Rutgers-Camden Blog

“Designing Your Life” at Rutgers – Camden and Beyond

Concept of idea with colorful crumpled paper

I’m fairly certain the last thing most college students want someone to suggest to them is a great book recommendation, as if you all aren’t spending all of your time reading and studying as it is. Ok, fair enough. Lucky for you, I’m not really here to suggest a book as much as to suggest a new way of thinking, a new approach to problem-solving, and a practical guide for making the most of your college experience and your life. Did I catch your attention? Awesome; let’s get started.

The first time I came across the book, “Designing Your Life” by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, I wasn’t exactly drawn in. At the time, the book felt sort of like a “self-help” book (even the authors have joked that it’s often, unintentionally, categorized this way) and I didn’t feel like I needed, or had time for, that genre. As a college student, you’re likely to feel the same way for any number of reasons. But according to co-author Bill Burnett, this may be exactly the time in your life to introduce the concepts of Design Thinking. In an article for, Burnett wrote, “School has taught most of us to be skeptical and to be rationalists, but those aren’t very useful mindsets when you’re trying to do something new, something no one’s ever done before, or something that has no one clear solution.” Fortunately, I held onto my copy of the book (I keep it in my office, in case you’re interested in flipping through) and started to see how these very practical approaches to thinking about our lives were useful not only for me, personally, but also in the ways I engage with my students.

In my years of working with college students, I’ve witnessed many arrive to this stage of their lives with a lot of pre-conceived notions about what the experience “should” look like, the types of majors and careers they “should” be pursuing, and how they “should” determine their success. These “shoulds” are often the foundation for disappointment as, inevitably, something is bound to go off-script. Students struggle in major pre-requisite courses, they land their dream internship only to realize they hate the industry they’ve been planning for, and they grapple with the tension between what they want and what they think they “should” do. These “shoulds” can lead to students feeling stuck, both in not knowing what to do next and with fear of taking any action. So how does thinking like a designer help you through these moments?

As a designer, Burnett says he was used to getting stuck repeatedly but also having the tools, like curiosity, a bias to action, the ability to reframe problems, accepting the process and asking for help, to get unstuck. These tools are also the five mindsets that Life Design encourages (and teaches) people to embrace. Imagine you’re feeling stuck in any one of the scenarios above; how might these mindsets help you move through the problem? For the student struggling in their courses, we would encourage them to act – don’t wait for something to change, but prototype possible solutions. Moreover, they should embrace the process that is inherent in learning new concepts, and not shy away from asking for help. How about the student who realizes their dream internship is more like a nightmare? Maybe it’s time for a reframe. Designing your life is about embracing that there are many possible paths, all of which may be great, and you get to decide which you want to try, over and over again. With tools for how to map out plans and advice on how to prototype these options, life design is about reminding people that what works today may not work in the future but arming them with the skills to know when and how to adjust.

Ultimately, some of my favorite takeaways from design thinking have been the reminders that our lives are a process and we’re all sharing a human experience. The authors set no expectations for perfection, or even what is “good” or “right,” they allow the reader to decide for themselves what characterizes a well-lived life. This approach reminds me very much of our approach to your student experience. We are here to encourage your development, through critical thinking, risk-taking, and self-advocacy, knowing and appreciating that this will look different for every student we support, and valuing your individual journey, however, that may unfold.

  • References:
  • Burnett, B. (2021, February 23). How to use design thinking to create a happier life for yourself.
  • Burnett, B., & Evans, D. (2016). Designing your life: How to build a well-lived, joyful life. Alfred A. Knopf.