Designing Your Life: Build a Life that Works for You - by Bill Burnett, Dave Evans

Dysfunctional Belief: Your degree determines your career.
Reframe: Three-quarters of all college grads don’t end up working in a career related to their majors.

Dysfunctional Belief: If you are successful, you will be happy.
Reframe: True happiness comes from designing a life that works for you.

Dysfunctional Belief: It’s too late.
Reframe: It’s never too late to design a life you love.

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.

Be Curious. Curiosity makes everything new. It invites exploration. It makes everything play. Most of all, curiosity is going to help you “get good at being lucky.” It’s the reason some people see opportunities everywhere.

Try Stuff. When you have a bias to action, you are committed to building your way forward. There is no sitting on the bench just thinking about what you are going to do. There is only getting in the game. Designers try things. They test things out. They create prototype after prototype, failing often, until they find what works and what solves the problem. Sometimes they find the problem is entirely different from what they first thought it was. Designers embrace change. They are not attached to a particular outcome, because they are always focused on what will happen next—not what the final result will be.

Reframe Problems. Reframing is how designers get unstuck. Reframing also makes sure that we are working on the right problem. Life design involves key reframes that allow you to step back, examine your biases, and open up new solution spaces. Throughout the book, we will be reframing dysfunctional beliefs that prevent people from finding the careers and the lives they want. Reframing is essential to finding the right problems and the right solutions.

Know It’s a Process. We know that life gets messy. For every step forward, it can sometimes seem you are moving two steps back. Mistakes will be made, prototypes thrown away. An important part of the process is letting go—of your first idea and of a good-but-not-great solution. And sometimes amazing designs can emerge from the mess. The Slinky was invented this way. Teflon was created this way. Super Glue. Play-Doh. None of these things would exist if a designer somewhere hadn’t screwed up. When you learn to think like a designer you learn to be aware of the process. Life design is a journey; let go of the end goal and focus on the process and see what happens next.

Ask for Help. The last mind-set of design thinking is perhaps the most important, especially when it comes to designing your life: radical collaboration. What this means is simple—you are not alone. The best designers know that great design requires radical collaboration. It takes a team. A painter can create an artistic masterpiece alone on a windswept coast, but a designer cannot create the iPhone alone, windswept beach or not. And your life is more like a great design than a work of art, so you cannot create it alone, either. You do not have to come up with a brilliant life design by yourself. Design is a collaborative process, and many of the best ideas are going to come from other people. You just need to ask. And know the right questions to ask. In this book, you will learn how to use mentors and a supportive community to help with your life design. When you reach out to the world, the world reaches right back. And this changes everything. In other words, life design, like all design, is a team sport.

Start Where You Are

Problem Finding + Problem Solving = Well-Designed Life

If it’s not actionable, it’s not a problem. It’s a situation, a circumstance, a fact of life. It may be a drag (so to speak), but, like gravity, it’s not a problem that can be solved. Here’s a little tidbit that is going to save you a lot of time—months, years, decades even. It has to do with reality. People fight reality. They fight it tooth and nail, with everything they’ve got. And anytime you are arguing or fighting with reality, reality will win. You can’t outsmart it. You can’t trick it. You can’t bend it to your will. Not now. Not ever.

The Life Design Assessment

If you’re beginning to think like a designer, you will recognize that life is never done. Work is never done. Play is never done. Love and health are never done. We are only done designing our lives when we die. Until then, we’re involved in a constant iteration of the next big thing: life as we know it. So the questions remain: Are you happy right now with where your gauges stand in each of these four areas? Have you looked at them honestly? Are there areas that need action?

Try Stuff: Health / Work / Play / Love Dashboard

  1. Write a few sentences about how it’s going in each of the four areas.

  2. Mark where you are (0 to Full) on each gauge.

  3. Ask yourself if there’s a design problem you’d like to tackle in any of these areas.

  4. Now ask yourself if your “problem” is a gravity problem.

Building a Compass

Our goal for your life is rather simple: coherency. A coherent life is one lived in such a way that you can clearly connect the dots between three things:

  • Who you are

  • What you believe

  • What you are doing

Workview Reflection: Write a short reflection about your Workview. We’re not looking for a term paper here (and we’re still not grading you), but we do want you really to write this down. Don’t do it in your head. This should take about thirty minutes. Try to shoot for 250 words—less than a page of typed writing. A Workview should address the critical issues related to what work is and what it means to you. It is not just a list of what you want from or out of work, but a general statement of your view of work. It’s your definition for what good work deserves to be. A Workview may address such questions as:

  • Why work?

  • What’s work for?

  • What does work mean?

  • How does it relate to the individual, others, society?

  • What defines good or worthwhile work?

  • What does money have to do with it?

  • What do experience, growth, and fulfillment have to do with it?

What we’re after is your philosophy of work—what it’s for, what it means. This will essentially be your work manifesto. When using the term “work,” we mean the broadest definition—not just what you do to make money or for “a job.”

Lifeview Reflection: Just as you did with the Workview, please write a reflection on your Lifeview. This should also take no more than thirty minutes and be 250 words or so. Below are some questions often addressed in a Lifeview, just to get you started. The key thing is to write down whatever critical defining values and perspectives provide the basis for your understanding of life. Your Lifeview is what provides your definition of what have been called “matters of ultimate concern.” It’s what matters most to you.

  • Why are we here?

  • What is the meaning or purpose of life?

  • What is the relationship between the individual and others?

  • Where do family, country, and the rest of the world fit in?

  • What is good, and what is evil?

  • Is there a higher power, God, or something transcendent, and if so, what impact does this have on your life?

  • What is the role of joy, sorrow, justice, injustice, love, peace, and strife in life?

Coherency and Workview-Lifeview Integration: Read over your Workview and Lifeview, and write down a few thoughts on the following questions (please try to answer each of the questions):

  • Where do your views on work and life complement one another?

  • Where do they clash?

  • Does one drive the other? How?


Good Time Journal Exercise: There are two elements to the Good Time Journal:

  • Activity Log (where I record where I’m engaged and energized)

  • Reflections (where I discover what I am learning)

The Activity Log simply lists your primary activities and how engaged and energized you were by those activities. We recommend that you make Activity Log entries daily, to be sure to capture lots of good information.

All of us are motivated by different kinds of work activities. Your job is to figure out which ones motivate you—with as much specificity as you can. It will take a while to get the hang of this, because, if you’re like most people, you’ve not been paying detailed attention to this sort of thing. Sure, there are times when we all come home at the end of the day and say, “That was great,” or “That sucked,” but we seldom sift through the particulars of what contributed to those experiences. A day is made up of many moments, some of which are great, some of which suck, and most of which lie somewhere in between. Your job is to drill down into the particulars of your day and catch yourself in the act of having a good time. The second element of the Good Time Journal is reflection, looking over your Activity Log and noticing trends, insights, surprises—anything that is a clue to what does and doesn’t work for you. We recommend doing your Activity Log for at least three weeks, or whatever period of time you need to be sure you capture all the various kinds of activities that arise in your current situation (some activities may only come around every few weeks).

Getting great insights out of your Good Time Journal reflections isn’t always easy, so here’s a tool designers use to make detailed and accurate observations—part of getting good at the curiosity mind-set. It’s the AEIOU method that provides you five sets of questions you can use when reflecting on your Activity Log.

  • Activities. What were you actually doing? Was this a structured or an unstructured activity? Did you have a specific role to play (team leader) or were you just a participant (at the meeting)?

  • Environments. Our environment has a profound effect on our emotional state. You feel one way at a football stadium, another in a cathedral. Notice where you were when you were involved in the activity. What kind of a place was it, and how did it make you feel?

  • Interactions. What were you interacting with—people or machines? Was it a new kind of interaction or one you are familiar with? Was it formal or informal?

  • Objects. Were you interacting with any objects or devices—iPads or smartphones, hockey sticks or sailboats? What were the objects that created or supported your feeling engaged?

  • Users. Who else was there, and what role did they play in making it either a positive or a negative experience?

Getting Unstuck

Dysfunctional Belief: I’m stuck.
Reframe: I’m never stuck, because I can always generate a lot of ideas.

Dysfunctional Belief: I have to find the one right idea.
Reframe: I need a lot of ideas so that I can explore any number of possibilities for my future.

As a life designer, you need to embrace two philosophies:

  1. You choose better when you have lots of good ideas to choose from.

  2. You never choose your first solution to any problem.

Mind mapping works by using simple free association of words, one after another, to open up the idea space and come up with new solutions. The graphical nature of the method allows ideas and their associations to be captured automatically. This technique teaches you to generate lots of ideas, and because it is a visual method, it bypasses your inner logical/verbal censor. The mind-mapping process has three steps:

  1. Picking a topic

  2. Making the mind map

Try Stuff: Mind Mapping

  1. Review your Good Time Journal and note activities in which you were engaged, energized, and in flow.

  2. Choose an activity that you were engaged in, an activity that you felt highly energized from, and something you did that brought you into flow, and create three mind maps—one for each.

  3. Look at the outer ring of each mind map, pick three things that jump out at you, and create a job description from them.

  4. Create a role for each job description, and draw a napkin sketch.

Design Your Lives

Dysfunctional Belief: I need to figure out my best possible life, make a plan, and then execute it.
Reframe: There are multiple great lives (and plans) within me, and I get to choose which one to build my way forward to next.

Life One—That Thing You Do. Your first plan is centered on what you’ve already got in mind—either your current life expanded forward or that hot idea you’ve been nursing for some time. This is the idea you already have—it’s a good one and it deserves attention in this exercise.

Life Two—That Thing You’d Do If Thing One Were Suddenly Gone. Just imagine that your life one idea is suddenly over or no longer an option. What would you do? You can’t not make a living. You can’t do nothing. What would you do? If you’re like most people we talk with, when you really force your imagination to believe that you have to make a living doing something other than doing That Thing You Do, you’ll come up with something.

Life Three—The Thing You’d Do or the Life You’d Live If Money or Image Were No Object. If you knew you could make a decent living at it and you knew no one would laugh at you or think less of you for doing it—what would you do?

Try Stuff: Odyssey Plan

  1. Create three alternative five-year plans, using the worksheet downloadable at

  2. Give each alternative a descriptive six-word title, and write down three questions that arise out of each version of you.

  3. Complete each gauge on the dashboard—ranking each alternative for resources, likability, confidence, and coherence.

4.Present your plan to another person, a group, or your Life Design Team. Note how each alternative energizes you.


Dysfunctional Belief: If I comprehensively research the best data for all aspects of my plan, I’ll be fine.
Reframe: I should build prototypes to explore questions about my alternatives.

The Rules of Brainstorming

  1. Go for quantity, not quality.

  2. Defer judgment and do not censor ideas.

  3. Build off the ideas of others.

  4. Encourage wild ideas.

Try Stuff: Prototyping

  1. Review your three Odyssey Plans and the questions you wrote down for each.

  2. Make a list of prototype conversations that might help you answer these questions.

  3. Make a list of prototype experiences that might help you answer these questions.

  4. If you are stuck, and if you have gathered a good group, have a brainstorming session to come up with possibilities. (Don’t have a team? Try mind mapping.)

  5. Build your prototypes by actively seeking out Life Design Interviews and experiences.

How Not to Get a Job

Here is a summary of our tips to make your Internet job search strategy more effective:

  • Tip 1: Rewrite your résumé using the same words used in the job posting.

  • Tip 2: If you have a specific skill that is posted as required, put it in your résumé exactly the way it is written in the Internet posting. If you don’t have that skill, find a way to describe your skill set that uses the same words that will be found in a keyword search.

  • Tip 3: Focus your résumé on the job as described. Even if the job description isn’t very accurate, this will increase the chance that your résumé will show up in a search. Then focus on the skills that you can offer the company, using their words as often as possible.

  • Tip 4: Always bring a fresh, nicely printed copy of your résumé to an interview.

Dysfunctional Belief: You should focus on your need to find a job.
Reframe: You should focus on the hiring manager’s need to find the right person.

Designing Your Dream Job

Dysfunctional Belief: My dream job is out there waiting.
Reframe: You design your dream job through a process of actively seeking and co-creating it.

Dysfunctional Belief: Networking is just hustling people—it’s slimy.
Reframe: Networking is just asking for directions.

Dysfunctional Belief: I am looking for a job.
Reframe: I am pursuing a number of offers.

Choosing Happiness

Dysfunctional Belief: To be happy, I have to make the right choice.
Reframe: There is no right choice—only good choosing.

Dysfunctional Belief: Happiness is having it all.
Reframe: Happiness is letting go of what you don’t need.

The Life Design Choosing Process

Step 1: Gather and Create Options

Step 2: Narrow Down the List

Step 3: Choose Discerningly

In order to make a good decision, we need access to our feelings and gut reactions to the alternatives. Our own wisdom is then made available to us emotionally (as feelings) and intestinally (as a bodily, gut response). Therefore, in order to make a good decision, we need access to our feelings and gut reactions to the alternatives.

Step 4: Agonize Let Go and Move On

Failure Immunity

Fortunately, if you’re designing your life, you can’t be a failure. You may experience some prototypes and engagements that don’t attain their goals (that “fail”), but remember, those were designed so you could learn some things. Once you become a life designing person and are living the ongoing creative process of life design, you can’t fail; you can only be making progress and learning from the different kinds of experiences that failure and success both have to offer.

Dysfunctional Belief: We judge our life by the outcome.
Reframe: Life is a process, not an outcome.

Dysfunctional Belief: Life is a finite game, with winners and losers.
Reframe: Life is an infinite game, with no winners or losers.

Try Stuff: Reframing Failure

  1. Look back over the last week (or month or year), and log your failures.

  2. Categorize them as screwups, weaknesses, or growth opportunities. Screwups are just that—simple mistakes about things that you normally get right. It’s not that you can’t do better. You normally do these things right, so you don’t really need to learn anything from this—you just screwed up. The best response here is to acknowledge you screwed up, apologize as needed, and move on. Weaknesses are failures that happen because of one of your abiding failings. These are the mistakes that you make over and over. You know the source of these failures well. They are old friends. You’ve probably worked at correcting them already, and have improved as far as you think you’re going to. You try to avoid getting caught by these weaknesses, but they happen. We’re not suggesting you cave in prematurely and accept mediocre performance, but we are suggesting that there isn’t much upside in trying to change your stripes. Growth opportunities are the failures that didn’t have to happen, or at least don’t have to happen the next time. The cause of these failures is identifiable, and a fix is available. We want to direct our attention here, rather than get distracted by the low return on spending too much time on the other failure types.

  3. Identify your growth insights. Do any of the growth opportunity failures offer an invitation for a real improvement? What is there to learn here? What went wrong (the critical failure factor)? What could be done differently next time (the critical success factor)? Look for an insight to capture that could change things next time. Jot it down and put it to work. That’s it—a simple reframe.

  4. Build a habit of converting failures to growth by doing this once or twice a month.

Building a Team

Dysfunctional Belief: It’s my life, I have to design it myself.
Reframe: You live and design your life in collaboration with others.

Try to build a team of three to five people for the best dynamics and most innovative input. Keep it simple. The team’s focus is on supporting an effective life design—no more and no less. The team members are not your therapist, your financial adviser, or your spiritual guru. They are your co-creators in your life design. The only role that really needs to be defined is that of the team facilitator—the person who organizes when you get together and what you do when you meet. Usually, that’s you. It’s best if you drive the scheduling and communications; that way, you can be sure the team is on track and not doing too much or too little. But you may ask another member to actually facilitate the meetings, or you may pass that role around. It doesn’t really matter, as long as someone is always keeping an eye on the clock, the agenda, and the conversation. That last part—the conversation—is the most important. Keep it:

  1. Respectful

  2. Confidential

  3. Participative (no holding back)

  4. Generative (constructive, not skeptical or judging)

If you’re like most of the people we’ve worked with, you’ll find the time you spend with your Life Design Team and collaborators to be pretty stimulating and life-giving. The kind of support and sincere and respectful listening that we’re hoping you’re experiencing as you do this are pretty habit-forming. There is something incredibly special about being part of a community. It’s how humans are supposed to live. Community is more than just sharing resources or hanging out now and then. It’s showing up and investing in the ongoing creation of one another’s lives. Being in that kind of community is a great way to live, and we highly recommend it as an ongoing practice, not just when making big plans or starting new things.

Conclusion: A Well-Designed Life

Dysfunctional Belief: I finished designing my life; the hard work is done, and everything will be great.
Reframe: You never finish designing your life—life is a joyous and never-ending design project of building your way forward.

Be Curious. There’s something interesting about everything. Endless curiosity is key to a well-designed life. Nothing is boring to everyone (even doing taxes or washing the dishes).

What would someone who’s interested in this want to know?
How does it work?
Why do they do it that way?
How did they used to do it?
What do experts in this field argue about and why?
What’s the most interesting thing going on here?
What don’t I get about what’s happening here?
How could I find out?

Try Stuff. With a bias to action, there is no more being stuck—no more worrying, analyzing, pondering, or solving your way through life. Just do it.

How can we try this before the day is out?
What would we like to know more about?
What can I do that will answer that?
What sorts of things are actionable, and if we tried them, what might we learn?

Reframe Problems. Reframing is a change in perspective, and almost any design problem can use a perspective switch.

What perspective do I actually have?
Where am I now coming from?
What other perspectives could other people have? Name them, and then describe the problem from their perspective, not yours.

Redescribe your problem using some of the following reframe lenses: Your problem is actually very small. Very easy to fix. An opportunity more than a problem. Something you can just skip entirely. Something you actually don’t understand at all yet. Not your problem. And how will it look a year later?

Know It’s a Process. Awareness of the process means you don’t get frustrated or lost, and you don’t ever give up.

What are all the steps behind you and in front of you that you can imagine?
Is what’s on your mind actually germane to the step you’re on now?
Are you on the right step, or are you ahead of or behind yourself?
What happens if you don’t think more than one step ahead?
What’s the worst thing that can happen? How likely is it to happen, and what would you do if it did?
What’s the best thing that can happen?

Write down all the questions, worries, ideas, and hopes that you have, and then ask yourself if you know what to do next. Does it feel different now?

Ask for Help. Radical collaboration means that you aren’t alone in the process. Find a supporter you can talk to about what you’re in the midst of—right now. Tell this person your situation for five minutes, and ask for five minutes of feedback and discussion. How do you feel now (regardless of what your supporter said—just talking to someone other than yourself)? There are lots of ways to get collaboration started:

Build a team.
Create a community.
Who are all the different groups and constituencies involved in what you’re working on? Are you connected to and in conversation with all of them? If not—get going.
Keep an ask-for-help journal in which you jot down the questions you want help on, and keep it handy. Each week, identify some people who can help you with some of the journal entries and reach out to them. Journal answers and results from your helpers.
Find a mentor.
Call your mother (she’d love it—you know she would).