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  • Jennie Antolak

Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived Joyful Life by Bill Burnett & Dale Evans


Changes throughout the world in the last year have directly impacted all of us. As coaches now more we need ways to support our clients when they are re-evaluating their lives. COVID -19 has triggered more clients to ask "What is next for me? What if I take my life in a whole new direction?"


@Dr. Karen Seashore provides an excellent review of Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dale Evans of how to approach these very questions. As you read Dr. Karen's review you will realize Designing Your Life offers a portfolio of exercises, theories and principles which will expand ideas of what to provide clients who want to redesign their life.

Book Review: by Karen Seashore, Narrative Certified and Life Coach Practitioner

Title: Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived Joyful Life.

Author: Bill Burnett and Dale Evans


Overall Thesis:

Forget about planning. Forget about finding the perfect solution to whatever is supposed to come next. Instead, consider life as a design problem.

That is the conclusion that Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, design professors at Stanford, came to after multiple years of working with undergraduates to think about choosing their major as a “wicked problem” (one that does not have a single cause or a single solution…). When they reported their strategies for advising undergraduates to a colleague in the elevator, the person said, “I would like to take that class….” Now they not only have this book and a thriving business offering courses to adults, but they also recently launched a program to train coaches.


This book was actually my entry to the Learning Journeys program. I found the book and roped two friends into a “book study” to use it to think about our impending retirements. We loved the exercises and our conversations, and began talking about what was helpful, and that led me to an unexpected conclusion that one of the parts of my work that I enjoyed the most was the one-on-one life mentoring that I have been privileged to do with undergraduate and graduate students. When I was telling this to another person, they said, “You should be a life coach.” I found Learning Journeys after considerable research into different ICF programs….


Application to Coaching:

I believe this book fits in to the arenas covered by our work in Learning Journeys. What I want to focus on now is two-fold: (1) what are some of the perspectives and tools in the book that fit neatly with the way in which we are learning to think about life coaching? and (2) what are some of the limitations?


First, the inside of the dust cover clearly shows how the “overall perspective” of design thinking fits with coaching by pointing to “mind sets of life design” which include:

· Curiosity…. (one of the core Ways of Being)

· Bias to Action…(one of the outcomes that we try to build in to each coaching session…)

· Reframing…(figuring out how to look at any problem from a variety of perspectives in order to move…)

· Radical collaboration…(the assumptions underlying the relationship that is developed between a coach and a client)

In addition, from the beginning of the book the emphasis is on finding out what currently (or in the past) gives joy and meaning to your life, and using those insights as a means to explore the future.


The early exercises in the book focus on those questions and, with some adaptation, I could see building them into a coaching toolkit. What I found particularly helpful was the insistence of the authors that, to think like a designer means to stop looking for “A SOLUTION” and to become more creative in thinking about multiple ways to incorporate values and joy into next steps. They (as design experts) require at least three; as coaches we could be more open, but need to be attentive to many people’s expectation that the first solution that springs to their mind is the right choice. As people who have been encouraged to reflect on our own journeys, we know that when we are stuck, our first thoughts about action to “fix the problem” may not be the most interesting or optimal. This creates premature closure and reduces the chance of finding a better solution.


To open up creativity the most relevant tools in this book are the “Good Time Journal” (looking for points of engagement and joy in your current life), “Odyssey Planning” (developing initial ideas ABOUT life journeys) and “Prototyping” (a quick design examination of what getting to multiple odyssey points would look like).


What is more limiting is the book’s emphasis on career design. For a coach, whose focus was on that area, the entire book would probably be useful. For a life coach with a broader clientele, many of the exercises would not (at least without a lot of modification) be helpful because they focus on finding a new job/career (one that is different from the one that they might have brought to the coaching session). My retirement buddies and I stopped using the book’s later exercises because the focus was on full-time work and none of us were looking at our lives with that as a goal.


A second limitation stems from the authors’ grounding in group advising and career planning. One of the aspects of Learning Journeys that I value is the emphasis on individualization and tailoring of the coaching experience – drawing on MODELS rather than driving with PROCESS or particular TOOLS. The design model is an important one for a “Learning Journeys graduate” – but the book is a bit stuck in a particular process framework that would work with some clients but not with others. (I base this latter assessment on my limited experience with the kinds of issues that we coach on in class and those that I expect my first two clients will present).


Application Within My Coaching:

In sumary, I would recommend this book to anyone who is a life coach as a valuable read, knowing that I used it without a formal coach but that it would not have worked for me if I had not been with two “critical friends” who served something of the same function. (On the other hand, I have given copies to several other people….) The book is particularly helpful in providing a solid underpinning for a design-based coaching model, in large measure because the authors are experts in design thinking. In addition, don’t be put off because they are professors – it is accessible and very reader-friendly.

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