Designing Your Work Life

In the #1 New York Times bestselling book Designing Your Life, Bill Burnett and his co-author Dave Evans showed us how design thinking can help us create a life that is both meaningful and fulfilling. With their second book, Designing Your Work Life, they zero in on finding happiness at work. In this episode of the Creative Confidence Podcast, Bill gives advice on how to assess the potential of your current career and shares ways to redesign and re-engage with your job.

Bill Burnett's father worked at Hewlett Packard for 45 years. As a Stanford professor and New York Times bestselling author, "he still thinks I don't have a real job because I've only been at Stanford for 13 years," Bill quips with a smile.

The nature of work is changing, and our attitudes toward it are changing too. Nowhere is this more evident than the shorter lengths of time we’re spending in our jobs. But today’s emerging professionals also want different things out of work—mobility, autonomy, and meaning, in addition to security and money.

Bill’s first book, Designing Your Life, written with his co-author Dave Evans, was an instant hit, translated into 23 languages and spurring a series of global workshops where people learned to use principles of design thinking to craft a life they love. Their new book, Designing Your Work Life (launching February 25th), sets out to help the 68 percent of American workers (and many more in other countries) who say they’re disengaged in their work.

“We’re heading into the most uncertain future of work,” Bill says. “To be resilient in the future when you don’t know what jobs will be available and what will change, you need to adopt a designer’s mindset.”

Here are Bill’s best tips for figuring out what’s working (and what’s not) in your current job, and how to redesign your job to be a better fit.

Why design thinking works for work

These days, you’re responsible for your own career path, Bill says. Companies aren’t in a position to invest in the long-term career growth of individuals like they used to be. Many of today’s jobs will be non-existent in 10 years, and many new careers we don’t know about yet will have emerged. There’s nothing we can do about the pace of change, but Bill believes there’s a lot we can do to prepare ourselves for the future.

In Designing Your Life, he simplifies the principles of design thinking into a few pieces of advice: “Get curious, talk to people, try stuff, tell your story. That generates a cycle that creates new opportunities.” To take advantage of those new opportunities, you’ve got to be ready to learn and grow.

If you’re nervous about committing to a career that might not be there in a few years, Bill has a few pointers: “The more creative you are, the more social emotional learning you have, the more empathy you can bring to your work, the least likely you are to be automated out of a job.” Building your design thinking abilities is a great way to increase your creative capacity.

Measure your baseline and make a plan

The first step to increasing your job satisfaction is understanding what drives it. Bill sees many people held up by dysfunctional beliefs—the tradeoff between money and meaning, for example. If you believe that you can either make lots of money or find meaning in your work (but not both), it can feel like a zero sum game with no solution. But that’s not actually the case, Bill says.

We get paid for the things we do in three ways: money, impact, and expression. This is what Bill calls the Maker Mix. Money is the most obvious form of payment, but we also care about making a change in the world (our impact) and being able to share our creative abilities (expression).

Assess your current Maker Mix by rating each area from 1 to 100. Often, people find they have more impact than they thought, but Bill sees many people who are lacking in expression. For example, consulting work may shake out to 70 percent money, 40 percent impact, and 10 percent expression. A full-time artist may be low in money, medium in impact, and high in expression.

Now, design your ideal mix and look beyond your work to other areas of your life. If you desire more impact, you could coach a kids soccer team. For more expression, instead of aiming to become a professional poet, try sharing your poetry at an open mic night.

“There’s a lot of ways we find meaning and purpose in our lives,” Bill says. “It doesn’t all have to come from your job.”

The takeaway is that you have a lot more options than you might think you do. Your ideal mix creates a target. Now, start prototyping into that target by doing small tests to see what works.


“We’re heading into the most uncertain future of work. To be resilient in the future when you don’t know what jobs will be available and what will change, you need to adopt a designer’s mindset.”
Bill Burnett



Don’t resign, redesign

So you’ve done your Maker Mix and decided you’re not getting enough of what you want from your job. Resist the urge to quit right away. “Oftentimes people think they have to quit their job and go to another company, but that's not true,” Bill says. “You've got all this social capital where you are and and oftentimes skills are transferable.”

In Designing Your Work Life, he shares four strategies for redesigning your current job to be a better fit.

1. Reframe and re-enlist

Change the “why” of your job and find a new reason to motivate you at work. Maybe you used to love your job because the work was exciting, but it’s lost some luster recently. However, you need money to give your child needed medical treatment. Make your child your new “why.”

“It’s really about coming up with a way to imagine your job as being valuable and useful, not because of the job itself, but because of something else,” Bill says.

2. Remodel

Change the structure of your job to better align with your interests and use more of your strengths. Try shifting some of your responsibilities to someone else who is better suited. You’ll feel more engaged and your boss will appreciate your improved performance.

3. Relocate

Move laterally inside your organization, either to a new role with similar responsibilities or one created for you.

4. Reinvent

Go back to school, learn new skills, and create a 2.0 version of you. If you’re interested in moving from finance to marketing, for example, ask people within your organization what that would require. Often, they’ll tell you, and then you can decide if it’s worth the time and effort.

Invest in your creativity

The technology we use at work, a company’s needs, and our own interests are all guaranteed to change over time. What won’t be going away anytime soon is the need for creativity. We all have the capacity for it. We just need to nurture it.

“Invest in your own creativity,” Bill urges, “because you will have to design your next couple of jobs yourself.”

Want to learn more about design thinking? Check out our Design Thinking Resources page.

Bill’s new book, Designing Your Work Life, launches on February 25th, 2020. Get access to a special 2020 Get Started Guide when you pre-order at this link.

To take your learning further, gain a practical understanding of the essential design thinking skills and mindsets with IDEO U’s Foundations in Design Thinking Certificate.

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