I could see the question coming, just by looking on her face.
“Do you really want to major in creative writing?” my mother asked, not trying to hide her skepticism.
“How exactly will you get a job from doing that?”
I was in my second year of college, and it was time for me to choose my major. Deep down, I knew what I wanted to do, but it felt risky and I was scared.
What was I going to do?
Looking back, I’m incredibly grateful I stood my ground. Despite her initial skepticism, my mum eventually supported my decision to study creative writing.
Pursuing my creative writing major gave me freedom to explore different ideas, try new stuff, and collaborate with my peers. It also taught me to give (and receive) useful feedback, push my own boundaries, and fall in love with the writing process.
Some of my friends, who studied “real” subjects, made fun of me. But it turned out the joke was on them because I picked up a critical life skill they didn’t.
Professors Bill Burnett and Dave Evans at Stanford University gave this skill a name. They called it life design.
Apply design thinking to your life
Designing Your Life is written by professors Bill Burnett and Dave Evans. The book teaches us how to apply design thinking to build a well-lived and joyful life. It’s based on one of the most popular elective courses at Stanford (and it reminded me of my own creative writing class).
The essence of the philosophy can be summed up like this:
When you think like a designer, when you are willing to ask the questions, when you realize that life is always about designing something that has never existed before, then your life can sparkle in a way that you could never have imagined.
Which begs the question: how can we start to think like a designer?
Think like a designer
While I read the book, I kept seeing overlaps between design thinking and creative writing. The fundamental mindsets were the same, but I had never seen them articulated this clearly before. Fortunately, the authors explain the five basic mindsets of a designer:
Be curious: Curiosity makes everything new. It invites exploration and play. Most of all, curiosity helps you get “good at being lucky”. It’s the reason our creative writing professor was able to see opportunities everywhere.
Try stuff: When you have a bias to action, you are building your way forward. Writing a book, or plotting a story, is all about trying things out and see what comes of it. Our professor would always encourage us to go out there, experience it firsthand, and then write about it.
Reframe problems: Reframing is how designers get unstuck. Reframing also makes sure we’re working on the right problem. Life design allows key reframes that allows you to step back, examine your biases, and open up new solution spaces.
Know it’s a process: We know that life gets messy. Mistakes will be made, prototypes (or rough drafts) will be thrown away. An important part of the process is letting go – of your first idea and of a good-but-not great solution.
Ask for help: The last step of design thinking is perhaps the most important: radical collaboration. Great designers don’t go at it alone. Instead, they embrace radical collaboration and ask for help when they need it.
Find your passion
You’ll notice there is nothing about “following your passion” in there. Which is refreshing, considering how often such conventional wisdom is used.
Passion is usually found instead of followed. The authors agree on the science of this one:
[R]esearch shows that, for most people, passion comes after they try something, discover they like it, and develop mastery— not before. To put it more succinctly: passion is the result of a good life design, not the cause.
It might be better said that designing and living the life you want is your passion. I know it’s that way for me.
I am already applying these design principles to improve my own life. I highly recommend reading the book and going through the exercises there.
What are you waiting for? Keep exploring, try new stuff, and ask for help! Check out these great life design resources to help you take that next step on your journey.
Remember to have fun. And please share your life design plans in the comments!