader engage with her or his values, strengths and energy in order to lead a well-aligned life in which each dimension (home, work, family, community, spirit, etc.) supports the others.

I also like it because, in my leadership coaching practice, I’ve noticed a dearth of career resources that share a bunch of tools in an intentional progression that speak to both (a) people who are already basically satisfied with how their lives are structured and are just looking to kick things up a notch, as well as (b) people who are in the midst of a significant transition – whether of a type and time of their own choosing, or not – and embarking on a potentially major life change.

Last but not least: I like their focus on fun, play and happiness.  Specifically, their reframing of “happiness” resonates with me: “Dysfunctional belief: Happiness is having it all.  Reframe: Happiness is letting go of what you don’t need” (p. 174; authors’ emphases).

In what situations would this be useful?

While I have already begun mentioning Designing Your Life to all my clients and friends who I know are contemplating a career change or are already in one, I would especially recommend it to two audiences in particular:

  • young people (e.g., in their 20’s) – fresh out of undergraduate or graduate school and/or menial jobs – who are considering their first meaningful career move; and
  • veteran professionals who are perhaps contemplating their “third act,” a late-career transition or an entirely new type of (paid or volunteer) work in lieu of retirement.

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

If you’re in the latter category above, you might want to check out a book about personal reinvention called The Third Chapter: Passion, Risk and Adventure in the 25 Years After 50 by sociologist Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot (Sarah Crichton Books, 2009).  Note: It is about human development and narrative, not about conducting a job or career search.

For both categories above, I believe that cultivating a new mindfulness practice or deepening an existing one can accelerate any life transition process.  There are some very effective guided mindfulness meditations of various lengths – starting at just three minutes long – available to stream for free online.  One audio site that I like is UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center.  Also, “there’s an app for that!”  Here’s a recent news article that ranks popular mindfulness apps.

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