Two Stanford Professors Share Secrets On Designing Your Life

I am currently co-facilitating a course on this book. This is an excellent tool to understand the complexities of vocation. Take some time to read through the notes, and get in contact if you would like to know more! I also highly recommend the TEDxStanford talk at the end of the article.

This Forbes contribution was made by Peter High .

Opinions expressed by Forbes Contributors are their own.

Eight years ago, Dave Evans asked Bill Burnett to lunch. Dave was a management consultant and lecturer at the University of California Berkeley, and a co-founder of Electronic Arts. Bill was and continues to be the Executive Director of the Design Program at Stanford University. Evans had been teaching a class at Cal on vocation, and based on that experience, he thought that Burnett and he might be able to address a need in combination for the students in the Design Program. He thought that the fact that students in that program had a multi-disciplinary degree that they may have difficulty finding their first jobs. Evans notes, “I thought this was going to be a multi-part discussion and that I’d have to have a couple of meetings to sell Bill on this idea. Within 15 minutes, I had the deal done!”

Since then, Evans and Burnett have taught an open enrollment class at Stanford together, which has become one of the most popular electives at the university. The method has been the subject of two PhD theses and had demonstrated significant results in helping people design the life they want. The method is centered on the principles taught in the Product Design Program and the at Stanford called “design thinking.” As the ideas grew in popularity, Evans and Burnett elected to memorialize many of the key insights and exercises in a book, Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life, which has been a bestseller since its release in September of last year. They discuss many of the key themes herein.

(To listen to an unabridged audio version of this interview, please visit this link. This is the 25th interview in the IT Influencers series. To listen to past interviews with the likes of former Mexican President Vicente Fox, Sal Khan, Sebastian Thrun, Steve Case, Craig Newmark, Stewart Butterfield, and Meg Whitman among others, please visit this link. To read future posts in this series, please click the link above to follow me on Twitter @PeterAHigh.)

Peter High: Bill, as the Executive Director of the Design Program at Stanford, the Co-Director of the Stanford Life Design Lab, and the co-author of the book we are discussing, please provide an overview of the Design Program at Stanford, which is foundational to the work that the two of you have been doing.

Bill Burnett: Most people, when they hear the word design, think of graphic design or industrial design. That is commonly the way design is taught, but Stanford took a different tact. We have been teaching design as a human-centered practice, since 1957. A couple of big thinkers, John Arnold and Bob McKim put together what we call human-centered design, which is Engineering, plus Psychology and a little Anthropology to try to understand people well; and then leaning hard into the concepts of creativity and ideation. This is what we now call “design thinking,” which is an innovation methodology that relies on multiple sets of tools and focuses on human needs. It is a way of innovating in anything: a product, a service, or experiences. What we primarily do at Stanford is teach undergraduates and graduates how to be design thinkers. Then they go out into the world and work at all the big companies like Facebook, Google, Amazon, and IBM. Most of my work is around teaching our Engineering students how to be innovators, the Designing Your Life class popped up as a little side project. It has kind of gotten out of control.

High: Dave, I understand the genesis of the Designing Your Life class was about eight years ago and began with you taking Bill to lunch. That then led to the recently released book, Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived Joyful Life. What was the problem you hoped to solve or the opportunity that you recognized that led you to collaborate with Bill?

Bill Burnett and Dave Evans. Credit: Michael Lionstar

Dave Evans: This is an idea that suddenly popped into my head slowly — over 43 years. It goes all the way back to when I was a sophomore at Stanford and was wrapped around the axle of the question, what do I want to do with my life? I was struggling, and most of the help that I got was not useful. People wanted to help me get what I wanted once I knew what it was, but people were not good at helping me figure out what it was I wanted. That seemed criminal and upsetting. At the time, I could not solve that question, so like everybody else, I figured it out the hard way.

Fast forwarding many years, I began to realize that people in the workplace asked the same question I had always asked: “What does this work mean to us?” Everyone also asked the question, “What will I do with the rest of my wild and precious life?” I started teaching small seminars on the side about what I had discovered, and began teaching a class at the University of California at Berkeley called, Finding Your Vocation. In 2007, Bill, who was in old colleague, became the head of the Design Program at Stanford and I thought, maybe he thinks these questions are interesting. We went to lunch and I said, “This question has been plaguing me my entire life, it plagues everybody, the university still stinks at it. I have been teaching a class at Berkeley that has gone surprisingly well, but we ought to use design thinking to do this. What do you think?” Bill said, “Absolutely. Let’s go.” We prototyped it that summer and had the first class that fall. Then, the university asked if we could do this for everybody. We did that, and the thing kind of blew up.

High: One of the things I found interesting about the book is that you take these shibboleths, or dysfunctional beliefs as you refer to them, and discredit them. These are beliefs like:

  • Your degree determines your career.
  • If you are successful you will be happy.
  • I should know where I am going.

It seems like you are saying that most of us believe we are on a type of ladder, and we are working on getting to the next rung, or role, that is above us. However, you encourage us to recognize that there are other ladders that we could climb, which in fact may be better ones for us. Some of the advice you offer includes:

  • Be curious.
  • Try stuff.
  • Reframe problems.
  • Know it is a process.
  • Ask for help.

Is it a fair, albeit simplified, synopsis to say that the program is about un-constraining yourself from dysfunctional beliefs and designing a set of activities around the kinds of things that make you happy?

Burnett: Yes, I liked your description of multiple ladders. When you design a product, you do not have only one idea; that would be terrible. You generate lots of ideas. The book is research based, and there is tons of research that says if you start with three ideas, and you generate ideas from there, you will have a better set of ideas, and in turn will have a better chance of selecting something that is successful. It is the same thing with your life. There is not one ladder. Through our workshops on the book, we have talked to people all-around the country, and found that often people feel trapped. Successful people climbed that ladder and got to be a partner at a law firm or an executive at their company, but are unhappy and feel stuck because they thought it was a singular one size fits all road to meaning.

First, people grow and change. Second, there is not one solution to your life, there are many solutions. Life is an adventure. This notion that if you do not immediately find the right thing, or do not launch exactly into the right career out of school, then you are behind or screwed is not true. In fact, there is loads of evidence for the opposite that says you will have multiple careers and multiple expressions of your life. That is what will make it fun. We always tell students, “Do you want your 22 year old self telling your 45 year old self what he is going to be doing for a living?” That would be crazy, you do not know anything at 22.”


Video link to TEDx talk!

2017-08-07T07:29:53+00:00August 7th, 2017|Curiosity|