Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans

Reading Time: 5 minutes


In this book, Stanford professors Bill Burnett and Dave Evans show you how to use design thinking to create a meaningful, joyful, and fulfilling life. If you fully engage with the frameworks and self-reflection exercises, you will have a clearer path to creating a life worth living.

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Key Takeaways

What is a well-designed life?

A well-designed life is constantly creative, productive, changing, evolving, and there is always the possibility of surprise. Creating a life that is meaningful, joyful, and fulfilling is just like creating a good product. To live a well-designed life, you need to get comfortable with answering the big questions:

  • Who do I want to be? What do I want my life to look like?
  • How do I find a job that I like or maybe even love?
  • How do I build a career that will make me a good living?
  • How do I balance my career with my family?
  • How can I make a difference in the world?

If you never take the time to answer these questions, you might end up away from the path that leads to fulfillment, joy, and well-being. These questions are just the beginning of aligning who you are, what you believe, and what you do. And when these three things are in alignment, you are on the right path.

Life is dynamic

“Life is all about growth and change. It’s not static. It’s not about some destination. It’s not about answering the question once and for all and then it’s all done. Nobody really knows what he or she wants to be.”

You never “figure out” what life’s about. You never have a complete picture of where you are or where you’re heading. Life is dynamic, and that’s exactly what makes it exciting. If you knew all the answers ahead of time, you wouldn’t have anything interesting on the horizon.

It’s important to view your business as a system, and the system improves when you move the three metrics the right way. If you want to design your life, you need to brace yourself for a journey. The journey is about setting a direction, enjoying the process, and iterating as you go along.

Assessing where you are

In order to know where you are going, your first need to know where you stand. Life is a balance across different areas, and one way to think about life is to divide it into Health, Work, Love, and Play. Health is most important because, without health, you cannot enjoy the other areas of life in the same way.

To understand where you are, rate your life on a scale from 0 to 10 for each area: Health, Work, Love, and Play. Write a paragraph that describes why you chose that rating. What’s going well in each area? What’s missing? Why is it missing? Spend at least 30 minutes on this exercise. This will begin your process of clarifying where you are so that you can start mapping out how that relates to where you are going.

Action precedes passion

“We believe that people actually need to take time to develop a passion. And the research shows that, for most people, passion comes after they try something, discover they like it, and develop mastery—not before.”

Passion is born in action. Very few people know what they’re passionate about. It’s only through doing many things and discovering what you like and don’t like that you begin to understand what you might be passionate about.

Finding the right problem to solve

In design, you need to accurately define the problem before you begin solving it. The same is true in lifestyle design. If you begin working on the wrong problem, it doesn’t matter how good your solutions are. You will find a bunch of good solutions to the wrong problems.

Avoiding gravity problems

Gravity problems are problems that aren’t actionable. Like gravity, they are just a circumstance or fact of life that you cannot do anything about. If you focus on gravity problems, you will continue to run into walls and be disappointed. 

If you spend your life working on gravity problems, you’re going to be stuck in a demotivating pit of not making progress. So instead of continuing to fight gravity problems, accept them for what they are and move on to a problem that you can do something about.

Engagement and Energy

To design a life worth living, you need to know what engages you and fills you with energy. You also need to know what disengages you and drains your energy. To do so, you need to consciously track the activities throughout your day and begin to categorize them. Engagement sits on a scale from not engaged to flow state. Energy sits on a scale from energy-draining to energy-providing.

When you go through your day, pay attention to the activities and tasks that engage you. True engagement is when you are in a flow state. Time stands still in this state. On the other hand, there is a lot of friction when you are not engaged. Also, track activities that drain your energy vs. those that produce energy for you. There are likely things that you enjoy and are good at that drain your energy, and once you know this, you’ll have to figure out how they fit into your life. 

You have many happy and productive potential lives

“Asking which life is best is asking a silly question; it’s like asking whether it’s better to have hands or feet.”

As NBA strategist Taylor Platt discusses in his Life Reimagined Interview, we are all capable of leading many good lives. There are no “perfect” versions of life. There are a series of different journeys that you can choose to embark on. No one journey is better than another, although one may be more aligned with what brings you joy and fulfillment.

The important thing is to not get caught up in the idea that you have to live one specific life. Once you realize that you can live a happy and productive life that takes many forms, you will open your eyes to the endless paths ahead of you.

Your dream job

Your dream job is not sitting in a job description somewhere on the internet. To get to your dream job, you need to create it. You start with being aware of your strengths/weaknesses, likes/dislikes, interests/non-interests, and then you start prototyping different careers based on what you know. As you progress, you’ll gradually learn more about what works for you, and as you do that, you can carve out specific jobs to be more aligned with your dream job.

Becoming immune to failure

As you design your life, you will benefit from developing an immunity to failure. You can begin this process by cultivating a bias for action, failing fast, and learning as much as you can from each failure. In that sense, you learn quickly, iterate, and don’t waste too much time.

How to make a choice in life

The difference between council and advice

Counsel is when someone is trying to help you figure out what you think. Advice is when someone is telling you what he or she thinks.

Counsel is more helpful than advice because it helps you clarify your thoughts. It helps you see the insights and inner wisdom that will lead you on the best path for you. While counsel is incredibly useful, most people will give you advice. They don’t have the skillset of listening without judgment and genuinely stepping into your shoes required of someone who gives counsel. Look for people who can provide you with counsel.

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