How to Create a Meaningful Life Using Design Thinking

Recently I read the book Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life written by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, lecturers in the Design Program at Stanford. This book describes a process for crafting a meaningful life by using principles of design thinking. It was published in 2016 and is a New York Times bestseller.

The authors also produce a spiral-bound workbook that can be used to fill out the exercises, however, the exercises are also available for free through their website

There are eight steps explained in the book, each with exercises that must be completed. These are described in more detail in the sections below.

Where are you?

The first step is to take an inventory of your life. Four areas of life are covered: work, play, love, and health. For each of them, you gauge how "full" they are (like a gas tank) and write a few sentences about how it's going in each of the four areas.

Ask yourself if there's a design problem you'd like to tackle in any of these areas. The authors note that people often fall into "gravity" problems in their life, which is worrying about a problem you can't solve or change, like being annoyed by gravity.

What matters to you?

After you identify where you are you now need to determine what your internal compass is. This is your workview and lifeview. Several prompts are provided, for example, what's work for? What defines good or worthwhile work? What does money have to do with it?

For life: Why are we here? What is good and what is evil? And is there a high power, and what impact does this have on your life?

After you answer these questions you want to find where your compass may complement or clash with itself, and if one drives the other.

What engages you?

Next, you complete a log of your daily activities and note when you are most engaged or energized. You particularly want to identify "flow states" where you are fully immersed in a given activity.

To get more insights out of your activity reflections the authors recommend using the AEIOU method. This stands for the following:

  • Activities – What were you actually doing? What was your role?
  • Environment – Where were you when 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? Formal or informal?
  • Objects – Were you interacting with any objects or devices?
  • Users – Who else was there, and what role did they place in making it either a positive or a negative experience?

What might you want?

You can't know what you want until you know what you might want. Choose three activities from your good time journal: one that you were engaged in, one that you felt highly energized from, and something you did that brought you into a flow state.

Make a mind map using each activity at the center. Mind mapping works by using a simple free association of words to "open up the idea space and come up with new solutions".

This technique teaches you to generate lots of ideas. You then want to pick three things that jump out from you from the very outer layer or perimeter of the mind map and create a job description from them.

How many lives are you?

In this exercise, you will create three alternative five-year plans. Too often people get stressed trying to find their one "perfect" life. In reality, we all have more than one life in us, meaning there are multiple great designs for our life.

The authors recommend completing a visual timeline of the following three prompts. You will then gauge your confidence in each plan, how well it aligns with your work/life view, and what resources you might need to complete it.

  1. First, imagine the current life you're leading with some bucket-list items thrown in.
  2. Next, imagine if your job was automated away by robots. Now what? What's your plan B?
  3. Finally, imagine if money or self-image wasn't an issue. Be a little wild. Would you be a bartender in Belize, study butterflies, or do something completely different?

Prototyping your future

A key principle of this book is to quickly prototype your ideas through experiences and conversations. If you were a designer building a new and improved technology, say a new type of keyboard, you may throw together a prototype and test it out to see if it works. The same is true here.

For each of the five-year plans you put together in the previous step, come up with a few questions that need to be addressed for each. These can relate to implementation, resources needed, or alignment with your work/life view. Then you want to try and answer these questions through prototyping.

  • Conversations – As the authors put it, someone else is living in your future today. What can you learn from them? Is there someone in your network you can sit down and chat with for 15 minutes to learn more about their story?
  • Experiences – Are there ways you can try out your future ideas in a low-commitment way today? For example, a short-term internship, or shadowing someone, or an unpaid project?

Reframing failure

According to the authors you want to "fail fast and fail forward" in moving toward your goals. In other words, you want to identify your failures quickly and learn what you can from them to become better. To do so they recommend logging your failures for the last year and categorizing them as three types:

  • Screwups – Simple mistakes concerning things you normally get right. You don't really need to learn anything from these.
  • Weaknesses – Personal faults that have always been with you and likely always will be. Some failures are a part of your makeup, and there's not much upside in trying to change these.
  • Growth opportunities – Failures that didn't have to happen. The cause of these is easily identifiable and the fix is available. These are where you should direct your attention, rather than get distracted by the low return on the other failure types.

For the growth opportunities, you then want to identify your growth insights – what you learned to change things for next time. Use this process on an ongoing basis to convert failures into growth.

Building a team

Throughout this life design process, you may want to build a team to help support you and that you can brainstorm with. Ideally, some of these people are also actively engaged in designing their lives and can follow along in the exercises with you.

The authors suggest a group of three to five people as the best size. This should include some people who may be directly affected by your plans, such as your family or relationship partner. The group can also contain mentors or potential mentors that you may have had prototyping conversations with.

With this team, you can present your five-year odyssey plans and get their feedback. You can also rely on these contacts to help build a network for conversations or experiences that you can prototype. Finally, your team can hold you accountable so you don't lose track of designing a better life for yourself.