Getting the most out of it.
Publisher: Chatto & Windus (Random House)
First Published: 15th September 2016
Date Reviewed: 2nd October 2016
Bill Burnett and Dave Evans created a course for students at Stanford University to help them ready their futures. Drawing from the methods designers use to create and prototype, the authors constructed a course with a difference, one that went against the grain to be of particular lifelong value. After much success, they’ve decided to turn the course into a book in order to help a greater number of people.
Designing Your Life is the kind of book that sports lots of common sense of the sort we tend to forget. It sports a lot of things that lead to ‘ah ha!’ moments. And it’s the literary version of those times when someone says ‘now bear with me…’ and you think ‘oh god, here it goes’ and then after a while of talking that you still think suspect, ends with a lot of very good ideas and value.
To be sure it reads as very American but the suggestions and topics in focus should, this reviewer believes (as a Brit), be relevant to most people. Burnett and Evans – who address themselves in the third person, which makes you wonder who was writing when and becomes something to really appreciate because of the complete collaborative atmosphere it projects – write in simple, easy to understand terms, giving full credit to other ideas which they detail for you in case you haven’t come across them previously. The authors seem to favour the idea of ‘done rather than perfect’ – the writing is plain but it does the job and the book’s complete lack of any filler content (student stories are detailed in order to provide context and examples) just goes to further the overall feeling that the authors know what they are doing. This is to say the book has been designed as much as the lives have been designed.
It turns out that the part of the brain that is working to help us make our best choices is in the basal ganglia. It’s part of the ancient base brain, and as such does not have connections to our verbal centers, so it does not communicate in words. It communicates in feelings and via connections to the intestines – those good old gut feelings. The memories that inform this choice-guiding function in our brains Goleman refers to as the “wisdom of the emotions”; by this he means the collected experiences of what has and hasn’t worked for us in life, and what we draw upon in evaluating a decision. Our own wisdom is then made available to us emotionally (as feelings) and intestinally (as a bodily, gut response). Therefore, in order to make a good decision, we need access to our feelings and gut reactions to the alternatives.
It’s a book to read quickly – we are talking lives after all and one of the authors’ thoughts, so often running in the background, is that we spend a lot of time thinking about and considering the present, agonising over the past and our choices, time that can be put to better use working on propelling ourselves towards our futures. Among the topics and concepts are jobs (don’t waste time on applications that get put into a keyword database, rather try and set up interviews with people who are doing what you want to do – do not think of these as interviews), ‘failure immunity’ (accepting that failure happens but not letting it get to you; categorising failures so you can dismiss minor one-offs and focus only on strengthening your weaknesses), and a ‘life dashboard’ that may seem a bit gimmicky but has a great idea behind it, that of working out your health/work/play/love balance and adjusting accordingly. The chapters on getting a job are particularly good and, like all the other topics included, sport both things you’ll inevitably already know and lots of things you kind of know but not in the way the authors are talking about them.
On that note, a key concept of the book is ‘reframing’ – dotted throughout are sentences that we’ve been taught to believe, accompanied by Burnett and Evans’ suggestions for different angles to view them through. The authors ask: when you try to solve a problem, are you solving the right one?
An example: dysfunctional thought – ‘I should know where I’m going’; reframed – ‘I can’t know where I’m going until I know where I am now’.
The only caveat with this book is that it’s not going to help everyone. This is something the authors address when they say that sometimes you might have to take the job to pay the bills or feed the family and do that until you’re in a place where you’ve space to look at your life in the way this book explains, but it’s not quite as simple as that. You’ll notice that by and large the stories in this book are of people who are relatively privileged in life when compared to others and have had the opportunity to learn skills that they can go back to and think about. Whilst the book may indeed work for a broader section of society than that looked at, it does come from a certain situation and place in life, and the angle the subjects are viewed from may suggest to some readers that this isn’t a book for them. It also isn’t a cure all; while the ideas in general are great, some are likely not to work, for example the idea of having a life design team to support what you’re trying to do – such a thing, as outlined in the book, would take a lot of time and while that suggested 3-6 people are spending time working on your future with you, they’re using time they could be working on themselves. You would need a number of extremely supportive and dedicated people in order to make such a thing work unless, perhaps, you happen to still be in education where everyone is doing the same thing. The firm suggestion that everyone involved get a copy of the book is a little too obvious in its hopes.
Designing Your Life is a very good book with some excellent ideas that do work – there are examples in day-to-day life aplenty, never mind in this book. The reframing idea is important because it gets you to think outside of the box and outside of the normal social thinking that whilst well-intended (or sometimes not!) can indeed hamper a person’s progress. But it’s best to keep yourself objective when reading it, and some may find it better placed as a guide rather than a project.
I received this book for review from FMCM Associates.