When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up? Chances are you thought there was one right choice, one perfect answer. That mindset may explain why many of us are stuck in lives we don’t like, or jobs we downright hate. Truth is, there is no single right path. In fact, we all have multiple lives in us. Being a smart life planner means figuring out what they are.
Here in the U.S., more than a third of people between the ages of 50 and 64 want an encore career—work that is rich in personal meaning, provides continued income and has some positive social impact. Some, like Christine Chen who went from news broadcaster to yoga instructor, have found their encore career, but many, many others have no idea where to begin and fear it’s too late to make a big change. Not so, say Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, authors of Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life. Adopting the mindset of a designer, and placing as much emphasis on problem finding as problem-solving, you can discover and build a new life, or even several of them.
For over a decade, Evans and Burnett have taught a course at Stanford that uses the principles of design to think through such life decisions. “Designers imagine things that don’t yet exist, and then they build them, and then the world changes. You can do this in your own life,” they write. “You can imagine a career and a life that don’t exist; you can build that future you, and as a result your life will change.”
At midlife, the process works beautifully, Evans tells Life Reimagined. “No group is at the same time better able to use and more helped by using the methods we’ve developed at Stanford. Better able because by midlife, experience has taught you much about who you really are and how the world really is—crucial insights for good life design. More helped because the seemingly inescapable constraints imposed by the necessary decisions we’ve made by midlife can dampen our ideas and drain our energies.”
Other experts agree. “Designers are optimists. No matter how tough the problem, we believe we’ll come up with a better solution. This optimism fuels our creative energy and keeps us going," says Ayse Birsel, author of Design the Life You Love. Birsel gives workshops and master classes in life reinvention using her experience as a furniture designer. "We’re empathetic, we put ourselves in the shoes of others. We understand problems from the inside, from the perspective of a person. It humanizes problems and makes them worth solving.”
Marshall Goldsmith, an executive coach who has worked with top CEOs, found that Birsel's approach helped him visualize a future he had never considered. Working through one of Birsel's exercises, Goldsmith realized that all the people he admired, and who had influenced him, were teachers.“I’d learned so much from them, but none of them had ever charged me a penny. They all did it because they were nice, and generous,” he told Life Reimagined. “I wondered, why not be like them?” He thought, too, about Bill Gates, who aims to give away all his wealth. “I don’t have Bill Gates’ money,” says Goldsmith, “but I have a lot of valuable intellectual property.” Goldsmith decided that he would select 15 people to mentor for free, teaching them everything he knows. “The payback is that when they get older, they have to do the same thing.” Goldsmith admits the project is going to be huge, but it feels exhilarating—and authentic. He says he likely never would have discovered this new path if he hadn’t engaged his brain in design-based thinking.
The basic premise in life design is seeing your life as a problem to be solved. “Look around,” says Evans. “Everything that surrounds you was designed by someone. And every design started with a problem. It’s why you have running water and insulation in your home. Plumbing was created because of a problem. Chairs were created because someone, somewhere, wanted to solve a big problem: sitting on rocks causes sore bottoms.”
What do chairs and faucets have to do with life reinvention? If you can look at your life as a design problem—you’re a rusty clunker versus a sleek Ferrari—then you can apply a designer’s mindset to solve it. A critical step is to reframe your beliefs and your questions. For example, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" is reframed as "Who do you want to grow into?"
“Life is all about growth and change,” says Evans. “It’s not static. It’s not about some destination. It’s not about answering the question once and for all and it’s all done.” The design mindset involves creative right-brain thinking, but your logical left brain gets to play, too. The process helps build what Burnett and Evans call creative confidence—the ability to make things happen—which is quite different from what most people mean by creativity—the capacity to come up with wonderful, novel ideas out of nowhere. “Our focus is on taking action by implementing small, doable prototypes—a left-brain kind of thing—then using the insights learned from those prototypes to springboard to new ideas. We don’t ask you to be creative, we give you tools to do stuff that will help you to have ideas and create, which works for anyone.”
In life design, it’s important to work on the right problem, which is why designers spend just as much time on problem finding as problem-solving. To do this, you have to recognize the difference between a problem and a circumstance. “If it’s not actionable, it’s not a problem that can be solved,” says Evans. Gravity, for example, is a circumstance, a fact of life, so you don’t want to spend one minute of your time railing against it. “When you get stuck in a gravity problem, you’re stuck permanently, because there’s nothing you can do, and designers are first and foremost doers.”
So, how do you determine what your real problems are? Break life down into some discrete areas and take stock of your situation. In each of these four areas, ask yourself, “How’s it going?” Think of each of these areas as having a tank of fuel. Is the tank full, empty or somewhere in between?
Health. This broad category includes being well in mind, body and spirit. How you measure your own health in these areas is your call.
Work. This is the stuff you do, whether you get paid for it or not. Don’t reduce work to only that for which you get paid. Home maintenance, volunteer work and babysitting the grandkids all fall under the category of work.
Play. Play is any activity that brings you joy. If you're out to win, to advance, to achieve—even if it’s fun to do so—that's not play. Play is what brings you joy purely in the doing.
Love. Love comes to us in a wide range of types, from affection to community to eroticism, and with a huge array of partners, from parents to friends to colleagues to lovers. Who are the people in your life, and how does love flow between you and others?
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With these questions, you’ve got your toolkit for problem finding. Which tanks are low and which are full? Then, before embarking on your journey, create a compass that features your work view and your life view. Simply articulate your philosophy of work (what it’s for and why you do it) and life (your ideas about the world and how it works). Are the two views coherent? For example, if you want to leave the planet a better place for the next generation (life view), yet you work for a company that pollutes, you lack consistency between what you believe and what you do. As a result, you’ll experience a lot of disappointment and discontent. Living coherently doesn’t mean everything is in perfect order all the time. You will have to trade off one thing for another or make sacrifices, but that’s OK. At least you’ll be doing it intentionally.
Evans and Burnett describe the five distinct mindsets you need to redesign your life. “With them, you can build anything,” they say, “including a life you love.”
Be curious. Curiosity makes things new. It invites exploration. It transforms everything to play. Most of all, curiosity will help you get good at getting lucky. It’s the reason some people see opportunities everywhere. Get good at getting lucky, and you’ll see opportunities everywhere too.
Try stuff. There’s no sitting on the bench just thinking about what you are going to do. There is only getting in the game. Designers try things. They test things out. They create one prototype after another, failing often, until they find what works. Sometimes they discover the problem is entirely different from what they first thought. Designers embrace change. They are not attached to a particular outcome because they are always focused on what will happen next—not what the final result will be.
Reframe problems. Reframing is how designers get unstuck. It also ensures that you are working on the right problem. Everyone gets hamstrung by dysfunctional beliefs. Here's a common one: "If you are successful, you will be happy." The reframe is: "True happiness comes from designing a life that works for you."
Remember that life design is a process. Life gets messy. For every step forward it can seem like you are moving two steps back. You’ll make mistakes. An important part of this process is letting go—of your first idea and of a good-but-not-great solution. Sometimes amazing designs emerge from the mess.
Ask for help. This is perhaps the most important mindset of all. “Great design takes a team. A painter can create an artistic masterpiece alone on a windswept coast, but a designer cannot create the iPhone alone,” Evans explains. “And your life is more like a great design than a work of art, so you cannot create it alone, either. Design is a collaborative process and many of the best ideas are going to come from other people.”
As you work through the design, which can include journaling and brainstorming sessions with trusted friends, it’s important to silence your inner critic and let your ideas fly, no matter how lame or brazen they seem. And it’s equally important never to go with your first idea. Designers know that when you choose from lots of options you choose better. Consider designing not just one, but up to three great lives that are different from each other. Then prototype them. Try them out before committing too much time and resources to any one path. For example, if your great life involves opening an organic farm-to-table café, shadow someone who’s already doing that. You may love creating menus, but hiring/firing, inventory and budgeting might suck your soul dry. If that’s the case, you could consider starting an organic farm-to-table catering business out of your home, where the rotten parts of the job would be minimized. Prototyping is the only way to get the real-world, real-time information you need to make an informed decision about building your best life.
Finally, remember this: Often when people say that they’ve designed their lives, they believe the hard work is done and everything will be great going forward. In fact, life design is a never-ending process, albeit a joyful one. It’s why you can and should enjoy multiple life changes. As Birsel puts it, “Today things are changing so fast. The traditional road maps to a good life can’t keep up with the change. This is an incredible challenge. But a challenge is also an opportunity. Why not design our own road map, design our own life? A life that is original to us, built on our own values and that look and feels like us. That is our opportunity.”