Book review: Designing Your Life

BurnettEvans_DesigningYourLife_Book_v5In their book, Designing Your Life, Bill Burnett and Dave Evans bring “design thinking” to the “wicked problems” of career and life design. Reading the book, I was struck by the parallels between design thinking as defined and explored here and the ways that linguists approach problems, and specifically, how we approach bringing linguistics to work.

In this post, I’ll explore the application of linguistic ways of thinking to the task of navigating career.  I’ll respond to the five principles of design thinking outlined by Burnett and Evans in Designing Your Life (DYL), identifying parallels and key differentiators to the linguistic correlates which might comprise a “Linguistic Thinking” approach.

  Design Thinking Thinking like a Linguist
1. Curiosity Curiosity about language
2. Bias to action / try stuff Bias for data / an empirical approach
3. Reframe problems FRAMING and reframing
4. Know it’s a process Many processes (e.g. meaning-making)
5. Ask for help Honoring the ask


Curiosity about Language

If designers build things, we linguists know that just about everything else that gets done in a workplace gets done through language. Language can DO things like shape our understanding of experience and inform our interactions. Language is our raw material. And because language DOES THINGS in interaction, an awareness of how language works can help a participant be able to DO THINGS in an interaction like shape and reshape the construction of meaning, identity, and mutual understanding.

And while a focus on language is admittedly a much narrower focus for curiosity, it is precisely this narrowness, as I will argue, that makes the approach actionable (see the next point).

Empirical Approach

Bill Burnett and Dave Evans explain that design thinking brings with it a bias to action. If as linguists, language is our lens, our “way in” to understanding a problem, our orientation also comprehends the duality that language both constructs and is constitutive of things like meaning, identity, and lived experience. So, this means that because we know experience is mediated through language, we can ask ourselves HOW language is shaping our experience and how it could be (could have been) different.

Now, given the design thinking “bias to action,” one might expect DYL to just jump right into a discussion of trying things out career-wise. ……and yet, this book is structured just like every other career guide starting with evaluation and self-reflection activities, which to me seems antithetical. Taking stock is good, but I find that (especially for people who are overwhelmed or stuck) it can be a hurdle in that it can invite analysis paralysis.

I propose that the linguistic bias for data provides a more productive and tangible way-forward. We are empiricists, so the way that we like to do things is to collect data, analyze it, and look for patterns!! We want to see evidence. So, when it comes to thinking about careers, I can’t think of a better way to start than to look back at past choices and note patterns. This is why precisely this kind of taking stock is the very first activity in Bringing Linguistics to Work.

And then we start.

The best way to start is to start. In the case of navigating a career, this means bringing our attention to the language being used in our career texts, and to get them circulating! Our understanding that language shapes experience entails a way of listening that encompasses paying attention to what was said as a choice, while at the same time holding an awareness of what wasn’t said, what could have been said and perhaps why it wasn’t. For linguists, this way of listening is so taken for granted so as to be almost invisible, but it brings a gentle way of listening and seeing. A way of paying attention that both sees and “sees through” language and its relationship to meaning. We can bring this to a career text like a resume, asking how it could be different, perhaps trying something different and then seeing what the results are. BY SENDING IT OUT!!!


I often find myself shouting “yes, but HOW?” at books when they give excellent advice that is – in my humble option – not terribly actionable. I confess that I found myself doing just this as I read the section of this book that focused on the “reframe.” Yes, reframing is important, but it is a skill that requires training and practice, so you need to tell us HOW to reframe. It can be very hard to recognize an operative frame, much less to recognize the ways that it could be different or the language choices that are contributing to the operant frame’s being upheld. Here, again I would put forward that an awareness of language makes both framing and reframing much more actionable.

Bring linguistic awareness to attend to framing choices, ask how they are shaping thought and action. Consider how they might be different.

As but one example, I love the authors’ discussion of gravity problems, such as that we can’t really bring too much of our energy in the moment of applying for jobs to the fact that most artists don’t get paid as much as they should in our society. This is lamentable, and there are ways that we can advocate to raise awareness and change consciousness about the societal importance of art in the long term, but in the short term if you are an artist and you need to pay the rent, it may be that you need to get a “good enough job” so that you can support yourself and still have energy left to do art on the evenings and weekends. As an artist, you should do what you can to create art, but you shouldn’t give up entirely (or never start in the first place)!

MANY processes

So now we come to the aspect of design thinking that talks about how career design is a process, and you would think that I could hardly take issue with this idea, but in fact I find myself wanting to point out that there are many processes involving meaning-making, identity construction, not to mention myriad interpretive processes which make even things like being understood an interactional achievement.

Jobcrafting is one process among many operative in navigating career (for more on this see book review of Should I Stay or Update my Resume?) and not only is the world of world always changing, but many of us are navigating uncharted territory. Again, I see our linguistic training as an advantage here because we are trained to find patterns in chaos, we know how to sort through overwhelming amounts and self-contradicting and ambiguous input. We can selectively choose to focus on just one of the many operant processes (paying attention to the stories told in informational interviews for example), a deciding why we are focusing on just this one (because we want to tell stories that are likelier to engender thinking about opportunities) and how this will have impact in the interconnected, intersecting processes which comprise the process of career orienteering ( that when informational interviews go better, we are likelier to be introduced to more people, thus broadening our network).


Asking for help

Finally we come to my favorite part of the book, the idea that you need to ask for help, which I find utterly apt and entirely unobjectionable!!  AND, where – you might not be surprised to hear – I see yet another advantage for linguists!

If it is true – and indeed I wholeheartedly believe that it is – that we need to be better about asking for help, a linguists’ awareness of language can help us bring attention to “the ask” by honoring it, as I have explored in previous posts on this blog:

Honoring the ask

Honoring the ask redux

Because language is generative, in other words because talk does things, we can be aware that in asking for help, we are likely to also be building community and generating opportunities at the same time.  A linguist told me a story once about how her dissertation research had entirely changed her ways of thinking about social interaction. She had done her fieldwork in Papua New Guinea exploring cultural rituals in community – things like how asking for favors worked. She learned that asking for things actually was the thing that engendered trust the most, so now, when she moves into a new neighborhood, she makes a point of asking her neighbors for small “asks” like “would you keep an eye on the house when I am out of town next weekend?” rather than taking them over a pie or some other gift that would unexpectedly give them a sense of obligation.  People like being helpful and these small favors, rather than being perceived as an imposition are in fact the way that relationships get established, maintained, and deepened, and it is no less true in the world of work.

So do ask, keep asking, and keep the asks small, what Adam Grant would call the 5 minute favor: “could you make an introduction to this person?” “will you glance at my cover letter and let me know if there is anything jumping out at you?” “can you recommend any industry publications that I should be reading to get myself up to speed with this field?”

Look for ways to be helpful yourself, to pay it forward.  When you help someone else out, they are likelier to want to help you, and also because this helps to build the world that I know I want to live in: a world where people look for ways to help one another out.

A really GREAT book!!!

So yeah, in case my critical engagement made it such that it wasn’t clear, let me end here by saying that I am a big fan of Designing Your Life. I have found myself referring to it and recommending it again and again. It gives great perspective, and brings attention to limiting beliefs that many people don’t really talk about, such as the very ways that we go about looking for jobs. It really is about who you know, which can in fact be a good thing, because going out there to find the people who are in a position to help you also benefits you because it gives you the opportunity to clarify your goals and purpose as you learn about their work and get feedback on your own. This process also builds community, putting you in a position to better help those who will come next.

So here’s to what (and who) comes next and I would love to hear your thoughts: what do you say to this idea of “linguistic thinking”? Have you read Designing Your Life?  What did you take away?

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