The only thing worse than hating your day job is feeling like you can’t quit because you have no idea what other job — if any — would make you happier.
Bill Burnett and Dave Evans call this all-too-common quandary being “stuck.” And the best way to get “unstuck,” they say, is to create a mind map.
Together, Burnett and Evans teach a course called “Designing Your Life” at Stanford University’s design program; in 2016, they published a book by the same name. In the book, the authors explain how to create a mind map and why it works.
A mind map is the tangible result of a game of free association related to your career. Here’s how to start:
Step 1: Pick a topic
Choose one thing that gives you pleasure. (If you’ve kept a Good Time Journal, or any record of the work responsibilities you enjoy, choose one of those activities.)
Step 2: Write down five or six things related to the original idea
Use the very first things that come to mind. Repeat this process of free association with the words in the second ring, and keep going until you have at least three rings of words.
Give yourself five minutes, tops, to complete the first two steps.
Step 3: Make secondary connections
Circle a few words in the outer ring that stand out to you. Now try to mash them together into new ideas.
Here’s what a completed mind map might look like:
As you can see, some of the word association threads didn’t go anywhere.
But if you mash together the circled words, “English class,” “actress,” “grade school,” and “tweens,” you come up with … junior high school theatre teacher!
Or, maybe the person who made this (hypothetical) mind map could stay at their current job and write plays geared toward tween audiences on the side. The possibilities are endless.
Burnett and Evans write that mind maps draw on two key principles of design thinking: “You choose better when you have lots of good ideas to choose from” and “You never choose your first solution to any problem.”
In other words, while you might have a Eureka! moment — I should become a professional paraglider! — while sitting in your cubicle, that’s probably not the idea you ultimately want to pursue. Take a little more time and get a little more creative and you’ll probably come up with something better.
Burnett and Evans paraphrase David Kelley, the founder of the d.school: “You often have to go through the wild ideas to get to the actionable good ideas.”
That means, they write, “don’t be afraid to come up with crazy stuff. It may be the jumping-off point for something really practical and really new.”