Design your life

Gender Mixed Team


“A well designed life is a life that makes sense,” so say Bill Burnett and Dave Evans in their book, Designing Your Life.

The book lays out three major problems or “dysfunctional beliefs” linked to work: that being ‘successful’ makes you happy [two thirds of US workers are unhappy in their work], that your degree determines your career [three quarters of graduates don’t end up in a job related to their degree] and that it’s too late to change course.

The authors say that design can deal with such problems because it starts from people, asks a series of probing questions to find something that works for what they need now and then tests it.

The book is linked to a successful course and workshops devised by the authors. Those grew out of a fortuitous lunch meeting. Bill had just been appointed executive director of the Stanford Program in Design. Dave, who knew Bill from their undergraduate days, was a consultant in leadership and management, running a How to find your vocation course at UC Berkeley. The two decided to partner up to create a new course for Stanford students which involved applying design thinking to life after college. They started with design students and then offered the course more widely.  It caught on and the two then started offering Designing Your Life workshops outside Stanford, including at community colleges. Now they are increasing the programme’s reach and going global.

“We have tried the exercises over and over again over eight years and knew they were successful. We had really good editors who helped us figure out how to make them readable and accessible,” says Bill.

Design team

He adds that, as in design, it helps to have a team around you to design your life. Many people who have attended the workshops Bill and Dave hold have created their own Designing Your Life groups to bounce ideas off each other.  “It’s more fun if there is a community of people doing the same thing,” says Bill. Their website helps put people in touch with others in their area who are reading the book. “It’s a bit like a book club,” says Bill. “You can do it by yourself. The steps are very small and simple, but it’s more fun if you do it with others.” He adds: “Research shows that you are more likely to follow through.” Some of the groups are run within companies as firms realise that happier employees are more motivated, he says.

It’s not about coming up with one solution, but many possible prototypes. Bill and Dave rail against the idea that people need to dig deep and find out what they are passionate about and that, having discovered that, everything will fall into place. In fact, they say, most people don’t know what their passion is. “We believe that people actually need to take time to develop a passion,” they say. That means trying different options. From following this process other things start to fall into place.


Bill says the programme works with people of all ages and backgrounds at all stages of their career. Many who attend the workshops are in a transitional phase.  They include mid-career women where a big issue that comes up is work life balance. “Family is a big issue and people have to make their own assessment of what they really want,” says Bill. “It’s about having empathy for yourself.” Deciding what you really want is an incremental process. It means stopping thinking about what others are saying or expecting and figuring out what works best for you. “That will change over time, as your children get older. If you master the design process you can keep adapting,” says Bill. “Design is always about trying to make things better.”

He adds that all women groups can be very successful. “Research shows that in all women groups collaboration happens more quickly. People listen better and are likely to come up with more ideas,” he states. To this end, he and Dave have just piloted Designing Your Life workshops for women.

He thinks the ideas behind Designing Your Life should be taught from an early age so people can adapt to change. “It’s crazy to ask a 16 year old what they want to be for the rest of their life,” says Bill. In some cases following the process might not result in dramatic change. They may decide what they are doing works well for them; they may tune what they are doing a little. But what they will have as a result of the programme is greater awareness of what they are doing and why which they can then carry forward in their careers and other aspects of their lives.

“We give people the tools to empower them to take charge of their lives,” says Bill. “When you choose the things that happen to you you feel empowered.”

*Designing Your Life is published by Chatto & Windus, price £14.99.


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