How To Design Your Life: Lessons from Stanford’s Design Life Lab

September 24, 2018

Designing Your LifeIt's week 2 of the Quick Start Challenge and this week's training was all about designing the sort of business you want to have in terms of how much money you want to have. This got me thinking if you're going to design one small part of your life, why shouldn't you try and design all of it. A little research and I stumbled over a TEDx talk and a book by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans from Stanford University and what they said really resonated with me. They take 'design thinking' and apply it to your life so you can figure out where you want to be in the world. It's really interesting stuff.

Burnett & Evans suggest that in order to really design the life you are happiest with, you need to test the alternatives, discover your limiting beliefs and counter them. You need to consider who you are as a person and explore what will actually make you happy and give you a fulfilling existence. But, they don't just leave it there. The talk and book are based on the course they already run at Stanford University and it gives you a roadmap to designing your life through design thinking. 

Dysfunctional Beliefs

In the book, Burnett & Evans argue that there are certain popular ideas and concepts that are not actually particularly helpful when thinking about your life. I'm sure we've all heard the question, "what is your passion?" If you ask that to a room of people you are going to get one of two answers. Half will tell you that they really don't have one and the other half will ask you which out of the many passions they have would you like them to tell you about.

Either way, this isn't a particularly good practice to really get to the core of what drives someone, but it sounds like it would.

Another example of a dysfunctional belief is "Be the best version of you."

The problem here is that it assumes there is only one version of you. In my time, I've been a comic, a writer, an actor, a web designer, business consultant and several other things as well. But, which one of those things (and I'm sure you have a list too) do you want to define you? After all, was Einstein a clerk in a patent office or one of the most lauded physicists who ever lived?

The truth is, you have to decide what you want to be doing right now. You might succeed in that or you might fail. Either is acceptable. What's not acceptable is the strive for a perfection that isn't actually there.

There's more than one of you in there...

Connecting The Dots

This stage shows you that there are three important things in life.

  • Who you are
  • What you believe
  • What you do

If you can make a connection between these things, says the book, you will experience a meaningful life. That sounds pretty easy, doesn't it?

In order to determine this, they ask what you do work for, what is it in service of? You are then asked what the meaning of life is, what is the big picture?

When you can connect your life-view and your worldview together, you start to experience life as meaningful.

I think this is particularly powerful because the modern advertising paradigms show that people who have this connection and have this clear idea of the changes that they want to make in the world are able to use this to promote their products. Asking 'why' instead of 'what' is the cornerstone of newer marketing ideas. These ideas help you build a tribe of rabid fans, rather than just relying on one sale at a time. This thinking has permeated through many top online marketers and gurus. It gives a way to show your passion for a product without having to compete for features and benefits.

Gravity Problems

The next thing they tackle are the problems in life that don't have a solution. These are known as 'Gravity Problems.'

So, each one of us has sticking points that we tend not to get beyond. You might not like your job or your partner or... whatever it is. These aren't problems with solutions but rather circumstances that people find themselves in. They might think of this as a problem but they are problems that don't change, they just continue to be problems.

The real issue here is that you can't solve a problem you're not willing to have. If you have one of these problems, the only way to move beyond it is to accept it.

Once you have accepted the problem and you know you can't change these circumstances you have to decide what you want to do. Is this a circumstance you can work with or is it something you need to take massive action to change?

Gravity problems are something that you have to be really careful about because they can easily get in the way and people don't always know how to move beyond them.

Create 3 5-Year Odyssey Plans

This is where the book really starts getting interesting. I'm a bit of a sci-fi fan so the idea of multiple universes is nothing new to me. But, imagine this... there isn't just one you, there are multiple versions of you. Each of these versions is doing a different thing that you want to do.

So, the idea here is to decide what lives you want to live. You could go back and become the doctor or lawyer if you wanted. If you could have as many of these lives as you wanted, how many would you have?

The average is around 7.5 but here's the deal...

You only get one!

The good thing is that it's not what you don't choose but what you do choose that matters. That's what makes you happy.

So, Burnett & Evans get you to design three of these lives....

Prototype Your Life

  • The first is the life that you have right now if it works out the best it can (also, add your bucket list stuff here)
  • The second is the life you will have if the first life falls through
  • The third is a wildcard life if you didn't have to worry about money and you knew no one would laugh

What happens when people imagine these lives are often that the this that are brought up are often things they left behind. So, the next thing you do is prototype. You want to set the bar very low, have a little success and then do it again.

You expose yourself to questions, involve others with your ideas and see what fits right. So, if your wildcard is to become a bartender in the Bahamas, find someone who is doing that and discover their story. You will know if you find something that resonates with you.

Choose Well

It's an age-old question, "how do you know when you know?". There is a similar addage in business "you don't know what you don't know." When we have so many choices, how do you know you're making the right choices?

That fits into a very modern idea, the fear of missing out (FOMO). The way to decide if your choices are right for you is through a process of choosing well.

  • Gather & Create
  • Narrow Down
  • Choose
  • Let Go & Move On

You also want to make sure that you leave room for the lucky ideas. Now, you might not think that you're lucky but you really can make your own luck. Most of the time this is just in the way that you look at the world. Decide you're going to be luck and you will expand your worldview, see opportunities you would have missed. It's about paying attention to what you're doing but keeping your peripheral vision open. It's in the peripheral vision that you find the interesting opportunities.

You need to narrow down because if we have too many choices we go into a thing called "choice overload." There was an experiment with jam. When a supermarket sells 6 types of jam, you have little choice but enough for you to make a decision. When they sell 25, people are overwhelmed, can not make the decision and fewer people buy.

So, you need to narrow your choices down to about 5. You won't pick the right 5 because of the Pizza or Chinese Paradox. This is where you're choosing where to eat (Pizza or Chinese) and someone says "let's go for Pizza." You instinctively know if that is the right option for you. You don't decide how you feel about a decision until the decision is made.

You have to go with this gut feeling because you can't choose well if it's only coming from your rational mind. The wisdom of emotion is a real thing.

Finally, you have to let go and move on. If you give people infinite choice (if you make a decision reversible), they destroy their ability to be happy. They don't settle for the decisions that they have made, so once a decision is made you have to move beyond it and not try to second guess yourself. It will make you happier in the long run.


Designing Your Life BookIf you want to find out more about this, I would really recommend their book Designing Your Life which goes deeper into all of these topics. This is not a book about lifestyle design in the traditional sense (which is often what we think of when we think about creating passive income streams) but really helps you answer the questions of what you want out of life. The chapters of wayfinding and getting unstuck are invaluable, in my mind. It's a very interesting read and I'd encourage others to give it a go.

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