Stuff we read: “Designing Your Life”

Sarah and Alyssa read “Designing Your Life,” did some of the exercises and made pretty big career moves as a result.
Alyssa’s colleague sent her this photo after he picked up the book. He and his girlfriend are reading it together to hold each other accountable for acting on what they learn.

“Designing Your Life” started as a class to help design students find jobs, and quickly became Stanford’s most popular class. Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, the authors, both Stanford professors and experienced designers in Silicon Valley, believe that using design thinking is the key to happiness in work and life. The book encourages readers to think like designers as they figure out their career — test things out in low-risk ways, adjust quickly as you learn — all in the pursuit of creating life and work that is meaningful to you. It is a New York Times #1 bestseller.

Sarah and Alyssa read (most of) “Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life.” Here’s what they thought.

Why did you want to read this?

Alyssa: A friend recommended the book to me (shout out to Nate Wong), and I was intrigued about applying design to my own life. I’ve advocated design thinking principles to my consulting clients for years as a way to approach their business challenges. But I had never thought to apply them to my own life.

Sarah: I had multiple friends (including Alyssa) recommend it to me. I felt stuck in my career and wanted advice and suggestions. The concept of design thinking — trying things out on a small scale before fully investing, and not being afraid to change — is a hot topic right now. I liked the idea of applying those principles to my life. Also, Alyssa asked me to do the exercises that go along with the book with her, so I immediately had an accountability partner.

What did you find most useful?

Alyssa: Three things.

1. I love the stories and examples of how other people have pivoted or thought about their careers differently.

2. The authors suggest writing out your “Work View” and your “Life View” and seeing where there are intersections or where they might be incompatible. I had never thought to write something like that down and it really helped me clarify and remind myself of what is important to me. I still look back to what I wrote every few weeks to ground me. For me, the intersection between work and life I wanted were:

  • Doing something good in the world
  • Making enough money to care for family and give back
  • Learning constantly
  • Having a voice and being willing to use it
  • Prioritizing family and loved ones

3. The book recommends you write in a journal daily for 3 weeks every activity you do throughout the day. Then you rate if the activity brought you energy, excited you, or resulted in a state of “flow.” At first, I found this rather tedious. Then it made me really depressed — the only times I was in a state of “flow” was working out or doing yoga.

In the end it showed me that I needed to make changes to have more energy and be more excited about my day-to-day life. That coincided with me working on this blog and exploring a start-up idea I had in the physical therapy space.

Sarah: This book was a game changer for me. The authors talk about how most people get on a career path and then follow it in whatever way they think is most clear-cut. That was me for five years and, like many people, I wasn’t happy. I realized I hadn’t been as mindful as I could have been in the career choices I made.

The book encourages you to break down your skills and think about what you like to do, then choose a job or career from the ground up. It’s the difference between saying “I want to be a marine biologist. What do I need to do to get there?” and “I’m really good at writing, and I love being around people — what types of jobs would let me do that?”

This type of thinking is what led me to see that I had skills that were transferable to other fields and that I might be happier doing something totally different.

What did you dislike about the book?

A page from Alyssa’s journal as she documented her activities daily.

Alyssa: In all honesty, I never finished the book. It was exactly what I needed in the first few sections, but because if you do the book properly you pause and do exercises throughout, I lost steam and momentum. It gave me the spark to think differently and inspired me, but the number of exercises, while valuable, made me disengage near the end.

Would you recommend this book to others?

Alyssa: Yes, but do a little prep work: before even reading the book, start journaling your days. Account for all the things you do, what energizes you, etc. That way, when you get to the book, you already have some data points to get you going and don’t have to pause as much. For me, the book inspired me to take a sabbatical from work and flesh out a startup idea I had been thinking about. It was a perfect way to test out living a more entrepreneurial life. What I learned from the experiment gave me the courage to quit my job.

Sarah: Yes, I would recommend this book to anyone who feels stuck in their job or career. For me, reading this book and doing the exercises with Alyssa made me feel like I was taking a step forward in a time when I felt really stuck. Aside from the exercises being helpful, the simple fact that I was doing something to get unstuck made me feel good.

Now, I’m all about a “skills up” approach — if you focus on what you’re good at and what you like to do, you’re more likely to find something that feels like a good fit. This book gave me confidence that my skills could apply to other fields, and that I didn’t need to stay where I was. And it worked! I switched careers within 8 months of reading this book.

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2 thoughts on “Stuff we read: “Designing Your Life”

  1. I love your review and suggestion! I recently picked up the book and am about to start it. Did you make any life changes?

  2. Hi Laura, yes! We both changed jobs (and basically careers) within a year! The skills up piece was really helpful for me: I was able to see what I was good at and liked and choose some brave next steps based on that, as opposed to making a “logical” next step based on what my previous job was. Keep us posted on your progress!

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