An exercise Stanford professors developed to map out how your life will unfold removes the agony from major decisions

Bill Burnett and Dave Evans
Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, pictured, don’t encourage thinking in black and white. Michael Lionstar

One big thing that makes life decisions so stressful — for me, at least — is the assumption that there’s a right choice and a wrong choice.

One job offer will lead to happiness and success; the other will lead to misery and doom; and it’s anyone’s guess as to which is which.

Ask a design thinker, though, and they will tell you right away that this black-and-white framing isn’t helpful. Though it may be hard to realise in the moment of choosing, you could be just as happy in either job, and neither is necessarily the “right” role for you.

Design thinking is a strategy typically used to improve on a product or experience, like a lightbulb or online dating. But it can also be used to improve on your life in general — and that’s what Bill Burnett and Dave Evans set out to prove in their 2016 book, “Designing Your Life.”

Burnett and Evans teach a course at Stanford University’s design program by the same name as the book. One tool they use with all their students is called the “Odyssey Plan.” The goal is to map out multiple ways in which your life could unfold.

Here’s how to start, according to the book:

1. List three different five-year plans (you can use the worksheet available on the Designing Your Life website).

The first life is the one you already live, or that you’ve already committed to. The second life the one you’d create if the opportunity to live the first life were suddenly gone. The third life is the one you’d live if money and image didn’t matter.

2. Give each plan a six-word title. Now write down three questions about each version of your life.

3. Rank each life plan on whether you have the resources to fulfil it, how much you like it, how confident you are in it, and whether it fits with your general perspectives on life and work. (The worksheet comes with images of gauges you can use for the rankings.)

Here’s what a completed Odyssey Plan might look like:

Odyssey plan 1
Odyssey plan 2

Odyssey plan 3

As you can see, this (hypothetical) person’s three lives are: corporate lawyer, museum curator, and “starving” artist. Her confidence in and liking for each of these plans differs. But the point of this exercise isn’t to choose one immediately — it’s to see what the alternatives are and sketch them out.

Burnett and Evans recommend sharing your Odyssey Plan alternatives with a group of three to six friends. Ideally, everyone fills out the sheet and shares. When it’s your turn to listen, be sure not to critique or even advise. Just reflect or ask the person sharing to tell you more about one of the points.

Again, the goal here is to realise that there are many different careers and lives within you. There’s no one, right answer.

The authors write: “We all contain enough energy and talents and interest to live many different types of lives, all of which could be authentic and interesting and productive. Asking which life is best is asking a silly question; it’s like asking whether it’s better to have hands or feet.”

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