Book Review: Designing Your Life

Designing your life book review

Designing your life book review

As a Careers Adviser the phrase “I’ve got no idea what to do after my degree” is something I hear almost daily. For many students, not knowing what to do after university can leave them feeling feel stressed and anxious. When it comes to final year, many students describe feeling stuck; they don’t know what they want to do, but they feel they have to choose something.

These feelings are often made worse when students compare themselves to others who seem to have it all figured out. Deciding how best to help students in these situations can be challenging, especially if there aren’t any jobs that interest them, and even more so if they have limited or no work experience.

There are plenty of books out there that claim to help people find their ‘passion’, something often seen as a prerequisite to finding a perfect job. So when I heard about a book called Designing Your Life that claims to take a very different approach (and happens to be based on one of the most popular elective classes at Stanford University) I knew I had to read it.

A brief summary of Designing Your Life

Designing Your Life is written with the intention of helping people address a key ‘problem’: what to do with their lives. Its primary focus is on jobs and careers, because as authors Bill Burnett and Dave Evans point out:

Work can be a daily source of enormous joy and meaning, or it can be an endless grind and waste of hours spent trying to white-knuckle our way through the misery of it all until the weekend comes.

On first glance, you might be mistaken for thinking Bill and Dave are self-help gurus, psychologists or career coaches. However, they are actually both academics in the Design programme at Stanford University. Bill and Dave have been running the Designing Your Life class for over eight years and it has become one of the most popular on campus.

Designing Your Life is aimed at anyone trying to answer the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” From students to career-changers and everyone in between, the book provides a step-by-step approach to help people work out what they want and how to get it. The book doesn’t tell people to do A in order to get to B; instead, Bill and Dave leverage ‘design thinking’ to provide a framework in which people can experiment and explore, ultimately helping them find their own way.

What is design thinking and how can it help?

Designers love problems and the way they approach them is quite distinctive when compared to how other professionals work. They never work towards one single ‘best’ outcome; they know there are multiple possible solutions. To help explain this idea further, Designing Your Life uses the example of Apple creating the first laptop with a built-in mouse. No one had created such a laptop before, so there was no fixed pattern for what the first one should look like. There was no single ‘right’ solution, so it was the job of the designers to experiment, iterate and test until they developed an acceptable one.

Deciding which career to pursue is a similar kind of problem. When deciding ‘what to do’ there are multiple options available to people and in truth there is no single ‘best’ one. However, the problem is that people often think there is. They might fixate on finding the one single thing that they should be doing with their life, putting them under pressure to find the perfect job.

Design thinking mind-sets

The book explains that unlike engineers, who find the best solution by solving their way forward, designers build their way forward. They do this by using various techniques, tools and mind-sets. Bill and Dave present five design thinking mind-sets, which they propose the reader adopt so that they can begin taking a design thinking approach to their lives:

1. Curiosity – having a curious brain makes everything new and allows us to see the opportunities in everything. Curious thinkers ask themselves “What would someone who’s interested in this want to know?” and “How could I find out?”

2. Try stuff – testing things out or experimenting is essential when building a way forward and finding something that works. Bill and Dave call this a ‘bias to action’ – or to put it more bluntly, just do it! This mindset involves asking questions like “How can I try this out?” and “What can I do that will answer that?”

3. Reframing – this involves getting unstuck by re-examining biases and changing perspectives. “Where am I coming from?”; “What perspectives could other people have?”

4. Know it’s a process – this helps in learning to let go of first ideas and trusting that life design is a journey. Don’t focus on the end goal, instead focus on the process. “Am I on the right track or am I ahead or behind where I should be?”; “What happens if I don’t think one more step ahead?”

5. Ask for help – life design is a collaborative process and can’t be done in isolation. Knowing what to ask and how to use mentors and support networks effectively is essential to successful life design. “Who are all the groups and people involved in what I’m working on?”

Applying the principles of design thinking

Designing Your Life is made up of eleven chapters which cover everything from figuring out overarching problems and what’s most important, to providing practical advice on how to test different ideas out. The closing chapters focus on how to get a desired role and deal with failure, which as we all know but sometimes forget is an intrinsic part of the process when it comes to career success.

One of the first chapters, ‘Building a compass’ explores the importance of our ‘Work’ and ‘Lifeviews’ (our philosophies and views on life and work) in ensuring we build coherence in our lives. As Bill and Dave note:

If you can see the connections between who you are, what you believe, and what you are doing, you will know when you are on course, when there is tension, when there might need to be some careful compromises, and when you are in need of a major course correction.’

The ‘Prototyping’ chapter encourages the reader to create new experiences in order to find out more about the career paths that interest them. Key to prototyping is that it shouldn’t be undertaken with the intention of ‘checking’ to see if that is the right solution, it’s more about embracing an immersive ‘trying it out’ approach. To help with the prototyping process, Bill and Dave suggest using informational interviews (conversations with people in the field) as a good starting point, but they also suggest things like shadowing and internships.

In one of the later chapters ‘How not to get a job’, Bill and Dave focus on job descriptions. They talk the reader through how to understand them and make their applications stand out. They also warn that trawling online job listings shouldn’t be the only method the reader uses to find a job, and suggest using social media and their own network to find unadvertised positions.

What I liked

There are so many things I liked about Designing Your Life. Aside from the pleasing design of the book, the content was really engaging. I particularly liked how activities were provided at the end of each chapter, encouraging the reader to participate throughout. Here are three of my favourites:

Odyssey PlanningThis involves the reader creating three different plans for the next five years. The first should be centred on what they already have in mind, the second on what they would do if their first plan ceased to exist and was no longer an option, and the third is if money or image were no object. The next stage is to create a visual timeline of each plan and to consider the questions each one throws up. Common questions may be “Will this be profitable?”, “Is this achievable?” and “Do I have the required skills?” Finally, the reader is asked to gauge various aspects of their plan, such as their feelings and confidence towards it and whether they have enough resources to make it happen.

Failure reframe – This involves logging and categorising failures, allowing for the identification of growth insights. Bill and Dave suggest logging failures once or twice a month and categorising them into one of three types: screw-ups (simple mistakes that normally don’t happen), weaknesses (recurring mistakes) and growth opportunities (failures that don’t have to happen again once the cause has been identified). Designing Your Life suggests that growth opportunities are key to improvement, and that by consciously honing-in on failure it’s possible to develop a kind of ‘failure immunity’.

Good Time Journal – Bill and Dave emphasise the importance of keeping a personal log as an effective way of identifying times of energy and engagement. Logging activities on a daily basis leads to reflection on which ones are enjoyed most. Bill and Dave suggest this can be used to detect patterns or specific activities that provide the most energy and enjoyment; these can then underpin prototyping of further possible job ideas.

What Designing Your Life does so well is tie together many of the things we suggest to students as Careers Advisers. The book highlights common actions we recommend to those who are unsure what to do, and presents them in a logical series of inter-connected activities and steps.

I sometimes worry students don’t fully trust the process of trying things out or talking to people in order to find out more about the jobs they are interested in. One of the things I took away from reading the book as a careers adviser was that we could be using something similar to the Designing Your Life process in our careers workshops and career development modules. We are doing many of the ‘right’ things already, but the way we package them for students could certainly be improved.

What I didn’t like

On the whole, the book’s structure and flow made sense, although some of the final chapters were perhaps not as well integrated into the overall narrative. There wasn’t much I didn’t like about this book, but I was disappointed by its portrayal of careers advisers. In the first few pages, when Bill and Dave are explaining how people falsely believe they have to find their passion before moving forward with their life, they provide this archaic stereotype of how careers advisers interact with their clients:

Career Counselor: “What are you passionate about?”

Job Seeker: “I don’t know.”

Career Counselor: “Well, come back when you figure it out.”

I appreciate that this example was an intentional caricature used to provide an example of the kind of unhelpful advice someone might receive, but I did find it a quite unnecessary ‘straw man’. I feel that in general there is a lack of understanding of what we do as careers professionals, so it was a shame to see the profession represented in this way.

Final thoughts

I often think how students need to get comfortable with uncertainty, as in life there’s always more than one ‘right’ answer, and so much of what happens lies beyond our control. I’ve written before on how to help students become more resilient in the face of the pressures they face. However, helping them appreciate the value in staying open to different outcomes can be a real challenge when they want the short-term reassurance of being on the right path.

As careers professionals we strive to be non-directive, and give students autonomy in making decisions and taking choices, but it’s understandable if this makes them feel overwhelmed and in need of some kind of direction. Designing Your Life provides a novel and appealing framework through which individuals can find their way, rather than navigating along a path set out for them.

Given the success of the Stanford course that inspired the book, it’s evident the ‘design’ approach is a popular one. I’ll certainly be recommending the book to students, and think it’s a must-read for anyone working in a role where they help people figure out what to do with their lives.

More resources

You can find resources to use with students in either workshops or 1:1 appointments on the Designing Your Life website.

There are also lots of videos available online which feature Bill and Dave talking about the book. Here’s one where they respond to questions and give a good summary of design thinking:

Stanford Open Office Hours: Dave Evans and Bill Burnett



  1. Sarah, Thank you for this thoughtful review and recommendation for our book. We agree that respecting the independence of our reader, and by extension your advisee, is critical to providing useful counsel about work and life.

    I want to personally apologize for the piece of mock-dialog you highlight between a career counselor and a student job seeker that appears in the book. It was indeed a caricature and unnecessary. Dave and I have tremendous respect for the work you and other counselors do day after day to support students in their self-discovery. We will have our publisher remove this example in the next edition.

    Bill Burnett; Co-Author Designing Your Life

    1. Hi Bill, I’m glad you liked the review. Thank you for picking up on that point; I felt I needed to comment on it as a Careers Adviser despite it being a very small part of the book. I really appreciate the gesture and want to thank you and Dave for writing such a great book. I’ll be using some of the book’s exercises in a workshop in the next few months and will be writing a follow-up post soon.

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