Interview with Bill Burnett & Dave Evans on Designing Your Life

From the Peter Bregman podcast:

Are you living your best life? You can’t think your way to the future – you have to design your way. I’m joined today by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, authors of Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life. Discover the five mindsets, how to make decisions in the face of uncertainty, and what to do if you have a “gravity problem.”

YouTube link

This was a ton of great insight packed into 30 minutes. The following are my notes of what I want to retain not a summary. This was dense, you should watch it yourself.

You are not defined by your earlier choices

  • Don’t let “dysfunctional beliefs” or sunk costs trap you (ie I studied X in college so I must practice X)
  • Humans are curiosity-driven. Life may have beaten it out of us but it just needs re-awakening.

Behavior change —> Bias to action

You can’t think your way out of a rut. To solve problems you must take action. They call experiments “life design protoypes”.

  • The answers you seek are out there in the world not in your head.
  • Expand your circle. Those in your bubble often have the same problems or thought patterns — there’s no new data there.
  • “Finite is your friend” —> lower the mental burden of novel experiments by saying you will only do the new thing 6 times, or spend 5 minutes a day doing X


Large focus on awareness of the nature of the decision and the power of re-framing. Problem-solving requires applying the frame that best aligns with your need. Before you can do this, it’s critical to understand your current framing of a problem.

  • Life-design thinking with experimentation won’t help with certain types of decisions. For example, should you buy disability insurance? You can learn everything there is to know about your risks, the costs of insurance, the suppliers of insurance and so on but it’s a decision that you must make one way or another and accept the inherent ambiguity. Acceptance is the answer.

This leads to the single most common re-frame they use:

There is no single answer to your life. There is no single best “you”. There are many possible great satisfying lives that you can have and you never actually know about the ones you didn’t get a chance to try so we’re all getting partial credit on essay questions, not right wrong on true/false on all the big issues of life. Once you accept that this is the nature of being a human being you can say “how’s it going today?” and the answer is “it’s going reasonably well. And that’s fabulous because this is as good as it gets.”

  • Borrowing from decision researchers like Dan Gilbert they mention tactics like “burning bridges” by making certain decisions irrevocable. [Me: This makes a lot of sense to me bc FOMO is an energy suck. I tend to satisfice on everything that doesn’t hold major meaning to me — if I’m like 70% sure that product X will tick my boxes I just buy it and move on. I don’t care enough about my TV to spend a week in analysis/paralysis about how deep the blacks are. But if I were a cinephile I might.]
  • “Anchor problems”: These occur when you become inflexibly anchored to a single solution to a problem.

For example, you say: ”I’d like to do it I’d like to be a gardener or do something in the garden but I’ve decided the only solution is moving to the Berkshires. Since we can’t move to the Berkshires, I can’t have a garden, therefore I can’t be happy”

What you’ve done is you’ve baked the solution into the problem. The solution has been defined as the problem.

Instead, you might notice there are community gardens in the Upper West Side of Manhattan or you could start by putting a container on the porch. There are a million different ways you can do it but people take a solution, pretend it’s the problem and then say “Oh gosh since I can’t have the thing I want, I can’t solve this problem.” They’ve mistaken a solution for a problem and now they’ve anchored on it and can’t move forward. Once we explain it to them it’s almost laughable. They go, “Oh yea I could reframe this and there are hundreds of ways to be a gardener in Manhattan. Maybe gardner is also an anchor problem because the reality is maybe it’s about spending time outdoors in Central Park or maybe it’s about growing something”

  • “Gravity problems”: These are unactionable problems. They are still issues but if a problem cannot be acted on it’s not so much a problem as it’s a circumstance. Like gravity.As soon as you realize your problem is a gravity problem, that it’s not actionable the way it’s currently framed, you can unfixate from it. You might hate knowing you will never get rich being a poet, but can you live and write poetry? Of course.

A few lines that were dropped in passing that are actually quite poignant.

Here they are with my commentary:

I’d rather get a B on time then an A too late

Dave’s framing for how to think about optimization. Forgive yourself for being human. Any sensible approach to prioritization means you can’t turn every weakness into a strength. Again, the theme of acceptance. Or not letting perfect be the enemy of the good. I tutor 2nd graders that are far behind their grade level. Am I the best person to do this? Is this the best use of my time? Does this scale? No all counts. But it’s something that needs to be done and they still need people. If the only people who tutor are the “optimal” people to do so then what do you think is going to happen if we are already short tutors?

Some people obsess over peak performance and optimizing and so on. That’s fine. It’s a big world. In most things, I’m more concerned with the area under the curve than its peak.

Meaning comes from engagement, what you spend your time on.

I believe that there is no Meaning with a capital “M”. We create our own meaning and since I put more stock in actions than words, I think what you spend your time on is the best reflection of where you draw your meaning. This is often oblique. Maybe you spend all your time making money on something you don’t necessarily care about. This strikes me as a difficult way to live but it may reflect your value of providing for your family. There’s always a question of balance…the time spent providing is a cost to you and them as well and deciding where the diminishing returns to being at work vs being present are personal and downstream from not just our values and desires but insecurities and ego.

Figuring it out is kind of helpful but actually behaving differently is hugely helpful

Dave dropped that line in the context of therapy (he was explaining that this work in not therapy and ofc there are problems for which you should seek therapy). It reminded me of a story Slatestarcodex told about a psychiatric patient his clinic was helping. The patient was crippled by OCD. Every time she left the house she needed to go home because she thought she left the hair dryer on. The doctors racked their brains trying to get to the origin of the problem until someone suggested a highly effective but, seemingly unsatisfying solution — she could just bring the blow dryer with her:

Approximately half the psychiatrists at my hospital thought this was absolutely scandalous, and This Is Not How One Treats Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and what if it got out to the broader psychiatric community that instead of giving all of these high-tech medications and sophisticated therapies we were just telling people to put their hair dryers on the front seat of their car? But I think the guy deserved a medal. Here’s someone who was totally untreatable by the normal methods, with a debilitating condition, and a drop-dead simple intervention that nobody else had thought of gave her her life back. If one day I open up my own psychiatric practice, I am half-seriously considering using a picture of a hair dryer as the logo, just to let everyone know where I stand on this issue.

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