Book Review: Designing Your Life

August 26, 2019

Cover: Designing Your LifeAre you happy with how things are going in your life? Are you doing the work you thought you would be doing; living the life you hoped you would? Did the plans you set for yourself in the autumn of your senior year of high school work out?

One thing that has bothered me for some time is the folly of expecting young people who are between the ages of 16 and 18—or even younger—to try to determine what profession they should choose for the rest of their life. Add to this the insanity of expecting many of these young people to choose the right post-secondary education to qualify them for a profession and having them and their families fund this education at a cost of around $50,000 over four years—very possibly more. All of this in pursuit of a degree and a profession they might not even like, that could change significantly within a few years of their graduation, or that might not even exist within a decade. Contributing to this uncertainty is the fact that a not-insignificant percentage—the exact number is debatable—of graduates won’t ever work in a field relating to their major.

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Today, a common belief about education and employment is that many of today’s students are training for jobs that don’t yet exist. Fortunately, the people who practice UX and design skills are well versed in defining the future. UX professionals apply UX and design methods to Web sites, mobile apps, software, products, and services to discover new opportunities, eliminate users’ painpoints, and reduce business risk. Consequently Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, the authors of Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life, ask: why not apply these methods to our lives?

Book Specifications

Title: Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life

Authors: Bill Burnett and Dave Evans

Formats: Kindle, Hardcover, Audiobook, Audio CD

Publisher: Knopf; First edition

Published: September 20, 2016

Pages: 272

ISBN-10: 1101875322

ISBN-13: 978-1101875322

Different Types of Problems

Organizations ask UX professionals to solve problems. Of course, a fundamental question is: are we solving the right problems? To understand what you want to change in your life, it helps to understand what problem you are trying to solve.

It is also important to understand what problems are not solvable. Designing Your Life identifies such problems as gravity problems—problems that cannot be solved for a variety of reasons. Perhaps they are structural problems. For example, it is a virtual certainty that, given my age and lack of a PhD, I will never become the president of a reputable university. It would simply take too long to earn the credentials, achieve tenure, and survive the politics of administrative assignments, then have the luck necessary to become the person who wins a position for which there are very few openings. Or perhaps, being middle-aged and 5’8”, I must let go of my dream of being a star in the NBA. 

Just as water finds its own level, you can get to a better place simply by realizing what you cannot overcome. We can make do or find alternatives. So, rather than being unhappy that I’ll never be President Woods, I could work in a different industry. Rather than wishing I was taller, I could still enjoy basketball by volunteering as a coach for my kid’s team or play basketball with friends at the gym.

Where Are You Going?

But, before you can change your direction, you have to know where you are. In their book, Burnett and Evans provide a method for evaluating how things are going. They offer a way to determine what parts of your life are working well—your health, work, play, or love life—and identify what aspects of your life might need a bit more attention or be missing altogether.

Then the authors describe how to create a compass for establishing the direction your life should take—your true North—and to help keep you moving in a direction that supports your goals and values.

Challenging Beliefs

From what I’ve read, I’m certain that one source of unhappiness for many people is dysfunctional beliefs that make them feel inadequate. People internalize an idea that ultimately does not fit with their values and goals.

Dysfunctional beliefs are unfounded constraints that we put on ourselves, limiting our options. These beliefs focus on one aspect of a situation that people have interpreted as being negative and accepted as immutable law. However, these are not gravity problems. Because we’ve created them, we can also change them. Through the exercises that the book provides, you can learn to reframe such beliefs. Here’s an example from the book:

Dysfunctional Belief: I have to find the one right idea.

Reframe: I need a lot of ideas so I can explore any number of possibilities for my future.

Prototyping Your New Life

Prototyping is a great way of testing new ideas, features, or experiences. The benefit of prototyping is that you can learn a lot about an experience over the course of a short period of time, with minimal investment. In the context of a university education, we do this through internships and co-ops.

I am very fortunate to have had the opportunity of participating in a mentorship program when I was in high school. Over the course of a few one-day visits, I worked with a materials engineer at a large manufacturer in my hometown. Prior to this experience, I had imagined that would be a great profession for someone with my grades, living in my region. But afterward, I realized that this profession was neither creative nor exciting enough for my preferences. This experience saved me from making a big mistake. Unfortunately, at the time, this mentorship program was not available to all students in my school. But imagine how this approach could help students to evaluate their options.

Burnett and Evans propose the use of prototyping to solve a variety of problems—for example, starting a business. If you wanted to launch a unique business model that would disrupt the retail shoe market, it might be beneficial to try working at a shoe store for a few weekends, where you could learn a lot about shoes. You might even learn that you don’t like the retail shoe industry—thus, saving you the expense of launching a failed business.

The Dysfunctional Job Market

Everyone should expect that they’ll get turned down for many more jobs than they’ll receive job offers. But it’s also important to understand how inefficient the job market is. Don’t assume that, just because you’ve been rejected for many jobs, you aren’t qualified for a particular role. It’s more likely that you’re in an inefficient job market.

There are many problems with the employment market, including the following:

  • the dynamics of gender inequality—both on the hiring side and because of self-selection by talent
  • job postings for organizations seeking unicorns
  • job postings by managers who are going through the motions of hiring to satisfy human resources when they’ve already selected a preferred candidate

The authors tell us that only 20 percent of all jobs available ever get posted on the Internet. Many smaller companies—the dynamic companies that are fulfilling real needs for staffing and growing rapidly—typically don’t even post jobs. The best jobs get filled through relationships.


Designing Your Life offers a variety of self-help concepts that may sound familiar, but presents them in a UX design–friendly context. Although people often think about choosing the right school to attend or job to seek, you should really think about the kind of life experience you’re seeking. If there is a group of people who know anything about researching and designing experiences, it’s the UX community.

The primary value of this book is that it demonstrates the flexibility of design processes and the benefits of applying them in new contexts. While UX professionals often get pigeon-holed in Web or app design—or sometimes product or service design—in reality, User Experience is about designing experiences. 

Owner and Principal Consultant at Covalent Studio LLC

Akron, Ohio, USA

D. Ben WoodsBen’s global design and technology firm specializes in software design and development for the Web, mobile, and ecommerce. The company serves clients ranging from small startups to some of the largest companies in the world, including General Electric, Rio Tinto, and Fidelity. His career in User Experience began in the late 1990s. Ben has held diverse roles, including UX management at a global B2B firm, full-time and part-time academia, and executive roles. He enjoys solving complex business problems and coaching talent to be competitive UX design professionals. Ben earned his MS in Information Architecture and Knowledge Management at Kent State University and is a graduate of the Executive MBA program at Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management. He has presented long-format talks, speed presentations, and posters at many conferences and events and has conducted training and workshops for organizations throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia.  Read More

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