In the bestselling novel The Midnight Library, protagonist Nora Seed is granted the remarkable opportunity to inhabit parallel lives in which she has made different choices. Suddenly Nora is able to learn what the outcome might have been had she developed different skills, chosen different relationships, or lived in different parts of the world.     

Unfortunately, unlike Nora, we don’t have the opportunity to “try out” all of the paths we might have taken. But by applying design thinking to personal goals, we can come much closer to discovering which choices—of profession, lifestyle, interests, and relationships—will best serve us.

What is design thinking?  

Commonly practiced in fields such as engineering and IT, design thinking prioritizes attention to user experience to create the best product. Even though it is frequently employed in technical fields, design thinking requires the practitioner to step outside of a technical mindset to inhabit another’s point of view. Because it requires an empathetic, human-centered approach, this technique has also been recognized as a powerful tool for personal development.  

Two of the most famous advocates of design thinking are Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, founders of the Life Design Lab at Stanford University and authors of the bestselling book Designing Your Life, which is based on a popular course they teach at the university. Through their teaching, books, and TED Talks, Burnett and Evans explain the value of design thinking as a path toward self-understanding.

How can you begin applying design thinking to your life?

 1. Position yourself as “the user.” First, you must envision yourself as both the researcher and the user. Imagine that a friend has come to you with a problem. You listen to her actively and without judgment, asking questions that help her clarify how she is feeling and determine what to do about it. Now, imagine that you are both the listener and the friend, and prepare to grant yourself the same attention and compassion.

2. Define and record down the key problem you’re trying to solve. Taking a moment to articulate a problem can yield unexpected insights. Dig deep to get at the root of the problem rather than simply recording your reaction to it. Rather than writing down “I don’t like my job” or “I want to live in a different place,” write “My job doesn’t provide me with enough opportunities to be creative” or “I want to live somewhere that is less expensive so I can afford to travel more.”  

 3. Deeply imagine different paths. One of several ideas Burnett and Evans recommend for designing your life brings us back to Nora, the protagonist of The Midnight Library. The Life Design Lab gurus suggest devising three “Odyssey Plans,” three detailed ideations of your future life.

Let’s say that your problem is feeling stuck in an uninspiring job. For Odyssey Plan #1, imagine your current life, but optimized. Perhaps you are able to take steps at work to find further opportunities or create inspiration in other parts of your life that make your job less dispiriting. In Odyssey Plan #2, your job suddenly no longer exists; the tasks for which you are qualified are now being performed by robots. What do you do? What other skills do you develop? In Odyssey Plan #3, you are independently wealthy. What would you do if suddenly liberated from all financial concerns. 

As you begin to flesh out these parallel lives, you’ll be surprised by what rises to the surface, and where it may lead you in your real life. By encouraging you to turn down the noise of the outside world and tune into yourself, design thinking can help you open many unexpected doors.