Book Review – Designing Your Life

Designing Your Life book

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 (view this book on

Read my note about affiliate links on the Jobs on Toast website.

Book review: Overcoming Perfectionism – A Self-Help Guide

Overcoming Perfectionism book review

Overcoming Perfectionism: A Self-Help Guide
By Roz Shafran, Sarah Egan and Tracey Wade (Robinson, 2010); £12.99.

As researchers we’re no strangers to stiff competition, to high standards, to hard work. By definition we’re the top of the class, the ones who’ve survived a rigorous selection process to get where we are today. But when does a desire for achievement become counter-productive and lead to a decline in our performance? Or worse still, to anxiety, depression and loss of self-confidence?

How to break the vicious circle of ‘never good enough’

In this powerful book the authors describe a mind-set and a personality type that many researchers will identify with: perfectionism. As a perfectionist you set yourself demanding goals, you work hard to achieve them, you enjoy being the best … so far, so good.

However, there’s also a risk of losing perspective and wanting to be too perfect. The authors use the example of the dinner party host who spent so long cleaning the house, the food preparation ended up being rushed. As a consequence the dessert came out looking wonky – and the host spent the whole evening feeling miserable about letting everyone down. Yet the guests didn’t even notice!

This cycle of setting oneself excessively high standards, inevitably falling short and then feeling bad about it is introduced sensitively, using personal testimonies we can easily relate to. Alongside the dinner party host is the student who’s reluctant to hand in work that’s less than perfect, and the employee who keeps quiet in meetings for fear of not sounding knowledgeable enough. You’re bound to see yourself in the book – reading that email over and over again before you send it, or putting off doing a big piece of work because you don’t have time to do it properly … we’ve all been there!

Having explained the characteristics of the condition, the authors then introduce a range of coping strategies for dealing with excessive perfectionism. It’s OK to be pragmatic and do just enough to get by. It’s OK to make some time for yourself rather than constantly working. It’s even OK to mess up from time to time.

So for instance, the perfectionist host decided to clean only two rooms ahead of their next dinner party – the ones the guests would actually use! After all, your worth as a person is not diminished if some aspect of your life isn’t quite perfect …

In fact, as the book explains, easing off a little helps you to become more productive in the long run. You’ll spend less time feeling deflated because you didn’t complete everything on your completely unrealistic to-do list. You’ll spend less time battling procrastination and putting off tasks until you’ve found the time to do them perfectly. Instead, invest in your own self care, go easy on yourself, and you’ll perfect the art of not being perfect!

How have you overcome your own perfectionist tendencies? What resources have you found most useful? Leave a comment below to share your thoughts. You can buy Overcoming Perfectionism: A Self-Help Guide from Amazon (affiliate link).

Further reading: book reviews

The Professor Is In, by Chris
How To Find A Career With Your Humanities Degree in 126 days, by Chris
2 e-books to help you finish your PhD, by Chris

Read my note about affiliate links on the Jobs on Toast website.

Book Review: The Professor Is In, by Karen Kelsky

The Professor Is In

The Professor Is In: The Essential Guide to Turning Your Ph.D. Into a Job
By Karen Kelsky (Three River Press, 2015); U.S. $15; 438 pages.

I’ve been a big fan of Karen Kelsky for years. Here’s someone who cuts through the mystique of academia and absolutely tells it how it is. Someone who had the courage to leave academia mid-career to start her own business, using the skills and knowledge gained from her time in higher education. Someone who quit academia and whose post-ac life is a success, not the failure that many predict or fear.

I was pleased to hear that Karen was publishing a book and even better, that there would be chapters on careers outside academia. It was nice to open the book and see Jobs on Toast listed as one of the recommended reference websites (*blushes*). As you might expect, the book is heavily weighted towards academic job-hunting, with nine sections dedicated to this theme and just one section on careers outside academia.

I don’t write about or give talks on the academic job search, so I found it fascinating to read Karen’s insights on the topic, especially since back in the day I was interviewed for five lecturing posts without an offer. With the forensic eye of a trained anthropologist, Karen leads you through the entire fraught job application process, warts and all. Forget your ivory tower and dedication to the life of the mind: welcome to a world of spiraling tuition fees and graduate debt, shameful adjunct pay and working conditions, and outrageous interview questions (WAY too inappropriate to reproduce here)!

Although slim by comparison, the section of the book on the non-academic job search (entitled ‘Leaving the Cult’) is jam-packed with value. Some of the topics Karen covers will be familiar to my readers already: there are sections on transferable skills, finding your calling, dealing with your feelings, reinventing yourself and of course writing your cover letter and résumé.

Yet within these few chapters are deeper insights which really get to the heart of the post-PhD career-change process. For instance, Karen uses the metaphor of the university as the teat from which everything of value appears to flow, and from which we have to wean ourselves post-PhD. As with much else in the book, the characterisation is brutal, apt and thought-provoking, all at once.

Unsparing even of herself, Karen recounts the expletive-laden rant which led to the idea for her consulting business in the first place. By channeling her feelings of anger and learning to trust her own personal sense of worth, Karen overcame the need for the approval of others, finding her calling as an entrepreneur, crafter, consultant, blogger and author.

All in all, I found it fascinating to have the two distinct career paths discussed side-by-side. By the end of the book, I couldn’t help feeling that one path is all about claustrophobic conformity, while the other path is about finding your freedom. If you still want to take the academic route after reading the book, Karen’s advice will keep you on the straight and narrow – but beware of the serious congestion up ahead!

If on the other hand you’re intent on leaving academia, you’ll get a knapsack of provisions, a rough compass bearing and the occasional signpost, but it’s really up to you to make your own way. That’s the challenge – and the joy – of becoming post-academic.

You can buy the audio or paperback version of The Professor Is In: The Essential Guide to Turning Your Ph.D. Into a Job by Karen Kelsky from Amazon (affiliate link). I recommend you check out Karen’s website and consulting business over at The Professor Is In, where there’s a whole section on post-academic career support.

Further reading: book reviews

How To Find A Career With Your Humanities Degree in 126 days, by Chris
2 e-books to help you finish your PhD, by Chris

Read my note about affiliate links on the Jobs on Toast website.