Q&A: ‘Designing Your Life’ professors discuss their bestselling book

Nov. 13, 2016, 10:28 p.m.

Design lecturer David Evans ’75 M.S. ’76 and Consulting Associate Professor William Burnett ’79 M.S. ’82 published “Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life” this fall. The book, which is inspired by Evans and Burnett’s popular upperclassman course ME 104B: “Designing Your Life,” has since reached the top of the New York Times bestseller list, selling over 100,000 copies. Evans and Burnett have been publicizing nationwide; recently, they taped a segment on “The Dr. Oz Show.”

The Daily sat down with Evans and Burnett to talk about their book and the class that inspired it.

The Stanford Daily (TSD): Could you talk about your book and how it might be different from your class?

William Burnett (WB): Sure. Let’s start back with the class first. We started about 10 years ago. Dave was doing something over at Berkeley, and I came over and said, “Hey, do you think we could apply design thinking to this idea of what do you do after college?” And I said, “Absolutely, let’s try it.”

So we prototyped a bunch of different classes and ended up with the “Designing Your Life” class, right. So that’s 60-something seniors every quarter. And then we get asked by various people to go to talk to other people and tell them what we’re doing, and they say, “Oh can we take your class? That sounds awesome.” These are people in the middle of their careers and people in retirement.

TSD: Do you let them in?

Both: No. (laughing)

David Evans (DE): Unless you’re one of the 16,000 students going here, then get out of here. So we were saying no to everyone who wasn’t a registered Stanford student for 10 years, and frankly that gets old.

WB: Yeah, and we just felt bad. So, we got an agent and a book person who knew what they were doing and just helped us out. The book’s different from the class. Very different. In fact, the very first thing we wrote… I just took all our lectures and transcribed them.

DE: We wrote the class. It was a wreck.

WB: Dave did some. I did some, and we read this and thought this was boring. Reading someone’s lectures, that’s horrible. So we restructured the book.

DE: [Reading a book] is different from being with a small group and collaborating. … [The book] is a self-administered experience. It can be done alone, and it’s written in a linear fashion. We teach in a very nonlinear way, and if you jump around as much in a book as we do in class, you confuse the heck out of people, so we made it much more linear, and we very intentionally wrote to everybody from 18 to 88.

You have the three classical moments in your life. [First] when you’re 20 and you’re hitting the world for the first time, [then] somewhere between 35 and probably 48 when you’re in the middle of your career and your life and go, “Really? Who ordered this? This is not what I had in mind.” A lot of people have that experience and decide to reinvent themselves or somehow figure it out again. And then the encore years, when you’re 55 to 65 and you’re retiring from your classical career and thinking of that new thing you want to do.

We wanted all three of those people to be able to read the book. It’s literally for everybody.

TSD: Do you guys think that this book has the potential to be as effective a guide as the two of you in person for a full quarter?

WB: I think you overstate what we’re worth.

DE: The book doesn’t compete with the class. The book competes with the thing you weren’t doing before. It’s much better than that.

WB: In the class, you’re working with six or eight students and that’s your little cohort, and you’re working through all these problems together. So actually, even when we’re teaching the class, your experience really is with [these] eight people, and you’re sharing your stories. By the end of 10 weeks, that section inevitably exchanged emails and the people are hanging out together. So these little life design pods, these cohorts — it turns out that’s the important thing.

Our social media person said there are over 150 book clubs now that have formed around the book, where there’s four or five people doing these little exercises together, and that’s really where the transformation occurs. We just propped up the exercises and gave you some things to do, but when you do them with another person, and you say, “This is what I came up with. What did you come up with?” — that’s the big plan.

TSD: What essential, singular piece of advice do you think is necessary for everyone, even those who don’t read the book or take the class, to have?

DE: Take the workshop. We’re coming up with a one-day version of the class for students who don’t have time to take the full class. … We’ll offer [it] a couple of times per quarter. Not everyone can do a full class but everyone can do a workshop. It’s literally one eight-hour workshop where we’ve boiled down the essential experience. It’s not the same as 20 hours over 10 weeks, but it’s pretty good.

TSD: But still, for someone who takes 22 units and is doing research and doesn’t have even one day to spare, do you have an essential piece of advice?

WB: Stop doing that. Terrible way to do college.

DE: We don’t believe in the [so-called] three simple steps.

WB: But there is an answer. You’ve got to be the agent in your own life. … Our one-liner might be, “Don’t plan. Prototype.” You’re trying to invent the future, but you don’t know the future, and you don’t particularly know the [version of yourself] that you’re going to meet in the future. Right?

You can’t think your way into your future, but you can build your way into your future. Design thinking is about building your way forward, not analyzing your way forward. Engineers analyze and solve tame problems, but designers build their way into wicked, messy problems, and your life is a wicked, messy problem. Empirical, hands-on experience is really the approach we take.

Contact Jonathan Seymour at seymourj ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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