Booknotes: Designing Your Life

RECOMMENDED: if you feel adrift or lacking a 'north star' of purpose

Booknotes: Designing Your Life

Bill Burnett & Dave Evans

Finished 30/12/22

This was an interesting one: I feel like the further I got into it the less useful it became to me? I would 100% recommend this to someone who feels adrift or at a crossroads or maybe someone nearing graduation from university. I learned a lot of this by muddling through and working it out over the last 10 year or so, but I could’ve got there with a bit less grief. (Some of the grief is absolutely unavoidable, and builds character, but some it you can swerve entirely. Working out which is which, that's the trick.) A lot of the stuff here I feel like I’ve come to by other routes, but there's certainly enough here that's novel or at least puts familiar things in a different-enough frame that I got a lot out of it.

Once the standard book-of-this-kind stuff is out of the way (here are some real-life examples of the kind of thing we're trying to solve, here is some background on us the authors and how we would've loved a book like this back in the day), it starts by trying to get you to consider areas of your life—work, health, love, etc—and work out how you feel about them. The ones that are scoring low, those are your focus. I have a more detailed version of this that I go through as part of my year review process, so this didn't give me much new, but I did appreciate that their opening examples lean very heavily on not being path-dependent—not continuing to pursue a career based on what you studied if it's not working.

What I did like and get a lot out of—and for me pretty much justified the whole of the book on its own—was the subsequent chapter on getting you to articulate your workview and lifeview. How do you approach work and life? What do you believe about them? What do you think is important? This might seem obvious when you say it, but it's something that I'd never really had to work through in this way. The exercise seemed quite intimidating—I actually started this book in the summer and put it down because it seemed like a Big Thing to have to think through and I didn't have the juice—but once I started it all seemed to flow quite easily. I—and I think a lot of people—do know deep down what I think about some of these big things, and it's a remarkably clarifying experience to get them down on paper.

After this they ask you to consider how these two things interact—for most people it will be, as it was for me, an exercise in determining how comfortable you are with the compromises your work demands of you. If you've not done something like this before, I think it's a thoroughly worthwhile exercise. It didn't exactly change my direction but it provided a space for me to pull together a whole lot of things that I'd been thinking about, and gave me a very useful yardstick against which things can be judged.

After this there's another really useful chapter on trying to understand what shapes your attitudes toward things. Try and keep a little log of your day: do you not like Client X, or do you just not like the kind of work that Client X requires, or that they require hands-on management? Do you not like delivering presentations, or do you not like delivering presentations under certain circumstances? And so on. Again, I find this to be clarifying. It's very easy to say "I don't like x" but "I don't like y about x" is almost invariably a more useful observation, as other things are likely to share characteristic y and you can either lean into it and work out how to deal with it better, or avoid it entirely.

From then on, I'll be honest, the book started to lose me a bit, though not through any real fault of its own. There's plenty of solid advice—if you're looking to change things about your life, resist your temptation to go all-in on the first good-seeming idea that springs to mind; prototype life changes as best you're able; find some friends and family who can support you in working stuff out; there are many paths you should take so don't get stuck trying to find ~the perfect one~ which does not in fact exist, etc—but it's all stuff that felt pretty familiar, so I started just flicking through a bit, and then just found myself at the end. Bit of a fizzle, but again, I suspect that my slightly-backwards way of coming to all this meant that I didn't experience the book's arc of revelation as I was meant to. On the whole, though, definitely worthwhile.

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