Book Review – Designing Your Life

Designing Your Life: Build the Perfect Career, Step by Step
By Bill Burnett and Dave Evans (Vintage, 2017)

One of my private clients recommended this book to me and it doesn’t disappoint. The authors have impeccable credentials, having taught the Life Design course at Stanford University for many years. The premise of the book is that you can apply the same principles to designing your life, as you can to designing new consumer products. How does that work?

Well, the authors explain that designers don’t just have a flash of inspiration and then design the finished article. They build prototypes, test them out with customers, tweak them, over and over again until they get it right. It’s an iterative process that requires patience and a degree of trust in a journey of discovery. And you can do the same when designing your own career.

So when changing careers, you can easily fall into the trap of spending a lot of time researching possible roles and browsing job adverts. And people sometimes hold out for their ideal position, their dream job which never actually materialises. By contrast, Burnett and Evans want you to get stuck in: to roll up your sleeves and create opportunities for yourself by taking firm action in the world.

After some preliminary exercises to help you set your compass, the authors encourage you to start ‘prototyping’ possible careers. This means using informational interviews (what they call ‘life design interviews’) to learn about selected careers, and gaining work experience in these lines of work. When you start prototyping possible career routes, you get a much better sense of the actual direction you want to take. A bit like trying on a new style of clothing, before you buy it!

This experential approach has a lot in common with how I mentor my private clients who are transitioning out of academia. I find that when I get my clients to focus on a specific job role (e.g Content Writer, Project Manager), a lot of the clutter and confusion in their mind falls away. They now have a single point of focus, rather than thinking of themselves as a mixture of researcher, educator, editor and writer for instance.

While doctoral researchers may be multi-talented, employers generally want to fill a single role in their organisation – so pick one! What’s interesting to me is that after finding this initial focus, my clients often then get an insight into what they REALLY want to do. And this can be quite different to the role that they first focused on. It’s as if a job seeker needs to clear their mind first, to discover their deeper sense of purpose. Prototyping different career paths can really help with this process.

Designing Your Life offers a complete method to follow for anyone who’s thinking about changing careers, and I heartily recommend it.

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