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Can We Design a Good Life?

January 25, 2017

We all want a good life, but few of us know what that means, and even fewer actually live one. Thinkers from different historical epochs offer definitions of a good life and a way to cultivate it. Their approaches reflect the culture and values of their time, whether they are Greek like Aristotle, Roman like Seneca, or Chinese like Lao Tzu.

In our time, Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, two Stanford designers, offer a very contemporary approach to meet this age old challenge. In their book, Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life, they propose that we can design a good life for ourselves. The book is based on a popular course that they teach at Stanford.

Burnett and Evans base their approach on design thinking, a concept that has dominated the startup community, especially in California, in the last few decades. Because of this, a close study of their approach is certainly worth our time. Even if, in the end, we reject their proposal for how to live a good life, we can still learn and utilize some facets of design thinking.

Their book is filled with references to contemporary popular psychology and self-help literature. They freely borrow concepts from popular psychology (“flow,” “emotional intelligence”), systems thinking (“wicked problem,”), and Eastern philosophy (“the beginner mind”). As a result, established media and self-improvement literature have embraced their offering. Both the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the National Public Radio positively feature their approach, not in their book review sections, but in lifestyle, design, or advice sections. Their website displays the latest endorsements.   

Even though they embrace many of the themes common in self-help literature, Burnett and Evans reject a few of its most popular notions. For example, they contend that “passion” and “hobbies” are poor foundations upon which to build one’s career. They also advise the reader not to stubbornly persist in solving “wrong problems” and to cut their losses in order to find “the real problem” to solve.

Burnett and Evans define living a good life as a “wicked problem”, a phrase used to describe a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of its complexity and interconnected nature. If we fail to appreciate complexity and interconnectedness when solving a wicked problem, we often make the situation worse because of unintended consequences of our actions.

Defining the search for a good life as a wicked problem makes a lot of sense, because the idea of a good life is complex and living a good life certainly involves balancing many interconnected variables. According to them, a good life is not an outcome but an iterative process – in which trying solutions and accepting failures is an integral part of the process. Consistent with the design thinking approach, they suggest we implement this iterative process with a team that consists of like-minded individuals who are also interested in living a good life. 

To aid this iterative effort, Burnett and Evans provide a series of exercises to examine our current life conditions, define our “life view” and “work view”, and find “coherency” between these two views. In addition, they instruct us to keep a “good time journal” to identify our moments of “flow” or “total engagement.” With these data, they argue, we are ready to “ideate”, or start coming up with ideas. They contend that through these exercises we will be able to design multiple lives (or “alternative versions of you”). They instruct us to score these lives along four dimensions: “resources”, “I like it”, “confidence”, and “coherence”.

Based on these alternative versions of ourselves, we are asked to “prototype” our alternative lives. We do this by conducting “life design interviews” with people who live one of our alternative lives. We can also prototype our alternative lives by interning and volunteering in organizations and jobs that we might want to pursue. Using information from our prototyping experience, we can narrow down our options and choose a good life from what’s left.

The approach Burnett and Evans advocate is of-the-moment, empirical, and action-oriented. I can see why their course is popular with Stanford students and their book with the established media and self-help community.

Ironically, its strengths are also its weaknesses. I am not certain that this approach is applicable beyond the population that Stanford students represent. While I am doing suggested exercises and reflecting on my own life, I cannot imagine that I would have designed the life that I have lived using their approach. I cannot imagine leaving Burma and immigrating to the United States. I don’t know how I could have gotten the information that I needed to prototype my life in the United States while living in Burma. More importantly, the authors seem to suggest that prototyping is relatively cost-free. However, I’m not certain this approach has much to say to people who don’t already have a lot of time, information, and other resources at their disposal.

Nor can I imagine designing a career like the one I have by ideating based on moments of flow. I don’t believe that we can inductively determine our “true north.” Ultimately, we need a philosophy of life broader than what can be derived from flow experiences to guide our life decisions, as Aristotle or Lao Tzu might have instructed.

Contact Information

Fels Institute of Government
University of Pennsylvania
3814 Walnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104

Phone: (215) 898-2600
Fax: (215) 746-2829

felsinstitute@sas.upenn.edu