I’ve often noted in this space that the words “design” and “design thinking” can mean different things to different people. In a business context, the terms often imply a problem-solving process focused on customers—one that involves gaining deeper insight into customer needs or desires in order to develop or improve a particular product or service.
But what if you were to turn the focus of that process inwards and use the techniques of designers and design thinkers to figure out your own life?
Two California professors asked that question over lunch some years back and the result was “Designing Your Life,” a course that went on to become the most popular elective at Stanford University and, in 2016, a best-selling book: Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life.
Designing Your Life began as a way of helping students of Stanford’s multidisciplinary design program map out their careers. It morphed into a project with grander aspirations. The professors, Silicon Valley design veterans Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, argued that design can help students figure out not just what, but who they want to be when they grow up.
Burnett and Evans were both trained as engineers. But they argued that life is a problem better suited to the methods of designers than engineers because it is one for which there is no precedent, no predetermined outcome, and no one right answer.
“Design doesn’t just work for creating cool stuff like computers and Ferraris; it works in creating a cool life,” they promised. “You can use design thinking to create a life that is meaningful, joyful, and fulfilling. It doesn’t matter who you are or were, what you do or did for a living, how young or old you are—you can use the same thinking that created the most amazing technology, products, and spaces to design your career and your life. A well-designed life is a life that is generative—it is constantly creative, productive, changing, evolving, and there is always the possibility of surprise.”
In February, as the coronavirus reached the U.S., Burnett and Evans published a follow-up, Designing Your Work Life: How to Thrive and Change and Find Happiness at Work. The new book strikes a far less ebullient tone than the first—and feels in places like a grim survival guide for readers clinging to bad jobs in an increasingly precarious economy.
Not all of us can “run off to and become a scuba instructor in Bimini,” the authors acknowledge.
Burnett and Evans also concede the turbulence of our globalized, digitized age. “The workplace isn’t just changing—it’s restructuring. The Gig Economy, artificial intelligence, and The Robots aren’t coming, they’re already here and they’re poised to reshape everything we think we know about work.” And that was before the U.S. economy was ravaged by a pandemic, the biggest collapse in employment since the Great Depression, and weeks of protests against racism.
The authors end on a hopeful note. “Our core message is the same,” they write. “You are the creative designer of your life…. You are never stuck. Perhaps paused on occasion, but never stuck… The truth is Life Design is always a work in progress.”
That’s a very California state of mind. But perhaps it’s one that resonates in this moment of economic and political upheaval.
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