Designing My Life: A Preface

I have a problem. It never seems to go away.

The question of 'What do you want to do with your life?' never seems to fully resolve. All throughout my life, I've persistently tried to find trustworthy answers to the following questions:

  • Who am I?
  • Why am I here?
  • What's wrong with the world and how can I help fix it?

Historically, I've chiseled away at these answers through various activities:

  • From 2009-2014 I wrote a thousand words a day every day (inspired by Ray Bradbury's approach described in Zen and The Art of Writing).
  • In 2014, I hired Whitney Hess as a career coach to help me plot my course as a UX designer.
  • In 2015, I started Prosper as a side project to help refugee support organizations make sense of the refugee crisis

In the last year I have:

  • Developed a Purpose Map (a visual hierarchy of my answers to these questions)
  • Redesigned my morning routine to maximize personal development and well-being
  • I have practiced a strict daily routine so that I am investing daily in myself and I continue to grow into the person I was born to be.

Over the last 12 months I've grown more than any other period in my life. I attribute a lot of this growth to leading product design at Peak Democracy and now managing a product OpenGov.

Working remotely for Silicon Valley tech companies has been great, but it has definitely started to take its toll on me.

The Problem

There are five key problems I am trying to solve at the moment.

  1. Working remotely across an 8-hour time difference is isolating, complicated and difficult. Working at a venture-backed tech startup in a high growth phase can be stressful and chaotic.
  2. Living in rural England has inhibited the cultivation of consistent meaningful relationships. It has challenged my definition of 'home' and undermined my sense of well-being.
  3. Being an American in the UK has its unique social challenges which exacerbates the feeling of isolation and foreignness
  4. A radical reduction in the amount of sunshine I experience throughout the year has challenged my brain chemistry
  5. Our current lifestyle is expensive and has made it difficult for me to establish a financially sustainable baseline where we are spending less than we earn whilst also saving and investing for the future.

After a lot of introspection, reading and writing, I decided to read a book called Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett & Dave Evans.

Designing My Life

As a designer, I wanted to apply design thinking to the problems I was experiencing in my life.

Bill and Dave are professors at Stanford and are both experts in design thinking. They've applied design thinking to the problem of figuring out what to do with the life we've been given. The vehicle for their experimentation for many years was a course at Stanford, but now they've packaged their wisdom and process into a lovely book.

I highly recommend it.

Five key mind-sets

In the introduction they describe what it takes to be a good designer, and thus a good life designer. They say there are five key mindsets:

  1. Be curious
  2. Try stuff
  3. Reframe problems
  4. Know its a process
  5. Ask for help

Upon reading the list, I felt that I instinctively exhibit the first two, but the last three are areas where I need to grow.

Radical Collaboration

One of the key principles of design thinking is radical collaboration. The best design outcomes evolve from a diverse group of people coming together to solve a problem with a shared vision for the future.

As a designer who works remotely I've experienced the difficulty of designing alone and the importance of collaboration. Thus, in pursuit of radical collaboration moving forward, I've decided to publish my main milestones along my journey to redesign my life.

I find benefit in articulating my thoughts in words. If you're reading and have any thoughts to share, please do send them my way.

You can reach me at or find me on twitter (@iamjohnellison).

Photo by MJS on Unsplash