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How to Build Your Best Life

In 2007, a group of students at Stanford University’s design institute took on a daunting challenge: Design a low-cost incubator to save the lives of premature infants who were dying from hypothermia in poor countries like Nepal. While still on the Palo Alto, California, campus, the students began considering ways they could lower the cost of incubators by reducing the number of parts or using cheaper materials.

But when they got to Nepal, they observed that many of the donated $20,000 incubators in large urban hospitals weren’t being used. And, as they traveled around the country, they noticed that the premature infants who needed those incubators were being born in remote areas. Saving their lives wasn’t a matter of retooling incubators but addressing a different problem: How could preemies in Nepal be kept warm enough in their towns and villages during their critical first days of life to survive?

The students went on to create a miniature sleeping bag with a removable pouch that contained a waxlike material. When the pouch is heated in boiling water, the wax becomes a liquid, providing hours of insulated warmth without electricity. The device, called Embrace, costs just over 1 percent of what an incubator costs. It has since been used in 11 countries and has saved the lives of tens of thousands of low-weight babies.

Exploring new pursuits

A few years ago, Claudia Brown, a high-tech sales executive, was shifting into life as an empty nester. Open to exploring new pursuits, she began asking lots of people about the kinds of things they found interesting. On a visit to a state park near her home in Santa Cruz, California, she chatted with the guide who was leading a talk about elephant seals. Claudia had never heard of elephant seals before, but she loved animals and she loved the outdoors.

What do you like about being an elephant seal docent, she asked? How much training does it take? If I wanted to become a docent what would be the first step? It turned out that there were five small steps before committing to the 25-hour training class. Claudia took those steps, one by one, and today she’s an elephant-seal expert and a docent at Año Nuevo State Park, home to one of the largest breeding colonies in the world for the pinniped.

Saving lives with a tiny sleeping bag and finding meaning through work as a wildlife docent were the answers to problems from vastly different arenas. But those two solutions were arrived at through the same process: design thinking. It’s a human-centered approach to product design and problem solving that’s based on practices like understanding a problem through rigorous observation, generating tons of ideas with uncensored brainstorming and going out in the real world to explore and test possible solutions.

Design thinking is the linchpin of Stanford’s design program. Formally named the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, it’s widely dubbed simply “the d.school.” The strategy has helped countless engineers and entrepreneurs develop innovative products and launch startups. It has also helped students flourish through classes that teach them how to design a creative, healthy and happy life the same way product designers would take on developing, say,  the next-generation smartphone.

Change your mindset

The mindset of design thinking “aligns beautifully” with the principles of positive psychology, says Dave Evans, co-author with Bill Burnett of the new best-seller Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life. Bill and Dave based their book on their hugely popular Stanford class “Designing Your Life.” Both the class and book rely on positive psychology tenets like finding flow and silencing your inner critic to take a playful, improvisational approach to creative problem solving.

“We have drawn many of our ideas and exercises from the work of the positive psychology movement, and especially from the work of [premier positive psychologist] Martin Seligman,” Bill and Dave write in their book’s “Notes” section about elements from a key chapter. Bernard Roth, Ph.D., one of the founders of the d.school, its academic director and the author of The Achievement Habit: Stop Wishing, Start Doing, and Take Command of Your Life ,believes that positive psychology and design thinking share a bedrock optimism. “In design thinking, we see our lives as something we can study and change,” he says. “You’re never stuck. It’s a can-do approach, a maker mentality, that you can apply to all domains of your life to become happier.”

Reframing questions and faulty beliefs

Design thinking puts as much emphasis on problem finding as it does on problem solving. If you’re losing sleep over a problem you can’t seem to solve, you’re likely working on the wrong problem. That happens, Bernard says, “when we think we’re dealing with a question when, in fact, we’re dealing with an answer that turns out not to be a good fit to our actual problem.” The question of “how to build a cheaper incubator,” for example, was an answer that didn’t address the problem of helping preemie infants in Nepal survive in their remote villages.

One way to uncover the real dilemma is to ask, “What would it do for me if I solved this problem?” Say, for example, you’re grappling with the question, “How can I find a romantic partner?” If you ask yourself what finding a partner or spouse would do for you, one answer might be that a partner would make you less lonely.

Next, you reframe your original question to, “How might I feel less lonely?” That dramatically expands the number of possible solutions. You could, say, take classes, join a club, get a dog, volunteer and check out some meet-up groups tailored to your interests.

Another way we get tripped up, Bill and Dave point out, is by becoming mired in what they call “gravity problems.” A gravity problem is a fact of life, like the force that makes it difficult to ride your bike up steep hills. Or, say, you want to be promoted to CEO but the family-owned company where you work hasn’t named an outsider to its executive ranks in the five generations it’s been in existence.

In life design, if something isn’t actionable, it’s not a problem. When you accept that, you’re free to work around the circumstance and find something that is actionable. A huffing-and-puffing cyclist might invest in a lighter bicycle or work on improving her stamina. The family-firm outsider could look for a job with a larger company or celebrate the freedom that comes with not taking on additional responsibilities and find an outside activity—taking a board position with a local charity—that provides the leadership role he’s seeking.

While asking the wrong question leads us to dead ends, dysfunctional beliefs keep us stuck in place. These are the myths we tell ourselves that are both false and nongenerative. Reframing them is a key step in designing your life.

Some examples that Dave and Bill offer:

  • DYSFUNCTIONAL BELIEF: If you are successful, you will be happy.
  • REFRAME: True happiness comes from designing a life that works for you.
  • DYSFUNCTIONAL BELIEF: It’s too late.
  • REFRAME: It’s never too late to design a life you love.
  • DYSFUNCTIONAL BELIEF: I have to find the one right idea.
  • REFRAME: I need a lot of ideas so that I can explore any number of possibilities for my future.
  • DYSFUNCTIONAL BELIEF: I need to figure out my best possible life, make a plan and then execute it.
  • REFRAME: There are multiple great lives (and plans) within me, and I get to choose which one to build my way toward.
  • DYSFUNCTIONAL BELIEF: I finished designing my life; the hard work is done and everything will be great.
  • REFRAME: You never finish designing your life—life is a joyous and never-ending design project.

The art of ideating

“You’ll choose better,” Bill and Dave say, “when you have a lot of good ideas to choose from.” That’s why a key element of design thinking is “ideation,” which simply means coming up with a whole slew of ideas. That includes wild and crazy notions, which might not be the fix you’re looking for, but will open you to inventive possibilities.

“Mind mapping” is a visual aid to free associating that can help you tap into your idea-generating genius. David Kelley and Tom Kelley, brothers and co-authors of Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All, say they use mind mapping all the time to encourage innovative thinking in both work and home life. (David was one of the creators of the d.school as well as the founder of IDEO, an award-winning global design firm. Tom is a partner at IDEO and an executive fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, Haas School of Business.)

“From coming up with ideas for a family vacation to identifying home projects to tackle over the weekend,” they write, “mind maps can be used for all sorts of problem solving.” To create a mind map, all you need is a large piece of paper, a pen and as little as 10 minutes (set a time limit for yourself; doing the exercise quickly is important). For example, David followed the four steps of mind mapping when he was planning a dinner party.

1. Write your central topic or challenge in the middle of the page and circle it. David wrote, “A great dinner party with friends.”

2. Jot down five or six things—the first things you think of—that are related to the central theme. David’s mind map included “everyone in the kitchen,” “make your own sundaes,” “teach something” and “get them out of their comfort zone.”

3. Generate new words and thoughts from the first words that came to mind. Keep going until you have at least three or four layers of word associations. Your time limit will force you to “bypass your inner censor,” as Bill and Dave say, and write whatever comes to your mind first.

4. After your time limit is up, look at your mind map and highlight some words or concepts that jump out at you. You’ll likely find that the outer perimeter of the mind map holds the most innovative ideas, since it’s a few steps away from your automatic thinking. For David, the outer layer included such unlikely ideas as “indoor picnic,” “henna tattoos for all,” “everyone must make a hat on arrival” and “each person assigned to introduce another to the group.”

What the mind map made clear was that David wanted lots of interaction at his dinner party, even among people who hadn’t previously met. He ended up throwing a party in which guests changed tables after each course, so everyone in the room got a chance to talk to each other.

Moving from ideas to action

Design thinking might better be called design doing. That’s because it has a strong bias to action. “When you’re designing your life, you can’t think your way there,” says Dave, “you can only live your way there.” The way you do this is through a process called “prototyping.” In design thinking, prototyping doesn’t mean creating mock-ups or dollhouse-sized models. Rather, it’s getting off your sofa to engage with the real world and have prototype conversations or prototype experiences.

“Prototypes are little time machines,” Dave says. “They allow us to sneak up on the future.” When Claudia was chatting with the docent she met at the state park, she was prototyping. The bar is set low for prototypes. “You don’t have to know what you want to do with the rest of your life,” Dave says.“You don’t have to know who you are, what your purpose in life is or what your passion is. All you need is one question about which you’re a little bit curious and then you go out into the world and have some small interactions to explore where that question might take you.”

Let’s imagine the question you’re pondering is pretty significant: how to make a midlife transition into a new career after 20 years in finance. You create a mind map and pick out some key words from the edges of the map. Say, “petits fours,” “Paris” and “apron.” Those words suggest some curiosity about studying pastry making at a culinary school in Paris.

OK, you’re not ready to leave your family and spend a year at Le Cordon Bleu. But you could have a conversation with the woman who sells those beautiful French macarons at the farmers market. Maybe she teaches macaron-making every other Saturday. Or, perhaps, you could spend a day shadowing the owner of Le Croissant, the bakery where you’ve been stopping every morning for years on the way to your finance job.

If you enjoy the experience at Le Croissant, you might sign up for a class in startups at the new culinary incubator in the next town. Or, your curiosity might be piqued by the conversation you have with the event planner who stops to pick up a cake for a gala. Her nonprofit builds shelters for women fleeing domestic abuse. Maybe you could join the planning committee for the new shelter; with your finance background, you could certainly help with fundraising. Or, perhaps you could help teach a baking class to the shelter residents. The world suddenly seems a much larger, more diverse and welcoming place.

Designers imagine things that don’t yet exist, Dave and Bill say. Then they build them and the world changes. With life design, you can do this in your own life. “You can imagine a career and a life that doesn’t exist; you can build that future, and as a result your life will change,” they write. “If your life is pretty perfect as is, life design will still help you make it an even better version of the life you currently love living.”

Shelley Levitt is a freelance journalist living in Southern California, and an editor at large for Live Happy.

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