3 Surefire Ways to Designing Your Work Life as a Programmer
People need tools to invent their own success — over and over.
— Designing Your Work Life (2020)
On February 25th 2020, Designing Your Work Life is going to hit bookstore shelves everywhere.
This is the follow-up book to Designing Your Life — a book that was the catalyst to unraveling a sticky situation and transforming my own professional life and catapulting me to San Francisco, where I haven’t looked back.
I fully believe in the power of Bill Burnett and Dave Evans’ wisdom to empower programmers to build a deliberate life and career they love, unraveling themselves from any problem.
As programmers, our primary job is to be a problem solver (or problem creator, depending on how you look at it). But many of the skills we learn on the job are also skills we can apply to other areas — like our own lives.
That was the concept behind the original book, Designing Your Life, which started as a popular course at Stanford University that took the principles of product design in Silicon Valley and applied them toward life building.
With Designing Your Life, we don’t and can’t have our lives planned from beginning to end. Rather, we design our way forward — iteratively!
You may be thinking, "But Miranda, that’s just what we do in agile software development.” And to that, I say, “Exactly!”
This is why we’re talking about designing your work life on the Books on Code blog, because even though a book on life design isn’t a “book on code,” it is in my book. This book is essential to thinking about your career as a programmer.
Designing Your Work Life is Bill Burnett and Dave Evans’ follow-up book to Designing Your Life. The new 2020 release addresses a whole-new set of problems that modern people (like software engineers) face on the job, whether that be handling challenging bosses or co-workers, fighting boredom or overwhelm, or reckoning with that nagging sensation that you are not finding enough creative expression or impact at work.
Designing Your Work Life, like its predecessor, focuses on giving you actionable tools to break down problems, find the root cause, and build a path forward through “trying things” (also known as prototyping) and iteration.
The magic of designing your work life is that it encourages a pure problem-solving mindset.
In this world, there is no such thing as wallowing in life’s hardships. If it’s not actionable, we don’t focus on it.
If you ever feel stuck and like there is no solution, there is always a way to get unstuck. And as humans, we seem to love getting stuck.
Burnett and Evans call many of our perpetually-stuck problems “gravity problems.” They are problems that will always be there (just like the existence of gravity) and therefore the solution cannot be framed around wishing that problem away. We can spend our entire lives wasting energy wishing for better inherited circumstances instead of designing around them, acknowledging, and working with the limitation.
Burnett and Evans take the time in Designing Your Work Life to unravel common problems and then give you the tools to unravel your own problems independently.
Consider the classic "mean boss” scenario. This can be considered a “gravity problem” — after all, you can’t change people and wish your boss into being nice. But there are still ways to design and problem-solve without jumping straight to quitting. First, you get curious and specific (what about them is mean?) And then find what the real problem is ("I don’t get recognition for my work”), and then design around it (“Request regular feedback from those I respect”).
Designing Your Work Life isn’t a plug-and-play workbook. It gives you the tools to think for yourself, which is what we’re all about as programmers. We love our tools. 😊
In the following sections, I’m going to tell you some of the greatest insights Designing Your Work Life has to offer to software developers.
Three Surefire Ways to a Better Career
This book offers many insights, but I chose just three to focus on.
#1: Be Curious to Be Interesting
[D]esigners don’t think their way forward. Work designers build their way forward. And in order to do that, you need to understand and begin to cultivate the mind-set of a designer.
The six mindsets are the keys to thinking like a designer and the crux of the whole book. If you are to gain nothing else from the book, striving to cultivate the habits in the six mindsets will get you far as it is.
These are the six:
Know it’s a process.
Ask for help.
Tell your story.
The first and last mindsets make a powerful pair. Perhaps my favorite phrase in the entire book is “the interested are interesting.” Think about it. If you are curious, if you ask questions and acquire knowledge that is interesting to you, you likely have the gift of conveying that information outwardly as interesting. If you are interesting, then you have a story to tell, which is purpose, which leads to cohesion and opportunity.
At the same time of reading Designing Your Work Life, I happen to be listening to the audiobook version of The 4-Hour Work Week, which told me something like this (paraphrasing):
The opposite of happiness is not sadness just as the opposite of hate is not love. They are both two sides of the same coin. Like the true opposite of love is indifference, the opposite of happiness is boredom.
Boredom is the enemy of our existence — our careers — and if this book is striving to do one thing and one thing only, it’s helping keep you out of the despair of boredom that threatens to creep into your career repeatedly.
That’s why being curious is the most powerful mindset of all. And if being curious makes you interesting, you have greater power to forge your story and narrative and climb to greater and more extraordinary heights.
Most people don’t have, or lose, this superpower. Consider what the authors have to say on this:
Almost nothing in your life takes more of your time and energy than work.
And yet, in poll after poll, Gallup indicates that approximately 69 percent of American workers are disengaged from their work … [These workers] often talk about their work as “dreary and boring.” And we warne’t just talking about people with mundane office jobs or blue-collar workers. … In our many DYL talks and workshops around the country, we’ve heard from teachers, CEOs, coaches, doctors, … and lawyers (actually, from a lot of lawyers), and from men, women, young, middle-aged, old, single, married, divorced — you name it — people, all saying the same thing.
I don’t like my job!
This is the state of things.
And yet. We’re programmers. Are we exempt from the pull of boredom?
Well, not exactly. I believe the human condition pushes us toward a state of boredom and complacency, no matter where we find ourselves. I admit to being in a place in my life, as a coder, feeling bored. I mistakenly thought the work itself was wrong. And that was silly of me. Whenever one component is wrong with our car, we think the whole car is broken. It’s a ridiculous part of our programming that we all share as humans.
The 20th-anniversary edition of The Pragmatic Programmer (of which I did an in-depth comparison with the original edition) includes a new chapter that speaks directly to the malaise that threatens us all:
Software development must appear close to the top of any list of careers where you have control. Our skills are in demand, our knowledge crosses geographic boundaries, we can work remotely. We’re paid well. We really can do just about anything we want.
Software development is a magical career with much to offer, including money, flexibility, challenge, and many areas to learn and grow. And yet. Here’s what the authors of The Pragmatic Programmer have to say about how software developers feel:
Many developers we talk to are frustrated. Their concerns are varied. Some feel they’re stagnating in their job, others that technology has passed them by. Folks feel they are under appreciated, or underpaid, or that their teams are toxic. Maybe they want to move to Asia, or Europe, or work from home.
And the answer we give is always the same.
“Why can’t you change it?”
And that’s exactly the question, isn’t it? Why cant you?
Designing Your Work Life is about changing it.
#2: Stop Asking, “Are We There Yet?”
The coherent life is one lived in such a way that you can clearly connect the dots between who you are, what you believe, and what you are doing.
Often we associate discontentment with circumstances in our lives. But it’s funny how a small shift in perspective can transform monumental problems that are reason to “leave right now!” into something manageable.
Several years ago, I was dealing with the biggest bind of my life. I was living in impossible circumstances and working 12-to-15 hour days, staying out to avoid facing what might be waiting for me at home. Even though I felt too proud to see a therapist, I did it anyway — and what happened was magical.
I got unstuck. Instead of focusing on what I could not change, my therapist helped me focus on what I could change. As soon as I formed a plan and diligently took steps toward it, I felt better. I was still living in the same circumstances, but my mindset had shifted, and my anxiety had vanished. I was able to tolerate my situation for the several months I needed to secure a transition, since instead of feeling trapped, I had chosen to be there — at least for the time.
In our work lives, we are often discontent. We feel as if we are missing out on something — a better-paying job, a more exciting, high-impact project, or an opportunity to use our withering creative abilities. Or maybe we’re dealing with something unsavory: co-workers or bosses or unhappy customers or endless technical debt by people long departed from the project.
We feel like we’re supposed to be progressing toward the perfect, ideal circumstance, where we have it all: money, impact, and creative expression — in abundance, forever.
And this is what Designing Your Work Life has to say about that:
How often do we find ourselves waiting to get there? That magical place that we wait and wait for — the place where we will finally be content and happy. We think once we have a better job, or more money, or that promotion, we will have finally arrived at the place where things are new and different and magically better. And how many of us make ourselves deeply unhappy thinking this way? The truth is, when we live our lives waiting to get somewhere, the only place we get is stuck.
I’m going to say it again: when we live our lives waiting to get somewhere, the only place we get is stuck.
There is something powerful we can do to mitigate our nagging concerns: we choose. Instead of feeling like our circumstances opted us in, we opt in to our circumstances.
Not forever. For now.
This simple change in mindset is a huge relief. When you have a new job, it’s easy to already to be off thinking about the next thing. But one of the most powerful things you can do is commit to the right now, with all of its challenges and sacrifices.
One of the tools Designing Your Work Life gives you is a “Maker Mix.” The Maker Mix is like a switchboard with only three tracks to turn up and down: money, impact, and expression. At certain points in our lives, we choose our mix. Perhaps money is a major priority right now; expression and impact can take a dip for the time. Instead of laboring in my high-pay job wondering why I lack expression, I can know exactly why and be fine with it. Once I’ve reached my financial goals, I can pivot to prioritize expression — then stay there for awhile.
#3: Passion Is Not the Starting Point
Passion — a kind of self-organizing singular drive toward and objective — is rare. And the research shows that passion is generally something that emerges in response to working hard in an area of interest.
Perhaps this is a hard pill for me to swallow, since for me, passion is easy for me to find. I was a kid in the candy store when I took general education courses in college. I want to be and do everything on the planet. Occasionally I mourn not being an astronomer, a marine biologist, or a novelist.
But you know something I didn’t want to be when I was in college? A programmer. I took my first computer science course after graduation with a push from a relative. I was terrified. I knew people who failed their first computer science courses, and I could not face failure. My biggest fear in life is to learn that I have been on this planet all this time with the delusion that I am smarter than I actually am.
But Designing Your Work Life is absolutely right: when you invest in something you’re interested in, your passion takes shape. That first class was hard, but I was interested, and as I keep learning and as a career in tech keeps proving itself to be boundlessly complex and interesting, passion took its form.
Programming is a skill that requires investment, and the first exposures to programming can be brutal. Especially in a skill with such a steep learning curve, the pressure is especially high.
Try it. Invest in it. And ask yourself some questions:
Are you not getting bored with the tasks you’re doing?
Are you willing to stay up late to do your project?
Are you working to perfect the skills you need to do exceptional work?
Are you keeping up with what is going on in your field?
Are you curious about what others in your profession are doing?
If you answer positively, you may be growing toward a career you love.
This review snapshot covers all the basics you need to understand about this book: the audience that suits this book best, its affordability, how much value the book brings, and most importantly, how fun the book is to read. Since after all, books on programming ought to be fun to read.
Main Audience: Anyone Who Has Ever Felt Stuck
If you are absolutely in love with your career, and have been for the past couple decades, you likely already have the skills to keep being curious, reframe, and have the problem-solving skills to get yourself unstuck from challenges.
But if you are in any state of trying to arrive somewhere in your career, this book is for you. While Designing Your Work Life is a brand-new book, I have done the exercises in Designing Your Life to plan and execute several pivots in my life to great effect!
Affordability Score: New Hardcover Price
This book is brand new, with a release date of February 25th, 2020. To get the book free, you can likely put a hold on a new copy from your local library. Hardcover copies are $25 on Amazon while a digital copy is $14. For an even better deal, if you haven’t read the original book, Designing Your Life, you can find affordable print copies in abundance at your local library or on Amazon for $16.
Value Score: Priceless
My bias is pretty clear: I put the principles of Designing Your Life into use for several years and it has changed my life. Learning how to empower yourself to untangle from any problem is a skill that will benefit you always and no matter what age.
Fun Score: Packed with Activities
Designing Your Work Life is written in a casual style, with lots of examples. The authors have the benefit of training hundreds of people life design, so they have heard it all — and their book is packed with all they heard.
The book is a book about doing, so you may be surprised just how little there is to read and how much you go out there, learn, and experience.
Conclusion: Start Building Your Future Right Now
[T]here is nothing better than not knowing what comes next — that’s what makes life interesting and exciting and endlessly fascinating.
Several months ago, I went to a Designing Your Life one-day intensive workshop in San Francisco, where there were both people like me and people looking to be certified coaches in DYL.
In the workshop, we created three five-year plans (which Designing Your Life teaches you how to do) and then we told our group each of the three plans.
My group’s task was to listen to each person’s nonverbal language and tell what parts made each person excited. When my group told me what I was excited about (versus not at all), I was shocked by the results.
They told me one of my life plans elicited no excitement in me at all. This was a life path I was hanging on to for a long time — something I always imagined myself one day doing.
But it was tired and low-resolution. At this point, it was a false belief that was stuck in my head — hanging on and never going to actually be “real.” Why was I still saying something I was going to do that I just wasn’t? It was like my kid self saying something impressive that I was going to be when I grew up to appease the adults.
That day, I decided to let that potential future drift away into the aether. And what happened as a result? I saw a new future in its place — a future I kept closed because that non-starter future was holding other possibilities hostage.
Every December, I do a free-writing exercise in which I walk myself through a ‘perfect day’ — a complete fantastical wonderland of a day — several years into my future.
Last December, the vision was something completely different from years prior. It was like my barriers I had previously were ripped apart, and the future was clearer and even more exhilarating than I thought possible.
I think that’s because I consciously killed futures I could have but have decided against.
Learning to choose is the most powerful skill designing your life has to offer. I hope now, by the end of this article, you are prepared to choose a life you love and be empowered in your programming career for good.
Thank you so much for reading this article at Books on Code.
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Also, please do pick up a copy of Designing Your Work Life or its predecessor. I make this recommendation as a raving fan who wants to see more life designers in the world. I also highly recommend forming a group to follow along with the exercises over time.
And with that, I will see you in the next article. 👋😁