Updated: Nov 29, 2022
What does it look like to prototype your life? Experiment, innovate, change, transform and learn from failure? “Designing your Life” is a process that I often share with my students - it comes from Stanford faculty members Bill Burnett and Dave Evans who taught a course called by the same name. The 3 credit course became so popular at Stanford, that they wrote a book, a workbook and now offer courses to train folks in the “Designing your Life” method.
The idea is to apply ‘design thinking’ to your own life and to use prototyping as a way to learn what kinds of jobs/activities bring you energy and fulfillment. It sounds obvious but it is not typical for our culture. We tend to imagine what we want to do and then spend time trying to get there. Parents and grandparents love to ask 5, 10, 15 and 25 year olds “what do you want to do when you grow up?” This kind of questioning doesn’t allow folks the space needed to try out possibilities (prototyping) before we get stuck in jobs that we don’t love. The great news is that most of the ideas from the book are free online.
A prototype is a model used to test a process or concept. Designers use prototypes to learn more about how an idea or concept might fail or succeed. For example, the City of Vancouver was able to prototype street closures with open air seating during the pandemic that allowed Vancouverites to test what it was like to have more street life. In the spaces where the experimental patios and street closures were successful they are now becoming permanent spaces for people, pets and coffee dates.
Designing your life helps you figure out (by tracking/recording/journalling) what brings you energy. You keep track of when you get energized and where you lose energy. In the Designing your Life process you might try out a career for a few months in a co-op semester or job shadow with a peer or interview someone about a typical ‘day in the life’. It is amazing what you can learn a lot from a day in the life of another human being.
It turns out I get a lot more energy, ideas and creative spirit from nature than I do from an office building. A few months ago I launched “Office Hours” - this idea came forward in one of my creative phone conversations with my amazing brother Brian. I was no longer teaching at the university and I was missing the conversations with students in my office. He said “why don’t you keep your office hours” and an idea was born.
A few weeks into the process, I found that I was taking all my calls in the forest and I was curious about why I had called it “office hours”. I didn’t want to spend more time in an office - so what was I thinking? Turns out I was prototyping my life. I get so much energy from the writing, the reflecting, the walking in the woods and helping folks find where they are going. I'm going to keep writing, walking in the woods and reflecting and open to talking to anyone who wants to connect - I've just renamed it to fit with where I want to be heading.
So I’m putting away the term ‘office hours’ and bringing forward “reflections from the forest” as a way to get clear about how I want to spend my life energy. Thanks for being a part of this ongoing journey.
Want to experiment?
One of the exercises from the workbook is to keep a journal that records your energy throughout the week. After a week of recording your energy levels it is time to analyse the patterns. What activities were you doing when you had positive energy? Where were you? Were you alone or with others? What else was happening? I’ve pasted a few of the questions here.
Enjoy the process! And next time someone asks "what are you going to do when you get big/grow up/get older?" just try answering -I'll let you know when I get there, for now I'm prototyping my life.
Activities - what were you doing? Was it structured or unstructured? Were you leading or a participant?
Environments - Where were you? How does it make you feel?
Interactions - Were others involved? Was it formal? Informal?
Objects - Were there any objects or devices with you? Were they distracting? Helpful?
Users- Who was there? What role do they play in your experience?
Thanks to all the wise folks at Designing your Life - check out the resources here: