Designing Your Work Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans.

F**k this s**t, I’m quitting!” Many of us have played with the thought of making a memorable exit from a job we didn’t enjoy at some point in our careers. I know a few people who actually did (though not with quite such strong language), but unsurprisingly that didn’t end well for any of them.

In their new book Designing Your Work Life, Stanford professors Bill Burnett and Dave Evans explore not only how to quit well (spoiler: avoid the f-word if you can!), but also how Design Thinking tools can help us draw more satisfaction from our current jobs, thus reducing the need for quitting in the first place.

I can’t get no…

Burnett and Evans start by quoting the 2017 Gallup study State of the Global Workpace which found that 69% of American workers are disengaged or actively disengaged from their jobs. While they fail to mention that Gallup also reports a steady rise in global employee engagement since 2009, the point they’re making is still valid: The majority of employees across the globe is unsatisfied with their jobs.

Bullshit Jobs by David Graeber.

But instead of blaming “The System”, bashing corporations for creating bad employment conditions, or labeling much of the available work bullshit jobs, the authors want to help us improve how each of us personally relates to our work. The tools they present range from cognitive reframing to advice on how to identify one’s dream job, how to gracefully quit, and even how to effectively start a small business.

What’s the problem?

But before considering such drastic measures the authors ask us to enquire honestly about why we think we’re unhappy with our current jobs. They suggest a simple technique to do that:

Ask yourself…

What’s going on?

…followed by…

Ok, now, what’s really going on?

With the second question, the authors want us to stay conscious of the fact that mental biases, embedded solutions, and wishful thinking often clutter our perception. For example, you might think the problem is that you don’t get the promotion you so rightfully deserve. But that way of framing your situations contains an embedded solution (the promotion) as well as a bias (your perception that you deserve it).

If you dig deeper into the situation you might find surprising insights: Maybe what you actually want isn’t the promotion, but the respect you think would come with the pay raise. If that’s what’s really going on you learned something new: You’re longing for respect and recognition. Those are things you can probably get even without the promotion, for example by changing how others view your current role.

Or maybe your perception of deserving the promotion is wrong: It might be obvious to you how valuable your contributions are and that a promotion is long overdue, but your manager might not be mindful of everything you do. In that case you could actively work on getting more visibility for your contributions, rather than privately sulking in your frustration.

This reframing of the problem opens up different types of solutions that we can actively work towards. But the power of reframing doesn’t stop there: It also allows us to alter how we view our work life as a whole, and enables us to apply change where it’s most effective.

Don’t resign, redesign

unsplash-logopine watt

Cognitive reframing works like this: If you find yourself in a situation that you consider bad, try to look at it from a different angle. That might sound like fluffy feel-good advice, but the technique has a proven track-record of helping people in therapy and with some practice can also be self-applied.

Our minds tend to get caught in negative thoughts that drastically narrow how we view our circumstances. We keep telling ourselves the same story over and over again, reinforcing innate beliefs about why things are the way they are and why nothing can be done about them. Using reframing to shine a light on the positive aspects of our situation we can break that downward spiral. That leads to more happiness and satisfaction with our current situation which we then can use as a springboard for thoughtful change.

Good enough for now

A reframing strategy that the authors use repeatedly throughout the book is called good enough for now. By viewing our situation through that frame we realize that whatever is unsatisfying about our job right now won’t have to stay that way forever. Instead, our current job just has to provide whatever it is we need most at the moment—money, experience, opportunities to meet interesting people, …

For example, you may find yourself in a role where you feel like your creativity and intelligence aren’t in high demand. That might make the job unsatisfying, but it might just be that this job is good enough for now while you try to reposition yourself for a more suitable career in the future. If you then view your role explicitly through the lens of this is just step one, instead of I’ll be stuck doing this forever, you already changed a lot about your attitude towards work.

Good work journal

Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being by Martin E.P. Seligman.

Positive psychology, for example the research Martin Seligman presents in Flourish, shows that an effective way to improve personal happiness is to keep a gratitude journal: Every day, write down a couple of things that happened throughout that day which made you feel grateful. These events don’t have to be earth shattering—maybe lunch was especially tasty, maybe you saw a beautiful sunrise on your commute, maybe the way your child smiled at you made you feel especially joyful—the point is to learn to notice these small satisfying moments that happen to each of us every single day.

Burnett and Evans suggest a slightly modified version of the gratitude journal that’s geared to maximize job satisfaction which they call the Good Work Journal. Just like the gratitude journal ensures that you keep track of small, gratitude-inspiring moments, keeping a Good Work Journal makes you mindful of instances in which you learned something new, initiated something, or helped somebody at work.

Drive by Daniel H. Pink

Research, for example that by Daniel Pink presented in Drive, identifies three major ingredients that contribute to work satisfaction: Autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Keeping a Good Work Journal ensures you notice whenever these things appear throughout your workday, even in small doses.

Reframing, keeping a good work journal, and other tools the authors present focus on enhancing how we perceive our current jobs. But Burnett and Evans also raise both larger and more personal questions, such as what kind of impact on the world we’d like to have or in which direction our internal value compass points, so that we can make thoughtful changes which will take us in the right direction.

Money and meaning

unsplash-logoJametlene Reskp

Intuitively many of us feel like we are forced to make a choice between a life design focused on meaning, which would include activities such as spending more time with our children, volunteering for non-profit organizations, or pursuing creative arts, and the money that comes with a demanding career. However, Burnett and Evans walk the reader through several instances where people either could combine those seemingly opposing poles into a satisfying career, or where they explicitly chose to do their jobs for the money and find their source of meaning outside the for-profit economy.

Workview and Lifeview

Being able to balance those decisions requires a thoughtful exploration of our inner values, which is something most of us haven’t explicitly done. To help us start on that journey of internal exploration, the authors provide a framework called Workview and Lifeview which consists of a couple of key questions we should ask ourselves. Those include What does work mean to me?, Why are we here?, and What does money have to do with it?

Answering those questions, the authors argue, enables us to identify our personal values on which we want to base a holistic life design. But money and meaning are only abstract factors which have to be balanced with other aspects of our jobs on an individual level. For example, an occupation that pays relatively well and is relatively meaningful to one person, like managing an eco-friendly hedge-fund, might be totally unsatisfying for somebody else.

What do you want to do?

unsplash-logoAndy Beales

If you could chose to have any job in the world, what would it be? Scuba diving instructor on Hawaii? CEO of Microsoft? Part-time poet, part-time web designer?

Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Todd Gilbert

Answering that question isn’t as easy as you may think. Finding and following one’s true passion is often romanticized, but in reality rarely plays out in the picture-perfect way we image. Two things make it especially hard to predict which job is going to make us happy to what degree: (1) We don’t know if our assumptions about what exactly we will be doing in our future role are correct and (2) we’re terrible at predicting how much satisfaction any future activity will bring us. The latter conundrum is also the topic of Stumbling on Happiness, in which Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert explores the mental biases that hinder our judgement when it comes to predicting future satisfaction.

To help us identify at least the direction in which we want to be moving, Burnett and Evans introduce both established and novel tools. Those include the CliftonStrengths assessment, a personality test that shows how one fares in 34 distinct strength categories. Armed with that knowledge it can be easier to identify roles in which one would likely be an outstanding performer.

Impact Map

Once we know what we’re good at, the authors argue, we can then go on to speculate about where we would like to make our mark. To help surface our intuitive preferences, they created a tool called Impact Map which relies on our subjective experience with previous jobs. For each role (note that a typical job involves more than one role), ask yourself what level of impact you had in that role, and how satisfying that role felt to you. They define impact as two-dimensional, consisting of a spectrum from renew/repair to new/new on the x-axis, and personal to global on y-axis.

The eco-hedge-fund manager from before most likely has a global impact, but doesn’t create new things all the time. Therefore, they would fall somewhere in the middle of the upper-right quadrant of that chart. A heart surgeon would range even further on the left and on the personal end:

Example of an Impact Map. Idea taken from Designing Your Work Life.

Example of an Impact Map. Idea taken from Designing Your Work Life.

Important to note is that there are no good or bad quadrants on this chart. Depending on personality, values, preferences, and prior experiences, different people find different levels of impact more or less meaningful and personally satisfying.

Once you mapped a few of your previous roles, you can start to consider how satisfied you were with each of them and think about what that says about your unarticulated preferences. Doing that kind of assessment can help to surface correlations between impact and happiness we hadn’t realized before. By making those innate preferences visible, the authors hope to strengthen our understanding of what it is we actually want, so we can start to design a clearer path forward.

Quitting well

unsplash-logoKeagan Henman

Finally, the authors talk about an important, but often under-appreciated aspect of every career: How to quit a job. Each of us will have multiple employers throughout our working life, which means that we inevitably will quit some of our jobs. What they suggest is to make quitting a positive experience, both for the person who quits, and for the company.

The authors establish four guideposts on how to quit well:

  1. Leave the campsite cleaner than you found it
  2. Rev up your network
  3. Set up your replacement to win
  4. Exit well

By leaving the campsite cleaner than you found it and setting up your replacement to win you can fundamentally change how your former employer feels about your leaving. Instead of handing in your notice and slacking off you demonstrate that you still have the company’s best interest in mind. You want your old team to remain successful without you and make the transition to your replacement as smooth as possible.

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Exiting well plays along the same lines: Daniel Kahneman and others have repeatedly shown that when remembering past events, the human mind has a tendency to value the ending more than the average experience. So if you end your employment on a positive note, chances are you’ll be remembered a lot better by your colleagues and managers.

Revving up your network might feel a bit hypocritical at first: The suggestion is to strengthen your ties to your soon-to-be-former coworkers so that you may rely on them for future help. If that’s the only reason why you would do it, then I suggest you better not. But if you do it out of a keen interest in those people and because you want to keep in touch with them regardless of what you think they can do for you in the future, then you should definitely leverage those last days at work to exchange contact details to establish new lines of communication.

Summary & opinion

By using strategies based on design thinking one can make his or her job feel a lot more satisfying. Should you actively chose to switch to a new role, career, or employer, the book offers plenty of advice on how to best approach such a change.

Any such transitions should be planed and thought through though, with your personal value compass in mind. Workview and Lifeview have to be in tune for your career to become truly satisfying. Finally, quitting well is an under-appreciated art: It can make a real difference in how your (former) colleagues view you as a person, thus strengthening your network and setting you up for a better career path in the future.

Personally I enjoyed Burnett’s and Evans’ easy to follow style of writing. They use unpretentious language to talk about sophisticated design thinking concepts that I hadn’t had on my radar before picking up their book. The examples they use make their arguments easy to follow, especially the anecdotes drawn from their personal experience. Bill Burnett for example used to work for Apple on the PowerBook line as well as other high profile projects that they mention repeatedly throughout the book. The practical advice they summarize at the end of each chapter (in so-called Do Stuff section) is especially helpful to readers who like to follow plans, checklists, and proven approaches. Others might draw more inspiration from the concepts that underlay those practices and create their own ways of following the advice.

A few of the points they touch on felt a bit too simplistic for me though: Some of the problems they highlight—for example toxic office politics or rising levels of workaholism—are quite obvious to readers with more than a few months of professional experience. The authors furthermore focus intently on the tech industry what may disconcert readers who are not familiar with that particular trade. For that reason I’m also unsure how much value readers outside of the knowledge worker bubble of creative and tech-savvy careers would be able to take from the book.

Overall though, the book is definitely a worthwhile read. Though not all of the tools the authors introduce will be useful to all audiences, I personally learned a few things that I’ll definitely apply in my work life. It’s also quite satisfying to read through their advice and occasionally think “Yeah, that’s how I did that all along!