Patton's Picks from the PMA Library: Designing Your Life

October 2021


If you're looking for book recommendations to enhance your nonprofit leadership, Patton McDowell offers a weekly summary of some of the essential and emerging titles from the PMA Nonprofit Leadership Library.

Searching for a creative, energizing guide to asses the life you're living, and take charge of the one you want to live?

Authors Bill Burnett and Dave Evans offer a designer's approach to life planning, and dispel many of the approaches that limit your thinking and lead to frustration at life's outcomes.

Ranging from adopting a designer's creative problem solving to imagining your future lives as possible prototypes, their advice is clever and resourceful, and they make the case for living with an designer's attitude of resilience and persistence. 

Three Takeaways:

1. Have a designer's attitude for life. The authors encourage you to take on an optimistic and playful designer's way of interacting with the world. That advice includes: being curious, getting good at getting lucky, trying stuff, having a bias for action, reframing problems, and seeing obstacles as opportunities for creative resolution. 

2. Build your essential life compass to guide your life. Only by really taking stock of your life as it is can you learn how to hone in on your happiness. Confront both your "workview" values and your "lifeview" values to uncover where those two realms overlap. Use mind mapping and journaling to design plans for yourself that align with your goals and values. 

3. Be critical and imaginative in designing your "prototype" futures. By first gathering a thoughtful assessment of your lifeview and workview, you can then ideate possible outcomes, with no particular loyalty to them; you can't know until you try, and will probably fail at some of them. The authors suggest "Odyssey planning": designing three possible plans for the next five years, asking yourself hard questions about each option, and considering resources, likability, confidence, and coherence related to each. When things inevitably don't work out somewhere, you let go and move on. Develop "Failure Immunity":  Prototypes fail, not YOU. 

Ultimately, the authors encourage you to trust in the process of figuring things out, and that cultivating an awareness for that trust in yourself is key to figuring it out eventually. They also suggest integrating community thinking into many areas of this process: asking for help, pursuing radical collaboration, and building yourself a trusted team.


Dave Evans is a Lecturer, Product Design Program at Stanford, Management Consultant, and co-founder of Electronic Arts. Bill Burnett is the Executive Director of the Design Program at Stanford, Adjunct Professor, Mechanical Engineering, Stanford