What's Life Design, and How Do You Use it in Coaching?

Explore Stanford's Life Design methodology and how to apply it as a life coach in this discussion with Lumia Coaching co-founders Noelle Cordeaux and John Kim.

The Everything Life Coaching Podcast, featuring Lumia Coaching founders John Kim and Noelle Cordeaux, is a deep dive into the experience and business of being a life coach. Subscribe to get new episodes weekly!

What’s Life Design?

Drawn from the work of Stanford University instructors Bill Burnett and Dan Evans, Life Design is a problem-solving methodology that can be used to navigate change and transition at any stage of life using creative, iterative, human-centered approaches. 

Design Thinking graphic: inspiration, empathy, ideation, implementation, prototyping

Life Design has its roots in the fields of career planning, psychology, and the design thinking process. This method “applies design thinking to tackling the "wicked" problems of life and vocational wayfinding.” (Stanford Life Design Lab)

How Does It Apply to Coaching?

Life Design is rooted in the idea that you can “build your way forward,” based on curiosity, trial, and evaluation. This is a great method to draw from when a life coaching client is working on a “feeling goal” versus a more clear cut target or objective. 

What’s the difference?

Feeling Goal: “I want to be productive and happy in life.”

Target Goal: “I want to graduate from NYU Law, with a focus on entrepreneurship, then settle in the suburbs of New York to be in close proximity to my mother.”

In the second example, you’re working with coaching tools that support your client in laying out a plan and taking clear, actionable steps toward their desired outcome. Progress is measurable.

But what about that first example? As a coach, how do you help your client define and measure a more subjective end state such as “productive and happy”? This could mean many things! In this case, we aren’t really starting with the future vision and working our way backwards because there are so many possible outcomes.

This is precisely where design thinking comes into play. 

The process involves brainstorming like crazy, and a willingness to consider “outside the box” thinking and action. With each experiment, the client evaluates and improvises until they come up with something that works for them. 

When it comes to “feeling goals”, only the client can determine when they arrive at a desired state such as “productive and happy”. 

“Feelings goals" are awesome.

Here's why. Defining how we want to FEEL in our lives is often a far more precious objective than chasing levels of achievement and accomplishment as defined by society at large.

Where Did Life Design Come From?

Bill Burnett and Dave Evans both had long and interesting careers in Silicon Valley before they began teaching design theory at Stanford. After encountering student after student brimming with potential but lacking clear cut goals for the future, they wondered if the very same principles that apply to design thinking could be applied to life itself!

The outcome of that question turned into one of Stanford University’s most popular courses: “Designing Your Life”. It also resulted in some great research on the topic, a book by the same name, and a host of courses, workshops and frameworks.

What Do We Need to Know?

When we apply design thinking to our lives, we end up with a way of living that is generative. 

What this means is that your life is constantly evolving, creative, productive, challenging, and changing... and that there will always be the possibility of surprise.

If you hate the idea of tossing out the rule book, Life Design might make you feel a little squirmy at first! But as Frank Zappa once said: "If you end up with a boring, miserable life because you listened to your mom, your dad, your teacher, your priest, or some guy on television telling you how to do your shit, you deserve it."

So - let this be an invitation to run the gauntlet and see what happens when you embrace the potential for mystery around every corner!

How Do We Do It?

1. Radically accept where you are on your life’s journey.

We can understand the heart of what this means through the words of Dr. Maya Angelou:

 “We have to confront ourselves.  Do we like what we see in the mirror?  And, according to our light, according to our understanding, according to our courage, we will have to say yea or nay – and rise!” - Maya Angelou

2. Forget finding your passion!

Seek first to understand yourself.

Very few people have “just one thing” that they are passionate about. Life Design requires constant and continual self-reflection, so lean into your curiosity. You cannot design your life well if you don't understand who you are, where you come from, and what unique interests and skills you have to offer the world.

3. Define what matters to you.

Investigate and take ownership of what matters to you about yourself, others, and the world. Release what doesn’t align with the person you want to be. 

4. Brainstorm many possible pathways. 

Instead of imagining one “desired future state”, think of 3, 5, or 10 very different future lives that you could picture yourself happily inhabiting. Consider an array of options.

5. Build a network to learn from others.

Connecting with other people with empathy and learning from their experiences is something many of us are not used to doing. Traditional schooling has taught many of us to be competitive, stay in our own lane, and do our own work. Point of fact: students often get expelled for copying, or “cheating” by working with another student to find an answer. 

In Life Design, the idea is to cheat away!

Talk to people. See who’s doing what, and which approaches you might want to emulate in your own life.

It’s important here to acknowledge that this can be intimidating and difficult for many, especially those who do not have strong social capital.

Attempting to break into entirely new networks, especially ones that have historically excluded people of diverse backgrounds and identities, can be challenging. Coaching can help model how to do this effectively.

6. Design your story + your personal brand.

Guess what? This isn’t a one-and-done process. You can and will change along the way!

7. Try it out.

Test your ideas and assumptions in the real world. Yes, this can and should be messy and imperfect. Know that you can always pivot and reverse course.

8. Be flexible.

Adapt your plan based on what you learn. Whatever the outcome, where you end up will rarely look exactly like what you thought it would be.

9. Focus on who you are evolving INTO

Life design is all about the journey. You might find yourself in a life you absolutely love, only to realize three years from now that it's time to move on to something new. So when that moment comes, as it likely will, remind yourself that life design is an iterative process. It’s something that you draw on again and again throughout life, and one that can be applied to help you redesign any arena of life.

10. Believe your life is worth designing.

Yes, you friend! Your life has infinite value and worth. You deserve a life brimming with vitality and purpose. Bring intention to the process, and enjoy the unfolding.

Every time you state what you want or believe, you’re the first to hear it. It’s a message to both you and others about what you think is possible. – Oprah Winfrey

Ready to Help Others Design More Satisfying Lives?

If you’d like to put life design theory into practice as a coach, come check out Lumia Life Coach Training. Grounded in science, our ICF accredited program features authentic instructors, a robust curriculum, and fellow students dedicated to becoming a force for good in the world. 

Lumia Coaching: Vibrant community. Evidence-based life coach training. Lifetime support.

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