How to Use Design Strategies to Build a Life You Love

“Life’s ambiguous, you don’t always know what’s going to come next—design thinking is a nice framework for this.”

Leah Weiss is a professor at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business, author of the forthcoming book Heart at Work, and a consultant who specializes in the application of mindfulness to workplace environments. She recently joined Bill Burnett, Executive Director of the Design Program at Stanford and co-author of Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life, for a Heleo Conversation on how to use design strategies to build a life you love.

This conversation has been edited and condensed. 

Leah: How does it work to apply the kind of thinking that engineers use to solve problems to design your life? What does that look like?

Bill: Let me make a distinction between trying to engineer your life and designing it. If you’re an engineer and you’re building a bridge, you know how long the bridge is, how strong the steel is, and how many cars are going to be on it. You can solve that problem because you have all the data. A lot of people try to engineer their life and then it doesn’t work, because life’s uncertain. Things happen that you can’t control.

It’s much more like a design problem. Designers work on stuff that’s fuzzy. You don’t know how long the bridge is, and maybe on Thursday the bridge doesn’t want to be a bridge anymore. It wants to be a poet.

We discovered that design was a better approach. When we looked at design thinking strategies, we thought, “What if we applied it to ourselves?”

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Using those techniques and understanding that life’s ambiguous, you don’t always know what’s going to come next—design thinking was a nice framework for this. The value system inside design thinking is that we’re going to make things better. No one designs to make a worse tablet or a lousier coffee cup. It has an underlying optimistic point of view, but it’s a framework that allows you to do what you want to do. Here’s a new tool to unlock a problem you’ve got, but you pick the problems.

You pick your life view, and we’re going to give you some tools to make it go more easily, to get things that you want more readily. David Kelley, the founder of IDEO and the D-school, says, “We teach people to innovate regularly.” We can do it if we master these tools, which allow us to move into ambiguity and structure experiments that we call “prototypes” to discover what’s next in our lives.

Leah: How do you know if you’re moving in the direction of improvement or positivity?

Bill: In terms of mindfulness, there’s ways of knowing whether or not things are working for you. In our Western culture, we rely a lot on logical, left-brain, analytical thinking. There’s nothing wrong with looking at two options [that way]. Making that pro/con list, the spreadsheet, is a great way to start the decision.

[But] lots of positive psychology research into decision-making would tell us that without bringing in your emotional intelligence, you’re probably not going to make an optimal decision. We talk about discernment, how you know what’s good for you in more ways than just logically. We have something we call “The Good Time Journal” where you look at the energy map of an activity, at what you were grateful for.

Leah: What do you mean by “energy”?

Bill: I don’t mean a New Age-y energy aura. It’s when you start paying attention, you notice, “Whenever I go to the budget meeting I walk out and feel drained.” Whenever I go to my art class I look up, it’s been three hours, and I go, “Wow, we’re already done? I could draw for another three hours.” Certain things resonate with you. They work off your signature strengths or they’re pleasurable to do, and that gives you energy. Other things take energy away from you. You feel drained at the end of them.

If I’m trying to come up with a new design, if I spend an hour or two sketching in my notebook, I’m very energetic and ideas just bubble up. If I go to my computer, open up a CAD program, and start putting the design into the computer, at the end I say I have CAD brain. The tool requires so much concentration that it takes energy out of me. Whereas just sketching on a page with a pencil is much more generative.

There’s something about the “embodied you,” what you do in the world, that can create or take energy away. The reality is, I’ve got to do budget meetings. I manage that by putting high energy things on either side of that meeting, and I feel pretty good at the end of the week.

Leah: How do you encourage people who are having trouble sifting through all the “shoulds” in their head?

Bill: There’s a lot of “should” in the world. You should meditate, you should exercise, you should call your mother. My Stanford students got here because they worked hard in high school, they’re smart, and everybody’s telling them, “You should do something important.” They have so many voices in their heads. Part of growing up and growing into yourself is learning to silence those.

That gets back to discernment. When we do the exercise of Odyssey Planning, we come up with three different versions of your life. One guy came up with three different versions and said he didn’t like any of them. Why not? He said, “This is what my mom wanted me to do, be a doctor. I don’t want to be a doctor. This is what my dad wanted me to do, and I don’t want to do that.” Sometimes it takes a while to learn to identify your own voice, and that does require not just cognitive knowing, but affective knowing. Listening to my gut.

Carl Jung said intuition is a form of perception as valid as seeing, but it’s perception via unconscious information. It doesn’t come up in your brain the same way as words, it comes up as a felt experience. You’ve got to listen to your heart, your gut, your intuition, and your intellectual intelligence.

Leah : When I was reading Daniel Kahneman’s book, one of the sentences jumped off the page at me, when he said, “Intuition is recognition.”

That’s something that we need to learn, and it requires training. It’s different for you, after being a designer for decades, to have that recognition when you’re onto an insight that’s valuable. Whereas I’ve never done any design, so I’m probably not going to recognize it. How do you fit that together?

Bill: I love Daniel Kahneman’s book. The central idea is that there’s two thinking systems, the fast and the slow. Developing your fast thinking, your intuition, your sense of recognition is something designers do by looking at lots of patterns. The hardest problem in design is probably aesthetics. How do we create something beautiful?

The problem of aesthetics can’t be reduced to a spreadsheet. You learn by looking at principles: is the design balanced or imbalanced, symmetrical or asymmetrical? We train by seeing lots of patterns, trying to reproduce those, then trying to innovate on those patterns. The nice part is your brain is a massive pattern-matching system.

To use Design Your Life techniques, you don’t have to solve the aesthetic of your life. Designers have gotten good at figuring out how to ask interesting questions, prototype stuff to see if it works, explore the world with empathy and not just rationality.

“People are always asking us [about] work-life balance. That’s a false dichotomy. It’s not work-life. It’s just life.”

That’s what we do in the book: teach people how to brainstorm, have more ideas, and put some frameworks around their “life view” and their “work view.” People are always asking us [about] work-life balance. That’s a false dichotomy. It’s not work-life. It’s just life. Life in this domain at the office. Life with my kids and my family. Life with the stuff that I do for myself. We looked into the research on how to live a thriving, meaningful life. It’s not two things. We made it four: work, love, health, play.

Leah : The work piece feels overwhelming to a lot of people who don’t experience themselves as having a lot of agency. For people who have young kids, there’s a lot of financial obligations. Is it a luxury to think of our lives as a design opportunity?

Bill: People say, “This works for people in Silicon Valley who have lots of options. It works for kids at Stanford. I’m a single working mom. This isn’t going to work for me.” Our experience is that everybody has some degree of freedom.

If you have more money and privilege, you have more degrees of freedom, but everybody has something they can do. Dave has been working with a woman who’s a single mom, who’s got an aging mother she’s taking care of. She’s working a full-time job and trying to go to school to get an associate’s degree. There’s no free time in her world.

Leah : Is there a design opportunity?

Bill: There’s a lot of design opportunities. She has to commute an hour to work. She reframed her commute by using audiobooks to help accelerate her education.

In order to get more time with her mom, she got her a job at the cafeteria with her. Now they commute every day together. Those two changes have completely rearranged her relationship to education and to caregiving for her mom. She’s still doing both, and she still has not as many degrees of freedom as other people, but everybody has something they can do.

We always ask, “What’s available? What degrees of freedom do you have? What can we do with that?” If you brainstorm on those constraints you often find that you’ve actually over-constrained the problem. It’s called Designing Your Life, not Revolutionizing Your Life. We don’t believe in self-help books, because they try to make you become something you can never achieve.

Leah : One of the things you’ve said is that passion is overrated and even potentially destructive. You strike me as a pretty passionate guy. Why do you feel that way about passion?

Bill: I’m passionate about the stuff I’m doing, but I grew into that after ten or twenty years of teaching. The research says that people who report themselves as very passionate actually grew into that. There’s three steps: a job, a career, and a calling. You do a job because you got out of school and studied this. If it works for you, it can become a career. If that resonates with you, it can turn into your calling.

The reason we’re worried about passion as the starting point is simply because the research shows that most people don’t have one. Maybe 20% of people report having some organizing thing like, “I always wanted to be a doctor.”

That comes out most often in the arts: “I always knew I wanted to be an artist, a painter, to write music.” Those passions identify early, versus, “I’ve always wanted to be an accountant.” Nothing wrong with accountants. Our problem is if the question, “What’s your passion?” leaves 80% of the people going, “I don’t know,” then it labels you as if there’s something wrong with you.

“You should know your passion by now. You’re supposed to have this figured out.” It’s one of these dysfunctional beliefs. People feel really bad when they hear the question and nothing comes up for them. Let’s stop “should-ing” on each other. Let’s start working with where people really are. If there’s something you’re interested in, great. Let’s go explore it. If there’s nothing that you can identify that rises to the level of even a mini-passion, then let’s start there and see what’s going on.

“Ten years out of school, only 20% of people are doing anything that has to do with what they did in college. People grow and develop, and the world isn’t organized around majors.”

I don’t want to label you, “You’re late. What’s your major in college? What are you going to do with that?” Ten years out of school, only 20% of people are doing anything that has to do with what they did in college. People grow and develop, and the world isn’t organized around majors. There’s 68 majors at Stanford. The department of labor lists something like 200,000 different jobs. The world is not wired around how Stanford organizes its academics.

Blow out the thing about majors, about passion, about “you’re late.” You’re whatever age you are, and you’re going to move from there to the next thing. Labels freeze people. I don’t understand how to help somebody if they’ve already labeled themselves a failure. The first reframe is to get rid of that stuff.

Leah : Do you see that people can learn how to be more creative with how they’re viewing their options and their context? Can you teach creativity?

Bill: Absolutely. We’ve had two PhD researchers study the [Design Your Life] class. In terms of creativity, there’s a statistically significant increase in people’s ideation. They felt like they could come up with more ideas, like the ideas were richer, more creative, and more diverse. The fundamental question of creativity we’re still in the early days of understanding, but we’ve got lots of really good tools now.

Gregory Berns, a psychologist, wrote a book called Iconoclast. Why are some people so creative and other people aren’t? One thing that came up in the studies is that people who rate very highly creative have kind of a brain defect. [There’s something] psychologists call “fear response to novelty.” If I put you in a brain scanner and show you something you’ve never seen before, you should startle. You don’t know if that’s going to eat you or be dangerous. We can see the fight, flight, or freeze response light up in your brain. High creatives don’t have that response. Instead of being afraid of new things, they’re curious.

That’s not necessarily evolutionarily advantageous. Walking in the jungle, you’d be eaten if you were curious. “Oh, what’s this tiger? What’s this new snake?”

What that tells us is people limit their creativity through fear. When you’re very young, you have all sorts of crazy ideas: a towel can be a magic cape and a chair can be a castle. Somewhere along the way, someone tells you, “Stop playing. Stop being so silly.” Normal people absorb those lessons, and the fear about being judged teaches you to lower your range of ideas. You stop thinking about things that are not appropriate. The good thing is, the work of Albert Bandura on phobias tells us that we can train low fear response.

He had a methodology called guided mastery to teach people who are freaked out about snakes, spiders, or who couldn’t leave the house, how to overcome that phobia. It was very successful. Put people in scanners and the fear response is actually gone. They’ve reactivated the circuits that say, “This isn’t frightening.”

What we’ve been doing is teaching people how to brainstorm, making spaces where crazy ideas were okay. This is the same thing Bandura was doing. If you learn to turn off your fear response to novelty, generate lots of ideas, then evaluate the ideas, it makes you a powerful problem solver.

Leah : How does social feedback add to our understanding of what better-designed paths might look like?

Bill: It’s a modern idea that I’m going to get fulfillment, joy, growth, and meaning from my job. My grandfather came over from Wales and worked at Nabisco making cookies for 30 years. He didn’t expect his job to be fulfilling. He expected his job to pay him money so he could raise his family and bring the rest of the family over from Europe.

It’s only in the last 50 years that people are going, “I spend a lot of time at work. I think this needs to be fulfilling.” We like to make the distinction that there’s your vocation, the thing you do for money, and there’s your avocation, the thing you do for fulfillment. If those two things are overlapping and there’s no compromise, awesome, go for that. There’s some things that you do for love that you do not want to do on the market’s terms.

I’m a painter, and I want to paint what I want. I don’t want to paint kittens and puppies. I could probably sell kittens and puppies, but I don’t want paint on the market’s terms. When you realize I don’t have to get everything from one thing, that tends to be a liberating reframe. With this notion of, “I’ve got my discernment up and running, I know what fits for me, I know what plays off of my strengths,” it’s highly unlikely you’re going to like something you’re not good at.

It is true that people can be very good at something and not enjoy it at all. I find it a lot with highly intelligent people. Without checking in with their emotional state, they find something they’re good at, go do it, get paid lots of money. They believe they’re trapped in their success.

From the outside looking in, everybody’s saying, “You are so lucky. You should be so happy. Look at all the stuff you have.” It makes it even harder to turn around and say, “No, I’m not happy.” One woman said, “You don’t understand. I go to work every day and it steals a little piece of my soul, and there’s nothing I can do about it.”

My biggest objective is, if I can grab you at 22 and get you to turn on discernment, you’re not going to find yourself at 45 in a job you hate that you’re really good at. If we just accomplished that, that would be a good thing.