Designing Your Work Life: How to Thrive and Change and Find Happiness at Work

Book Review by Janine Rowe

Burnett, B., & Evans, D. (2020). Designing your work life: How to thrive and change and find happiness at work. Alfred A. Knopf. 240 pages.


As a follow-up to their New York Times bestseller Designing Your Life (2016), authors Bill Burnett and David Evans apply life design concepts specifically to the working life in their latest book. Designing Your Work Life (2020) helps readers understand how to utilize design thinking to increase happiness and satisfaction in their jobs and their experiences of work. Concepts from self-determination theory, growth mindset research, and positive psychology blend with elements of design thinking to empower readers.

Designing Your Working Life can be a useful tool for independent career development professionals working with clients who want to choose or change careers, as well as those seeking better satisfaction with their current work or better integration of work into their lives. Some of the most relevant lessons for these situations are: thinking like a designer; re-framing problems; and addressing the false dichotomy of “meaning or money” in career development.

Applying Design Thinking to Careers

Design thinking can be defined as “Processes used by designers and entrepreneurs to find the solution to complex issues, navigate new or uncertain environments, and create a new product for the world” (Black et al, 2019, glossary). With backgrounds in technology design, Burnett and Evans apply several concepts from design thinking to career development, including prototyping and design-in-place.

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Prototyping involves being curious and trying new activities, growing one’s professional network, and trying new experiences. Career practitioners will recognize this recommendation as similar to career happenstance, which encourages individuals to take action to increase the likelihood of positive events happening in their lives (Mitchell et al., 1999). The authors offer several homework assignments in a “try stuff” exercises section. Design-in-place exercises focus on identifying ways readers can reinvent and reinvigorate their working lives without searching for a new job. The book’s guidance on differentiating overwhelm from burnout, along with managing feeling overwhelmed with day-to-day tasks, is particularly relevant during the COVID-19 pandemic and for the resilience needed as the pandemic passes.

Reframing Problems

Borrowing from cognitive-behavioral approaches, the authors discuss work-related cognitive errors, irrational thoughts, and magical thinking, which they refer to collectively as “dysfunctional beliefs.” These beliefs can contribute to feeling stuck and powerless. Case studies provided in the book demonstrate how a reframing exercise can help individuals identify their agency and ability to impact a situation in small, actionable ways.

For example, the dysfunctional belief I’m not happy in my job, and I have no idea how to make it better is reframed as I recognize my intrinsic motivations and I know how to increase my autonomy, relatedness, and competence (Burnett & Evans, 2020, p. 141). The authors utilize reframes frequently throughout the text, noting that reframing a problem is not the same as renaming the problem. Reframing helps individuals focus their energies on things they can control, identify possible solutions, and reduce over-identification with the problem, while renaming simply describes a problem in new language but does not necessarily unpack one’s motivations or desires, which are clues to possible solutions. The technique of reframing goes deeper than renaming, with the potential to be effective in resolving various types of career concerns.

The False Dichotomy of Money or Meaning

Working with individuals at the Life Design Lab of Stanford University, the authors have observed that people tend to value career opportunities as either money-making or meaning-making and feel that they have to choose one at the expense of the other. Instead of evaluating opportunities based on potential for money or meaning, the authors suggest reflecting on one’s ideal “Maker Mix.” With the metaphor of a sound engineer using a mixing board, they suggest that identifying the right mix of financial reward, creative expression, and impact-making will allow for greater career satisfaction.

A Valuable Resource for Career Counselors and Clients

Designing Your Work Life is a valuable book for career changers and for anyone seeking to advance in their career or improve satisfaction with current employment. It is appropriate for use with the support of a career development practitioner or as a self-directed endeavor. The book is written in a conversational style, which makes the concepts and recommendations accessible. While many examples are taken from the authors’ personal experiences in the technology sector, case studies are provided that represent various education levels, career fields, and industry backgrounds, including education, health care, transportation, and hospitality. By following the exercises in the text and learning from the case studies, readers may feel increasingly encouraged, validated, and confident about taking control of the next steps in their careers.



Black, S., Gardner, D., Pierce, J. & Steers, R. (2019). Organizational behavior. Openstax Books. https://opentextbc.ca/organizationalbehavioropenstax/chapter/design-thinking/

Burnett, B., & Evans, D. (2016). Designing your work life: How to build a well-lived, joyful life. Alfred A. Knopf.

Mitchell, K., Levin, A., & Krumboltz, J. (1999). Planned happenstance: Constructing unexpected opportunities. Journal of Counseling & Development, 77(2), 3-12.



Janine RoweJanine Rowe, MSEd, CCC, NCC, CASAC, is a therapist with a private career counseling practice in Rochester, New York. She is currently the past president of the New York State Career Development Association and was a participant in NCDA's Leadership Academy and Counselor Educator Academy. Janine is a Field Editor with Career Convergence, a member of NCDA's Diversity and Inclusion committee and a part of the NCDA credentialing re-certification audit team. Her professional interests include career success in neurodiverse individuals, career counseling best practices for individuals with disabilities, and post-modern career theories. She can be reached at Janine@talktojanine.com.  


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Mary Rose Tichar   on Friday 04/02/2021 at 12:40 PM

Thank you, Janine, this is so helpful and salient for times such as this. I appreciate your summary and suggestions. thank you.

Jim Peacock   on Monday 05/24/2021 at 12:03 PM

Thank you for sharing this book review. I love this book and the idea of creating/designing your own career.

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