August 14th, 2020

Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett & Dave Evans

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.1

We all want a life that fulfills us. One that we wake up and greet with joy. One that challenges us and allows us to use our talents to their potential. This is where Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans has some ideas to help us design the life we want to have.

According to the authors, there are five mindsets that we need to take on to design a good life2.

First, we need to be curious about life.

Second, we need to have a bias toward action. No sitting back for those that want an excellent life.

Third, we need to reframe the problem we’re working on. This is how we get unstuck and make forward progress.

Fourth, we need to know that building a life worth living is a messy process. Sometimes it may feel like we’re taking a step backwards.

Fifth, we need to be willing to ask for help. This is not a solitary pursuit, but one that requires radical collaboration between ourselves and those that are in our community.

Once you’ve got a handle on those five things, it’s time to make sure you’re asking the right question 3. If you start this whole process on the wrong foot, then you’re going to head the wrong direction and have poor match fit4.

How to Design Your Life

While they offer many steps in making sure you’re asking the right question, the first one I want to highlight is the Workview statement5. This isn’t a sentence about the specifics of what you do, but a general statement about why you work at all. Here is mine as an example.

I work for the discovery of problems. A hard coding issue or a new idea in a book both feel like an excellent discovery. I enjoy finding both and sharing what I learn so that others don’t have to struggle.

It’s important to remember a few other things as you embark on life design. A well-designed life is about finding where you get flow and digging into that experience6. It’s also very easy to find an idea and run with it because we’re lazy and searching is hard7. But the first idea and the easy way out doesn’t provide a good match fit, so don’t take that easy path.

One of the final things to remember as you start designing your life is that you don't have a single perfect life to live with all other options being pale and dead in comparison8. You have many lives that can fit and bring satisfaction to you.

To show this they provide you with a three-life exercise.

Life One - That Thing You Do: Either the thing you’re doing now expanded forward or that hot idea you haven’t been able to let go of.

Life Two - If Thing One were Suddenly Gone: What would you do if life one wasn’t an option anymore.

Life Three - If Money wasn’t an object: If you knew you could succeed then what would you do?

Making the Choice

Ultimately there are four steps in the life design process according to the authors9.

  1. Gather and Create Options
  2. Narrow the Options Down
  3. Choose
  4. Let Go and Move On

Most of the book is about gathering your options. The final few chapters help you with the final three.

Narrow Down Your Options

Too few options and too many options are both a bad thing. Too few likely means you took the easy options and stopped there. Too many options paralyze us with choice. Narrow down your options to 3 - 5 of them.

If you have trouble narrowing things down, look to your community10. Find them in your church, your running group, or somewhere. While they don’t use this term, I’d say you should build a personal board of advisors and talk with them about your career options.

Once you have your options narrowed down, test some out as part-time work or take a few weeks of vacation to test them out. Don’t just rely on thinking about what you’d want to do because that leads to dream scenarios that rarely reflect what will happen in your life.

Choose

Now, choose. Take the next step in your life design. Use that board of directors and trust your gut as much as your head. They both bring value to your decision.

Let Go and Move On

The final step is to let go and move on. Don’t anguish about some other option not pursued that may have yielded 2% more benefit. You'll never know if that’s true, and if you made a bad step, just design again and take a better step next time11.

Looking at “what if” will only mean that you won't dive into your choice fully and that means it’s unlikely to be as successful as it could be.

Should You Read Designing Your Life

One of the best things about this book is the wealth of exercises provided by the authors to help you step through different versions of what your life could be like. I wonder if some minds that are not as “design” minded will not quite get what the book is trying to get them to do, but that doesn’t diminish the value of the work you can put in here.

I do think that the book suffers from extra fluff that isn’t needed. It could be half as long and just as good.

If you’re looking to build a better life, go through this for some useful exercises, and then move on.

Purchase Designing Your Life: Independent Bookstore | Amazon


  1. Page XVI 

  2. Page XXVI 

  3. Page 7 

  4. We talked about match fit when we looked at Range

  5. Page 34 

  6. Page 45 

  7. Page 69 

  8. Page 88 

  9. Page 159 

  10. Page 211 

  11. Page 186