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Work Smart

Designing Your (Mid) Life, No Porsche Or Crisis Required

How the popular Stanford Designing Your Life course, now a book, is affecting mid-career professionals.

Designing Your (Mid) Life, No Porsche Or Crisis Required

[Photo: Flickr user Derek B.]

Brigid* started reading romance novels in her early teens. "It has always been my first love," she says. She embraced every fantastical sub-genre, from historical drama to paranormal. "I wanted to be swept away."

For Brigid, that love led to career success as a publicist for romance novel authors. She crisscrosses the country, promoting their books and meeting readers. When she’s back home in New York, she spends time with nearby family and unwinds at home in her apartment—by reading fiction. "Which is funny, because I have to read for a living," she says. Now in her 30s, she finds herself gravitating toward contemporary romances. "You want to believe that your true love could be right round the corner, or on the subway, or looking very sexy on the beach."

Lately, she started to wonder if she should be finding more time for her life outside of work. "I always say I’m too busy," she says. Had her focus on her career come at the expense of her own relationships and interests?

Related Video: How Design Thinking Can Help You Solve Life's Wicked Problems.

That’s around the time Brigid first heard about Designing Your Life, a workshop for professionals being hosted by Stanford professors Bill Burnett and Dave Evans. "I can’t say that I’m overly concerned with the meaning of why we’re here," says Brigid, "but I am concerned with what is of greatest importance to me, and how I can let the things go that are less important."

The workshop promised to give participants a new and practical perspective on how to build a joyful life, using design thinking tools and techniques. Brigid was sold. She marked the day on her calendar and started on the prework.

How To Find Vocation

Last year, Fast Company was the first major publication to write about Designing Your Life, then geared toward Stanford students. Rumor had it that the course had become one of the university’s most popular offerings, and its top elective. Conversations with students showed us why.

Designing Your Life, or DYL on campus, offered participants a values-based compass of their own design, and tools to navigate life’s toughest decisions. In our secular age, where morality has largely disappeared from the classroom, Burnett and Evans had created space for students to articulate their beliefs and explore the implications. Their course was reinserting the idea of "vocation" into campus conversations, and colleges around the country were starting to take note.

At the time when the article appeared, Burnett and Evans were already at work on a book that would package the course into a form appropriate for "life designers" of all ages and types. Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life hit shelves last month. It's now No. 1 among the success/self-help books on Amazon—which happens to be a category that the authors disdain. "We’re not going to give you some amazing epiphany. You’re not going to walk away knowing the secret," says Burnett, who is also executive director of the Stanford Design Program. "Life is sort of messy."

The premise of the book is to approach your life as a designer would approach a design challenge, and go forward with a clear set of values and beliefs as your foundation. Designing Your Life is agnostic in regards to the nature of those beliefs (Burnett is atheist; Evans, Christian), but it does insist that you articulate them. As for what it means to "build" a life, Burnett and Evans contrast that idea with more familiar frameworks from business, where you "optimize" your way forward, and engineering or science, where you "solve" your way forward.

"When you are designing your life, you don’t have a lot of data available, especially reliable data about your future," they write. "Traditional cause-and-effect thinking won’t work."

Their solution is to encourage prototyping, the process central to design thinking. "There’s somebody already doing the thing you want to do, they’re in your future," Burnett says. He and Evans encourage readers to find that somebody, and interview or shadow them.

Related Video: Unlock Your Ideas With Mind Mapping In Just 3 Minutes

In conjunction with the launch of their book, Burnett and Evans have been leading workshops at companies large and small. Mid-career professionals, as it turns out, are as eager as young college students to find their vocation and derive a sense of purpose and satisfaction from their work. The difference, post-college, is that many of us feel stuck. As new responsibilities pile on—car, kids, mortgage, retirement—our dreams seem to drift out of reach.

Redesign Your Definition of Success

Kyle Williams, who served as a teaching assistant for the Designing Your Life course while he was a Stanford d.school graduate student, might have started to feel stuck in that way if it hadn’t been for the lessons he learned from the course. Now married with a 20-month-old daughter, he is working as a stay-at-home parent while his wife completes a one-year postdoctoral fellowship.

"This is what I do now. I get breakfast for my daughter, we go to the park, she plays on the swings." In the afternoon, after Elsie’s two-hour nap, they might visit the library ("they have these tubs with amazing toys") or go for an afternoon jog. Then it’s dinner, bathtime, and bed. "It’s different metrics," he says of the type of satisfaction he feels at the end of the day.

He and his wife agreed on the arrangement because they know that they’ll be on the move again in a matter of months. For the last two years they lived in Athens, Georgia—near family, but far from his professional network. "I think a lot of people think of Designing Your Life as the thing that helps them find the dream job," Williams says.

The reality is more complicated and more rewarding. "There are lot of different lives for me," he says. "I don’t feel pressure to get the perfect design job at the perfect design agency." In Athens, he landed a job at a local nonprofit and discovered he loved the work. Going forward, he feels confident that following a similar search process, focused on "being in the conversation somehow and telling your story well," will lead to similar outcomes. "I don’t have any idea where I’ll end up," says Williams, "but I know it will be really good."

Protoype Your Way Toward Decision Making

For those arriving at Designing Your Life later in life, the book paves the way for defining success in new ways.

"I’m not a person who meditates. I’m not a person who subscribes to life coaches—I kind of roll my eyes," says Susan*, a sales manager at a large technology company. "I’m very logical, very data-driven. New age stuff doesn’t really speak to me."

Yet she was willing to give Designing Your Life a chance when it showed up in workshop form at her employer—in part because she was encouraged by the career success that Evans, a cofounder of Electronic Arts, and Burnett had enjoyed. "They’re very accomplished professionals, their resumes have all the checkmarks," she says, "but they also excel equally on the other stuff."

Parts of the workshop, like the idea of prototyping, came naturally to Susan. "Doing things quickly and on the cheap is in my genes, that really stuck with me." But for others, she needed a bit of coaching from Evans, who stays in regular touch with dozens of his students. He encouraged her to pay more attention to her instincts, particularly when feeling stuck or indecisive. "When I have a decision, don’t ignore the gut. Listen to those good feelings." With his prompting, she and her husband are now thinking long-term about finding a way to live in Santa Fe, a town that they both love.

What You Choose Makes You Happy

At a workshop in New York last month, several dozen mid-career professionals converged on a Friday morning over coffee and donuts for the half-day version of Designing Your Life. Each had completed a deceptively simple two-part assignment: write your life view and your work view. Participants arranged themselves in groups of three to discuss what they had written, coworkers turned sudden confidantes. Among their comments:

"I had a really hard time making the life view personal to me."

"Me too! I felt so inauthentic."

"Once you start writing stuff down it starts to sound trite, like a pageant speech."

"I don’t think I reflect very often."

By the end of the morning, they were helping one another prototype ways to start a pie shop or become a fitness instructor.

Burnett closed the workshop by reminding the group that they would ultimately need to make choices about how to build their lives—and then let go and move on. "What you choose makes you happy," he advised. Chasing after "having it all," the impossible dream, will only serve to poison the good things.

Bringing True Goals Into Focus

For Brigid, who also completed a half-day workshop with her colleagues, the course brought her true goals into focus. Yes, there are personal projects she’d like to pursue, like mapping her family tree and maybe at some point setting aside time for dating. But she also realized that devoting herself to work she enjoys is nothing to be ashamed of, regardless of what others might say or think.

"The work stuff I feel even more confident in, I should take that seriously and authentically," she says. "I’m incredibly ambitious, I love being the boss." She also gained insight into how her peers think about their goals. "I feel that so strongly I tend to assume that others want the same thing," she admits. "That’s just not true."

The workshop also alleviated the pressure she has sometimes felt to back away from work and from her beloved romance novels to find a match of her own. "Someone to share my life with—it’s okay if that’s not my priority this year. I can take the plunge with a little more confidence when the other areas of my life are balanced out."

In the span of a morning, she has a new mantra. "There are many possible yous. I can always make different choices in the future, but whichever one I choose now is perfectly alright."

*Note: Names have been changed throughout this article to protect workshop participants’ privacy.

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