Life design

What do you want to be when you grow up?

Life is ever-changing so it needs a creative, flexible approach to career planning, says Bill Burnett, executive director of the Design Programme at Stanford University
What do you want to be when you grow up?
January 12, 2017   |    Bill Burnett

How do you you choose a career? How do you find a job you like – or maybe even love? How do you find a balance between work and life? Whether you are 20 or 50, these are fundamental questions and can be the source of anxiety.

Nobody can predict the future, but the good news is you can look to inventors (designers) to help answer these questions.


Many great innovations start with a reframe. For instance, you start out thinking you are designing a product (such as a new coffee blend and new coffee machine) and reframe when you realise you are actually redesigning the coffee experience (that’s the story of Starbucks).

The reframe is the key to opening up the possibility of new and innovative solutions.
This idea of reframing, prototyping and designing your life comes from a class that myself and lecturer, Dave Evans, have been teaching at Stanford University, California, for the past eight years, offering a pretty simple framework and some neat design tools for ‘Life Design’.


The biggest reframe we teach our students is that your life can’t be planned, that there isn’t one solution, and that’s actually a good thing. There are many possible designs for your life, all filled with hope for the kind of creative and unfolding reality that makes life worth living.

Your life is not a problem to be solved, it’s an experience, and the fun and learning comes from designing with the experience.

So the question, ‘What do I want to be when I grow up?’ becomes, ‘Who or what do I want to grow into as my life unfolds?’.

We developed the class for Millennials in the US, but students in the UK face many of the same challenges. With high unemployment, a post-Brexit economic situation that’s uncertain, and studies indicating that they might be the first generation to have a lower standard of living than their parents… reframing has never been so important.

First, we reframe the years from 22 to 35 and call them the Odyssey Years. They represent a new trend unique to this generation: of experimenting (we call it prototyping) with lots of different jobs, every few years, before picking a career. Second, we acknowledge the data that Millennials are the most purpose-driven generation in decades, but that they also want a work-life balance from the start. The good news is that purpose actually comes not from a pre-defined passion but from doing the hard work it takes to master your job. And dedication, expanding your skill set and working with a purpose are all things you can control.

Third, there is a lot of evidence that today’s Millennials will have two or even three completely different careers over their working lifetime. Most of our students think that’s great, and it takes some of the pressure off picking the right job straight out of school.

As Dr Martin Seligman, the godfather of Positive Psychology, says, ‘It’s not about finding the perfect job, it’s about finding the job you can make perfect.’

So, it’s time to reframe the ‘growing up’ question (whichever stage of life you are at), and accept that as you develop, you will probably have more than one career, and that’s OK.

Set out to master the skills you need to create meaningful work, and stay true to your goals, purpose and balance.

Designing Your Life: Build A Life That Works For You (Chatto & Windus, £14.99) is out now.


Read more: How to deal with stress at work


1. Reframe Problems

Reframes such as ‘It’s never too late to design a life you love’ and ‘Go for the offer, not the job’, are designed to get you unstuck and moving again.

It’s all about having a bias towards action, which commits you to more than just thinking. Instead you use prototyping to try out your future – we call it ‘building your way forward’.

By trying stuff, you test your ideas. You create prototype after prototype, failing often, until you discover what works for you.

So, take a problem you have been stuck on and, with some curiosity, build your way to a new solution!

2. Beware of ‘Gravity’ challenges

Like gravity, these are issues that cannot be solved. In life design, if it’s not actionable, then it’s just not a useful problem. Like a black hole, it’s a trap.

Here’s a piece of advice that will save you a lot of time: People fight reality, and anytime you are fighting with reality, reality will win. You can’t outsmart it.

Your only authentic response to one of these ‘gravity problems’ is acceptance.

Be very scrupulous when identifying your ‘gravity’ issues and working on acceptance.

The sooner you are out of the black hole, the better.

3. Look out for ‘Shoulds’

As in: ‘I should have my life figured out by the time I’m 25’.

Designers treat these assumptions dressed up as facts carefully, because they are mostly not true and can hold you back from taking action.

This generation is living and working longer, and 35 is the new 25, so relax.

Another is: ‘You should keep all your options open.’ The problem with this one is simple; research has shown that humans can only deal with four or five options at a time.

So, when you’ve got too many options, just cross some off your list. Don’t worry, if you cross off the wrong ones, you’ll soon know.

4. Beware of the ‘One Best Idea’

How many of us think there is a single best idea for our life and all we need to do is find it, execute and everything will be OK?

Designers know this is a flawed approach.

Instead we make up three five-year Odyssey Plans. One is usually the best version of what you’re doing now; another is what you’d do if Plan #1 died and wasn’t available any more; and the third is what you’d do if money and status were not important.

Once people realise they can have three completely different plans for their life, the tension to ‘get it right’ goes away.

5. Stop looking for the ‘Job Charming’

A lot of people believe their dream job is out there waiting and all they have to do if find it. The data says that’s not going to work. Only 20% of job opportunities are ever posted; up to 50% of the time, jobs get filled from referrals.

The best way to crack this insiders’ game is simple: go and talk to someone who is doing something you’re interested in and hear what the person loves and hates about their job. You can get a lot of this information by just inviting someone out for a coffee.

Do seven, and you’ll start seeing hidden jobs everywhere!

Do you want more Balance in your life?

Subscribe to our newsletter to get a bi-weekly wellbeing fix, straight to your inbox