Designing Your Life | Bill Burnett | TEDxStanford


Translator: Leonardo Silva
Reviewer: Cristina Bufi-Pöcksteiner Hello, everyone. I’m here to help you design your life. We’re going to use
the technique of design thinking. Design thinking is something
we’ve been working on at the d.School and in the School of Engineering
for over 50 years, and it’s an innovation methodology,
works on products, works on services. But I think the most interesting
design problem is your life! So that’s what we’re going to talk about. I want to just make sure everybody knows:
this is my buddy Dave Evans, his face. Dave and I are the co-authors of the book, and he is the guy who helped me co-found
the Life Design Lab at Stanford. So what do we do in the Life Design Lab? Well, we teach the class
that helps to figure out what you want to be when you grow up. Now, I’m going to give you
the first reframe. Designers love reframes. How many of you hope you never grow up
and lose that child-like curiosity that drives everything you do? Raise your hand. Right!
Who wants to grow up? I mean, we’ve been talking about curiosity
in almost every one of these talks. And so I’d like to reframe this as: we say we teach the class
that helps you figure out what you want to grow into next, as this life of yours,
this amazing design of yours, unfolds. So, design thinking is what we teach and it’s a set of mindsets,
it’s how designers think. You know, we’ve been taught
probably in the university to be so skeptical realists, rationalists, but that’s not very useful as a mindset
when you’re trying to do something new, something no one’s ever done before. So we say you start with curiosity and you
lean into what you’re curious about. We say you reframe problems
because most of the time we find people are working
on the wrong problems and they have a wonderful solution
to something that doesn’t work anyway. So, what’s the point
of working on the wrong thing? We say radical collaboration because the answer’s out
in the world with other people. That’s where your experience
of your life will be. We want to be mindful of our process. There are times in the design process
when you want lots of ideas, and there are times when you really want
to converge test some things, prototype some things,
you want to be good at that. And the other is biased action. Now, you know, I’ll say that we think no plan for your life will survive
first contact with reality. (Laughter) Reality has the tendency to throw little
things at us that we weren’t expecting, sometimes good things, sometimes bad. So we say: just have
a biased action, try stuff. Why? Why did we start this class? I’ve been in office hours for a long,
long time with my students. I’ve been teaching here
for a while. Dave as well. He was teaching over that community
college, in Berkeley, for a while. (Laughter) And – I’m sorry, I’m sorry,
it’s a Stanford TEDx. But we notice that people get stuck. People really get stuck
and then they don’t know what to do and they don’t seem to have any tools
for getting unstuck. Designers get stuck all the time. I signed up to be a designer, which means I’m going to work
on something I’ve never done, every day, and I get stuck and unstuck,
stuck and unstuck, all the time. We also noticed as we went out and talked
to folks who are not just our students, but people in mid-career
and encore careers, that people have a bunch of beliefs which psychologists label
“dysfunctional beliefs,” things they believe that are true
that actually aren’t true, and it holds them back. I’ll give you three. First one is: “What’s your passion? Tell me your passion and I’ll tell you
what you need to do.” Now, if you actually have
one of these things, these passions – you knew at two you wanted to be a doctor, you knew at seven you wanted
to be a clown at Cirque du Soleil, and now you are one, that’s awesome. But we’re a sort of research space
here at Stanford, so we went over to the
Center for the Study of Adolescence, which by the way now goes up to 27 – (Laughter) and met with Bill Damon,
one of our colleagues, a fantastic guy. He studied this question and it turns out
less than 20% of the people have any one single
identifiable passion in their lives. We hate a methodology which says,
“OK, come to the front of the line. You have a passion?
Oh, you don’t? Oh, I’m sorry. When you have one, come on back
and we’ll help you with that.” It’s terrible, eight out of 10 people say,
“I have lots of things I’m interested in.” So this is not an organizing principle
for your search or your design. The second one is, “Well,
you should know by now, right? Don’t you know where you’re going? If you don’t know, you’re late.” (Laughter) Now, what are you late for, exactly? I’m not quite sure. But you know, there’s a meta-narrative
in the culture and when I was growing up: by 25, you’re supposed
to maybe have a relationship, maybe have gotten married
and started to get the family together. When I talk to my millennial
students, they’ll say, “Oh, that’s got to be
like 30 or something,” because they can’t imagine,
anything past, like, 22, but 30 is a long way out. But we know that now these people
are forming their lives much more fluidly, they are staying in a lot more dynamic
motion between about 22 and 35, and so this notion that you’re late
is really kind of like, “Well, you should have
figured this out by now.” Dave and I don’t “should” on anybody. In the book or in the class,
we don’t believe in “should.” We just think, “Alright,
you are whatever you are. Let’s start from where you are.
You’re not late for anything.” But the one we really don’t like is: “Are you being the best
possible version of you?” (Laughter) “I mean, because you’re not settling for something that’s less than the best,
because this is Stanford. Obviously we all
are going to be the best.” Well, this implies that, one,
there’s a singular best; two, that it’s a linear thing,
and life is anything but linear; and three, it kind of comes
from this business notion, there’s an old business saying, “Good is the enemy of better,
better is the enemy of best,” and you always want to do
your best in business. But if there isn’t one singular best,
then our reframe is, “The unattainable best is the enemy
of all the available betters, because there are many, many versions
of you that you could play out, all of which would result
in a well-designed life.” So I’m going to give you three ideas
from design thinking – five ideas, excuse me –
That says five, doesn’t it? Yeah. Five ideas from design thinking. And people who’ve read the book
or taken the class have written back to us and said, “Hey, these were the most useful,
these were the most doable, they were the most helpful.” And we’re human-centered designers,
so we want to be helpful. The first one is this notion
of connecting the dots. The number one reason people take
our class and we hear read the book is they say, “You know,
I want my life to be meaningful, I want it to be purposeful,
I want it to add up to something.” So, we looked in the positive psychology
literature and in the design literature, and it turns out that there’s who you are,
there’s what you believe and there’s what you do in the world, and if you can make a connection
between these three things, if you can make that a coherent story, you will experience
your life as meaningful. The increase in meaning-making
comes from connecting the dots. So we do two things. We ask people: “Write a work view.
What’s your theory of work? Not the job you want,
but why do you work? What’s it for? What’s work in service of?” Once you have that, 250 words, then –
this one’s a little harder to get short, “What’s the meaning of life?
What’s the big picture? Why are you here? What is your faith
or your view of the world?” When you can connect your life view
and your work view together, in a coherent way, you start to experience
your life as meaningful. That’s the idea number one. Idea number two: people get stuck and you’ve got to be careful
because we can reframe almost anything, but there’s a class of problems
that people get stuck on that are really, really bad problems. We call them gravity problems. Essentially, they’re something
you cannot change. Now, I know you have a friend and you’ve been having coffee
with this friend for a while, and they’re stuck. They don’t like their boss,
their partner, their job, there’s something that they don’t like. But nothing’s happening, right?
Nothing’s happening with them. If Dave were here he’d say, “Look, you can’t solve a problem
you’re not willing to have.” You can’t solve a problem
you’re not willing to have, so if you’ve got a gravity problem and you’re simply
not willing to work on it, then it’s just
a circumstance in your life. And the only thing we know to do
with gravity problems is to accept. In the design thinking chart,
you start with empathy, then you redefine the problem,
you come up with lots of ideas, then you prototype and test things, but that only works if it’s a problem
you’re willing to work on. The first thing to do is accept and once
you’ve accepted this as gravity problem – “I can’t change it. You know, this is a company, the company is a family-run company
and the name of the founder is on the door and if you’re not in the family,
you can’t be the president.” You’re right, you can’t! So, now you have to decide
what you want to do. Is that a circumstance
that you can reframe and work in, or do you need to do something else? So be really careful
about gravity problems because they’re pernicious
and they really get in the way. But back to this idea of multiples, I do a little thought experiment
with my students, and I say, you know, “The physicists up in SLAC
have kind of demonstrated this multiverse thing might be real.” You’ve heard of this, that there are
multiple parallel universes, one right next to each other. And say, “We’ll do a thought experiment. Let’s say you could live
in all the multiverses simultaneously, and not only that, but you’d know about
your life in each one of these instances. So, you could go back
and be the ballerina, and the scientist, and the CPA,
and whatever else you wanted to be. You could have all
these lives in parallel.” When I ask them, “How many lives are you?
How many lives would you want?”, I get answers from three to 10,000. But, you know, we’ve sort of done
the average: it’s about 7,5. Most people think they have about 7,5
really good lives that they could live. And here’s the deal: you only get one. But it turns out it’s not
what you don’t choose, it’s what you choose in life
that makes you happy. Nevertheless, we reframed this and we say, “Great, there’s more lives
than one in you. So let’s go on an odyssey,
and let’s really figure out those lives!” And we ask people to do some design. And the “ideate” bubble,
it’s about having lot’s of ideas. So we say, “Let’s have some ideas. We’ll ideate your future,
but you can’t ideate just one. You have to ideate three.” Now, there’s some research
from the School of Education that says if you start with three ideas
and you brainstorm from there, you’ve got a much wider range of ideas, the ideas are more generative and they lead to better
solutions to the problem rather than just starting with one
and then brainstorming forward. So we always do threes;
there’s something magical about threes. We have people do three lives,
and it’s transformational. We give them this little rubric. One: “The thing you’re doing, the thing you’re doing right now,
whatever your career is, just do it. And you’re going to do it for five years
and it’s going to come out great.” I mean, in design,
we’re sort of values-neutral, except for one thing: we never
design anything to make it worse, right? I have been on some teams
that made some pretty bad products, but we weren’t trying to,
we were trying to make it better. So, thing one: your life, make it better. And also put in the bucket list stuff: you want to go to Paris,
to the Galapagos – the guy with the ice thing – before it’s all under water
and we can’t see it anymore. So, that’s plan one: your life goes great. Plan two: I’m really sorry to tell you,
but the robots and the AI stuff – that job doesn’t exist anymore,
the robots are doing it. We don’t need you to do that anymore. Now, what are going to do? So what do you do if the thing
that you’ve got goes away? And you know, everybody’s got
a side hustle or something they can do to make that work. And three is: what’s your wild-card plan? What would you do if you didn’t have
to worry about money? You’ve got enough. You’re not fabulously wealthy,
but you’ve got enough. And what would you do
if you knew no one would laugh? My students come in
for my office hours a lot of times, and they’ll say something like, “Well, what I really want to do is this,
but I can’t just hear people saying, ‘You didn’t go to Stanford
to do that, did you?'” (Laughter) Because somehow, if you went to Stanford, you have to do some of the amazing things
the past speakers have been doing. “But what would you do
if you had enough money and you didn’t care what people thought? Anything from,
‘I’m going to go study butterflies’ to, ‘I want to be a bartender,
you know, in Belize.’ What would you do?” And people have those three plans. Now what happens when
they do this is, one, they realize, “Oh my gosh, I could
actually have imagined my three completely parallel lives
are all pretty interesting.” Two, they rarely go become a bartender,
you know, in Belize. But a lot of times, the things
that come up in the other plans were things that they left behind somehow. In the business of life,
they forgot about those things. And so they bring them back
and put them in plan one, then they make their lives even better. Sometimes they do pivot, but mostly they just use this
as a method of ideating all the possible wonderful ways
they could have a life. Now, you could start executing that, but in our model, the thing you do after
you have ideas is you build a prototype. We have met people who’ve quit their job
and suddenly done something else, It hardly ever works. You kind of have to sneak up on it,
because in our model, we want to set the bar really low,
try stuff, have some success, do it again. So when we say “prototype,”
in our language, what we mean is a way to ask
an interesting question, “What would it be like if I tried this?”, a way to expose the assumptions, “Is this even the thing I want or is that just something
I remember I wanted when I was 20?” I’ve got to go out
in the world and do this, so I’m going to get others involved
in prototyping my life, and I’m going to sneak up on the future, because I don’t if this is
exactly what I want. There’s two kinds
of life-design prototypes and what we call prototype conversation. You know, William Gibson,
the science-fiction writer has a famous quote: “The future is already here.
It’s just unevenly distributed.” So, there is someone
who’s a bartender in Ibiza. He’s been doing it for years, I could go
meet him and have a conversation, he or she. Somebody else is doing
something else I’m interested in. All of these people are out there,
they’re living in my future, today. They’re doing what I want to do, today. And if I have a conversation with them, I just ask for their story
and everybody will tell you their story. If you buy them a cup of coffee,
they tell you the story. If I hear something
in the story that rings in me – We have this thing
we call narrative resonance: when I hear a story that’s kind of like
my story, something happens, and I can identify that
as a potential way of moving forward. The other one is a prototype experience. Dave and I were working with a woman, sort of mid-career in her 40s
and a very successful tech executive, but wanted to move from
money-making to meaning-making, to do something more meaningful, thinking of going back to school,
getting an MA in education, working with kids. But she’s like, “You know, I don’t know,
I’m 45, going back to school. It’s not going to work. And then I heard about these millennials. They’re kind of mean
and they don’t like old people.” (Laughter) What am I going to do, Bill?” I said, “Well, you just have
to go try this, you know. It turns out we sent her
to a seminar class and to a large lecture-hall class, and by the way, you just
put on a T-shirt that says “Stanford” and you walk into a class, nobody knows. She wasn’t registered, but you know,
she went and she went to the classes and she came back and said,
“You know what? It was fantastic! I walked into the lecture hall,
I sat down, my body was on fire! It was interesting, I was so interested
in the way the lecture was going. And then I met these millennials. It turned out they’re
pretty interesting people! I’ve set up three
prototype conversations. And they think I’m interesting because
I’m coming back to school and I’m 45.” So she had a felt experience,
because we are more than just our brains. She had a felt experience
that this might work for her. So these are two ways
you can prototype your way forward. The last idea: you want to make a good decision well. So many people make choices
and they’re not happy with their choices because they don’t really know
how do they know what they know, right? It’s a hard thing, particularly in our
days when we have so many choices. So we have a process. Again it comes from
the positive psychology guys. Gather and create options. Once you get good at design you’re
really good at coming up with options. You’ve got narrow those down
to a working list that you can work with. Then, you make the choice
to make a good choice, and then of course you agonize
that you did the wrong thing. (Laughter) All my students have what is called
FOMO, fear missing out, “What if I didn’t pick the right thing.” Someone came into my office and said,
“I’ll declare three majors and two minors” and I said, “Do you plan
on being here for a few years? It’s not going to happen, right?” So we don’t say that; we say
you want to let go and move on, and all these have
some psychological basis in them. Let me tell you about it. Once you get good at gathering
and creating ideas, you also want to make sure
you leave room for the lucky ideas, the serendipitous ideas. This is a guy named Tony Hsieh. He was the CEO at Zappos,
he sold it to Amazon. But before you became an employee
at Zappos you had to take a test, and the test was, “Are you lucky?” One, two or three: “I’m not very lucky,
and I’m not sure why.” Seven, eight, nine, ten, “I’m very lucky,
great things happen to me all the time, I’m not sure why.” He wouldn’t hire anybody
who was not lucky. (Laughter) I think it’s probably illegal,
but it was based on – (Laughter) but it was based on a piece of research
where psychologists did the same thing, “Rate yourself from lucky to unlucky.” And then they had people read
the front section of the New York Times, 30 pages, lots of articles. And the graduate students said, “Please count the number of -” either headlines or photographs,
depending on the test. “And when you get the whole thing read
and you count the number of photographs, just tell the person at the end.” And if you got the
right number, you’d get $100. Of course you all know when a graduate student tells you what the
experiment is that’s not the experiment. So, inside this thing
that looked like the New York Times, 30 pages, front page, inside all the stories were
little pieces of text that said, “If you read this, the experiment’s over.
Collect an extra $ 150.” People who rated themselves as unlucky
by and large got the right answer, 36 headlines, whatever it was, got the $ 100. People who rated themselves as lucky –
seven, eight, nine or ten – 80% of the time noticed the text
and got the extra $150. It’s not about being lucky. It’s about paying attention
to what you’re doing and keeping your peripheral vision open
because it’s in your peripheral vision that those interesting
opportunities show up, right, that you were not expecting. So you want to get good at being lucky. Narrowing down. This is quite simple. If you have too many choices, you go into
what psychologists call choice overload, and then you have essentially no choices. Here’s the experiment.
This was done at Stanford. You walk into a grocery store
and there’s a nice lady. She’s got a table and on the table,
she has six jams, and you come over try the jams
to have a sample, buy some jam. Six jams; about 30 people
who would go by pick a jam, or stop and test something, and about a third
of those actually buy a jam. That’s the baseline. Next week, you walk in, 24 jams: jalapeño, strawberry, banana,
whatever; all sorts of jams. Well, guess what happens? Twice as many people stop,
look at all these jams, it’s so interesting. Three percent of the people buy them. (Laughter) When you have too many choices,
you have no choice. What do you do when you have
too many choices? Just cross off a bunch of choices. Psychologists tells us we can’t handle
more than five to seven. I’d say it’s five. If you’ve got a bunch of choices,
cross them all off, just pick the five and then
make your decision there. “Oh my God! What if I pick the wrong ones?
What if I cross off the wrong ones?” Right? Well, you won’t, because it’s
the pizza or Chinese food thing. You’re at the office and everybody says,
“Let’s go out to lunch today.” “Sounds great. What do you want to do?
Pizza or Chinese food?” “I don’t care.” In the elevator on their way down,
someone says, “Let’s get Chinese food.” Then you go, “No, I want pizza.” (Laughter) You won’t decide how you feel about
the decision till the decision’s made. That’s a piece of research that’s
been done again and again and again. So just cross them off. If you cross off the wrong one, you’ll have a feeling somewhere in your
stomach that you did the wrong thing. Choosing – this is about
that feeling in your stomach. You cannot choose well if you choose
only from your rational mind. This is Dan Goleman, who wrote
the book on emotional intelligence. He does a lot of research on this,
a lot of brain science. There’s a part of your brain, way down in the base brain,
the basal ganglia, that summarizes emotional
decisions for you. I did something, got good emotional
response from that: good, check. I did something and had a little bad
emotional response to that. It summarizes all of the emotions
that you have felt and how your decisions were valenced
positive or negative an emotion. The problem with that part of your brain
is that it’s so early in the brain it doesn’t talk to the part
of your brain that talks. There’s no connection
to the prefrontal cortex or anything else. It’s only connected to your GI tract
and your limbic system. So, it gives you information
through felt sensations, a “gut feeling.” Without that, you can’t make
good decisions. And then the letting go and moving on. This was the hardest part for me,
but this is also the work of Dan Gilbert, who is a distinguished
scientist at Harvard, despite the fact that he’s doing
insurance commercials now. And he’s been studying decision-making
and how do you make yourself happy. So, you walk in another
psychology experiment. The postdoc has got five Monet prints,
five pictures from Monet, and you rank them from best to least, “I like this one the most,
I like this one the least,” number one and number five. “Thank you very much,
the experiment’s over. Oh, by the way, as you’re
walking out, you know, I kind of screwed up and I bought
too many of number two and three. So if you want to take one home
you can just have it. Two conditions: in one case,
take it home and have it, but don’t bring it back
because I’m kind of embarrassed and – Just keep it, you can’t exchange it. Second condition: I’ve got lots of these. If you don’t like the one you picked, you can swap it back
and pick another one.” And of course everybody picks number two.
It’s a little better than number three. We bring people back in
a week later and say, “Re-rank the stimuli.
Which one do you like now?” The people who were allowed to change
their mind don’t like their painting, they don’t like the print, they don’t like the other one anymore,
they don’t like any of them anymore. In fact, they don’t like the whole process and they have destroyed
their opportunity to be happy. (Laughter) The people who were told, “You pick it,
it’s yours, you can’t return it” love their print, they typically
rank it as number one and think the rest of them suck. (Laughter) If you make decisions reversible, your chance of being happy
goes down like 60 or 70 percent. So, let go and move on,
make the decision reversible. And by the way, as a designer,
that’s no problem, because you’re really good
at generating options, you’re great at ideation, you’re really good at prototyping
to get data in the world to see of that world will be
the world you want to live in, so you have no fear of missing out. It’s just a process, a mindful process:
collect, reduce, decide, move on. That’s how you make yourself happy. So, the five ideas: Connecting the dots to find meaning
through work and life views. Stay away from gravity problems because
I can’t fix those and neither can you; reframe those to something
that is workable. Do three plans, never one,
always do three of everything, three ideations for any
of the problems you’re working on to make sure that you’ve covered not just
the ideas that you had when you started, but all the other ideas that are possible. Prototype everything in your life
before you jump in and try it. And choose well; there’s no point
in making a good choice poorly. Choose well and you will find
that things in your life are much easier. And you can do this, we know you can, because thousands
of students have done it. Two PhD studies
have been done in the class that demonstrated higher self-efficacy,
lower dysfunctional beliefs. It’s a fascinating process to watch people
who don’t think of themselves as creative go through this class and walk out saying, “You know what?
I’m a pretty creative person!” what David Kelly calls
“creative confidence.” So, we know you can do it,
thank you very much. It’s simple: get curious, talk to people and try stuff, and you will design
a well-lived and joyful life. Thank you. (Applause) (Cheers)

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