The Life Design Assessment Discussion Paper
His second misguided reason for becoming a marine biologist had to do with Mrs. Strauss, his high school biology teacher. Dave did pretty well in all his high school subjects, but he liked biology the best. Why? Because he liked Mrs. Strauss the best. She made biology interesting; she was a great teacher. And Dave misperceived that her good teaching correlated to his stronger interest. If his PE teacher had taught as well as Mrs. Strauss, Dave might have believed that it was his destiny to hang a whistle around his neck and be an advocate for mandatory dodgeball in the workplace.
So, the unholy union of Jacques Cousteau and Mrs. Strauss caused Dave to work on the wrong problem for over two years. The problem he thought he was solving was how to become a marine biologist, or, more specifically, how to inherit the Calypso from Cousteau when he died. Dave started college with the firm belief that his future was in marine biology; since Stanford didn’t offer a major in marine biology, he decided to major in biology. He hated it. At that time, biology classes consisted mostly of biochemistry and molecular biology. The premeds were killing it in class. Dave was not. Academically, he was getting crushed, as were his dreams of someday getting paid to frolic with the seals while speaking in a French accent.
He then decided that, in order to fix his problem of hating biology and doing horribly in his classes, all he needed to do was some real science: research in a bio lab would get him a step closer to researching the mating habits of seals. He crashed his way into doing bench research on RNA, which meant he basically cleaned test tubes. It was crushingly boring, and he was even more miserable.
Quarter after quarter, his bio teaching assistants and lab teaching assistants kept asking him why he was a biology major. Dave would begin to tell them about Mrs. Strauss and Jacques Cousteau and the seals, but they would interrupt and say, “You’re no good at bio. You don’t like it. You are grumpy and nasty all the time. You should quit. You should drop this major. The only thing you are good at is arguing; maybe you should be a lawyer.”
Despite the tsunami of negative feedback, Dave persisted, because he had this set idea in his mind of his destiny, and he kept working away at the “problem” of getting his grades up in biology. He was so focused on the what-he-had-in-mind problem that he never looked at the real problem—he shouldn’t be majoring in biology, and his idea of his destiny had been misguided from the beginning.
It has been our experience, in office hour after office hour, that people waste a lot of time working on the wrong problem. If they are lucky, they will fail miserably quickly and get forced by circumstance into working on better problems. If they are unlucky and smart, they’ll succeed—we call it the success disaster—and wake up ten years later wondering how the hell they got to wherever they are, and why they are so unhappy.
Dave’s failure as a marine biologist was so profound that he ultimately had to admit defeat and change his major. It took him two and a half years to address a problem that was clear to everyone else after about two weeks. He eventually transferred to mechanical engineering, where he was quite successful and happy.
Someday, however, he still hopes to frolic with seals.
A Beginner’s Mind
If Dave had known to think like a designer fresh out of high school, he would have approached the problem of his college major with a beginner’s mind. Instead of assuming he knew all the answers before he asked the questions, he would have been curious. He would have wanted to know exactly what a marine biologist does, and he would actually have asked some marine biologists. He would have gone to the Hopkins Marine Station of Stanford (only about an hour and a half’s drive from campus), and asked how you go from a major in biochemistry to working in marine biology. He would have tried stuff. For instance, he could have spent some time on the open sea and discovered whether it was as glamorous as it looked on television. He could have volunteered on a research vessel, maybe even spent some time around some real-life seals. Instead, he began college with his mind (and his major) made up, and ended up learning the hard way that maybe his first idea wasn’t his best.
Isn’t that true for all of us? How often do we fall in love with our first idea and then refuse to let it go? No matter how badly it turns out. More important, do we really think it is a good idea to let our earnest but misguided seventeen-year-old self determine where we work for the rest of our lives? And what about now? How often do we go with our first idea and think we know answers to questions we’ve never really investigated? How often do we check in with ourselves to see if we are really working on the right problem?
“I need a better job” is not the solution to the problem of “I’m not that happy working, and I’d rather be home with my kids.” Beware of working on a really good problem that’s not actually the right problem, not actually your problem. You don’t solve a marriage problem at the office, or a work problem with a new diet. It seems obvious, but, like Dave, we can lose a lot of time working on the wrong problem.
We also tend to get mired in what we call gravity problems.
“I’ve got this big problem and I don’t know what to do about it.”
“Oh, wow, Jane, what’s the problem?”
“Yeah—it’s making me crazy! I’m feeling heavier and heavier. I can’t get my bike up hills easily. It never leaves me. I don’t know what to do about it. Can you help me?”
This example may sound silly, but we hear versions of this sort of “gravity problem” all the time.
“Poets just don’t make enough money in our culture. They’re not respected enough. What do I do about it?”
“The company I work for has been family-owned for five generations. There is no way that, as an outsider, I’m ever going to be an executive. What do I do about it?”
“I’ve been out of work for five years. It’s going to be much harder for me to get a job and that’s not fair. What do I do about it?”
“I want to go back to school and become a doctor, but it will take me at least ten years, and I don’t want to invest that much time at this stage of my life. What do I do about it?”
These are all gravity problems—meaning they are not real problems. Why? Because in life design, if it’s not actionable, it’s not a problem. Let’s repeat that. If it’s not actionable, it’s not a problem. It’s a situation, a circumstance, a fact of life. It may be a drag (so to speak), but, like gravity, it’s not a problem that can be solved.
Here’s a little tidbit that is going to save you a lot of time—months, years, decades even. It has to do with reality. People fight reality. They fight it tooth and nail, with everything they’ve got. And anytime you are arguing or fighting with reality, reality will win. You can’t outsmart it. You can’t trick it. You can’t bend it to your will.
Not now. Not ever.
A Public Service Announcement About Gravity and Public Service
You’ve heard the expression “You can’t fight City Hall.” That’s an old idiom about gravity problems. Everybody knows you can’t fight City Hall. “Hey!” you retort. “You can so fight City Hall! Martin Luther King fought City Hall. My friend Phil fought City Hall. We need more City Hall fighters—not fewer! Are you telling us to give up on the hard problems?”
You raise an important question, so it’s important to make clear exactly how to address what we’re calling gravity problems. Remember that the key thing we’re after here is to free you from getting stuck on something that’s not actionable. When you get stuck in a gravity problem, you’re stuck permanently, because there’s nothing you can do, and designers are first and foremost doers.
We recognize that there are two variations of gravity problems—totally inactionable ones (such as gravity itself) and functionally unactionable ones (such as the average income of a full-time poet). Some of you are trying to decide if the thing you’re stuck on is a gravity problem that isn’t actionable, or just a really, really hard problem that will require effort and sacrifice and runs a high risk of failure but is worth trying. Let’s address this difficult issue by looking at each of the sample gravity problems we listed above.
Gravity Biking. You can’t change gravity. You’d have to relocate the earth’s orbit to pull that off, and that’s a pretty crazy goal. Skip it. Just accept it. When you accept it, you are free to work around that situation and find something that is actionable. That cyclist could invest in a lighter bicycle. She could try losing some weight. She could learn the latest techniques for climbing more effectively (turns out pedaling faster in really small gears is easier and takes more stamina instead of more power; stamina is easier to build up).
Poet Income. To change the median income of poets, you’d somehow have to alter the market for poetry and get people to buy more poetry or pay more for it. Well, you could try for that. You could write letters to the editor in praise of poetry. You could knock on doors to get people out to the poetry night at your local coffeehouse. This one is a long shot. Even though you can work on this “problem” in a way that wasn’t possible with gravity, we’d recommend that you accept it as an inactionable situation. If you do that, then your attention is freed to start designing other solutions to other problems.
Five-Year Unemployed Job Seeker. The statistics are unmistakable on this one. If you’ve been unemployed a long time, you have a harder task to get re-employed. Research using identical résumés with no difference but the duration of unemployment made clear that most employers avoid the long-term unemployed—apparently, groundlessly concluding that whoever else didn’t hire you over that time must have had a good reason. That’s a gravity problem. You can’t change employers’ perceptions. Instead of changing how they think, how about working on changing how you appear to them? You can take volunteer roles and list significant professional results (without having to get into how little you were paid until much later in the conversation). You can identify roles in industries where there is less ageism. (Dave is so grateful that he got into teaching later in life; now his age is seen as a source of wisdom, and he’s not still trying to pass himself off as a marketing expert to clients half his age who know he’s no digital native and doesn’t actually “get it” anymore.) Even in the face of daunting realities, you always have some freedom you can exercise. Find it and take action there, instead of against gravity.
The Family Firm Outsider. So, for the last 132 years, no one whose last name wasn’t Fiddleslurp has held an executive role in the company, but you think the time has finally come, and you’re going be the one to break through. If you just do a great job and bide your time, in three to five years that VP title will be yours. Okay—you can invest those three to five years, but, please, do so realizing that there is no evidence whatever that your goal will be attained. It’s your call, but you might be better off buying a lottery ticket. You have other options. You can go down the road, to a firm that’s not family-run. But you love the town, and the kids are happy in school where you are. Okay—then embrace the good things that come from just accepting it. Reframe the company’s family legacy as being your source of job security, with a decent income, in a dependable firm. Knowing you won’t have to take on increased responsibilities in adjusting to endless promotions, you’ll be able to learn the job so well you can do it in thirty-five hours a week, resulting in great work-life balance (and time to write more poetry!). Or maybe you look for greater value instead of greater authority. You find a new function or offering that can grow the company or increase profits, and become the expert—the go-to person—for running that part of the business. You will always be a manager and never a VP, but, as the person responsible for so much value, you could become the highest-paid manager in the place. Who needs a title if you’re getting paid what you want?
Ten Years to the M.D. Again, this is a real gravity problem—unless you’d like to start your life design project by reforming medical school education (which, by the way, is pretty tough to do if you don’t already have an M.D.). No—we wouldn’t sign up for that one, either. What you can do is change your thinking and remember that in only your second year of med school you get to start treating patients and “doing medicine.” Most of the doctoring done in hospitals is done by the residents—the trainees who have finished four years of medical school and gotten their M.D.s and are now walking the wards and apprenticing. If you can’t change your life (because of gravity), you can just change your thinking. Or you can decide to take a different route—be a physician’s assistant and do a lot of what doctors do but at a fraction of the training time and cost. Or enter the wellness field, running prevention programs for a progressive insurance company and thereby making a dent on health without being on the clinical-care side of things.
The key is not to get stuck on something that you have effectively no chance of succeeding at. We are all for aggressive and world-changing goals. Please do fight City Hall. Oppose injustice. Work for women’s rights. Pursue food justice. End homelessness. Combat global warming. But do it smart. If you become open-minded enough to accept reality, you’ll be freed to reframe an actionable problem and design a way to participate in the world on things that matter to you and might even work. That’s all we’re after here—we want to give you the best shot possible at living the life you want, enjoying the living of it, and maybe even making a difference while you’re at it. We are going to help you create the best-designed life available to you in reality—not in some fictional world with less gravity and rich poets.
The only response to a gravity problem is acceptance. And this is where all good designers begin. This is the “You Are Here” or “Accept” phase of design thinking. Acceptance. That’s why you start where you are. Not where you wish you were. Not where you hope you are. Not where you think you should be. But right where you are.
The Life Design Assessment
In order to start where we are, we need to break life down into some discrete areas—health, work, play, and love. As we’ve said, we’ll be focusing mostly on work, but you won’t be able to understand how to design your work until you understand how it fits into the rest of your life. So, in order to start where we are, we have to know where we are. We do this by taking stock of our situation—by taking our own inventory and making an assessment. It’s a way to get an articulated characterization of where we are and answer the age-old question “How’s it going?” But first let’s define the areas that will ground your answer.
Health. From the earliest days of civilization, thoughtful people have recognized that it pays to be healthy. And by “healthy” we mean being well in mind, body, and spirit—emotional health, physical health, and mental health. The relative importance of each of these aspects of health is up to you. How you measure your own health in these areas is your call. But once you’ve figured out how you define “health,” you need to pay attention to it. How healthy you are will factor significantly into how you assess the quality of your life when answering that “How’s it going?” question.
Work. By “work” we mean your participation in the great ongoing human adventure on the planet. You may or may not be getting paid for it, but this is the stuff you “do.” Assuming you’re not financially independent, you usually are getting paid for at least a portion of your “work.” Don’t for a minute reduce work only to that which you get paid for. Most people have more than one form of work at a time.
Play. Play is all about joy. If you observe children at play (we’re talking more about finger painting with mud than about championship soccer here), you will see the type of play we are talking about. Play is any activity that brings you joy when you do it. It can certainly include organized activity or competition or productive endeavors, but when those things are done “for the joy of it” they are play. When an activity is done to win, to advance, to achieve—even if it’s “fun” to do so—it’s not play. It may be a wonderful thing, but it’s still not play. The question here is what brings you joy purely in the doing.
Love. We all know what love is. And we all know when we have it and when we don’t. Love does make the world go around, and when it’s lacking, our world can feel like it’s not moving us much. We won’t attempt to define love (you know what you think on that, anyway), and we have no formulas for finding your one true love (there are lots of other books about that), but we do know that you have to pay attention to it. Love comes to us in a wide range of types, from affection to community to eroticism, and from a huge array of sources, from parents to friends to colleagues to lovers, but they all share that people thing. That sense of connection. Who are the people in your life, and how is love flowing to and from you and others?
So—How’s It Going?
There is no appraisal or judgment we (or anyone) can make of your life in these four areas. We’ve all needed a remodel in at least one of these areas of life. The idea is to pick what to design first, and be curious about how you might design this particular area of your life. Awareness and curiosity are the design mind-sets you need to begin building your way forward.
The exercise below is going to help you figure out where you are and what design problem you’d like to tackle. You can’t know where you’re going until you know where you are.
Really. You can’t.
Do the exercise.
That’s why the sign says You Are Here.
The Health / Work / Play / Love Dashboard
A way to take stock of your current situation, the “You Are Here” for you, is to focus on what we call the health / work / play / love dashboard. Think of this like the gauges on your car’s dashboard. Gauges tell you something about the state of your car: Do you have enough gas to complete your journey? Is there oil in the engine to help it run smoothly? Is it running hot and about to blow? Similarly, the HWPL dashboard will tell you something about the four things that provide energy and focus for your journey and keep your life running smoothly.
Dysfunctional Belief: I should already know where I’m going.
Reframe: You can’t know where you are going until you know where you are.
We are going to ask you to assess your state of health and the ways you work, play, and love. Health is at the base of our diagram because, well, when you’re not healthy, nothing else in your life works very well. Work, play, and love are built on top of health and represent three areas we think it’s important to pay attention to. We want to stress that there is no perfect balance of these areas. We all have different mixes of health, work, play, and love in our lives at different times. A young single person, fresh from college, might have an abundance of physical health, lots of play and work, but no meaningful love relationship yet. A young couple with children are going to play a lot, but in a different way from when they were single or when they didn’t have children. And as we age, health becomes a bigger concern. There will be an appropriate mix for you, and you will have a sense of it, at whatever stage of life you are in.
When you think about health, we suggest you think about more than just a good checkup at the doctor’s. A well-designed life is supported by a healthy body, an engaged mind, and often, though not always, some form of spiritual practice. By “spiritual” we don’t necessarily mean religious. We call spiritual any practice that is based on a belief in something bigger than ourselves. Again, there is no objective perfect balance of these different areas of health, just a subjective personal sense that either “I have enough” or “Something is missing.”
Even though perfect balance is not our goal, a look at this diagram can sometimes warn us that something is not right. Like an emergency light on your car’s dashboard, the diagram may serve as an indicator that it’s time to pull over and figure out what’s wrong.
As an example, an entrepreneur who we know named Fred took a look at his dashboard and noticed that he had almost no entries in the health and play categories. His dashboard looked like this:
Fred had been careful to make time for his wife and family—start-ups can be tough on relationships—so he felt good about his love gauge. He was willing to give up most of his playtime, because he was “all in” on his start-up, so the lack of balance there was okay with him. However, the assessment helped him realize that he had gone too far, especially when it came to his health, which was a red light on his dashboard. “To be a successful, high-performance entrepreneur, particularly under the extreme stress of a start-up, I can’t afford to get sick. I need to manage my health, even more now that I’m in a start-up.” Fred made some changes: he hired a personal trainer, started working out three times a week, and committed to listening to one audio book a week on a challenging intellectual or spiritual subject during his commute. He reported more efficiency at work and a much higher job and life satisfaction with this new mix.
Debbie, a product manager at Apple who recently stopped working to raise her twin boys, was surprised to find her dashboard reassuring. “I thought that, since I wasn’t ‘working’ anymore, I had lost my ‘work’ identity. I realized that if I properly valued the work I was doing for the household and my kids, then I was actually working more now than before. And I’m taking good enough care of my body and my mind to make sure that I get to enjoy my quality time with the twins. This dashboard validates my choice to stop working for money while my kids are little.”
So there are Fred’s and Debbie’s stories; let’s get started with your dashboard.
Your Health Gauge
As we said, healthy to us means being well in more than just your body; you might want to take into account your mind and spirit, too. The relative importance of each area is entirely up to you. Make a quick assessment of your health and then fill in your gauge—are you a quarter full, or half, or three-quarters, or really full? (Bill has also filled in the gauges for his dashboard as an example to reference.)
How you rate your health will factor significantly into how you assess the quality of your life and what you might want to redesign going forward.
Health: I’m in good general health, had a good physical recently. I have slightly elevated cholesterol, I should lose fifteen pounds to be at my ideal weight, I am not exercising, I am out of shape, and I’m frequently winded if I have to run for the train. I read and write about my philosophy of life, work, and love; I read the latest research on the mind and the mind-body connection, but I am losing my memory faster than I think I should. I say an affirmation every morning, and this has completely changed my outlook on life. I have been in an intentional men’s group ever since my son was born (twenty-one years ago), and these men have been my guides and companions on many spiritual journeys. I rate my health as “half full.”
Your Work Gauge
Make a list of all the ways you “work,” and then “gauge” your working life as a whole. We are assuming that there are things on your list that you are getting paid to do. This will include your nine-to-five job, and your second job if the first isn’t enough, and any consulting or advising you do, etc. If you are a regular volunteer in any organization, figure that in, too. If you are a homemaker, like Debbie, make sure you remember that raising children, providing home-cooked meals for your family, taking care of aging parents, and doing housework are all forms of “work.”
Work: I work at Stanford and do some private consulting, I teach Designing Your Life workshops, I’m on the board of VOZ, a socially responsible start-up (noncompensated).
Your Play Gauge
Play is about activity that brings joy just for the pure sake of the doing of it. It can include organized activity or productive endeavors, but only if they are done for fun and not merit. We contend that all lives need some play, and that making sure there is some play in our day is a critical life design step. Make a quick list of how you play and then fill in your gauge—are you a quarter full, or half, or three-quarters, or really full?
Play: I play by cooking meals for friends and throwing big outdoor parties—but that’s kind of it.
(By the way, Bill considers this to be a red light on his dashboard.)
Your Love Gauge
We do think that love makes the world go around, and when we don’t have any, our world isn’t as bright and alive as it could be. We also know that we have to pay attention to love, and that it arrives in a wide range of forms. Our primary relationship is where we go first for love, children typically come next, and then it’s a flood of people and pets and community and anything else that is an object of affection. And it is as critical to feel loved by others as it is to love—it has to go both ways. Where is the love flowing in your life, from you and from others? Make a list, and then fill in your gauge.
Love: Love shows up in a lot of places in my life. I love my wife, my children, my parents, my brothers, and my sister, and I receive love back from all of them in their own ways. I love great art, painting especially, and it moves me like nothing else. I love music in all its forms—it can make me happy and can make me cry. I love the great spaces in the world, man-made or in nature, that take my breath away.
A look at Bill’s dashboard highlights the lack of play and some issues with physical health. These “red lights” are indicators of areas that Bill may need to attend to.
BILL’S DASHBOARD with “RED LIGHT” on PLAY and HEALTH
So—How’s It Really Going?
Knowing the current status of your health / work / play / love dashboard gives you a framework and some data about yourself, all in one place. Only you know what’s good enough or not good enough—right now.
After a few more chapters and a few more tools and ideas, you may want to come back to this assessment and check the dashboard one more time, to see if anything has changed. Since life design is an iterative process of prototypes and experimentation, there are lots of on ramps and off ramps along the way. If you’re beginning to think like a designer, you will recognize that life is never done. Work is never done. Play is never done. Love and health are never done. We are only done designing our lives when we die. Until then, we’re involved in a constant iteration of the next big thing: life as we know it. So the questions remain: Are you happy right now with where your gauges stand in each of these four areas? Have you looked at them honestly? Are there areas that need action? Have you perhaps come up against one of your wicked problems? That is possible, even this early in the process. If you think you have, make sure to check first for a “gravity problem.” Ask yourself if your problem is actionable. Also, look for some expression of balance and proportionality in your dashboard—very important for design—without imagining that there is some perfect symmetry or balance between all the areas in your life. It’s unlikely that health, work, play, and love will divide neatly into four equal parts. But when life is really out of balance, there can be a problem.
Bill noticed that his play gauge was way too low. How’s yours? Is your play gauge at a quarter and your work at full or more? What about love? What about your health? How is your mental health, and your spirit? We’re guessing you are already starting to get a feel for the areas in your life in need of some design or innovation.
As you begin to think like a designer, remember one important thing: it’s impossible to predict the future. And the corollary to that thought is: once you design something, it changes the future that is possible.
Wrap your mind around that.
Designing something changes the future that is possible.
So, although it is not possible to know your future, or figure out a great life design before you begin, at least you have a good idea of your starting point. Now it’s time to get you pointed in the right direction for the journey ahead. For that, you’ll need a compass.
Health / Work / Play / Love Dashboard
Building a Compass
We have just three questions for you:
What is your name?
What is your quest?
What is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow?
If you’re like most people, it was probably easy to answer two of those three questions. We all know our names, and a simple Google search can give us the other answer—twenty-four miles per hour. (For all of you hard-core Monty Python fans, that velocity is for a European swallow.)
So let’s talk about the question that’s a little bit harder—what is your quest? It’s not hard to imagine that if we added up all the hours spent trying to figure out life, for some of us they would outweigh the hours spent actually living life. Really. Living. Life.
We all know how to worry about our lives. Analyze our lives. Even speculate about our lives. Worry, analysis, and speculation are not our best discovery tools, and most of us have, at one time or another, gotten incredibly lost and confused using them. They tend to keep us spinning in circles and spending weeks, months, or years sitting on that couch (or at a desk, or in a relationship) trying to figure out what to do next. It’s as if life were this great big DIY project, but only a select few actually got the instruction manual.
This is not designing your life.
This is obsessing about your life.
We’re here to change that.
And the questions we’re ultimately asking are the same ones the Greeks started asking in the fifth century b.c. and we’ve all been asking ever since: What is the good life? How do you define it? How do you live it? Throughout the ages, people have been asking the same questions:
Why am I here?
What am I doing?
Why does it matter?
What is my purpose?
What’s the point of it all?
Life design is a way for you to figure out your own answers to these perennial questions, and to figure out your own good life. Dave’s answers to “Why am I here?” and “What am I doing?” and “Why does it matter?” are going to be different from Bill’s answers, and our answers are going to be different from yours. But we are all asking the same questions. And we can all find answers for our own lives.
In the last chapter, you answered one of our favorite questions—“How’s it going?”—a question we often ask in our office hours. If you filled in your life design dashboard, you now know where your gauges are full, and where they’re running on empty, and knowing what’s on your life design dashboard is the first step in designing your life.
The next step is building your compass.
Building Your Compass
You need two things to build your compass—a Workview and a Lifeview. To start out, we need to discover what work means to you. What is work for? Why do you do it? What makes good work good? If you discover and are able to articulate your philosophy of work (what it’s for and why you do it), you will be less likely to let others design your life for you. Developing your own Workview is one component of the compass you are building; a Lifeview is second.
Now, Lifeview may sound a bit lofty, but it’s really not—everyone has a Lifeview. You may not have articulated it before, but if you are alive, you have a Lifeview. A Lifeview is simply your ideas about the world and how it works. What gives life meaning? What makes your life worthwhile or valuable? How does your life relate to others in your family, your community, and the world? What do money, fame, and personal accomplishment have to do with a satisfying life? How important are experience, growth, and fulfillment in your life?
Once you’ve written your Workview and your Lifeview, and completed the simple exercise that follows, you’ll have your compass and be on the path toward a well-designed life. Don’t worry—we know that your Workview and Lifeview will change. It’s obvious that the Workview and Lifeview you have as a teenager, as a young college grad, and as an empty nester will all be substantially different. The point is, you don’t have to have it all figured out for the rest of your life; you just have to create the compass for what life is about for you right now.
Parker Palmer, a renowned educational reformer and author of Let Your Life Speak, says that at one point he suddenly realized he was doing a noble job of living someone else’s life. Parker was emulating his great heroes—Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi—both great social justice leaders of the 1950s and ’60s. Because he valued their sentiments and goals, he set his path in the world by their compass, not his own, and worked hard to change the educational system from within. He earned a Ph.D. at UC Berkeley and was on track to reach his goal of becoming a respected university president. That was all well and good, but Parker hated it. He came to the realization that he could be inspired by people like Martin Luther King and Gandhi, but that didn’t mean he had to walk their same path. He ended up redesigning his life as a thought leader and writer—still working for the same goals, but in a way that was less about imitation and more about authenticity.
The point is, there are lots of powerful voices in the world, and lots of powerful voices in our heads, all telling us what to do or who to be. And because there are many models for how life is supposed to be lived, we all run the risk, like Parker, of accidentally using someone else’s compass and living someone else’s life. The best way to avoid this is to articulate clearly our own Workview and Lifeview, so we can build our own unique compass.
Our goal for your life is rather simple: coherency. A coherent life is one lived in such a way that you can clearly connect the dots between three things:
For example, if in your Lifeview you believe in leaving the planet a better place for the next generation, and you work for a giant corporation that is polluting the planet (but for a really great salary), there is going to be a lack of coherency between what you believe and what you do—and as a result a lot of disappointment and discontent. Most of us have to make some trade-offs and compromises along the way, including some we may not like. If your Lifeview is that art is the only thing worth pursuing, and your Workview tells you that it’s critical to make enough money so your kids have everything they need, you are going to make a compromise in your Lifeview while your children are dependent and at home. But that will be okay, because it’s a conscious decision, which allows you to stay “on course” and coherent. Living coherently doesn’t mean everything is in perfect order all the time. It simply means you are living in alignment with your values and have not sacrificed your integrity along the way. When you have a good compass guiding you, you have the power to cut these kinds of deals with yourself. If you can see the connections between who you are, what you believe, and what you are doing, you will know when you are on course, when there is tension, when there might need to be some careful compromises, and when you are in need of a major course correction. Our experience with our students has shown that the ability to connect these three dots increases your sense of self, and that helps you create more meaning in your life and have greater satisfaction.
So now it’s time to build your compass and set out on your quest. Right now your quest is simple (and it’s not to find the Holy Grail). Your quest is to design your life. We may all want the same things in life—a healthy and long life, work we enjoy and that matters, loving and meaningful relationships, and a hell of a lot of fun along the way—but how we think we’ll get them is very different.
Write a short reflection about your Workview. We’re not looking for a term paper here (and we’re still not grading you), but we do want you really to write this down. Don’t do it in your head. This should take about thirty minutes. Try to shoot for 250 words—less than a page of typed writing.
A Workview should address the critical issues related to what work is and what it means to you. It is not just a list of what you want from or out of work, but a general statement of your view of work. It’s your definition for what good work deserves to be. A Workview may address such questions as:
In the years during which we’ve been helping people with this exercise, we’ve noticed that a Workview is a pretty new idea for most people. And we’ve noticed that when people get stuck on this exercise it is because they are just writing down what they’re looking for in a job or an employment situation, which is a “job description.” For this exercise, we’re not interested in what work you want to do, but why you work.
What we’re after is your philosophy of work—what it’s for, what it means. This will essentially be your work manifesto. When using the term “work,” we mean the broadest definition—not just what you do to make money or for “a job.” Work is often the largest single component of most people’s waking lives, and over a lifetime it occupies more of our attention and energy than anything else we do. Accordingly, we’re suggesting you take the time to reflect and articulate what work and vocation mean to you (and perhaps what you hope work means for others as well).
Workviews can and do range widely in what they address and how they incorporate different issues, such as service to others and the world, money and standard of living, and growth, learning, skills, and talents. All of these can be part of the equation. We want you to address what you think is important. You do not have to address the question of service to others or any explicit connection to social issues. However, the positive psychologist Martin Seligman 1 found that the people who can make an explicit connection between their work and something socially meaningful to them are more likely to find satisfaction, and are better able to adapt to the inevitable stresses and compromises that come with working in the world. Since most people tell us they long for satisfying and meaningful work, we encourage you to explore the questions above and write down your Workview. Your compass won’t be complete without it.
Just as you did with the Workview, please write a reflection on your Lifeview. This should also take no more than thirty minutes and be 250 words or so. Below are some questions often addressed in a Lifeview, just to get you started. The key thing is to write down whatever critical defining values and perspectives provide the basis for your understanding of life. Your Lifeview is what provides your definition of what have been called “matters of ultimate concern.” It’s what matters most to you.
We realize that these are somewhat philosophical questions, and we did just mention the “G” word. Some readers will see God as unimportant; others may have wanted us to address this up front as the most important issue. You’ve probably figured out by now that design is values-neutral, and we don’t take sides. The questions, including the ones about God or spirituality, are given to provoke your thinking, and it’s up to you to see which ones you want to try to answer. They are not talking points for religious or political debates, and there are no wrong answers—no wrong Lifeviews. The only way to do this incorrectly is not to do it at all. Besides that, be curious and think like a designer. Ask the questions that work for you, make up your own, and see what you discover.
Write down your answers.
Coherency and Workview-Lifeview Integration
Read over your Workview and Lifeview, and write down a few thoughts on the following questions (please try to answer each of the questions):
Please take some time to write up your thoughts on the integration of your two views. Our students tell us that this is where they often get the biggest “aha” moments, so please take this part of the exercise seriously and give the integration some thought. In most cases, this reflection will result in some editing of one or both of your views. By having your Workview and your Lifeview in harmony with each other, you increase your own clarity and ability to live a consciously coherent, meaningful life—one in which who you are, what you believe, and what you do are aligned. When you’ve got an accurate compass, you’ll never stray off course for long.
So now you have an articulated and integrated Lifeview and Workview. Ultimately, what these two views do is give you your “True North.” They create your compass. They will help you know if you’re on course or off course. At any moment you can assess where you are in relation to your True North. It’s rare that people sail beautifully straight through their beautiful lives, always looking beautiful. In fact, as all sailors know, you can’t chart a course of one straight line—you tack according to what the winds and the conditions allow. Heading True North, you may sail one way, then another direction, and then back the other way. Sometimes you sail close to the shoreline to avoid rough seas, adapting as needed. And sometimes storms hit and you get completely lost, or the entire sailboat tips over.