Designing Your Life - Critical summary review - Bill Burnett

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Designing Your Life - critical summary review

Designing Your Life Critical summary review Start your free trial
Self Help & Motivation and Career & Business

This microbook is a summary/original review based on the book: Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life

Available for: Read online, read in our mobile apps for iPhone/Android and send in PDF/EPUB/MOBI to Amazon Kindle.

ISBN: 9781101875322

Publisher: Knopf

Critical summary review

Though designers deal with ill-defined and ill-structured problems constantly, Bill Burnett and Dave Evans may be the only two who have dedicatedly attempted to apply the designer’s mindset and toolbox to take on the messiest problem of them all: life. In the fittingly titled “Designing Your Life,” the two suggest several inventive methods to help you build a life in which you can thrive – if not the life you’ve always dreamed about. So, get ready to become acquainted with these methods and prepare to witness the benefits of design thinking in your own life!

Start where you are

According to numerous surveys, two out of three American workers are not satisfied with their jobs. Moreover, about 30 million Americans aged between 44 and 70 believe they made the wrong college decision and allege that, given the unlikely opportunity, would make a different choice today. This should surprise nobody, because stats show that 75% of college graduates don’t really work in a field that bears any resemblance to the subject they majored in!

In other words, it doesn’t take a genius to guess that you are currently stuck in one or even several areas of your life. So what? Designers constantly are! The silver lining? They love it! “Designers get juiced by what they call wicked problems,” write Burnett and Evans, adding instantly that these problems are called wicked, “not because they are evil or fundamentally bad, but because they are resistant to resolution.” The most wicked problem of them all is life. It’s so wicked, in fact, that we can never really “solve” it. That, however, doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t focus on “getting better at living our lives by building our way forward.”

The best place to start your journey is the place you are at this very moment. However, in order to start where you are, you have to first know where you are. To make a comprehensive assessment, ground your answer in the following four critical areas while ignoring all the rest, because only these four really matter: 

  • Health. Physical, emotional, mental – they are all important, and combined they form the basis of everything else. Your health should always be your priority. As an ancient Indian proverb says, a healthy person has a thousand wishes, but a sick person only one – to get better.
  • Work. By work, Burnett and Evans understand, quite poetically, “your participation in the great ongoing human adventure on the planet.” It doesn’t matter whether it’s paid or volunteer work – work is, simply, the stuff you “do.” 
  • Play. Play encompasses all the things you do for the joy of doing them; no life can be termed “well-designed” if it is not at least somewhat joyful.
  • Love. Love comes in a variety of forms and types but it always entails a unique and easily recognizable sense of connection to another being. Have you experienced something like that? Is love flowing through you right now?

Building a compass and wayfinding

A well-designed life is a well-balanced life. Knowing the current status of your health, work, play, and love will give you a good framework and some data about yourself and where you are at the moment. However, the final balance between the four areas – and, subsequently, the direction you should be heading – depends solely on you and what you expect from your life. For example, there’s no point in putting a lot of effort into fixing your love life if you prioritize work over marriage, and your career is going nowhere.

To get you pointed in the right direction for the journey ahead, you’ll need a compass. And you need no more than two things to build your compass: a Workview and a Lifeview; or, put in simpler terms, a comparison between your interpretations of the phrases “good job” and “good life.” To do this, write about 250 words on each so that you have a clear vision of both. Now, see where the two differ significantly and start setting your compass accordingly. 

For example, you should never take a job that doesn’t fit neatly enough within your Lifeview. No matter how much it pays, it will always bring you discontent and unhappiness since it will eventually force you to either reconsider your life principles or quit. Burnett and Evans’ goal for your life is rather simple: coherency. In their explanation, “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.”

Another good designer’s tool that might help you find your way in life is the Good Time Journal. This is nothing more but a simple diary documenting not only your experiences, but also your reactions to them. If you feel engaged and focused, underline those activities in green; if you feel bored or unhappy, underline them in red. Whatever you do, however, highlight and circle all the activities during which you’re totally engaged and fully immersed, the undertakings that put you in “the flow,” as psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls it. Some people experience flow while playing football, others while writing; yet a third group while dancing or making lunch. Ask yourself what makes you feel in flow and when you’re doing more than just getting things done. Once you know, start moving in the appropriate direction. Choosing “in the flow” activities means choosing yourself.

Mind mapping, brainstorming and reframing: ways to get unstuck

But what if there is nothing that engages you completely at the moment? In other words, what if you are all but drained of your energy and stuck in a career, an environment and, ultimately, a life that you seemingly can’t get out of? Well, there’s a designer’s tool for that as well!

Getting unstuck starts with a mind map. A mind map is a chart of associations stemming from one central idea that should be your final goal. Let’s say that you dream of becoming a published author, even though you spend most of your day working as a salesman at a shoe store. Reserve an evening for a session of mind mapping. 

Put “bestselling novel” in the center of your mind map and start brainstorming associations, such as “reading books,” “studying styles,” “making a draft,” “jotting down characters.” Now put down secondary associations, such as “silence,” “library,” free time,” “a room of one’s own.” Continue doing this until you can convert your ideas into an actionable plan. Who knows? Maybe all you need is a library card and two hours of silence a day to write the book that will propel you to stardom. After all, many authors managed to write award-winning books while having full-time jobs. Do you really think they did it any differently?

Chances are you actually do. Unfortunately, nothing hinders progress as much as dysfunctional beliefs such as this. The best way to deal with them is through the process of reframing. For example, a dysfunctional belief would be that there is only one person perfect for you on this whole planet. You can either believe that and despair that your love life is in shambles, or reframe this dysfunctional belief as one which is statistically much more probable: that there are “multiple great designs” of your ideal partner, and that it’s your job to experiment and find the adequate one through a process of trial and error. 

Here are a few related dysfunctional beliefs and ways to reframe them:

  • Dysfunctional Belief: “My dream job is out there waiting.” Reframe: “You design your dream job through a process of actively seeking and co-creating it.”
  • Dysfunctional Belief: “I am looking for a job.” Reframe: “I am pursuing a number of offers.”
  • Dysfunctional Belief: “I need to figure out my best possible life, make a plan, and then execute it.” Reframe: “There are multiple great lives (and plans) within me, and I get to choose which one to build toward next.”

The life design choosing process and failure immunity

One of the most common dysfunctional beliefs is that happiness and success are the result of making the right choices. Burnett and Evans suggest reframing this belief in the following manner: “There is no right choice – only good choosing.” Being designers, they know that good choosing is all about having a lot of good ideas to choose from and never settling for the first solution to any problem. If you want that broken down into steps, the process of good choosing looks like this:

  1. Gather and create. Success doesn’t begin with talent or skills: it begins with curiosity. That is why the life design choosing process starts with gathering and creating options – the more the better. Mind maps, brainstorming sessions, prototyping, comparing your Workview with your Lifeview – these are all great option-generating tools for any area of your life. Use them as often as possible.
  2. Narrow down the list. As much as we love having options, we hate having to deal with too many of them. Indeed, having too many options often leads to something called “paralysis by analysis” and long periods of inactivity. To deal with this, try grouping your options into categories and crossing off all but the top contenders for each option type. Then deal with the rest.
  3. Choose discerningly. An option creates value only when it’s chosen and acted upon. To choose well, you must try accessing the wisdom of your emotions, because they usually get the last word in your choices. “Grokking” is a good technique to achieve this. It works like this. First, you visualize making a choice – any choice – and then spend the next few days living your life as if you have already made that choice. Then, you reset and move on to the other alternatives.
  4. Let go and move on. There are millions of options and possibilities in each situation, which means there are millions of possible regrets in case you make the wrong choice. Do yourself a favor and stop thinking about them. Instead of agonizing over your unmade choices, just let go and move on. And start acting upon the choice you’ve actually made.

Sure it might lead to failure, but failures are actually great learning experiences. Especially if you treat them properly. To this end, Burnett and Evans suggest listing all of your failures and dividing them into three categories: “screw-ups” (e.g., spilling coffee) “weaknesses” (e.g., you can’t drive) and “growth opportunities” (e.g., wrongly allocating the money for your first startup). The first are trivial and will keep on happening no matter what you do; the second have probably become part of your character and, instead of spending years to correct them, you need to accept them and learn to live with them. It’s the “growth opportunities” that matter. Assess them regularly so that you can see what you have learned from your past failures and what you should do to prevent them from happening in the future. That way, you’ll become failure-immune!

Final notes

In the words of Daniel Pink, “’Designing Your Life’ walks readers through the process of building a satisfying, meaningful life by approaching the challenge the way a designer would. Experimentation. Wayfinding. Prototyping. Constant iteration. You should read the book. Everyone else will.” And you really should!

Even though it may not be as innovative as Burnett and Evans suggest, it is, nevertheless, a great manual, combining numerous surefire strategies into one comprehensible guidebook on how to finally start living your life.

12min tip

Live coherently. Meaning, live in alignment with your values, without sacrificing your integrity along your way to success.

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Who wrote the book?

Bill Burnett is the Executive Consulting Assistant Professor at Stanford. After earning a master’s degree in product design from the university, Burnett led Apple’s PowerBook product line, before coming... (Read more)

Dave Evans is an American entrepreneur and design professor. After a successful career at Apple, he cofounded the famous video game company Electronic Arts, after which he became a Consulting Assistant Profe... (Read more)

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