In the counterculture movement of the 1960s, a time teeming with new ways of thinking, the earliest glimpses of human-centered design and design thinking were born. The worlds of architecture and product design began to move away from the sciences and towards an approach that put humans at its center. Fast-forward to this very moment—if you stop to look around your home, office, or any store, almost everything you’ll see is a product of this new wave of thought.
Design thinking is problem-solving. You might have a teacup beside you. Its handle was designed so that you could hold hot liquids without burning your hands. Its saucer was designed so that if you spill liquid, you won’t ruin what’s underneath. We use design thinking to create some of the world’s best and most human products. The question swirling around the internet is: Can we use this same process to design our own lives?
According to Ayse Birsel, author of “Design the Life You Love” and co-founder of the award-winning design studio Birsel + Seck, “Life is just like a design project. It’s full of constraints, money, age, location, circumstances.” The same design thinking responsible for museums, apps, or even teacups can be used to design a more fulfilling future. That is the basis of “Designing Your Life,” a class by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans at Stanford University.
As authors of “Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life” and co-founders of Stanford University’s Life Design Lab, Burnett and Evans set out on a mission to “apply the innovation principles of design thinking to the wicked problem of designing your life at and after college.” They describe wicked problems as those for which the criteria constantly change, like your own life—and they promise real, human tools to solve them.
If you’re wondering, can’t we just live our lives? Well, as Burnett and Evans have gauged from students and adults alike, people get stuck. We are often trapped by what they describe as dysfunctional beliefs. These are things we believe about ourselves that are not particularly true or helpful. These arise from questions like: What’s your passion? As Burnett cites in a TedxStanford talk, “Less than 20% of people have any one singular identifiable passion in their lives.” Bottom line—passion is not a good organizing principle to figure out what your life is about. It leaves 8 out of 10 people stuck.
Another question that hinders our decision-making is: Are you the best possible version of yourself? According to Burnett and Evans, this question assumes several things, “First, that there is a singular best; second, that life is a linear thing; and third, it comes from the business notion that good is the enemy of better and better is the enemy of best.” But if there isn’t one singular best, the duo suggests that “The unattainable best is the enemy of all the available betters.” There are many versions of ourselves we could live out. If you feel stuck or at a crossroads, here are five ideas from Burnett and Evans’ research that can help you live the life you want.
Connecting The Dots
There’s who you are, what you believe, and what you do in the world. If you can make a connection between these three things, if you can make that a coherent story, you will experience your life as meaningful. Meaning comes from connecting the dots.
If it’s not actionable, it’s not a problem; it’s a circumstance. It is something you cannot change. You can’t solve a problem you’re not willing to have. The only thing we can do with gravity problems in our lives is accept them.
How Many Lives Are You?
Most people think they have several good lives they could live. Ideate three, five-year future plans. In plan one, imagine your life now goes great. In plan two, imagine what you would do if plan one goes away. In plan three, come up with a wildcard. Imagine what would you do if you had enough money and didn’t care what people thought.
Prototyping means testing out the lives you think you want. Here, you ask questions, expose assumptions, involve others with your ideas, and sneak up on the future. There are people out there living in the future you want today. Have a conversation with them, ask them for their story, and if something sparks in you, you can identify that as a potential path to walk on. Then, go out and try it. Go to a class or lecture, dip your toes into that life, and see if it feels right.
This idea is formed of four phases: “Gather and create. Narrow down. Choose. Let go and move on.” Gathering and creating means paying attention and keeping your peripheral vision open. It’s in your peripheral vision that exciting opportunities show up. Narrowing down means eliminating choice overload. Statistically, the more choices you have, the less likely you are to pick one. Cross off a bunch of choices. Then choose; you cannot choose well if you choose only from your rational mind. Trust your gut feeling. And finally, feel at home in your choice, let go, and move on.
Burnett and Evans are far from the only ones who’ve applied design thinking to designing lives. Amidst a slew of new lifestyle gurus, countless are approaching the same topic. Tim Ferriss, entrepreneur and author of “The 4-Hour Work Week,” suggests that “Effective lifestyle design is effective testing.” Think of it this way: If you plan to work hard in finance for 10 years and then move to the beach to live the good life, develop experiments to prove or disprove that would make you happy. Talk to people who’ve done it. Spend more time at the beach. Ask yourself whether you’d be willing to walk away from that job.
All this design thinking may seem daunting, but it’s just about getting curious, talking to people, and trying stuff. When you’re curious, you decide the world is full of interesting things. Those curiosities will lead you to talk to people. Listen to their stories and see what inspires you. Once you feel that spark, try it out. Observe a class. Sit in on a meeting. Keep going, and you’ll slowly start to notice where you continue to come back. Most importantly, stop and ask yourself this: Are you designing a life you like living in?