April 25, 2021

Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans: Why you don't need passion for a great career

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About the book

At last, a book that shows you how to build—design—a life you can thrive in, at any age or stage

Designers create worlds and solve problems using design thinking. Look around your office or home–at the tablet or smartphone you may be holding or the chair you are sitting in. Everything in our lives was designed by someone. And every design starts with a problem that a designer or team of designers seeks to solve.

In this book, Bill Burnett and Dave Evans show us how design thinking can help us create a life that is both meaningful and fulfilling, regardless of who or where we are, what we do or have done for a living, or how young or old we are. The same design thinking responsible for amazing technology, products, and spaces can be used to design and build your career and your life, a life of fulfillment and joy, constantly creative and productive, one that always holds the possibility of surprise.



About the authors


Bill Burnett is the Executive Director of the Design Program at Stanford. He directs the undergraduate and graduate program in design at Stanford, both interdepartmental programs between the Mechanical Engineering department and the Art department.

He got his BS and MS in Product Design at Stanford and has worked professionally on a wide variety of projects ranging from award-winning Apple PowerBooks to the original Hasbro Star Wars action figures. He holds a number of mechanical and design patents, and design awards for a variety of products including the first “slate” computer. In addition to his duties at Stanford, he is a on the Board of VOZ (pronounced “VAWS – it means voice in Spanish) a social responsible high fashion startup and advises several Internet start-up companies.

Dave Evans is a Lecturer, Product Design Program at Stanford, Management Consultant, and co-founder of Electronic Arts.Having participated in forming the corporate cultures at Apple and EA, Dave decided his best work was in helping organizations build creative environments where people could do great work and love doing it. So he went out on his own; working with start-up teams, corporate executives, non-profit leaders, and countless young adults. They were all asking the same question. “What should I do with my life?” Helping people get traction on that question finally took Dave to Cal and Stanford and continues to be his life’s work.



Big idea #1 - You have multiple options

This is one of my favourite ideas in the book, and it is the myth-buster of the assumption that there's only one right thing or one right path for us to take, or thing for us to do.

The reframe they use in the book is that there isn't just one solution and that's actually a good thing. They ask the question or reframe the question from “what do you want to be when you grow up” into “what, or who, do you want to grow into?”. The very important point is that this is not about a destination, it's about the journey.

Your life is not a thing, it is an experience. The fun that comes from designing and enjoying the experience.

Once you design something, it creates multiple different futures. And overall, it's about creating a portfolio of opportunities that you can take and explore, and test, and try, and prototype, and then maybe take into action.

One of my favourite exercises in the book (and one that caused a good conversation over dinner with myself and my boyfriend) is one where you create multiple different realities, or odysseys, for the next five years of your life.

They give three prompts for these potential odysseys:

  • Expanding your current reality: maybe you are still doing what you're doing, but you are doing it in a more senior position or in a different company or in a different country. Or maybe you're doing what you're doing now, but you've achieved something else. You’ve entered the Ironman that you've always wanted to do, or you have travelled to Antarctica.
  • Is what your reality would be if the thing you do doesn't exist anymore. Your industry suddenly disappears, what do you do instead?
  • Money is no object. You’ve got all the money you need, what would your reality look like? What would you do? What would you not do?

I think the most important part for this exercise, and for each of these realities you come up with, is what questions does it raise for you?


Big idea #2 - No passion required.

You might already know that I'm a big fan of ignoring this whole passion rhetoric that goes around in the world, so I especially enjoyed this idea in the book.

Dave and Bill say that passion takes time to develop. It's an output, not an input to life design. Many people have multiple passions. So how do you start to build a life around passion (based on what we’re told we have to do) if you have multiple passions? And just because you have a passion doesn't mean you should actually do it as your job.

Equally many people don't know what their passion is, and particularly younger people. So asking these young people, who are maybe only just finishing their studies and haven’t experienced much in life yet, what their passion is and that they should follow that, is not a useful question.

The passion advice is unhelpful at best and harmful at worst.

Bill and Dave say that you should find your passion through doing; through trying, experimenting, failing, and learning along the way. You don't need to know what your passion is in order to make a first step, or to take a small action in a direction and to see what happens.


Big idea #3 - Try it on (aka Grok it)

 It'd be very easy to overanalyse everything if you feel stuck, and look for more and more and more information. But that likely won't help you beyond a certain point. Instead, they say, you need to Grok it.

Quick definition: Grok, in case you're wondering, comes from the 1960s, sci-fi classic, Stranger in a Strange Land. It's used to describe a way of knowing that martians/aliens used, and it actually means to understand something so deeply and completely so much so that you feel that you've become one with it. This has entered more common parlance and ‘I grok that’ is similar to, ‘I get that’, but much deeper than that.

So, to really understand our potential realities or possible decisions (as in big idea #1), we need to try on (or grok) our realities. To act as if we've made that decision, without any commitment.

In the book they talk about living for one to three days as if you’ve made a decision, to see how it feels. You go about your daily life, knowing that you've made a particular decision. Maybe it's that you want to move to New York, you want to change career and become a photographer.

Either way, you walk around for a couple of days to see how it feels to ‘try on’ a decision. You don't have to tell other people about it, but when you're cleaning your teeth in the morning, you think, yep. I'm going to be a photographer. I'm going to quit my job, and I'm going to become a photographer.

Just see how it feels. The idea of this is to use all of the different knowledge we have in our body and in our brain. To help us make a decision through feeling, because it's probably not just something we can only think about. We need to feel it. It's therefore important that we're not living as ourselves thinking about those options or that decision, but as a person who's already made that decision, there's a bit of a subtle nuance there.

You do this for all of the different options, a couple of days at a time, but you do a little bit of a reset in between each of them. You can test the different emotions that are revealed, and see what might need tweaking (or abandoning, or levelling up) from each of the options as you try them on.

I think this is such a fun way of getting to do a little bit of play pretend. You might even start looking into different things, just to see how that feels as well. You might then start researching where you might live in New York, because you've made that decision in your mind. You don't necessarily commit to anything, but you act as if you've made the decision and that that is what you're going to do.



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