Unexpected lessons I picked up from “Designing your life”

Dave Evans and Bill Burnett apply the design thinking method to help young adults design meaningful and joyful lives for themselves. They are members of the faculty of Stanford d.School, and their method was so popular among students they turned it into a class. Now, it’s an NYT valuable bestseller.

It rarely happens but I finished this book in three days on top of my day job and my unfortunate addiction to Instagram Stories. While I’m comfortable with myself, who I’ve become, and the life I’m living, there were several times in my life that this wasn’t always the case. I’m sure those moments will come by often in the future; such is life.

The book has been incredibly empowering and freeing to read. It allowed me to reflect back to my actions and thoughts. It made me understand how I could have designed my way out of feeling stuck, through jobs I didn’t enjoy. It gave me a new perspective as I looked at what I thought I wanted, when in fact what I really wanted was actually more manageable and achievable. It helped me see why I didn’t follow through on the things I wanted to do. How I could avoid those traps of “analysis paralysis”. It comforted me as I recalled all those moments I labeled as “failures”.

The work of a designer never ends. A designer brainstorms several possible solutions to a problem, and constantly iterates. A designer brainstorms and breaks down ideas into manageable steps. Here are some other valuable lessons that I picked up from the book:

1. You can start exactly where you are. Even if you feel stuck.

Burnett & Evans assert that even if you feel you’re at a dead-end job, the right mindset and being proactive about your work can transform a job into something more rewarding. It involves thinking outside of the box and preconceived notions of what our solutions should look like.

When you’re torn between possible choices at a fork in the road of your life and career, it’s possible to make a good choice based on asking the right enough questions. It also depends on knowing yourself — what energizes you, what drives you, and the meaning you’re trying to make for yourself in life. Start where you are is the mantra.

2. Sometimes, lack of commitment can be good.

More pragmatic people say: work is not for exploring your passions, it’s simply for making a living. You use your free time to build a life you’re happy with. These days, work-life balance has evolved into work-life flow — where one is indistinguishable from the other. To treat work simply as a means to make a living can be disempowering and soul-crushing.

On the other hand, turning your passion into your life’s work is not always a good idea, either. There have been countless creatives who started their own business only to be buried in the drudgery of administrative work, ultimately keeping them from what they love doing the most — creating.

Lack of commitment towards something indicates lack of interest and capability to turn it into something bigger. It frees you up to try something else. It’s a lifelong journey. I’m comforted by the fact that life is all about figuring it out. It’s not something you achieve by the age of thirty. Just keep going.

3. Don’t fall in love with the solution.

If you’re like me, you don’t like to make any big moves until conditions are perfect. Nothing ever happens because conditions hardly ever are. Sometimes, thinking big is a waste of time if you mistake the solution for an end goal.

In design, these are called “gravity” problems — after all, you can’t fight gravity, or sometimes the solution is not worth the time and effort relative to your goal. Building yourself an airplane is not the only solution to get from point A to point B — and that’s the whole point of design thinking. That freedom can result in something unexpected, yet completely fits you.

4. Sometimes, commitment can be good.

At this stage, a person who goes about design thinking for a more meaningful life has started from were they were, thought long and hard about what they think life and work should be about, let go of their preconceived notions about what life should look like, and has generated various ideas about what they can do and tested each one out to see what works and what doesn’t. They’ve narrowed down the path to several possible avenues and they can’t decide where to go next — because FOMO.

At this point, it’s okay to commit. Human nature says that it’s easy to be overwhelmed with so many choices available that we’re never comfortable with which ever choice we make. Like finding the perfect spouse, there’s no such thing as taking the perfect path. At least we know that we can always start where we are and brainstorm, ideate, prototype, iterate our way into something better.

If you’re interested to know more about this book or designing your way into a meaningful life, the book has a blog that points you to more related articles — which I have found to be worthwhile reads even after reading the book itself.

I wish I could workshop the process with friends and bounce ideas off each other. I wish they gave certifications so more people could go through this sort of workshop on their own. In the meantime, I’ll be referring to the book from time to time as I move on to the actual process of design thinking. Let’s see what I come up with.

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