The most interesting design problem is your life.

This blog is based on “How to use design thinking to create a happier life for yourself“, which combines the great tools and mindset of design thinking for making life choices.

At Stanford, Dave Evans and Bill Burnett teach a class called “Designing Your Life,” which led the book Designing Your LifeDesigning Your Work Life and a set of online workshops at and

It is about people getting stuck in their lives.
 What’s more, and the tools for getting unstuck.

As such, the topic and methods are at the center in the purpose of Surtil.

The most interesting design problem is your life.

How to take design thinking — which is both a process and a mindset — and apply it to their own lives?
School has taught most of us to be skeptical and to be rationalists, but those aren’t very useful mindsets when you’re trying to do something new, something no one’s ever done before, or something that has no one clear solution. Instead, design thinking says you should start with empathy and lean into what you’re curious about.

Designers get stuck all the time. 
Designers know that they are going to work on something brand new, something never done before. So they get stuck and unstuck and stuck and unstuck all the time. One of the most important ways to get unstuck is reframing. It’s one of our most powerful mindsets. Reframing also makes sure that we’re working on the right problem.

Life design involves a lot of reframes that allow you to step back, examine your biases and open up new solution spaces. Reframing is essential to finding the right problems and the right solutions.

Many people have beliefs about life which psychologists would label as dysfunctional. 
If you want to design your life, you need to reframe these beliefs.
They hold us back and keep us stuck. I’ll share three of the most common.

  • Dysfunctional belief #1:
    “Knowing your passion will tell you what you need to do with your life.”

If you actually have a passion, that’s awesome.
It turns out less than 20 percent of people have a single identifiable passion in their lives. You don’t need a passion to start designing your life, and the reframe is “you are OK, just where you are”.

  • Dysfunctional belief #2:
    “By the time you’re out of college, you should know where you’re going. And if you don’t know, you’re late.”

Here the obvious question to ask: what exactly are you late for?
Maybe we need to make better use of the Odyssey Years (between the ages of 22 to 35), when we explore many alternative versions of ourselves. As such, there is no need or “shoulds”. The notion that you “should be somewhere you’re not” and “you’re late” is a dysfunctional belief.
We reframe this as “Let’s start from wherever you are; you’re not late for anything.”

  • Dysfunctional belief #3:
    “You should try to optimize the best possible version of yourself.”

This is dysfunctional belief implies that there’s just one singular best and that life is a linear progression towards this singular best. There is no evidence that there is one singular best version of you — rather believe there are many, many versions of you and any of them can result in a well-designed life. Experience shows that life is anything but linear. Our reframe: “life design is a journey; let go of optimizing an end goal and focus on the process and see what happens next.”

Now that you’ve practiced some reframing,
there are five ideas from “Designing Your Life” to try out.

Designing your life idea #1:
Connect the dots

Three important identities that shape our lives (and help to have your life to be meaningful or purposeful):
 – who you are,
– what you believe and
– what you do.
If you can make a connection between these three, you will experience your life as more meaningful. To help connect the dots, do two things.
1. The first thing is we to write about why they work — your work view.
What’s your theory of work? What’s it for? What’s work in service of? Write around a page about this.
2. The second thing is a little harder to do in a single page, but still, try and write up ideas on the meaning of life. Why are you here? What is your view of how the world works — your life view?

When you can connect your work view and your life view together in a coherent way, you’ll start to experience your life as meaningful.

Designing your life idea #2:
Recognize your gravity problems

There’s a class of problems that people can get stuck on called “gravity problems”. These problems are just circumstance, like gravity. You either can’t change these circumstances, or you are not willing to do what it would take. These are problems you cannot change.
You can’t solve a problem that you’re not willing to have.”
The only thing we can do with gravity problems is to accept them.

Once you’ve accepted that you have a gravity problem and you can’t change it, you have to decide: What do you want to do?
Is this a circumstance you can reframe and “work with”?
Or do you need a “work around” – and do something completely different?

Be really careful about a gravity problem, because it’s pernicious and can really get in your way. Accept it and then decide on a “work through” or “work-around” strategy to move forward.

Designing your life idea #3:
Brainstorm your possible futures and make three Odyssey Plans

There are more lives than one in you. So let’s go on an Odyssey and ideate those other lives. Start to ideate your future – and not ideate just one — but ideate three.

  • Life #1 is the life and job that you’re currently living — just make it better. Put in all the bucket list stuff you want to do. It’s your life and your job as you’re living it now, but your job goes great and your life includes all the extra interesting things that you’ve thought about doing.
  • Life #2, let’s pretend that your job just doesn’t exist anymore. What are you going to do instead? What will you do if Life #1 goes away?
  • Life #3, this is your wild card plan. What would you do if you didn’t have to worry about money? If you had enough money — not so much that you’re fabulously wealthy but enough and to live on — what would you do? And what would you do if you knew no one would laugh at you? Maybe you’d go to study butterflies for a living or be a bartender in Belize. Whatever, it’s your wildcard!

What happens when people do these Odyssey Plans is that they realize that these three parallel lives are all pretty interesting. And doable. They also realize there are things, life ideas, that got left behind in the business of life and bring them back into their plans.
Sometimes, because of this exercise, folks decide to pivot to an entirely different life plan. Mostly they use this as a method to ideate all the possible wonderful ways that they could live.

Designing your life idea #4:
Build some prototypes

You could immediately start executing one of your Odyssey lives, but in the design process, the thing you do after you come up with lots of new ideas is you start prototyping.
The science-fiction writer William Gibson has a famous quote: “The future is already here. It’s just unevenly distributed.”
To discover this future, we prototype. When we say prototyping, we ask the question: “What would it be like if I tried this possible future in some small an easy to execute way?”

Prototypes help you expose your assumptions. It’s easy.
You can have what we call a prototype conversation. There’s already someone bartending in Belize — she’s been doing it for years. You could talk to her and have a conversation about her experience. And rest assured, somebody, somewhere is doing the thing you want to prototype, the thing you’re you’re interested in. They’re living in your future. All you have to do is talk to them! When you have a conversation with them, they’ll tell you their story. If you hear something that rings true for you, you can identify that as a potential way of moving forward.

Instead of a prototype conversation you could also try a prototype experience. This can be e.g. to sit-in on an experience like education class.  This can also help to set up interesting prototype conversations.

The lesson here: We are more than just our brains, and when you have a felt experience — meaning an experience in your body — that’s a great way to find out if one of your ideas might work for you.

Designing your life idea #5:
Choose well

Many people make decisions, they end up not being happy with them.
So many of us have FOMO, the fear of missing out and we worry: “What if I didn’t pick the right thing?” Or, “I’m worried about whether or not I made the best decision, and what if I want to change my mind?”
Narrowing down your choices can be quite simple if you understand the psychology of decision-making. After the rational ‘pro-con’ lists, choosing is about that feeling in your stomach. Pay attention to your felt sensations, the feelings that you experience in your body. Without your emotions and your gut feelings, you can’t make good decisions.
After following your gut, you need to let go of all the other options and move on. By the way, this has always been the hardest part. But there is evidence that “going all in” is the best way to choose.

Once you get good at gathering, creating and choosing ideas, you also want to make sure you leave room for lucky or serendipitous ideas.
Being lucky is about paying attention to the task at hand while keeping your peripheral vision open. It’s in your peripheral vision that interesting opportunities show up that you were not expecting.
Taking advantage of these opportunities is how we define “luck”.

The designing your life idea is pretty simple — get curious, talk to people, try stuff and tell your story.
That’s how you achieve a well-designed life, one that’s generative, constantly creative, productive, changing, evolving and where there’s always the possibility of surprise.

One response to “The most interesting design problem is your life.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: