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Want to Find Fulfillment at Last? Think Like a Designer

As self-actualization messengers, the two men are an odd couple. Mr. Burnett, 59, is a self-contained, acerbic, existential atheist with an earring, while Mr. Evans, 63, is an outgoing, verbose, practicing Christian with the gray beard of a philosopher.

Both are Stanford grads, and while they have accomplished résumés (Mr. Burnett helped to design the original “Star Wars” toys and worked at Apple before becoming executive director of Stanford’s design program; Mr. Evans also worked at Apple and co-founded Electronic Arts, the game company), each said his younger self would have been well served by the course.

For his part, Mr. Evans struggled as a biology student, a major he chose because he had watched a Jacques Cousteau television special as a boy, and one he clung to because, he said, “I don’t think I had conscious permission to not know what I was doing.”

He switched to mechanical engineering and graduated with a master’s degree in the mid-’70s. But when an Apple recruiter called, he initially hung up, because he was bored by computers. In doing so, Mr. Evans said ruefully, he violated several principles of “Designing Your Life,” among them staying open to “latent wonderfulness.”

“If you’re wrong, you go: ‘Oh, computers are boring. O.K., I’m going home now,’” Mr. Evans explained. “ ‘Yes’ is easy. ‘No’ is hard to come back from.”

Mr. Burnett had an easier time on the surface, finding his way to the design program at Stanford and a lifelong vocation. Through a professor mentor, he landed a job as a toy designer and went on to greater success.

But, he said: “My method was a blind walk. I didn’t have any strategies. I trusted my intuition, but I worried that I didn’t know what I was doing.”

Before joining forces, they hashed out the concepts they had been developing over a two-pitcher lunch at a Palo Alto beer garden then known as Zott’s (short for Rissotti’s; it is now called the Alpine Inn), using their life experiences as grist for the curriculum.

In a place like Stanford, where yearly in-state tuition is about $ 50,000, they thought it was worthwhile to send students into the world with practical knowledge about how to find a fulfilling job and excel at it.

They began holding workshops for adults a few years ago, including for the employees of Google. The workshop and the book are an effort to take their approach beyond its cloistered campus setting.


The atrium of the design school at Stanford University. Credit Jason Henry for The New York Times

As Mr. Evans put it, “We’re trying to give this thing away.”

Try, Fail, Fail Again

If you can get past the jargon-heavy language and Silicon Valley preciousness, many of the principles of “Designing Your Life” are, in fact, helpful. Design thinking, as rendered in the book, is about treating life in a more improvisational way. It’s a welcome counterbalance to the data-driven, engineering mind-set gripping the culture.

Follow Mr. Burnett’s and Mr. Evans’s teachings, and the anxiety-ridden process of decision making suddenly seems more playful. Their method is experiential and accepts that failure is part of the process.

Central to the philosophy is prototyping, a concept borrowed from how product designers work. Let’s say you’re thinking of changing careers. Interview someone who does the job you’re considering. Better yet, ask to shadow them for a day, or work in the field on weekends. If it feels right, take it a step further; if it doesn’t, move on.

“It’s a classic form of design,” Mr. Burnett said. “You build a lot of stuff, you try a lot of stuff. But it’s always less than the whole product.”

Prototyping big decisions like a career change or a move, meanwhile, guards against blowing up your life to rush headlong into the alluring unknown, or worse, taking no action for years, unhappily.

Emma Wood, a 25-year-old Stanford graduate and a consultant at McKinsey & Company who took “Designing Your Life” as an undergraduate, said the class released the pressure she felt about the life she would face after graduation.

“Your whole future and happiness aren’t tied to this one plan working out,” she said. “You can make mistakes. Failure is good.”

The capstone of the Stanford class, and a key part of the book, is an assignment to come up with three “Odyssey Plans” that map out the next five years of your life in radically different ways.

The activity is designed to reinforce the sense of multiple viable options, unlock the imagination and eliminate the attractive power of the unknown alternative.

Lingtong Sun, who graduated from Stanford last year, said he continues to use the “Odyssey Plan” and other concepts from the class to decide his long-term career.

“On the grand level, I haven’t figured out what I want to do yet,” said Mr. Sun, who works as a software engineer for a tech start-up in the Bay Area. “But I’m more open to trying something and seeing how it goes. It’s that bias toward action. You can’t think your way into your future.”

Breaking down the system to its basic parts, as a designer would, Mr. Evans said, “There are only two things we offer in the class: ideas and tools.”

He added, “If you think with these ideas rather than the ones you had before, and you use these tools, we believe your chance of building and getting what you want will go up.”

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