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Lifestyle & Travel

How Thinking Like a Designer Can Lead to a More Fulfilling Life

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The most popular class at Stanford University isn’t about algorithms or global finance.

Rather, every semester, juniors and seniors vie for a coveted spot in Designing Your Life, a course that guides them in approaching life’s big decisions and dilemmas the same way a designer would take on creating, say, the next-generation smartphone. The basic tenet: you can’t think your way to a solution to life’s messy problems, you need to build your way forward. 

Now the creators of the class, Bill Burnett, executive director of Stanford’s design program, and Dave Evans, who spearheaded the design of Apple’s first mouse, are sharing the step-by-step process of design thinking in their new book, Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life.

The authors are quick to stress that their strategies for finding your way in a chaotic world aren’t just for recent college grads. Design thinking can help us figure out next steps whether we’re looking for a mid-career reinvention, an “encore” career after retirement or searching for new interests as empty nesting approaches.

Here are the five “mindsets” of design thinking:

1. Be curious.

Curiosity invites exploration and play. “All you need is one question about which you’re a little bit curious,” says Evans. What are some ways I can get involved in a cause I care about? How do couples find new things to talk about once the kids have left home?

2.  Try stuff out.

Instead of endlessly thinking about what you’re going to do, get out into the world and test drive some possibilities. Go on an architectural tour and talk with the guide about what it takes to become a docent. Ask to shadow a friend who has an interesting second career—mediator, pastry chef, fundraiser for a women’s shelter—for a day or two. If you enjoy the experience, take the next step. If you don’t, move on. 

3.  Reframe problems.

Root out dysfunctional beliefs that might be keeping you stuck.

Dysfunctional belief: It’s too late.

Reframe: It’s never too late to design a life you love.

4. Embrace the process.

Let go of the end goal, focus on the journey and be open to discovery. Perhaps you'll realize after shadowing your pastry-chef friend that you don’t really want to make strudel, after all. But maybe next week you’ll have an exploratory chat with the event planner who happened to stop in to pick up a wedding cake when you were there.

5. Create a community.

Designing your life is a collaborative process. Build a team of friends, acquaintances and mentors of all ages that you can tap for a five-minute briefing over coffee or a three-hour bare-it-all conversation over a bottle of wine. “When you reach out to the world,” Burnett and Evans write, “the world reaches right back.”

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