Are you feeling stuck or lost? Go on admit it—sometimes you have serious doubts about your career or lifestyle choices. Psychologists and self-help gurus may have all kinds of strategies to help you shift that dynamic, but as it turns out, so do product designers.
You see, engineers and designers are experts face daily the same type of challenges we all are up against at certain junctures in our lives: How do you build something when you don’t know what to build? The answer: Train yourself to approach life problems like design problems.
Use design to create meaning
Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, Silicon Valley innovators and Stanford University Design Educators, who for years have been teaching a “Designing Your Life” class, are the authors of the recently published book Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life. They bring their real world experience and design savvy to the enduring question of what we want to be when we grow up.
But they give the question their signature “reframe,” asking instead what do we want to grow into? And this question is not just for kids, college students and start-ups. It’s for anyone who wants to make the most out of their life—and has the courage to recognize when things aren’t working.
After their stints in tech, both authors realized that design thinking might apply not just to products, but to life in general. In their book, they suggest assessing your life as if it were a prototype. Is it poorly designed, ineffective at its task of providing meaning and satisfaction? Does it skimp on pleasure, possibility and surprise? One clue that you have a well-designed life, the authors point out, is that it maximizes your vitality. It gives you a sense of immersion and joy.
At this point you may be feeling your life design could use a few tweaks. Since work is the largest single component of our waking lives, you need to discover what kinds of work suits you best. If you can find what kind of work engages and energizes you, you can reframe your choices in way that better serves your deepest gifts. A good job is one that feels congruent with who you are—your beliefs and actions. It’s not a placeholder in your day that you show up to pay the bills.
Finding work you love does not have to be an impossible task: “Work is fun when you are actually leaning into your strengths and are deeply engaged and energized by what you are doing,” say the authors.
Take actionable steps
To get unstuck, you must be willing to look hard at specifics. Since designers love reframing problems into actionable solutions, a key component of this work is reframing dysfunctional beliefs into beliefs that expand the range of possibilities. The very idea of being stuck is the primary dysfunctional belief in search of a turn around.
“Being stuck can be a launching pad for creativity,” the authors say. The cardinal rule of life design is you are never stuck, because you can always generate tons of ideas. Are you feeling ready to move from defeat to possibility? Here’s how.
1. Belief: I must stay the course.
This is the pervasive idea that your first idea of career is the best idea—and what you’re stuck with. You don’t need to be attached to your current job or career path, but you don’t need to start from scratch either.
Reframe: Generate tons of ideas through brainstorming and paying attention to what engages and energizes you. Create a mind map of all the things that engage and start thinking outside the box of ways you can put these activities together to form a new job description.
2. Belief: There is only one right career for me.
Reframe: There are always several possibilities. You choose better when there are lots of choices. It may not even be about finding the perfect job, but making the job so you have a perfect fit.
3. Belief: There is only one way to solve this problem.
Reframe: Explore alternative solutions through (prototyping) and collaborating with others to seed new ideas. Turn the insurmountable into the actionable. You didn’t necessarily choose wrong, but you might be able to choose better.
4. Belief: I’m paralyzed by too many choices.
Reframe: Narrow down your possibilities to between 3 to 5 choices. Trust yourself to discern what the best options are for you. To know what’s right for you, tap into other ways of “knowing”: Intuitive, spiritual, kinesthetic and emotional knowing as well as cognitive.
Lastly, don’t agonize about the options not taken. It’s critical to swap paralysis for a bias toward action, for trying things out for size. Instead of thinking there is only one right choice, choose well, take a stab at it and go from there.
The paradigm for success is your willingness to keep failing, and learning to fail better. It’s a playful, experiential take on some of life’s most tear-your-hair out decisions. Infinite failure is what the authors call it, along with its medicine, failure immunity, defined as to “become immune to the large majority of negative feelings of failure that burden your life needlessly.” Success is measured by how well you can wing it—the ability to fail fast and fail forward.
Ultimately, the authors say, you need to trust that movement beats stagnation and that mistakes pave the way to growth. You can’t think your way in to the future: You can only seize it by plunging in the best way you can.