Book Review: Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans

Note: Designing Your Life is more of a synthesis of idea and instruction than a standalone book. It contains numerous hours of outside writing, thinking, and other tasks to fully follow its advice. For this reason, I am going to publish two reviews: one (this one) on the content, and another, after I have had more time to complete the weeks-long set of tasks.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.
Can’t read the whole thing? Focus on chapters 6, 7, and 11

Vast amounts of useful and critical knowledge are left out of America’s high school and university curriculum. Included here, (as discussed in the previous week’s review of Allan Bloom’s fervent work, The Closing of the American Mind) is a sense of historical and philosophical perspective. More practically, we fail to teach the process of voting, tax filing, and other sensible life practices. Designing Your Life touches on a broad question also ignored: how should you realistically approach designing a satisfying life?

Balancing realism with optimism is a ceaseless struggle for books in this genre. I’ll admit at the onset I was worried I was reading a naive bit of self-congratulatory fluff by two Stanford professors and their most successful students. While the book is still clearly targeted primarily for a college-educated audience, while reading, I could not help but forcefully extinguish many of my pessimistic preconceptions and acknowledge the sensible advice contained throughout. (Yes, I know the cliche don’t judge a book by its cover, but I still must rediscover its meaning after every new one I read) 

Perhaps the fact that I am taking this work seriously enough to write two reviews informs you about how well I rank some of its advice. Indeed, I am not trying to be deceptive and believe these practices are sensible and worthwhile enough to commit myself to do them for at least a month. Embedded in the practices are five core predispositions: (1) curiosity, (2) bias to action, (3) reframing, (4) awareness, and (5) willingness to collaborate. In their 11 chapters, Burnett and Evans repeatedly invoke these design-minded predispositions. In fact, the word “Designing” in the title betrays their origin: Stanford’s Design Program. These are interspersed alongside common misconceptions and anecdotes from numerous former students and other connections.

From these ideas emerges a series of practices to begin the book’s eponymous process. These include but are not limited to:

  • Taking stock of your time and capacity for health/work/play/love
  • Articulating workview and lifeview philosophies with which to guide you
  • Documenting your daily activities for several weeks
  • Freely brainstorming via what they call a mind map, and synthesizing these tasks to create prototype lives on paper, through communication, and finally in practice
  • Finding a life team and involve yourself in a community of supportive individuals

To fully follow this advice is obviously quite a lengthy process, so in my second review I’ll have more to say about it.

All this said, the book’s design limits its audience. On the continuum of tech CEO to homeless person, the book’s applicability lies within a group of people far, far closer to the former than the latter. That isn’t to say this book couldn’t be handed to a single mother of two working in retail, a store owner in rural America, or an ex-con getting back into the job market, but its glitzy design and a lack of examples of non-college-educated people certainly direct it away from these groups.

Additionally, the book doesn’t feel as serious as can be craved by the self-help book audience (I’m comparing it particularly to Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life). It fails to touch on common problems that plague swathes of individuals: drug addiction or addiction of other sorts, debt, mental illness, divorce, and numerous others. It fails to step into the shadows to hoist many lost or forgotten souls out. Thus, through its examples, its style, and its omissions, this book simply ignores most people. That doesn’t preclude its value, however. If you are a lost college student, recent college graduate, or don’t feel satisfied where you’re working or with your work-life balance, this book will provide practical advice to think about how to improve your career and social life. It helped me conceptualize what specific values the work I do must be rooted in to be meaningful. Despite its limited audience, there is much to appreciate and use in Designing Your Life. I’ll leave you with my favorite quote from it.

The ideas and possibilities and roles and forms that you will end up living do not actually exist anywhere in the universe right now, as you are reading this. They are all waiting to be invented, and the raw material to invent them is found out in the world and, most important, lying in wait in the hearts and minds and actions of others—many of whom you’ve not met yet.