in: Career, Career & Wealth, Podcast

• Last updated: February 21, 2022

Podcast #764: Prototype Your Way to a Better Life

I used to wake up early, around 5:15, and do my workout right after getting out of bed. But I noticed I was tired all day, and just felt kind of stiff and not very strong during my workouts. So I decided to try waking up a couple hours later, and doing my workouts in the late afternoon instead. I found that setting up my schedule this way gave me greater energy, both overall, and during my workouts.

My guest says that this tinkering I did with my routine is an example of life prototyping, a process that can be used for anything and everything in order to improve both your personal and professional life.

His name is Dave Evans, and as a lecturer in Stanford’s Design Program, he teaches the popular Designing Your Life course, which, as the name implies, takes the principles of design thinking, and applies them to crafting a happy and fulfilling life. He’s also the co-author, along with Bill Burnett, of Designing Your Life and Designing Your New Work Life. Today on the show, Dave explains how one of the central steps to design thinking — prototyping — can help you make both big and small changes that move you closer to the life you want to lead. He explains what prototyping is, how prototyping a life is different from prototyping a product, the two approaches involved with the former, and embracing the design thinking mindset of being immune to failure.

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Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Now, I used to wake up early, around 5:15, and do my workout right after getting out of bed, but I noticed I was tired all day, and I just felt kind of stiff and not very strong during my workouts. So, I decided to try waking up a few hours later, 7:15, and doing my workouts in the late afternoon instead. I found that setting up my schedule this way gave me greater energy, both overall and during my workouts. Well, my guest today says that this tinkering I did with my routine is an example of life prototyping, a process that can be used for anything and everything in order to improve both your personal and professional life. His name is Dave Evans, and as a lecturer in Stanford’s Design Program, he teaches the popular Designing Your Life course, which, as the name implies, takes the principles of design thinking and applies them to crafting a happy and fulfilling life. He’s also the co-author, along with Bill Burnett, of Design Your Life and Designing Your New Work Life.

Today on the show, Dave explains how one of the central steps of design thinking, called prototyping, can help you make both big and small changes that move you closer to the life you want to lead. He explains what prototyping is, how prototyping a life is different from prototyping a product, the two approaches involved with the former, and embracing the design thinking mindset of being immune to failure. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at

Alright. Dave Evans, welcome to the show.

Dave Evans: Great to be here, Brett. Thanks for having me.

Brett McKay: So you are a lecturer at Stanford’s Design Program. For those who aren’t familiar with design thinking, ’cause it’s what you teach… Big picture, what is design thinking, and what is it that your graduates of your program… What do they go on to do?

Dave Evans: Sure. The Stanford Design Program is the eldest interdisciplinary program at the university. It started in 1963, actually; been the lunatic fringe for a long time, integrating engineering, psychology, and art… Anything we call human-centered design; that’s the formal term of what we teach at the design program. Nowadays known as design thinking, it’s a new name for an older idea. And you can, in fact, get either a BS in engineering and design, or you can get an MS or MA in design from the Stanford Design Program, which is technically located inside the mechanical engineering department of the School of Engineering. So design thinking, or human-centered design, is one of the methodologies for innovation and problem-solving that we teach at the Stanford School of Engineering. So that’s the elevator description. And what do you do if you get a design degree from Stanford; really do a whole bunch of different things? The key thing to understand here is, there are, as I put it, two schools or two domains of design in the world, and they’re both totally legitimate, but they’re quite different. There’s what I call craft design. So I’m a graphic designer, I’m an industrial designer, a car designer; I shape things, I color things, I draw things. And that’s the older design world by far. Those real designers would look at the stuff we do at Stanford going, “That’s not design!”

You can get a Master’s in design at Stanford and still not be able to draw that well. And a real designer… An old-school designer might say, “No, no, no, that’s all wrong.” Because our design is not a craft per se, it’s a methodology, so we think a different kind of way; that’s why the name got moved over to design thinking: It’s not design crafting or drawing or shaping, it’s design thinking. And we take an approach to problem-solving, and it’s a methodology that’s been developed quite thoroughly over the last 50+ years, and it really has been sort of the cardiopulmonary system of an awful lot of product development here in Silicon Valley that’s changed the world, and that’s sort of where design thinking got super popular in the last 10, 15 years. So what you do with that design degree is you can go be a product designer, you can be an… A user experience designer, you can be product management… A lot of people go into the product world. Increasingly, people have been going to consulting. Design is now being used in educational design, and social systems design, and… Large social impact design, so design thinking can actually apply almost anywhere there. IBM is one of the largest design thinking-certified institutions on the planet; they do all kinds of things.

Brett McKay: So the idea is, you find a problem, and you apply this process that’s multidisciplinary to solve that problem.

Dave Evans: Yep. Exactly.

Brett McKay: Gotcha.

Dave Evans: And in particular, before you… Actually… You do two things: You apply this interdisciplinary process first to find the right problem to solve, then, to define exactly which part of it you’re going to uniquely solve, and then, to come up with the ideas for actually pulling that off. So we talk about problem-finding preceding problem-solving. Half the time stuff doesn’t work is ’cause you’re working on the wrong thing. The steps of design are, very simply, five steps: Empathy, definition, ideation, prototyping, and test. We start with deeply understanding what’s going on. The first question isn’t “What do I do?” The first question is “What’s happening?” Very different question. And then, we define, “Well, what… That’s happening here, might I have something to offer to?” You don’t presuppose you even can have a solution; that’s being a little imperial. And so then, if there is something, and the elements of a definition include a user, an insight, and a problem, so who am I serving, what’s the real problem that deserves to be addressed, and do I have any insight to contribute to that in a unique way? If I don’t have all three of those things, I haven’t defined anything yet.

And then, I start having a bunch of ideas, and the core thing is prototyping. The problems we solve are called wicked problems, not tame problems. If you got a tame, well-bounded, highly-defined problem, you can solve replicatably over and over again, that’s probably an engineering problem; you do some equations and some charts. If you got a messy human problem where you don’t know what you’re looking for until you find it, then you probably need to design your way forward, and the only way to do that is empirically, with these hands-on prototypes, where you try stuff over and over again until you find the thing that really works.

Brett McKay: Okay, so let’s talk about how we can start applying design thinking to our own lives and big picture. This is a course that takes several weeks to get through. I mean, you wrote an entire book and another book about it, about your work life, so hopefully, we can give people a big picture. You make the case that when you start off, you need to kind of have an idea of where you are now. I think you have that famous… There’s a sign at the design program that says, “You are here. Know where you’re at right now.” And kind of come up with some metrics so you can know where you’re going. And then you recommend people… Your students to come up with a dashboard; that there’s some criteria checking, and then there’s… For… I guess we’ll call them analytics that you’re checking on this dashboard. What are those analytics, and how do you figure out where you are right now with that stuff?

Dave Evans: Actually, the first thing we’re saying you need to do is to accept that you are wherever it is that you are. You may not know where it is you are, but you gotta accept that that is where you are. So the sign… There’s a “You are here” sign that looks like one of those locators in an airport. A great big four-foot diameter one that’s hanging on the wall outside the lab where our grad students hang out, as a reminder you have to start there, and on our books, if you take the dust jacket off on the hardcover book, you’ll see a “You are here” symbol stamped into the cover, just to make sure that the reader knows “No, no, no, you have… You… ” The way I put it is, step zero of the design process: Empathy, definition, ideation, prototyping, test. Step zero of… The sixth step is acceptance. You start by accepting you are wherever it is you are, ’cause most people don’t. Like, I really should be somewhere else, and shitting on yourself doesn’t help at all. So you have to get over that. And wherever it is you are, that is where you are, and now, let’s go figure out where that is and start moving from there. So thing one is to accept that things simply are the way they are. Design only works in reality. It doesn’t work in magical thinking, and it doesn’t work in the land of should. We won’t shit on you. We don’t recommend your shit on yourself either. So thing one is acceptance, and then thing two is “Where am I?”

And so, the dashboard, and also, I think of the Good Time Journal. So the dashboard is our reframe of the balance problem, ’cause one of the shoulds that people get stuck in really quickly is the work-life balance problem, and it’s true of students, it’s true of almost everybody, “Oh, my work-life balance… I gotta go fix that.” Well, when your brain has the opportunity to define a complex problem by oversimplifying it, it uses two opposing forces. Your brain will turn it into a teeter-totter, a zero-sum game. So work goes up, life goes down. Life goes up, work goes down. My work-life balance is a zero-sum game. And that’s not true of most things; that’s an oversimplification, and that binary thinking is really dangerous. It’s dysfunctional, whatever you call it. So, the first point of our dashboard, the work-love-play-health dashboard, is that you aren’t just two things.

So when you need to simplify something to make it manageable… Einstein said, “All metaphors are wrong, some metaphors are helpful.” So we’re trying to save an unhelpful metaphor, work-life trade-off, and make it a more helpful metaphor, which is the work-love-play-health metaphor, which is, again, a hyper-simplification of the complexity of the human adventure, but it’s not bad, and it fits on a page. So look at those things, and the first thing is, recognize that all four of them, defined according to you: What does work mean to you; it’s not just about money. What does love mean to you in all of its various forms, from intimacy to friendship. What does play mean, where I’m there for the joy of it. And health, which is physical and social and spiritual and… These are rich definitions that you can monkey with, so it’s a very user-defined reality; we just give you a container to get better in. And then, recognize when you move one of the sliders up or down a little more, a little less of something, you don’t have to move all the other ones too; they’re not in lockstep. There’s not only 100 points of your aliveness, and as soon as you take one away from work and put it on play, you have to decrement something. It doesn’t work like that.

So we do that four-attribute dashboard, just as a way of trying to look at a whole life. I’m not just designing my job, so we’ve gotta get more than work going on, so that’s why the dashboard is there. And then the other thing, even preceding the dashboard, by the way, is what we call the Good Time Journal. The Good Time journal is a way to just log what you’re doing, the activities of your day, and then notice, at the end of the day, where was I engaged or disengaged at what level? And what level of energy is this giving or taking from you? And I mean, are you physically tired, but are you… Is your aliveness increased or your aliveness depleted at the end of, you know, talking to Brett on a podcast? And by the way, I love doing this stuff. So that’s where we help people and say, “Don’t change anything, just track yourself. Just be empathetic and watch yourself.” You start with accepting it is what it is, then you take the what it is and you observe it well, and then you redefine your self-assessment with a little more complex model than an over-simplifying dysfunctional model, in those… With those Good Time Journal and dashboard tools. And now, you’re in a good place to start.

Brett McKay: Okay, and then… So you got this information, this big picture overview. You can start… Maybe just kind of start seeing… Maybe not granularly, but you start seeing the shape of, “Well, maybe there’s a problem here.” You start seeing problems. That is where design thinking starts coming in. As you said earlier, part of it is using a thinking process to make sure you’re solving the right problem. So, let’s apply design thinking. How do we define problems using design thinking? So we’re looking at our dashboard, got our work, love, health, play all there, we’re like, “Okay, what’s… Where do I see the problem? How do I figure out my problems?”

Dave Evans: Right, okay. And first of all, there are two pretty different kinds of things going on in the work that we do. And we will definitely say that our work is not a system. It’s not, “Here’s a 17-step system, and you start at step one, and you’re finish at step 17, and then you’ll have an epiphany, and your life is great, and we’re good to go.” No, it’s not anywhere near that prescriptive. We don’t think people are that homogenous. They’re similar enough that we can use these tools, but by no means do I know what you need to be doing. So first of all, we’re not systematic. We’re coherent, but we’re a toolkit. It’s barely a methodology; it certainly isn’t a system. And you don’t have to start at the beginning and end at the end; you can start in the middle. So that being said, first of all, am I trying to make a small incremental change in my life? You know, I mean… Designing or… How to build the well-lived and joyful life? Well, is that a minor adjustment, or is that a wholesale renewal? So a bunch of people are at an inflection point in life. You know, “I’m coming out of college,” or “I’m really done with this first job,” or “I’m… ” I teach in a thing… A really cool program now. My primary teaching at Stanford is a program called the DCI, the Distinguished Career Institute. Sounds very snazzy. It’s the gap year for grown-ups. Mostly… I mean, the range is 45-85. Most of the people in there are in their late 50s to their late 60s…

On the way into what we used to call retirement, or your encore phase, your third… Something like that. And they take a year off. Stanford charges them a ton, but that’s… That’s Stanford. And they get to be in this cool community and think deeply about, “What am I gonna do with the rest of my life?” And so, this question… And so, they’re definitely doing life design. Now, that’s the big redesign of life for a change, and there’s the little adjustments along the way. So, if I’m doing… Let’s start with a smaller adjustment along the way. Well, I just wrote an article, we posted yesterday on LinkedIn, on reframe and re-enlist, so, for people in the workplace who are looking for a better job… You know, 64% of Americans and 80% of the worldwide workforce are disengaged at work; it’s not working for them. Probably most of the people listening to this are having some struggle. Well, that’s kind of heartbreaking; there’s too many souls to crush. So we said, “Look, the best place to get a better job and the easiest place to get a better job is from yourself!”

And we have four strategies for doing that. These are tactical strategies, which are reframe and re-enlist, number one, number two, remodel, number three, relocate, and number four, reinvent. And my article’s focusing in on strategy number one, reframe and re-enlist. Literally, just change the narrative of what you are doing, which can transform your experience and what it is you’re doing. Maybe you don’t want a new job; you don’t… You can’t even get a new job description, but you could have a different point of view about what it is that you are doing. And a whole lot of people in a post-hybrid work environment, and as we’re starting to come out of the pandemic, it may be the same job, but my point of view has changed, so it’s time to reframe and re-enlist. So the reframe is, write a different story. It’s a specific bite-sized tool on the dashboard. I do that dashboard tool, and I kind of go, “Well, I am experiencing… Life feels a little flat, feels a little boring. Well, okay, maybe I need more play.” But at one point, literally, I noticed… Is it’s a very small tool utilization… That I grew up with; you get your work done first, and then you can play. And I had that as a habit all my life. Of course, when there’s no such thing as the end of the day, you know, when you’re getting emails from clients all over the world 24 by 7… I mean, the work kind of never ends.

So I kept noticing that I wasn’t playing at all until after dark, ’cause I just worked straight through the day. I kind of got, “I can’t do this anymore.” And my wife is bugging me, ’cause she goes, “You know, you’re not pulling your end of the weight on taking care of the dogs.” We have two dogs. So I said, “Oh, what if I started doing dog walks in the middle of the afternoon when it’s sunny, and I don’t think of that as a chore; I frame that as play? And I find some way to make that fun to the dogs; I’ve come up with some games.” So it’s 20 minutes, 20 freaking minutes, three times a week, in the middle of the day, not after dark, I take the dogs out for a walk in the park across the street from my house. And it’s transformative.

Those are small changes, and you start with those by identifying where the pain point is, or where the change point wants to be. And then, frankly, you scan through the book and grab the right tool. On the large end… And I’ll just tee this up, and I’ll go throwing in this one question. Our centerpiece tool is the Odyssey plan. This is why I’m really coming up with a new… A potential overhaul of my life. And that’s a different starting point, so I do this Odyssey plan, which comes up with three completely different versions of the next five years of my life on a single piece of paper. And then, what I get out of that Odyssey plan worksheet is not a decision to make. I get a shopping list of prototyping.

Brett McKay: Prototyping isn’t a big part of design thinking, but as you were talking, I think you could even do this with those small changes as well. You see an issue, say, at work, you do this dashboard stuff, this analysis, and you try to figure out, what is it that brings me joy at work and what is it that de-energizes me? You can start… Then, from… Once you have that idea, that information, you can start generating ideas on how you could just keep your job, but do less of the stuff that you don’t like, and more of the stuff that really drives you, and then you can come up with a prototype and, say, come to your boss, say, “Boss, I’d like to try this out. Can we give it a shot?” And he might say yes, and it… You run with it, and maybe it works, great. If it doesn’t, okay, you tried.

Dave Evans: Yeah, it’s… So first of all, briefly, I’m prototyping, which is a big deal for us in the design thinking world. And by prototyping, we mean a specific thing. We don’t mean what a lot of people mean, which, by the way, is totally valid too; it’s just different. Which I consider a late stage engineering prototype. If your prototype’s job is to prove that the thing you’ve developed really works right before you go visit it on the end user, then you’re doing an engineering prototype. Very important thing to do, not what I’m doing in design. So the question the prototype is addressing is the critical concern. So if the question your prototype is addressing is, “Hey, does this work?” What that means is, you hope it does, which means you hope you’re done; you hope this is it. Well, when we’re in design and iterating our way to a solution, we absolutely know for sure, when we start, that this isn’t it because we’re working on something we never saw before. So the question of a design prototype is, what am I trying to learn? What do I want to know more about? So, the reason you have failure immunity when you do prototype design in a design thinking manner is, the only purpose of that prototype is to learn something. It doesn’t matter if it “fails”. I mean, it’s not gonna become the product; it’s not gonna become the decision of your next life design. That’s not the issue, it’s just, “Did I learn something?”

So in life design… I mean, you can think about how would I prototype a product, like when I was the mouse product manager for Apple a million years ago, I had a box full of 130 mice under my desk. And so, I know what a prototype product looks like. Well, what’s a prototype life look like? Well, it looks like two things. It’s a conversation or an experience. I go talk to people who are already having the kind of life I’m having. The psychological term for that is surrogation. In fact, Dan Gilbert at Harvard wrote this… Has research that shows that surrogation, talking to other people, is a superior form of discernment, insight gathering than his research. Read all the Google reports versus go talk to a couple of people. Talking to a couple of people’s a lot better. So, we believe… Go talk to people. And then the second, let’s try stuff. Get it right along, get some experience. So before, by the way, you come up with a prototype idea, you don’t go ask your boss, you just go do it. You just go start trying and stuff, and you’ll come back, maybe later on, like, “Hey, I’ve done this thing 10 times, it worked pretty well. What do you think?” Because most of the small changes people wanna make, you don’t need permission. Just go for it.

Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors.

And now, back to the show. Okay, gotcha. Put it on those big changes, that’s when prototyping will come in particularly handy, ’cause you’re… Like you said, you think you might have a solution based on this information you have, but you probably don’t. So you prototype to figure out, well, is this a viable option? So let’s say you’re thinking I wanna start a completely new career. ‘Cause then you feel like, “Well, I… ” ‘Cause… On paper, it looks good. It’s like, “Well, it has all the things that I feel like engages me.” But you really don’t know until you actually do something. So, you said two ways you can do that to figure out is talk to people, and then, come up with…

Dave Evans: Try it.

Brett McKay: Try it. So I need to talk to people with their career; I think that the people I’ve heard about… Just interviews. They’re not like job interviews, they’re sort of informational interviews, where you just talk… “Tell me about your job, tell me what you do.” That’s one…

Dave Evans: Totally.

Brett McKay: That’s one type of prototyping.

Dave Evans: It’s a huge one. And by the way, interesting, we were about to go on TV for a live talk show in Canada a couple of years ago. And of course, the show got behind, and the assistant producer grabs me behind the camera, and Bill and I are standing right there, and he goes, “Oh, hey, Dave, we’re behind. We need you to have the book in a sentence, okay?” And I said, “Dude, [chuckle] we’re Stanford instructors. Neither of us, me especially, are known… ” As I’ve already proven here, “For short answers to complex questions. I don’t think you can get a 280-page book in a sentence!” And he goes, “Well, then you’re off the air,” and I said, “Give me a minute.” And so, it wasn’t one sentence, but… ‘Cause it’s four, but it’s only 10 words. So if your readers haven’t got time to read the book, here it is. Just get a Post-It note out, and everything you need to know, about 90% of what you need to know, is… Get curious, talk to people, try stuff, tell your story. Four steps: Get curious, talk to people, try stuff, tell your story. And the hint in that, by the way, is two out of four of the four-step simplified process are prototyping: Talk to people and try stuff, are prototyping. And the talk to people is absolutely crucial, ’cause you gotta talk to people to get to try stuff. And the talk to people is what used to be called the informational interview, what we call the life design prototype conversation.

And you’re absolutely right; it’s critically important that it is not a job interview. It is not a transactional interview. You’re not asking for money, a referral, the job. What you’re asking for is the story; it’s all about the story. You know, “Hey, Brett, are you hiring any more interviewers?” “No.” I mean, nine times out of 10, when you’re asking a transactional question, the person you’re talking to doesn’t even have the thing you want, like a job. Much less, if they did, are they gonna give it to you? And if you do ask that question, the brain you’re gonna get from the person you’re listening to is a judging brain. “Hmm, if I had a job, would I do it with this guy?” That’s a judging brain. I don’t want that brain, I want a collaborative brain. I want an open-minded, innovative brain, like, “Hey, Brett, turns out, you and I have this incredible shared interest! You think you’re really interesting. I think you’re really interesting. We agree on that. Why don’t we get together and talk about how interesting you are? Would that work for you?” I’m not sure I’d actually say it quite that sycophantically, but not far from. And that conversation, people are willing to have. So that’s the conversation you get.

And literally, psychologically, we’ve learned that hearing other people’s stories is an experience. Your body will actually be… ‘Cause we’re really social animals. We really do connect to each other. And I can learn a lot from you. It’s not the information, it’s that my person is experiencing your person’s experience through this story; that’s what’s really going on. We call it harmonic resonance.  The resonance lies. And then you go off and try to have some experiences. But you start with storytelling. By the way, prototyping is crucially important in all the way from tiny changes to huge ones. And Bill and I talk about the “Set the bar low and clear it” method, and we’re kind of like, “Well, you know, life’s hard. Let’s just take a small step and see where it goes.” So give yourself a chance to succeed. So prototyping is always important. It’s just that on the big change stuff, prototyping is particularly important to avoid the downside of not having prototyped. “You know, I’ve had it with this corporate crap. I wanna start a restaurant. I love Tuscany. I’m gonna start the most amazing Tuscan restaurant you ever saw.” And we know a woman who did this, and off she goes! And she canvases these areas, and she buys a decrepit deli, and she totally remodels this thing, and she has a deli cafe, and she opens it to great fanfare, and…

And she’s successful, except she hates it! Turns out, running a restaurant and going to Tuscany are not the same thing at all. She has to cook the same recipe over and over again, ’cause everybody loves the food, and she’s… Most of the staff are entry-level high school kids, and they quit about every six minutes, so she’s constantly interviewing people that don’t want to work for her anyway. And like, “Who ordered this?” Well, you could prototype that experience much less expensively. So when you’re making big changes, prototypes are crucially important to avoid the problem that happens when you didn’t know you’d made an assumption. Your prototypes help you learn things. They help you uncover hidden assumptions. They allow you to sneak up on the future very inexpensively. And by the way, they’re fun.

Brett McKay: Here’s a question that popped in my head while you were talking about these interviews, these… We’ll call… Informational interviews is what I call them. How do you ask the questions so you get the full picture, ’cause I’ve done this in the past. When I was in law school or thinking about going to law school, I did some informational interviews with attorneys. And I’d had no clue what I was supposed to be asking, and… I feel like I ended up asking questions that were… It basically gave a positive spin on the profession of being an attorney. I didn’t actually get what it, I think, was really like. I didn’t figure that out until I interned as an attorney. It was actually in the office, and hearing the water cooler chatter, and interacting with… So, how do you go into an information interview, where you get… The good and… You get the whole thing, warts and all?

Dave Evans: Right, and again, I don’t think it’s necessarily you’re looking for the dirt.

Brett McKay: I’m not looking for… Yeah, but you’re looking…

Dave Evans: If people pick up you’ve sort of got that investigative reporter thing going on, you’re gonna out them, then it’s not gonna work great.

Brett McKay: No, but you’re looking for, like, you… Okay, well, is this actually something that I would enjoy, or is he missing something that I… He’s not talking about something that I… That’s important for me to know.

Dave Evans: Well, that’s interesting. I think you just got after something. And I don’t know what you did that first time before the internship, but if what you were asking about was what was on your mind, that’s not that interesting. What’s interesting is what’s on my mind. And so, will I like this? That’s Let’s say you’re talking to me, like, “Hey, Dave, you made the shift from high tech into education. And I’m thinking… You know, is… So is curriculum planning… And I’m worried about doing curriculum planning, so… How hard is curriculum planning?” You’re solving your problem. I don’t wanna solve your problem. I’m not interested in your problem. What makes an informational interview work is, you get me going on telling my story. So, the questions you would ask, “Dave, I’m trying to understand the shift you made from high-tech product development, and then management consulting, into education. That’s a pretty different domain, and it really is.” Kind of goes, “Well, gee, how did that happen? And was that what you had in mind? If you had a do-over, what would you do differently? And what’s the biggest surprise you’ve had while you’re there? What was least like what you thought it was going to be? What have you learned since you’ve been doing this? What’s the fun part for you now? If you could change anything in front of you right now… ” But the questions I’m asking now… You can ask anybody these questions. But they’re all about them.

And now, if you do a really good job, you do all your homework upfront, one of my counsels is, never waste face time. I don’t mean the Apple app, I mean the in-person… Particularly in a post-pandemic world, oh my god. You’ve got somebody live in-person in front of you, physically in front of you. Do not waste face time having the person you’re talking to give you information you can read on a website. That means you’re asking me to read to you. So, you don’t care enough to even do your homework. So do your homework, which By the way, anytime you read about people, you read about what they’re doing, you can imagine what they’re sweating with. Keep in mind, people talk about you with, “I wanna get a good snapshot of what’s going on in this guy’s life,” or “I wanna get a good snapshot of what’s happening at this company.” That’s an inaccurate phrase. There are no snapshots, because snapshots are stills. Life isn’t a still. Life is very active; it’s a movie. You want a video clip of what’s really going on. Trust me, everybody in that organization is going to bed worrying about something. What keeps you up at night? If you had another $50,000 in your budget, what would you do with it?

So there’s lots of ways you can get into what is happening for them. And they’re interested in themselves; everybody’s favorite thing is themselves and what they’re doing. So if you just go down that path, you’re gonna get them going. And then, by the way, what makes it really work, here’s the crucial thing to do before you even ask for one of these conversations. You gotta actually be interested. See, step one is get curious. Get curious, talk to people, try stuff, tell your story. If you’re not actually curious, and if you go, “Oh, oh, oh, so this is how you get a job. Okay, so I need to go, act like I’m interested, and then he’ll offer me a job,” and you’re faking it, trust me, people will figure that out. Don’t waste your time. If you’re not actually interested in talking to that person, there’s nothing about them you really would love to hear about if you had the chance, then don’t bother them. Now, then you gotta go curate some curiosity, but that’s a different problem.

Brett McKay: Okay, so that’s prototyping by having a conversation. But then, there’s also a prototyping by having an experience. And one example of this is, we had a futurist on the show earlier this year, and he had a… This kind of idea of prototyping as well. And he was talking about people who were thinking about making a big move. Like, they were saying, “I wanna leave the city and move to the country, but I don’t know if that’s a good fit for me.” And he would say, “Okay, here’s what you do. Rent an Airbnb for a week or two in the country and see how you like it.” And that’s the way to prototype.

Dave Evans: Absolutely. We did an experimental program with a big high-tech company. We did a bunch of workshops, and I offered going back in and doing follow-ups. So we did small group follow-ups with these people. And I’m talking to some people about six months after a one-day seminar and they’re all doing prototypes, and they’re actually making progress in their corporation. And one woman says, “Gosh, well, you know, I’ve really been thinking about relocating to the southwest; Albuquerque in particular, and I don’t… I can’t… I just… I can’t pull it off. It’s too big a move, and I just don’t know what to do.” And I said, “Well, why don’t you go there?” She said, “Yeah, but that would just be a vacation, and that doesn’t count.”

And thankfully, the other people on the call; it’s a Zoom call, about a dozen people, they all go, “No, no, no, that totally counts, Sarah, you should totally do that,” and I said, “Absolutely, and here’s the thing. Go take a three-day weekend in Albuquerque, but don’t go to the resorts and spend all your time in the art museums. Do some homework in advance, figure out where in Albuquerque people live, neighborhood-wise would be the kind of place you might even wanna live. Get an Airbnb in that neighborhood. Think about what lifestyle you might want to have as an Albuquerquean, and go move and become a full-time resident of Albuquerque for three days. And take a bunch of notes and then come home. Don’t go have a vacation, for God’s sake. No, no, no, don’t go do that. Go be a short-term full-time resident.” My wife and I developed that skill, by the way. It was fabulous. We didn’t take trips anymore. We just moved. We moved about seven times a year. And it’s a mindset thing, and it’s a huge prototype. So there’s absolutely ways you can prototype, but you gotta think about it.

Brett McKay: Gotcha. And then, even… Taking it back to them, we were talking a lot about work. But again, you can do this process of reframing and prototyping, even with small changes. Say you’re looking at your dashboard and you’re thinking, “Well, I’m not getting enough for my love, so with my family,” so you wanna spend more time with your kids, “But I also need to exercise.” And it’s not an either/or. It doesn’t have to be… The reframe would be… Well, it doesn’t have to be you either spend time with your kids or you exercise. You can reframe like, “Well, what can I do so I can do both at the same time?” And then you start coming up with some different ideas, and then you prototype and see what works and what doesn’t work.

Dave Evans: Totally, so my… Bill, my partner at Stanford, was not getting much activity, and he got into the 10,000 step thing. And then in another project, he and his wife, who had lived in Miller Park near Stanford and raised their kids there for a long long time, decide they wanted the urban experience, so they start living in a rented condo while renting out their house, they’re not gonna sell yet, up in San Francisco. By the way, that was years ago; they’ve since moved full-time, bought the condo they were renting, and off they go. But nonetheless, while he’s experimenting with that, he’s noticing he’s under-exercising. So then, he’s now trying to commute on the train, not in his car. And he goes, “Oh!” He had been… And there’s a little shuttle bus from Stanford that goes to the train station near the campus, and he’d been jumping on the shuttle bus and going in. And he goes, “I know what I’ll do. I’ll schedule calls on my cellphone, and I’ll walk from the train station to the campus, about a mile and a half, two miles, each way.” And he didn’t change his day; he didn’t change his calendar, necessarily. He reallocated some minutes that were normally sitting in his desk on the phone to walking on the street on the phone, and it was absolutely transformative. And so, nothing else had to move, his exercise just went up a little bit. So there are lots of ways you can get stuff darn near for free.

Brett McKay: Right, but it just requires that reframing. That’s a skill that you just have to keep practicing and practicing. And I think that one of the big points, takeaways that I have from the book is, don’t get stuck on your first answer, because you’ll just keep on wanting to make that one thing work, and then you suddenly… You get the invisible gorilla problem, where you’re just so focused on counting the basketballs, you miss the invisible gorilla.

Dave Evans: And this is a really good point you’re making, Brett, and I’m gonna emphasize it, because… One of the problems with design thinking is it’s too simple. I mean, I just said you can summarize our entire two books into 10 words: Get curious, talk to people, try stuff, tell your story. And that’s true, but it’s easily under-perceived. So on this prototyping thing as a way to learn your way forward and to iterate until you come up with, actually, what is a solution, because it goes prototype… Ideate, prototype, test. “Oh, I thought prototyping was testing.” No, no, no, prototyping is the developmental iteration process of inventing the thing you’re actually going to do, and then, when you’ve got what you’re pretty sure it really is, then you test it. Does it really work well enough to keep? That’s a completely different question that  “Dave, well, how might this work at all?” Maybe we do it this way, do it that way. And so, when you’re prototyping, you know you have to iterate on multiple aspects of what you’re working on. This is such a different way to think for most people that it is sneaky.

I won’t use exact names, if there was an organization… I mean, a lot of the growth of what the Life Design Lab at Stanford is doing these days is not teaching more and more courses. It’s, we have a core set of three courses, and we do some key programming, but it’s helping other people do what they’re already doing a little differently, so we participate in new student orientation a little bit differently. We participate in this program over here, and train people how to do what they’re doing a different way, because it has more life design implication than they used to imagine. And there was an organization on the campus, a big one, that does a very important thing for a lot of students, that is a natural partner of ours, and so, we put together a program and partnered with them for over a year. And we’re almost a year into helping them develop some new stuff, and we had a team of people we were collaborating with, and our people were sitting down together with their people, once again, on this mixed team. And one of our people said, “Okay, so… Well… So how about this prototype for this aspect of that … Try this and see what we learn about the following question?” And one of the home organization team members, who’d been working with these people for darn near a year, said, “Well, okay, we could try that, but what if it doesn’t work?”

And then, the designer said, “Well, of course it’s not gonna work.”  And the guy goes, “Well, then why the hell would we do it?” And she goes, “‘Cause we’re trying to learn about it. We’re not done yet.” And literally, walk out of the meeting, we’re slapping ourselves on the forehead going, “Oh my god, we’ve been saying prototyping with this guy for 10 months, and he still doesn’t get it.” So we started changing our language. We now talk about prototypes versus pilots. A pilot is your first implementation of a particular program or an activity that you really think might actually work. It’s like you’re alpha testing your beta test, but before you’re piloting, you’re truly prototyping. Prototyping is just to learn your way forward. Piloting is starting to actually practice what the thing might be. So we had to actually differentiate a word just to get them to understand what we meant by prototype.

Brett McKay: Yeah, this is a good point, ’cause you have this chapter in the book about becoming immune to failure. And I think what it all comes down to is that mindset shift, where… Okay, when you’re prototyping, the prototype isn’t you’re hoping this thing works. The prototype… The goal of prototyping is, “Well, what can I learn from this?”

Dave Evans: Exactly.

Brett McKay: Yeah. But I think people might say, “Okay, I understand that intellectually, but how do you do that?” Like, whenever you… How would you say, you try a new job in your company, right? And, “Here’s a prototype,” and it doesn’t work out. You learn that… It’s like, Well, it’s not a… It still feels like failure. It’s hard not to… Is that something just… With time?

Dave Evans: Well, part of it is… Again… This is why we say, “Set the bar low and clear it.” And a good prototype is cheap, fast, and teaches you something. And so, if people are learning their way forward, and when the thing doesn’t work because it was a learning experience, not a launched activity for performance, and that failure is costly. Now the reason you’re failure immune as a designer, it’s not because you didn’t fail. It’s that you’re immune to failure, because failure’s job was to be educational, and the failure didn’t cost you hardly anything at all. So what you’re looking for is cheap stuff to learn, and of course, gosh, what do I like to learn more about? Oh, that’s interesting, how does that work? Now, how can you learn more about that empirically; out there in the field, so to speak, in ways that don’t cost you much in time, exposure, political capital, money… So if your prototypes are costly, they’re not good prototypes.

Brett McKay: Gotcha, so set the bar low.

Dave Evans: Set the bar low. And don’t be too picky about where you learn something.

Brett McKay: And again, I imagine this process never ends. It’s continually going on.

Dave Evans: No!

Brett McKay: Right, yeah. So even when you think you have an answer, yeah.

Dave Evans: I’m giving a talk at the town hall in Seattle; it’s always a town hall. 300-odd people, and we’re talking, and I finished the talk, and some guy up in this… The bleachers raises his hands, he kind of goes, “Hey, Dave! So this prototyping thing… So… You could do that with anything? Huh.” I go, “Yeah.” He goes, “Wow!” I go, “Yeah, okay, cool.” … And he raises his hand again and kind of… He goes, “Dave! You could do this… You could do this all the time! Right?” And I go, “Yeah, that’s right. [chuckle] So, are we good?” “He goes, “Yeah! Great, thanks.” … Raises his hand again, and I go, “Dude, what?” [chuckle] And he kind of goes, “Dave! On anything, all the time? This is a really big deal, isn’t it?” I kind of go, “Nah, you got it. Yeah, it’s a really big deal.” And so, this is why we talk about the designer mindset. It’s not a religion, but we’re talking about a way; it’s a way of being in the world. It actually believes, anthropologically, that you’re a growing entity, and the world is an interesting place, and let’s go try it out!

Brett McKay: You know what this reminds me of? This reminds me, have you heard of the OODA loop from John Boyd? He was a military strategist, and he came up with this idea called the OODA loop, which stands for observe, orient, decide, act.

Dave Evans: Yes, right.

Brett McKay: Yeah. And he says this is…That whoever can do the OODA loop the fastest in a battle wins, but he also saw it… This is a mental learning model, right? This is how we all learn. This process of prototyping is… That’s observing and orienting, and then you make a decision, then you act, and then you just… It’s always going on.

Dave Evans: Yeah, because… A lot of people are trying to get it right. And they’re inadvertently walking around with a presuppositionally engineering mindset, like there is a right answer; there is a perfect… There is a best me. There is a best way to do this. And the answer is no, that’s crap, most of the time. I mean, there are some things that have right answers, but it’s a really short list, frankly. And so, the OODA loop is an orientation to reality, and if… You know, no strategy for battle survives the first contact with the enemy. It’s a classic line in military school represents all the time. By the way, I’ve done a lot of work with the military. I’ve done a lot of work with… I’ve done trainings for both the US Olympic Committee… And there’s group called Elite Meet, who serves about-to-retire Navy Seals, Green Berets, Army Rangers. So if you were one of the finest athletes in the world, and now you’re not, and you are one of the most proficient soldiers in the world, and now you’re not, holy cow, what do you do now? And so, reframing… The skills that they got to be the world’s best at one particular narrow thing, and then reframing that into another space, is something we have a lot of experience with, and it works great.

Brett McKay: Well, Dave, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?

Dave Evans: Well, of course, the books are on Amazon, and there’s now three of them really too, so it’s Designing Your Life, and as of right now, Designing Your New Work Life. We put out Designing Your Work Life about a year and a half ago; we just updated it. It’s on presale right now, so skip the old book. So, Designing Your Life and Designing Your New Work Life. The website is really simple; it’s the first book’s title with a dot in it, so, all small letters, and that’ll take you to our website, which has all kinds of resources. And then lastly, gee, can I take the class? We hear, “Can I take the class?” all the time, and now the answer is, finally, yeah, you can! You go to CreativeLive,, so creativelive, no, and enter Designing Your Life, and bada bing bada boom, there you go, 21 online modules taught in real time in an interactive setting with Dave and Bill; you’re getting the same real stuff as if you came to our all-day intensive nine-hour one-day workshop. And the last I looked, it was on sale for 29 bucks. By the way, it was originally the most expensive class on the site. I think it was $300 or $400, and now they’re going to blow it out with volume. So, it’s a good deal. So yeah,, or, and we’re good to go.

Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Dave Evans, thanks for your time, it’s been a pleasure.

Dave Evans: Brett, what a blast. Thanks, man.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Dave Evans. He’s the co-author of the book Designing Your Life, also Designing Your New Work Life, both available on and bookstores everywhere. You can find more information about his work at his website, Also, check out our show notes at, where you’ll find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of The AOM podcast. Make sure to check out our website at, where you can find our podcast archives, as well as thousands of articles. We know there’s about pretty much anything you could think of. And if you’d like to enjoy ad-free episodes of The AOM podcast, you can do so on Stitcher Premium. Head over to, sign up, use the code manliness at checkout for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android or iOS, and you can start enjoying ad-free episodes of The AOM podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple Podcast or Stitcher; it helps us out a lot, and if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think could get something out of it. As always, thanks for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay, reminding you to not only listen to The AOM podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.

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