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Designing Your Life aims to show readers how design thinking can help us create a meaningful and fulfilling life. This success comes regardless of who or where you are, what you have done for a living, or how old you are. The same design thinking responsible for amazing technology, products, and spaces can be used to design and build your career and your life. Your life can be overflowing with fulfillment and joy. Plus, it can be constantly creative and productive.

About Bill Burnett

Bill Burnett is the Executive Director of the Design Program at Stanford. He got his BSc and MSc in Product Design at Stanford and has worked professionally on various innovative projects. These projects range from award-winning Apple PowerBooks to the original Hasbro Star Wars action figures. Besides his duties at Stanford, Bill is on the VOZ Board, a socially responsible high fashion start-up. Plus, he advises several Internet start-up companies.

About Dave Evans

Dave Evans is the Co-Founder of the Stanford Life Design Lab and holds a BSc and MSc in Mechanical Engineering from Stanford. Early in his career, he worked for Apple, where he led the mouse-design team and introduced laser printing to the masses. He then helped found the pioneering interactive and game software developer Electronic Arts.

Start Where You Are

Dysfunctional Beliefs

Dysfunctional beliefs are a part of all our lives. However, this does not mean they have utility. Instead, the authors highlight that dysfunctional beliefs prevent you from designing the life you want. Therefore, you must learn to identify dysfunctional beliefs and reframe them. For example, one dysfunctional belief argues it is too late for you to achieve your goals. In reality, it is never too late to design a life you love. 

A Well-Designed Life

“A life that is generative – it is constantly creative, productive, changing, evolving, and there is always the possibility of surprise.”

– Bill Burnett

A well-designed life reclaims dysfunctional beliefs and purposefully reframes them. Passion stems from trying something, discovering you like it, and developing mastery. Therefore, you can encourage the production of passion by creating a good life design.

Gravity Problems

Gravity problems are never essential to focus on. Instead, they are simply facts of life. For example, suppose you decide you want to become a doctor in the UK but are worried about seven years of education. It is merely a fact that you need to study for this period to become a qualified doctor. Therefore, this problem is not one that can be solved. The authors call these gravity problems. Humans tend to attempt to solve several gravity problems by fighting impossible battles.

Instead of fighting gravity problems, you should aim to practice acceptance. Specifically, the authors suggest you start where you are rather than where you wish you or the world was. Adopting this approach will allow you to reframe the situation.

Building a Compass

The Four Gauges

Your compass should consist of several crucial gauges that impact your life. The authors highlight four crucial gauges that you need to optimize to excel.

  1. Health Gauge – Improve your health concerning your body, mind, and spirit. Without optimizing your health, you will be unable to optimize your other gauges.
  2. Work Gauge – Work does not merely constitute a 9-5 job. Suppose you volunteer or consult people; this also counts as work. Crucially, raising children, housework, and caring for others also counts as work. Try to develop a healthy balance of your different work types.
  3. Play Gauge – Play is anything that brings you joy. However, these activities must also be engaged with for the sole purpose of enjoyment. The outcome should not be the feature of this activity that brings you happiness. Instead, it should be the joy you get from engaging with this activity.
  4. Love Gauge – As well as loving others, you must surround yourself with people who love you. Often, the most important love you can receive is from your family and primary relationships. However, you may also require love from your children, friends, and community.

Work View and Life View

The authors argue that discovering the alignment between the ideas highlighted in your work and life is integral to building your own compass.

Understanding your work view will rely on your ability to engage with reflection. The authors suggest you write down 250 words or so addressing similar questions to the following:

  • Why do we work?
  • What does work mean?
  • What defines good or worthwhile work?
  • What’s the relationship between work and money?
  • How does work relate to the individual and society?
  • What do experience, growth, and fulfillment have to do with it?

Adopt a similar approach when reflecting on your life view, but consider the following questions:

  • Why are we here?
  • What is good, and what is evil?
  • What is the meaning or purpose of life?
  • Where do family, country, and society fit in?
  • Is there a higher power, and how does it impact my life?
  • What is the role of joy, sorrow, justice, injustice, love, and peace in life?


Developing a coherency between your work view and life view relies on your ability to align each of three fundamental factors:

  1. Who you are
  2. What you believe
  3. What you do

If you can align these two life views, you can increase your clarity and ability to live a meaningful life. This coherency is your True North or your compass. 


“Wayfinding is the ancient art of figuring out where you are going, when you don’t actually know your destination.”

– Bill Burnett

Wayfinding does not rely on a map. Instead, wayfinding merely requires a compass and a direction. After you have built your compass, you need to find your direction. Your direction is identifiable by considering two different factors in your life.


“Flow is being fully immersed and joyful in what you’re doing, without being constantly distracted by concerns about the outcomes.”

– Bill Burnett

The authors suggest you develop a log of when you are engaged and when you are not. Allocate different states, like boredom, focus, immersion, and engagement to tasks and environments. This will allow you to spot when and where you pay most attention to your actions. The contexts where you pay the most attention are called flow states. Generally, flow states are found during activities that are not too easy to elicit boredom and not so hard they elicit anxiety.

The authors describe a flow state as being characterized by:

  • Complete involvement in an activity.
  • A sense of euphoria.
  • Great inner clarity.
  • Total calmness and peace.
  • A feeling of time standing still.


All activities in our life either sustain or drain our energy. In fact, some activities can provide us with more energy. Keeping track of your energy flows will help you redesign your life to maximize the activities that sustain or increase your energy levels. There will be some energy-draining activities that are essential. Despite this, the authors offer ways to balance these activities. 

  1. Surround negative energy activities with more engaging activities.
  2. Give yourself rewards upon completing energy-depleting activities. 
  3. Always ensure you are well-rested and have energy reserves.

To effectively classify your activities, you can use the AEIOU method. Firstly, think about what activity you were doing and what role you adopted. Then, consider the environment where the activity took place and how that impacted your energy levels. Following this, recall the interactions you had. Finally, identify the objects being used and the users who were there alongside you. Each of these five factors should help you better classify your tasks and alter your life design.

Getting Unstuck

Placing all your bets on one idea will make you feel pressured and can lead to indecisiveness. The reality, though, is that you make better decisions when you have several options. Having several options will help get you unstuck.


Ideation is the act of producing many ideas. The benefit of creating more ideas is it works like a never-ending loop. More ideas help generate even more ideas. Crucially, having such diverse ideas will allow you to identify significantly better options to generate your life design. One way to disinhibit your ideation is to leave judgment at the door. Stop being an inner critic and allow every and any idea to surface. Judgment destroys creativity and doesn’t actually improve your decision-making as it limits your options. Despite this, the authors clearly state you should avoid falling in love with your first idea. You must still compare ideas and analyze them effectively after allowing them to emerge.

Mind Maps

“Mind Mapping works by using simple free association of words, one after another, to open up the idea space and come up with new solutions.”

– Bill Burnett

Utilizing mind maps is one of the most effective ways of encouraging ideation. The authors offer a clear three-step process for developing mind maps:

  1. Pick a topic.
  2. Make the mind map.
  3. Make secondary connections and create concepts.

The effectiveness of mind mapping lies in its ability to bypass your inner verbal censor. Your ideas and connections are captured automatically without the opportunity for judgment. To ensure the inner censor is bypassed, the authors also recommend you never spend more than five minutes on a mind map. 

Design Your Lives

Having only one plan for your life is an inadequate approach. Telling yourself there is only one sound plan for your life adds a terrific amount of pressure to your life. Plus, this approach also limits your possibilities. Therefore, the authors suggest you instead identify three life plans. These plans are called Odyssey plans and should be defined as follows:

  1. Your first plan should be the thing you already do. Essentially, imagine extending your current life trajectory forward. Alternatively, if you need change, consider an immediate plan you have and prioritize that as a life goal.
  2. The second plan should be the thing you would do if your first life goal suddenly disappeared. This is your fallback plan in case you stop making any money from your first life goal. 
  3. Your final plan should be associated with the things you would do if money and others’ judgments were irrelevant.

For each of these plans, the authors recommend creating a detailed outline. This outline should consider the next five years of your life according to each possibility. The outline should include:

  • A visual timeline.
  • A six-word headline describing what this life would be about.
  • Assumptions that this life adopts.
  • A dashboard of all the resources you would require to make this life a success.
  • Other optional features, such as where you will live, what you will do on the weekends, etc.


“You wouldn’t buy a car without a test drive, would you? But we do this all the time with jobs and life changes. It’s crazy, when you think about it”

– Bill Burnett

Generally, people start with what they know when they are seeking to solve a problem. 

However, this is not the correct approach when designing your life. Instead, you should utilize prototyping. Instead of thinking about what you know, prototyping relies on physical experiences within the real world. These experiences should help you better visualize alternative life paths.

Prototype Conversations

The authors describe having a conversation as the easiest form of prototyping. Instead of jumping into living this alternative life, you talk to somebody else who is already living this life. Listen to their approaches and what their experience is of this alternative life. Specifically, ensure you get the following information from this individual:

  • The features they love and hate about this alternative life.
  • What an average day looks like for this person.
  • The career path they took to attain this alternative life.
  • Whether they believe they will be doing this job for years to come.

Be sure to harness active listening during these conversations and avoid talking about yourself. 

Prototype Experiences

Prototype experiences allow us to experience part of our alternative life through a direct encounter. Typical examples of prototype experiences are spending a day shadowing a relevant professional, working for a week unpaid, or obtaining a three-month internship. 

Designing Your Dream Job

Most dream jobs are hidden from the internet. Large companies will often only post their jobs internally, meaning you don’t have access to all potential jobs within your alternative life. Despite this, the prototype conversations allow you to get a foot in the door and better understand these hidden jobs. Once you have had a prototype conversation and are interested in a company, you should aim to network further. The most common way you will develop a professional network is via referrals. Therefore, research your prototype network and ask for introductions to influential people. Plus, reach out to important people through the internet by showing your interest in their passions.

Once you have established your dream job, you should also determine parallel dream jobs. You want to get as many job offers as possible, so widen your scope to what you deem your dream job.

Failure Immunity

“Once you become a life-designing person, living in the ongoing creative process of life design, you can’t fail; you can only make progress and learn from the different kinds of experiences that failure and success both have to offer.”

– Bill Burnett

Failure is inevitable. However, this does not mean it is impossible to be immune to failure. Try to view failures as offering learning value for honing your life design. The pain associated with failure will always disappear as life is a process rather than an outcome. The authors describe failure as the raw material for success. Hence, we should reframe failures as the best thing that could have happened for our long-term success.

You can reframe your failures by adopting the following exercise:

  1. Log your failures by writing them down. Consistently look back on these failures and consider how they have helped you grow.
  2. Categorize your failures into simple ones and weaknesses. Your weaknesses are the mistakes that you must learn to accept. They are part of your nature.
  3. Identify growth insights, which are areas where you could significantly grow if you showed improvement.

Comment below and let others know what you have learned or if you have any other thoughts.

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