Are you stuck? Stuck in your career? Your relationship? Or even in your retirement? Then take a few minutes to listen to this podcast with Dave Evans who, along with Bill Burnett, has harnessed the power of “design thinking” to help people create meaningful and fulfilling lives. What started as a course at Stanford University to help students explore their potential futures, has turned into a New York Times best seller, Ted Talks, workshops, retreats and online classes that are now heavily attended not by students, but mid-lifers like us who may have hit a snag and are having trouble getting un-stuck. From Mind Mapping and Odyssey Planning to Prototyping and Reframing Failure, Dave talks about how he and Bill have helped people realize what holds them back, and how they can move forward. It all comes down to a simple challenge: Try Stuff. You can start by clicking on ‘play’.
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David Abend: Hi, this is David Abend, founder of The Bucket, and your host for today’s podcast with Dave Evans, who uses human centered design to help people get unstuck. In a previous lifetime, Dave was at Apple where he led the team that created the first mouse. He was also co-founder of Electronic Arts, and after that a management consultant. Eventually, Dave found his real passion, helping people discover and build the life they really want. Together with Bill Burnett, he founded the Stanford Life Design Lab in 2007 where they’re “Designing Your Life” course became a campus favorite, and in 2016 a New York Times bestselling book. Welcome, Dave. Thanks so much for talking with me today.
Dave Evans: Thanks for having me. I’m thrilled to be here.
David Abend: Now I’ve read your book, of course, but for the benefit of our listeners, can you explain what you mean by Human Centered Design and how does it help people get unstuck?
Dave Evans: Okay. HCD or Human Centered Design is an approach. It’s a methodology to innovating new idea solutions to difficult problems that you can’t solve by doing traditional technical analysis or quantitative spreadsheeting because you don’t have enough information, they’re what we call wicked problems. Wicked problems tend to be ones where you don’t know what you’re looking for you until you find it and the solution you need has to be entirely customized to the particular situation or person involved. It’s not replicatable. Those kinds of problems are what we call “wicked problems.” And, in those situations, you can’t engineer your way forward or analyze your way forward, you can only build your way forward. You can try ideas out because you’re building this thing called a “future we’ve never heard of before.” The only way to do that is empirically, by actually trying it. We do prototype iteration and we have ways of coming up with good ideas to think about the problem creatively, then have ideas about how to approach it creatively. Then the key thing is we go try stuff. When we try stuff, we iterate that, we get good at doing that fast and inexpensively, we learn our way forward and come up with things we actually can do in real time in the real world, and then put those things in place. We developed this methodology in the 60’s at Stanford University. It’s now more often referred to as Design Thinking. David Kelly, our current ranking professor of design at Stanford and the founder of IDEO, the largest design consultancy in the world, rebranded Human Centered Design as Design Thinking, which took off about 10 to 15 years ago. Because we can help people learn how to successfully innovate on processes, on products, and now on their lives, it’s become pretty hot. Design Thinking is hot. Human Centered Design simply means a process of innovating, that understands how humans do innovation work. So, it’s a humanly done process to result in a humanly workable outcome, something that you can really use and really works for human beings. That’s a semester course in about two minutes.
David Abend: (laughs) As I read your introduction a moment ago, when you made the transition from being a management consultant to the co-founder of Life Design Lab, was that an example of you getting yourself unstuck?
Dave Evans: It was absolutely an example of prototyping my way forward. I think in retrospect, we could say that I was stuck, but I wasn’t aware of it. I’ve been working on the stuff that has now turned into this book and the conversation we’re having today for about 40, 45 years. It started when I was a sophomore in college a long, long time ago. I’m 66. Back in the 70s when I did not know what to do with the question, “Well, young man, what do you want to do with the rest of your one wild and precious life.” You know, like, “wow, that’s a really good question.” I found everybody, frankly, kind of criminally negligently unhelpful on getting traction on that question. Lots of people wanted to know my answer, but nobody would help you figure it out. So, I launched off into that the hard way and finally found my way to some stuff. I’ll skip over the intervening 40 years. Then ended up being this tech guy. So, I’m at Apple, I’m at Electronic Arts — I’m doing the Silicon Valley thing. And, all along the way, in my own life, still trying to live what I would now call the “coherent life”, who I am, what I’m doing, and what I believe are in alignment. I look in the mirror and like the real Dave Evans is looking back at me, not like some guy that you only wake up at 50 and say, “Oh my God, I became somebody else that I don’t even know, what happened here?” That common experience looked to me like an option I’d like to skip, so I work on it. I noticed everybody else is concerned about it too. I mean, all the people I was working with at Electronic Arts. We wrote the manifesto before we wrote the business plan. We wanted to not just create products that people wanted to buy, but we wanted to create work that people want to do and lives that people wanted to live. So, what’s becoming our corporate culture and what are we about? And, is this work meaningful? In the workplace, I found almost everybody, who can dress themselves and kind of cares about what they do for 40, 50, 60 hours a week is asking these questions and getting a lot less helpful than they deserve. I’m going, “this is ridiculous.” Then in 1999 I’m chatting with Randy over a cup of coffee over at UC Berkeley. He a private dorm for a student community. We’re chatting about this stuff and Randy says, “Dave, you should teach your class here.” I ended up doing that, then eight years later, my buddy Bill Burnett got this new job running the design program at Stanford. I go, “Oh, the design guys, they’re my lunatic friends. This is a great idea, and that’s a much better drive for me.” It’s not such a long drive. Bill and I had lunch in the summer of 2007 and I shared some thoughts. He said, “This is a great idea. We got to do it. We’ll start this fall, we’ll prototype this summer. Let’s go. I’ve got to run.” It’s was a five minute meeting and then little did we know that we started this thing that is very exciting and it’s kind of ruining our lives. Right?
So, I wasn’t stuck, but I was just leaning my way into this question over and over again. Having a lot of what we would now call Life Design Prototype conversations and running little Life Design Prototype experiences, and one of those turned into an invitation to create what has now become, frankly, the most important work in my life.
David Abend: Well, that’s really cool. One of the things that really struck me in my life and working away through is that idea that you can be successful but be stuck and not really realize it, that idea that, wait a second, I have a good job, I’m doing well. It seems like people who are successful are having more trouble recognizing that they are stuck than other people.
Dave Evans: Oh yeah, because there are versions of stuck that are very happy, you know, they’re working really well. I mean, a lot of the people we’ve talked to who are midlife and beyond are happily stuck in this really successful career, making at least plenty if not a bunch of money, and proceed a very noble and generative way that they’re tired of and can’t find a way out of and even if they could find a way out of it, they don’t know what they do with it, but they’re pretty sure — “I’d rather not stay here if I had an option, but I’m pretty sure I don’t.” While people stand in a big circle enviously looking at them. That’s a sadly common experience, astonishingly common number of lawyers for some reason.
David Abend: One of the concepts in your book that I really thought was powerful was the way you define the different types of problems. You’ve mentioned “wicked” before, but you talked about “gravity” problems and “anchor” problems. It’s really important to know the difference, isn’t it?
Dave Evans: Yeah, the difference between a “gravity” problem and an “anchor” problem can be a little nuance, but there really is a clear distinction. There are some examples that you could put in both categories at the same time, sort of a special double dip problem. A “gravity” problem, which I named, because I’m a bicyclist. I didn’t put on the “freshman 15” when I was 18 years old, I didn’t do that, but it did put on the sixty 20, when I got into my 60th year, I picked up 20 pounds that I wasn’t very excited about and still managing to hang onto. And accordingly, my bike started working really poorly. I noticed it was going up hills a lot more slowly than it used to. The problem is this gravity stuff, gravity starts getting in my way. So, I go to Bill and say, “I’m a cyclist, you know, and I’ve got this problem. This gravity thing is making me nuts. Gravity is a problem I don’t know how to fix. Could you fix this for me? Can you give me an idea?” And Bill looks at me and goes, “No, Dave, I can’t help you because gravity’s not a problem. It’s a circumstance. There’s nothing you can do.” So, we named it a “gravity” problems because of my problem with that. What that defines is that there are a lot of problems that you get stuck on because when you look at it honestly, it’s not actually a problem. Our definition of a problem is it is actionable. If the thing you’re discussing is not actionable, it is not a problem, it’s a circumstance.
A gravity problem is when you think what you need is an idea for a solution and there isn’t one because the problem isn’t actionable. Then the outcome is you say, “Oh, gravity’s unnegotiable Dave. Your problem is you’re heavier now, so you’re more out of shape. Your muscles at the same strength have more work to do, and tire more quickly. Your options are lose some weight, simply accept it and go slower, gear down, buy a lighter bike that has more gears on it, so you can go up more easily.” Once you accept the factedness of your gravity problem what it frees you to do is say, “well, what is there that I could do? What different problem can I have? How could a 20 pound heavier 60-year-old bicyclist compared to a lighter 40-year-old bicycles have a good time on his bicycle Dave?” That’s a different question. So, that’s gravity. Then “anchor” is a little bit different, but they’re both all about you are so stuck. You are so freaking stack. The “anchor” problem is you are anchored, literally to an immovable, unsolvable situation because your problem statement actually isn’t a problem, it’s an unavailable solution masquerading as a problem that you’re unwilling to renegotiate. It actually is potentially a solvable problem, but the way you framed it actually means you’re not asking a question, you’re announcing an answer, and you’re going to hold your breath and turn blue until you get it.
David Abend: Yeah. I love that example in the book. I think you used a John who is wanting to do the mule trip to the bottom of Grand Canyon. I think that’s a great example. Can you tell our listeners about that?
Dave Evans: Well, is this true? Is this true? Frankly, in just a very few select number of the examples, I’m John. I’m actually John Michael. My middle name is John and I’m six foot six and now weigh 222. In my adult life, I’ve weighed all the way from 185 up to that number. I’ve been to the Grand Canyon a couple of times backpacking when my family was small. My wife as a child had taken the mule trip down to the bottom of the Colorado river from the rim and it was an absolutely important memory. We said we want to create that for our kids, but they have a weight limit. There’s a weight limit of 200 pounds fully dressed before you climb on the mule. Whatever you’re wearing, your boots, the whole bit, if it’s 201 you’re walking down or going home. At the time, I weighed 195, so fully dressed I was at great risk. I said, “well, oh boy, the kids are small, but by the time the kids are older, I want to get down to, you know, about 192 to 190, then I think I can make it.” As the kids got old enough, there were a couple of years there when indeed they would be interested and we could go, and I was too big. And I kept saying, “Well, we got to do the mule trip, we got to do the mule trip. I’m gonna’ make it, I’m gonna’ make it.” And of course, summers come in small increments, the half a dozen years when that was the sweet spot in the kids’ lives, we could do that, came and went, I never ticked below about 198. My problem was how do I make sure I hit 198 before the end of the summer to take the mule trip? That’s my problem. Solve that problem, Dave, because you’ve got to take the mule trip.
David Abend: Right.
Dave Evans: So, I lost it, nobody has that memory. Now let’s say, two years into that and I go, “I notice that I’m doing a really poor job of dropping this weight and most people my size weigh 20 pounds more than I do already. I’m actually skinny from my height. So, Dave, what do you really want here? If what you want is the mule trip, there’s a good chance you’re never going to have it because the solution to having a family experience in the Grand Canyon is probably not going to work. But there is a bigger question, which is how do we create an amazing experience for this family getting to the bottom of the Grand Canyon from the rim of the Grand Canyon? By the way, there are four ways to do that. Let’s go research what those look like because training up to be able to do the walk down is easy to walk up is tough, but you hike a lot and you getting in shape to handle the hike is so much easier than for you to actually take the ride. Or even, you know, let the kids take the mule. How about plan B, C, D, E or F, which might be a compromise on what I had in mind.
Essentially an anchor problem is somebody has set up an all or nothing commitment to one and one answer only, and they’re going to go down swinging and very often people regret that. Anchor problems in particular, and some gravity problems are a source of unnecessary agony in the lives of post midlife people?
David Abend: Well, I think that the idea of anchor problems for our audience, The Bucket’s audience, are the same but different. One of the reasons we reached out was because even though this began as a course for college students for you guys, it seems that what you’re talking about in getting people unstuck is not about age. I think that our audience is certainly stuck in places and in some ways it’s more difficult because when you’re starting your life, you’re thinking about your career, what are you going to do. Everybody’s stuck there in a way, and everyone’s trying to figure that out, but when people in their 50’s and 60’s thinking about retirement or they’re thinking about a job in retirement, it’s harder to recognize that being stuck and sometimes you just start to “live out the string,” if you will. In your experience, obviously you wrote the book and you have the online class, are you seeing people who are older get involved in this and get unstuck?
Dave Evans: It turns out the only people I teach at Stanford anymore are late life people from 50 to 80. There’s a comparatively new, I think it was fourth-year or fifth-year program called the DCI, The Distinguished Career Institute at Stanford University, conceived, founded, and run by Dr. Philip Pizzo, the former Dean of the Stanford Medical School, a significant clinician in his own right, who among other things is deeply committed to lifelong thriving and noticed the exact same thing that created your podcast and your audience. There are a whole bunch of people who are in the process of needing to reinvent themselves and in ways that society has never experienced before because of longevity and what have you. That’s not automatic, that doesn’t like fall off a log — we need to help these people. The DCI is yearlong. You apply to be a DCI fellow and if admitted, the admission rates are only about 10%, you then get to write a big check for permission to come to Stanford for a calendar year, 12 months, along with another 40 odd people, a very diverse group of people and there are scholarships, so it’s not all elitist, who are going to take a full year and ask the question: Now what?
Pretty quickly, I was talking to these people and I said, “You know, you need to put a backbone underneath this thing. You can’t just throw these people in the room and let them figure it out themselves.” Which essentially, they did the first year or two. They said, “Look, these are really talented people. These are interesting people. You do not tell grownups what to do. You give them an environment, you put them in a room with a lot of Legos and just let them go.” Well that’s true to a point. We all need a little bit of structural help. I’m not telling you what house to build, but you know, a couple of tools and a couple of pre-built pieces of lumber would be really handy. So, we had this conversation and four years later Designing Your Lives is now the yearlong structural backbone of the program. So, I teach an intensive workshop on first designing your life, because everybody in the DCI program is thinking about that. They range all the way from 40s to late 80s and the big bump, as you would expect, is mid to late 50s to mid to late 60s. So, I’m having lots and lots and lots and lots of these conversations with people that are probably just like the people in your audience. And does it apply? Oh yeah.
David Abend: I’m curious, I was going to ask that. When people are in school and they’re graduating, they know for the most part, have to come up with what they’re going to do, or they had to already. It’s this Rite of Passage and everyone has to do it and there is a next thing, and what are you going to do. With people in our audience, they might be retiring, they might be just getting older, there isn’t that same kind of pressure of you have to do something next. So, in some ways, in my experience and talking to people, the fact that you don’t realize you’re stuck is actually one of the reasons you’re not moving forward in your life.
Dave Evans: Okay. Yeah. The way I’d reframe what you just said, which I agree with by the way, we’ve all heard about the midlife crisis, and some years back the term quarter life crisis started getting popular for the 22 to 25-year olds, and the convenience of the quarter life crisis is it’s kind of ubiquitous and it’s sort of socially announced. “Well, young lady, it’s about time for you to hit the world. How’s that going for you?” So, everybody kind of knows it’s coming, right? If you went to college, and had that thing called school, which again is not everybody by a long shot, then there’s a day in September or the October of your 22nd year when you’re supposed to be in the game now. That’s a convenient thing because it’s normalizing, whereas in the “well, when does the beginning of the rest of my life, which is kind of different than the life I already have, start.” Well, the corporation declares that you’re going to retire on your 67th birthday, so that’s the answer to your question. That’s a dwindling population of people, very dwindling population of people for whom “thing next”, maybe not “thing last”, but “thing next” encore, if we use Mark Friedman’s term of Encore, the deadline of an Encore transition is very soft for most people and so easily deferred. That easy deference in time can set you up for kind of over running the tape a bit and some people do that. They awakened to it a little bit later in life. We frankly don’t think that’s a problem to be worried about. Design is very committed to this thing called reality.
There’s a big red map with a “You are here” arrow on it like you see in the airport locator map. You are here. We have a huge one of those things over the graduate loft at the Stanford Design Education Center to remind students that all design begins with present reality, right where you are is exactly the right place to start. Trust me, if it all comes out happy, it goes through a place that looks just like this. There is no should. There is no what if/then regret, that just doesn’t exist. Let’s not waste any time on it. If you had a do over, maybe you would have changed your mind sooner. Okay, well, that’s called learning. That’s great, you know, let’s go, take it from here. Here’s fine. There might’ve been “here’s” that came and went, give that a good three or four-minutes’ worth of grief and then move on. I’m not trying to be hard about that, but reality is fine. It’s the only place cool stuff happens. Reality is the only place where the good stuff happens. If I want good stuff in my life, reality is the place to be. Let’s go. We try to move people there as quickly as we can. Very often reality is better than people think because they’re comparing it to an imagined past that doesn’t exist at all. They’ve got this valence of regret that’s actually underselling the present situation. For many people, today is fine. I’m not trying to deny oppression or poverty or cancer or ageism or racism, these things are real and design thinking doesn’t have a magic wand to suddenly make the world Disneyland. I’m not saying that for a minute, people have real issues. But, let’s not make it harder than it has to be.
David Abend: One of the things you talk about is dysfunctional beliefs. For our audience, it seems like that dysfunctional belief of it’s too late, I can’t change anything. Do you see that a lot?
Dave Evans: Very common. It’s very common. People believe it inside out. People tell it to them outside in. I think sometimes navigating between issues you really got to pay some attention to, which is wisdom, versus a truly dysfunctional belief, which is crap and there’s no reason to be bound by it. No, those aren’t handcuffs, that’s spaghetti if you just snap your wrist, it’ll break. Discerning which is which is important.
Questions have belief systems and before you authorize a question, what are the questions that are exciting you at this midlife or mid to late middle of life, moment that you’re in, Bucket listener? Double check if that question is offering to you to be either your life organizing question or your life judging question. You better double check that the belief system that informs that question is true and aligned with your belief system. If it’s not reject it and get another question. Taking your questions, particularly at this midlife point, because what is true is there’s less runaway in front of us than behind us, and these choices start becoming prepresses. Another thing.
David Abend: There’s a rock-climbing term called getting rim rocked. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that. It’s when someone’s in the middle of a climb and they panic and they can’t go up and they can’t go down.
Dave Evans: Outward Bound works really hard to get people in that place, so that they can then call up from below, they’re frozen on the rock, and announce to them one of the primary one-liners of the Outward Bound experience, which is, “Hey David, it looks like you’re stuck up there. We have a saying when you can’t get out of it, get into it.” The advantage of being rim rocked is I now conveniently have no choice but to go.
David Abend: I think another thing that people are afraid of though, and you talk about, is failure and people are afraid if I do this and it doesn’t work out, then I fail.
Dave Evans: Right, which is why we talk about “Failure Immunity.” Let me start by saying there is such a thing as an actual failure. It’s easy to misperceive from those design guys that failure doesn’t matter. I’m like, wait a minute, I can’t take all the equity out of my house and bet it on something and lose, and find myself homeless. There are real risks out there. I’m not saying there is no such thing as failure and that substantial failures aren’t costly, of course they are. When we talk about “Failure Immunity” we specifically mean it around this whole idea of making changes in your life, the kind of stuff we’re talking about on this call. Like, hey you can really substantially maybe even eliminate the risk of real failure by learning how to do what we call “fail sooner to succeed more often” or “fail fast and fail forward”. All those one liners — what the heck are those guys talking about? What we’re talking about is prototyping.
In design, the core component of Human Centered Design or Design Thinking is prototype iteration. We know we don’t know what we’re doing here, so we’re going to give it a try first. We’re not going to try to sit on the couch and agonize and Google for 19 hours and come up with the right answer, put the whole bet on red 19, spin the wheel and hope we’re right. And if we’re not, we’re screwed. That’s not “Failure Immunity,” that’s “Failure Optimization”. That’s making failure a huge problem as opposed to why don’t we come up with little tiny bets, that don’t cost very much, that we can learn our way forward, so by the time we get to the big decision, we’ve really vetted something, we’ve really understood that, we’ve really learned that we know what we’re doing. That doesn’t eliminate risk, but boy does it manage it down. For us, a prototype simply means a conversation or an experience that asks an interesting question and allows us to learn about it in a cheap, fast, low risk way.
So, Ann’s thinking about going back and getting a masters at 48. So, she takes a yearlong GRE preparation course, and she crams like crazy and she pays all the money for the GRE and she does it and gets a decent score. Then she, she puts together these applications, she gets in, she’s working late night for a year and a half to get this done. She finally gets into this program, and she decides to go for a take the full-time program. She actually takes a leave. She hopes she can get her job back when she’s done, if she needs to. It’s a year and a half long master’s program and she’s fourth months into this thing and she says, “Oh God, I hate this.” That’s a failure. Anne, Anne, Anne, why don’t you prototype this? How about, well, what does she think about studying and why is it interesting to you? What are five different places to teach about that? Let’s go find people your age who have that degree. Has that degree changed over time? Let’s go have two dozen conversations, including people who started that masters and quit because it was so boring because you really want to know what the dark side sounds like as well as the white side. How people have lived into that? Then, what if you pretended to be a candidate for jobs that you think in the future you’d be able to get and you call up some recruiters and do an initial call and at the end say, “I’m probably not ready because I actually don’t have this degree yet. I’m a pre-student, but I’m looking forward to see what we could happen.” Now you get some information and you actually understand what’s going on here. Maybe you could audit a class. You could actually try this thing. Could you do a ride along with somebody that does this work in health policy at the County? Then you run a bunch of these life prototypes. By the way, it turns out, if you really get this, the design work itself isn’t the thing you have to get over to get to the important part, which is do I get the master’s degree or not? It’s not just the transaction of go to school or don’t. It’s, Oh, I’m actually living my life now. I’m actually a person who’s living into becoming my future self. I’m living generativity. I’m meeting interesting people. This is all progress. I’m not on the way there. I’m in the process of being there the entire time.
David Abend: Is life design a means to an end or is it more of a way to live?
Dave Evans: Yes.
David Abend: That was an or…
Dave Evans: It’s a little paradoxical. It is though. People walk up to us in a transitional moment. There are the three kind of big classical transitional moments. You’re early 20’s, the first time joining the world. Not everybody, but a lot of people, similar between 35 and about 50, that midlife thing, like, “Oh my God, I’m looking at a mirror and I see my father looking back at me. I turned into this guy I don’t want to be, how did this happen? You sort of wake up and find yourself in somebody else’s life. Now what are we doing? Then there’s this on the way to the Encore thing, the first big movie is kind of over and now I’m going to go make some shorts or something like that. And, there’s this sort of later transition I’ve described a variety of different ways. They’re now sending me ARP magazines, and apparently it’s not inappropriate. It was not misaddressed. There’s that transition. Because AARP is 50 and up, or I just got laid off, or I move just for my wife changing jobs and I have to reinvent myself here in Indianapolis, whatever it might be. Those are the three classic moments. At these transitions, I better go get myself some tools and remember to grab this book and I’m going to go do a life design project over the next six months, and then it’s going to have an outcome. It’s very often has a vocational piece, not always, but often has a vocational piece in it, a work or an engagement piece in the world not necessarily for money. Is that a transactional process? Yes, absolutely. We’re perfectly happy for people to do that, pick it up, get through the thing, put it down, we’re done. Thanks. People ask us all the time; how often should I do Odyssey planning? We do this three versions of your life core exercise, and if you work in our lab you have to do it once a year. That’s probably too often. Reinventing yourself every year is a little much. You Odyssey planning, you do this life design stuff either when life asks it of you, like you just got divorced, you’re going to get reinvented. Or when you ask it of you. There’s this voice inside you that finally says, “Hey, you know, that was then, and this is now, I don’t know if you noticed, but we don’t feel the same way about this life at all and it’s time for a change.” One of those two things occur, and off we go. Then what you find, talking about is it a way of life? Yes. It is a way of life. This is why we talk about mindset, the mindset of curiosity, the mindset of bias to action, the mindset of collaboration. We keep saying stuff like, “look, none of us knows the right answer.” Life is an improv skit. It’s a long running improv skit. We’re all making this up as we go along, dealing with all kinds of things out of our control. There are big chunks of time when it works — the childbearing years, the sweet spot of your career. It’s kind of stable but it’s not going to last, it’s going to change. I’m in my sixth career. I’m kind of like on my fourth life, literally. Life changes, right? You’re doing this stuff and then you realize this way of thinking, this way of what’s the interesting question life is asking of me now and what interesting prototype conversations or experiences could I have that will begin to unmask and unpack that question for me in an interesting way as I continue to grow into my future self? There’s always a question we’re living into and this design process can be a way that we address those questions. So, we get really good at becoming our future selves on an ongoing basis. And it turns out, that’s pretty interesting. I ran a town meeting in Seattle some years back. At the end, there’s a Q and A time for people, and one guy, I’ll call him Harry, sort of upper back left raises his hand and he goes, “You know this prototyping stuff, you could do that with like anything, right? You could prototype like anything, your relationships, your lifestyle, or jobs or learning?” I said, “Yeah, yeah. You could prototype anything.” And he says, “So you can do it about anything? And, you could be doing this all the time? You could be doing prototyping all the time. You could be running a little prototypes, almost like a side interest all the time, right?” And I said, “Yes, yes you can.” He says, “Oh, wow. Crazy.” I ask for more questions. Third time, he raises his hand. I say, “Hey Harry, what? What do you want, Harry?” And, he says, “So Dave, you can prototype anything all the time and that’s a really big deal, isn’t it?” And I said, “Yes, Harry. It is.” He said, “Oh, now I get it.” I said, “Yeah, I think you do.” That’s true too. A transactional relationship with this stuff is fine, but then you realize there’s at least a chunk, it’s not a religion, but there’s some way of life stuff here that could be very life giving.
David Abend: I do want to talk to you about that relationship thing. You know, a lot of our audience is going through transition, either they’re looking to revive a marriage or perhaps start a new relationship. And, so how does life design work for that?
Dave Evans: The relationship thing comes up all the time and we have a very specific idea about that. How do we design our life together? What I’ll say about that, as briefly as I can, is first of all, if you use our ideas and you try to do it together, my assurance to you is it will either make it worse or it will make it better. It is not neutral. We will not leave you unscathed. How do you use the life design methodology and make it worse? By articulating a hostile negotiation. So, I do my three Odyssey plans of three completely different versions of the next five years of my life, and you do yours. Partner A and partner B get together and they share their three stories together, having a lovely time, a glass of wine, and then you get to move to Beijing and have this cross-cultural experience for the next three years. And the listener goes, what?! Then, when it’s your turn, your second thing is we actually move out to the edge of town and get a little paddock and three horses and I finally fulfill my dream to become an equine therapist. And you go, “Oh God, the horses again, when is that gonna stop? I thought we were done with that.” Now, we’ve helped you write down things on pieces of paper that you got really excited about and now the negotiation starts and it gets really hostile, so it gets worse. Back when you were kind of weren’t talking about it, at least you were getting along. Now, we know exactly what’s wrong with you. My job is to defeat that stupid Beijing thing or no freaking way there’s not going to be horses in my backyard. So, it’s going to get worse. That’s not helpful.
Let’s talk about not how to do it wrong but talk about doing it right. How do we do life designed together where these design thinking-based ideas could actually help us come up with our well lived and joyful life? Well, here’s the trick and the key, the key word here is us. It’s not you and me, it’s us. This depends on your life view and your worldview. You talk to most people in an important relationship, even if it’s a friendship you’re in, we’re going to go do this together. I have had people who’ve organized their retirement years around where friends will be, let’s all move together and make a little village. Or it could be a classic marriage or a partnership or what have you, whoever it is that really matters that you want to do this together with, we’ll call you and that person or persons ‘us’. One of the lovely things about us is when we’re together and experiencing the best of why we’re together, there’s something happening here that is truly synergistic. I’m not sure it’s one plus one equals three, but one plus one equals a more than two that it takes all of us for that more than the eye meets the eye experience to generate, and that’s one of the things that holds us in this relationship. There’s the more-ness of us than just you and me. So, that’s assumption number one. Assumption number two is that more-ness, when we are in flow as a couple, if you will, is a good thing and brings out the best of both of us. When we are doing ‘us’ well, we are wiser. So, let’s appeal to ‘us’ by having you and me enter the design process by being committed to be open minded, teachable, and creative, and remembering that prototypes are just asking interesting questions. They are not making decisions, they are not making commitments, and that the only way to have a successful prototype is to have the open-mindedness of the person who’s a learner. So you say, let’s go to Beijing and you’re sensitive. Whoa, Whoa. That’s scares the bejesus out of me. You say, “Gee, I’m so excited that you find that interesting. That’s so interesting. Say more about it. Let’s find a way to conceive together a prototype of China in a way that is indeed the wisdom of ‘us’ together in a jointly experience encounter called a little prototypes or a couple of prototypes that will inform me that Beijing actually might be the way to go, I’m ready to hear that.” My job is to bring the open-minded person and let’s go have prototypes be the substrate upon which we will grow into something together. I’m not going to start by assuming we have to agree before we even start. All we have to do is learn our way into what a future might be. And, you could be surprised by joy. Or you know, you try really, really, really hard and it doesn’t work. Then the person who loves Beijing says, “Gosh, I can, I’m not really having the authentic experience of you not able to be fully present here. And, if you can be fully present here, I’m going to have to be sure Beijing’s going to work for me.” Or I’ve also seen couples where they say, “you know, I frankly, it’d been winter by now I would not be here and I, if I come here, I wouldn’t stay. But I have to tell you, I am seeing you come so alive here in China that the joy of watching you bloom is way more than worth the cost of the compromise that I’ll experience for the three years that we’re going to be here. Let’s go.” Life isn’t anywhere near synchronous or symmetric, it just wants to be generative and joyful. So we do these prototypes, we have these conversations, and you’re going to go off and renew this horsey, we’re going to spend a year trying stuff out with all this open-mindedness, with permission to be surprised by joy, with a tolerance for people not getting it. And then at the end, kind of go, so what have we learned and what do we want to do? And we’re going to lean into the” we’s” experience because when you do these prototypes, you’re not doing research, not vetting, you’re having an embodied encounter with reality you’re growing into and you might very well find that thing you didn’t know you were looking for. You got to give that experience a chance to occur. We help people optimize the chance to find either what they’re looking for or even that fun surprise by joy thing, finding the thing I didn’t even know I was looking for.
David Abend: And getting unstuck.
Dave Evans: So, that’s the key. That’s a little long, and couples who’ve done that well have reported back all kinds of enthusiasm and we have heard from people who have been in the Odyssey planning war fight and it’s no fun.
David Abend: Right. It seems like it’s a constant state of that term you used: reframing. One of the things we emphasize with The Bucket is that we are not about living a longer life necessarily. Rather, we’re about making the most of the years you have left, and it seems like life design is similar. It’s not about necessarily getting to one thing. It’s not point A to point B. It’s a constant state of reframing, which leads to happiness.
Dave Evans: Yeah. We thought long and hard about the tagline of the cover of the current book, Designing Your Life: How to build a Well-lived Joyful Life. Now, my buddy Phil Pizzo, who runs the DCI, the Distinguished Career Institute at Stanford, is a person interested in longevity, but that’s not just the extension of protoplasm that’s about thriving and aliveness. I had a conversation with a 65 year old about to turn 66, who’s early in his kind of a traditional retirement and getting back into motorcycling, like he did when he was a kid, not in a crazy way, but in a pretty thoughtful way, proper training, proper gear, the whole bit, but loving the heck out of it, you know? And he says, “Yes, it is a calculated risk and a lot of my friends who are really nervous say aren’t you worried about dying? Aren’t you worried about dying?” He says, “I am. I’m trying to be very careful. I am worried about dying, but I’m much more worried about not being alive than I am about dying.” I think there’s something to that we’re trying to help people experience their aliveness. Joseph Campbell, the philosopher, talking about religion, said, “Is it about God? It’s about love? Is it about beauty? Is it about truth?” He says, “I think at the end of the day, it’s really about that alive thing. I think what people want is the experience of being fully alive.” I would say amen to that. I think we’re trying to help people realize they’re aliveness while they can.
David Abend: That’s great. I imagine doing this, it must be so satisfying when you see that aha moment when people do get unstuck.
Dave Evans: Oh my.
David Abend: Do you actually see it?
Dave Evans: I feel grateful. By a set of circumstances over which I have no control and no pride of authorship because I didn’t make this happen that the world decided to pay attention to what we were saying at a particular point in time. But it does put us in a place where I hear over and over and over and over again of lives moving toward a more joyful place, a more empowered, a more agent bearing place ,and it is incredibly heartwarming.
I got an email a little while ago from a woman. A lot of this we get anonymously and rightly so. This woman writes me and she says, “I just want to thank you for your book. I am married to this lovely man, who I have had the joy of being with for 38 years. Unfortunately, along the way as a young man, he listened as his parents over and over and over and over again reminded him that he’s just no damn good. It has been a terrible struggle for him, but I got him your book, and I’m happy to tell you that for the first time in 38 years, he’s unstuck and he’s in motion.” I have no idea what he’s stuck on. I have no idea what the motion looks like. All I know is somebody got going.
So, yeah, we hear that a lot. It’s really humbling. We talk to people sometimes at difficult times. And like, where do we get off? I mean, who are you guys? I mean, where do you get off telling people how to live or how to solve their big problems? We really respect what people bring to us, and we don’t know your situation. I’m not saying any of this stuff is easy or trivial. All we’re saying is, look, life is challenging and if there are just a couple of tools that make it a little more doable and a little more accessible with a little more joy along the way, that’s all we’re trying to say. We’re not pretending to be anything, we’re not. Um, but if we can be of a little help, that’s a gift we’re happy to give.
David Abend: Well, that’s great. And in fact, I have already received copies of your book and workbook to give to friends and family because I think it can help anybody at any time.
Dave Evans: Well, thank you. That’s very kind.
David Abend: How can our listeners either get the book or take the online class? Talk about that.
Dave Evans: Sure. First of all, the book is called Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans. It’s available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble, and any place you can find it. So that’s the hard copy book. There is an audio book, Bill and Dave take turns reading chapters. You can listen to it. That’s also available through all the usual channels. Then people say, gee, can I take the class? Well, we occasionally, lead live workshops. Typically, one to one and a half day workshops. There’s some there for women only run by the DOL Consulting Group, who are our partners in this. We have a small team of people doing this work. All that you can find at our website. The website is very easy to find. It’s just the title of the book with a dot in it (www.designingyour.life) is the home website. That announces activities, there’s a newsletter you can sign up for, a bunch of free worksheets from the book you can download in PDF format, there are articles, and “as told to” stories, there are almost 60,000 people are getting the newsletter. There are 300 life design community is collaborating together on their personal life design projects online around the world. You can dive as deep into this stuff as you want. Then if you want to take the course, but you can’t come to one of the live workshops you can go to creativelive.com. When you get there, just put in the search bar designing your life and boom, you’ll find the designing your life online 22 module video training workshop, which is Bill and Dave actually teaching a live group of people who are actually mic’d up. You’re riding along in a live workshop. You’re not just watching a talking head. Each of those 22 modules are the ones that we normally teach in our intensive nine-hour one day workshop. That product is available, I think the list price of hardback book is like $27 bucks on most online sites. It’s probably, you know, $15 or $20. Then the course, I think lists for like $200 and more than half the time it’s on sale for $100 bucks. Once you’ve bought it, it’s a lifetime license. Then there’s the workbook. You mentioned the workbooks. If you want to go through the book and really do all the exercises, there is a workbook, spiral bound, lots of blank pages and prompts and reminders and stories and stuff that you can have all in one place. You don’t need it. You can get your own typewriter, your own keyboard, your own piece of paper, your own journal as your documentation process with the regular books though. You can buy the book and the workbook; you can buy the whole thing. We did that, not because we were trying to be in the product business, we did it because we just got tons of questions from lots of people saying, can I have, or could you help us? All we’ve built is the stuff that people have sort of pounded out of us.
David Abend: Yeah. It’s really a valuable, and when I look at it it’s telling me things I didn’t already know and have read it and seen before about getting unstuck. I really want to thank you and I thank Bill too because he’s part of this. I really appreciate your time.
Dave Evans: We just got off the phone. He’s driving to Stanford to teach today and he was thrilled we were doing this conversation and thrilled about the work you guys are doing because this is our tribe. I’m 66 and Bill’s decided to be 59 for the rest of his life two years ago. I’ll put it that way. This is the tribe I’m currently committed to. The only Stanford course I teach are to Bucket people. I have a whole team of five that are teaching the undergrads and the grads, but it’s a huge population of people that really deserve the help. I’m glad you guys are doing what you’re doing. And, listeners, you can do this.
David Abend: Oh, I know. They can. Thank you so much, Dave. Really appreciate it.