Book Reviews

Designing your Life

Bill Burnett and Dave Evans designed a pretty amazing book with Designing your Life.  They are both professors at Stanford but each of them had pretty amazing careers pre-Academia.  The way they write and the way they use their own goals comes across as two guys who have figured out quite a few things about life.  At least their own lives.  Not only does their communication style come across as very comfortable, both authors have that tone of calm competence that you always get from people who have mastered their craft.  The book comes from concepts that were pioneered and tested in the classroom and the boardroom.  The class they offered had the same title and it quickly became one of the most popular classes at the school.

You can see why this would be so popular.  So many kids get their first taste of freedom when they head off to college/university.  With this freedom comes some new accountabilities that can easily pile up to a massive oh shit question.  What the hell am I going to do with the rest of my life?

Up until this point, most kids have a pretty clear idea of what they are supposed to do next.  There is a fairly unambiguous scorecard that comes in the form of grades or scoreboards or even social pecking order.  Once you get into college, your previous standing in all these things becomes irrelevant.  Not only do you have to recreate who you are, you typically have to do it by yourself.  Sure, you have advisors throughout the process, but the road ahead is no longer obvious and your parents aren’t there for the day to day stuff.  Burnett and Evans help kids figure this incredibly difficult transition out.  Now that all this knowledge is in a book, they can help you figure it out too.  I don’t want to leave you with the impression that this is just for kids.  No matter how old you are, if you are contemplating any type of change in career, relationship, health, etc. the knowledge in these pages will help.  We should all actively work to design our lives no matter where we start in the process because the alternative is to let the world do it for you.  That’s how the victim mindset begins.

Our authors start with sharing some facts.  First, only 27% of college grads end up working in something related to their majors.  Second, “two-thirds of workers are unhappy with their jobs.  And 15% actually hate their work.”  With just those two statements it becomes obvious we are not doing a good job of designing our lives.

They then take us through their definition of design.  Design requires radical collaboration, talk with many people from many disciplines to design something amazing.  Designers are also great tinkerers.  “Designers don’t think their way forward.  Designers build their way forward.”  To design your life effectively, you’re going to need “curiosity, bias to action, reframing, awareness, and radical collaboration.”  They also take on the passion mindset a bit and that you can’t just fall into it, “people actually need to take time to develop a passion.  And the research shows that, for most people, passion comes after they try something, discover they like it, and develop mastery – not before.  To put it more succinctly: passion is the result of a good life design, not the cause.”

Step 1: Start where you are

They outline an amazing roadmap of how to start this design.  Step 1:  Start where you are.  This is figuring out how to place the ‘you are here’ pin.  They ask you to break down where you stand in four critical pillars of life: health, work, play and love.  They walk you through creating a dashboard of how you stack up in each of these pillars.

Step 2: Building a compass

In this stage, they ask you to define true north.  They ask you to build a Lifeview by asking some fundamental questions: “What gives life meaning? What makes your life worthwhile or valuable? How does your life relate to others in your family, your community, and the world?  What do money, fame, and personal accomplishment have to do with a satisfying life?  How important are experience, growth, and fulfillment in your life?”  None of these questions have easy answers and each of them deserves serious introspection.  It’s worth it.  They ask you to do the same for your Workview which is a similar exercise but focuses on your craft.  The goal of both of these exercises is coherence.  You want to be able to articulate an internal compass to guide you through the many shades of gray that life tosses your way.

Step 3: Wayfinding

In this stage, the goal is to understand what makes work fun.  One of my favorite quotes from the book came from this chapter: “Flow is play for grown-ups.”  Wayfinding takes you through a set of exercises to understand what flow means for you.  In their words, “Work is fun when you are actually leaning into your strengths and are deeply engaged and energized by what you’re doing.”  They provide you with a good time journal that asks you to track what you’re doing at work for a couple of weeks.  When you scribe the task, they ask your engagement level while the activity was happening.  They then ask you to record your energy level for the activity when it was complete.  This starts identifying those tasks that bring you to flow already or point the direction for the work that can take you there.  If this does not become obvious after a couple of weeks, you can dive deeper using the AEIOU method.  You can look at each task/experience then ask: what Activities were actually involved?  What was the Environment like?  What was the Interaction like – people or machines, new or old?  What Objects were you interacting with?  What other Users were involved?

Step 4: Getting Unstuck

This section was all about brainstorming where they walk you through effective ways to build out a mind map which is essentially a post-it note guided brainstorming session.

Steps 5 & 6: Designing your life and Prototyping

They then ask you to take some of your results from the brainstorming exercises and to build out three five year plans.  These are three completely different things that you could see yourself doing over the next five years.  “We call these Odyssey Plans.”  Once you build these plans, it’s time to start doing some prototyping.  A lot of prototyping involves just getting out there and talking to people that have done something similar to what you’re trying to do.  Figure out why these folks love or hate what they’re doing.  Get their story and try to superimpose some of it on yourself.  Is this something you could really see yourself doing?

These first steps are the ones that resonated for me.  Like a lot of these personal development books, it started very strong but faded a little as it went on.  The authors continue with really good advice on designing and landing a dream job, but most of this was not as fresh or new as the earlier parts of the book.

They close with some great thoughts on how designing your life will actually create an immunity to failure.  If you are constantly designing your life, if you are constantly self-improving, any failure you experience is just part of the process.  That’s what life is after all, a constant trial and error experiment.  The big difference is that if you choose to design your life, you’ve decided to own that experiment.  You’ve decided to call the shots and play an active role in it rather than passively let your external stimuli control it for you.

The choice seems obvious to me.


Know Thyself I

The Importance of Self Awareness

The most important step to start us on this life odyssey is the first one.  That first step is knowing where we are right now.  It’s important to get our bearings before we can affect any real change or we may end up taking off in the wrong direction.  This always reminds me of the old joke:

The captain’s voice comes over the intercom, “I’ve got good news and I’ve got bad news.  The good news is, we’re making great time!  The bad news is, we’re lost”

It is critical to be able to answer the question: how are you doing?  I’m not talking about when an acquaintance politely asks secretly hoping for a one word answer.  I’m talking about when a close friend looks you in the eyes and really wants to know, how are you doing?  I love how Bill Burnett and Dave Evans handle this question in their book, Designing your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life.  They believe that we should start by defining where your existential You are Here pin would go.  Their recommendation is to sketch out a dashboard that details where you are today on four defining factors: Work, Play, Love and Health.

who am i

So let’s build a You are Here pin.  In a trend that will continue throughout this blog, I will be my own Guinea pig to test out these different personal development theories and methodologies.  I promise to be as honest and truthful in this blog as I am with myself, however honest that may be.  We all experience gradients of self-delusion but these exercises help narrow the gap and bring us closer to the truth.  That truth is the foundation for our personal development plan.

When building your dashboard, it is important to spend some real time being introspective.  Analyze yourself as if you were giving a 360 review on an employee or wanted to give truthful feedback on a friend.  The value of this exercise, like all exercises, increases with the amount of inwardly looking effort you put into it.  After grading yourself on each of these levels, it’s important to write a quick blurb on each to give a real sense of where you are.  This only needs to be a couple of sentences but writing it down is important because writing engages the brain differently than just thinking.  It forces you to articulate the ideas which allows you to build complete thoughts.

who am i

Here is my dashboard:


Health:  I’m physically fit, working out 5 to 6 days a week at least with cardio.  A big part of this discipline came from fear of cancer returning.  I have high blood pressure which is being treated with medication.  I could still lose 10 pounds with an ideal weight of 217 (not 215 or 220 but 217).  I meditate daily and this helps keep my mind in a good place.  I don’t feel like I do enough to give back to the community.  Recently, I have cut my reliance upon drugs like ibuprofen which has cut down on heartburn.

Work: After my previous company got acquired, it was demoralizing.  I like to work but struggled while in transition.  With this new idea, the enthusiasm is through the roof but the risk of it being an actual money maker is high.  Starting another company as well with my father which is its own can of worms but is so far very rewarding.  I do my best with helping the kids stay on track with homework, getting to school, etc.  I also sit on an advisory board for a friend’s company which is a great way to strategize and look at business differently.   A lot of my business reading has taken on a new tone with the entrepreneurial spirit cranked to 11 these days.

Play:  I try to get the most out of play as possible but in regimented intervals.  We try to go to parties as well as host them.  I am religious about Thursday night date night.  Most of my play is dictated by others at this point, mostly the kids.  This can be hard if it is not interesting to me.

Love:  I do my best to support, listen and enjoy the children.  I also try my best to communicate and stay close with friends but struggle with this due to being busy with work and family.  My wife and I have a good, candid relationship that is filled with interesting conversation and sex.  I love excellent writing but I rarely give myself the chance to do it.  I burn to enjoy nature and try to make sure we are doing something outside almost every weekend.  We recently got a new puppy who is a lot of fun but a lot of work.

This is just Step 1 in the Know Thyself journey.  We’ll start diving into personality types in the next post.