Designing my life, part one: Building a compass

Last week, I raved about the book Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans. These two Stanford design professors have taken design principles and applied them to helping people figure out what they want to be when they grow up.

After advocating Designing Your Life to several friends, two of them suggested that we work through the book’s exercises together. One of those friends is Kim, my long-term girlfriend. The other is Craig, a college classmate. I thought it might be fun to share some of these exercises as we complete them over the next couple of months.

Because I want to respect the intellectual property of the authors, I’m not going to describe the exercises exactly. Instead, I’ll provide a vague overview and then discuss my own answers. (And, when it makes sense, I’ll also include answers from my friends.)

With that out of the way, let’s dive in! Let’s see what happens as I begin the process of designing my life.

Start Where You Are

Start where you are quote by Arthur AsheThe first step to designing your life, say the authors, is to start where you are. I like that advice! In fact, that’s also my advice to folks who are trying to turn around their financial lives: start where you are.

In the case of life design, Burnett and Evans want readers to perform a self-assessment. This assessment involves honestly evaluating four aspects of your life — health, love, play, and work — by giving each a rating, then writing a short description of the current state of each.

Here’s how I rated these four aspects of my own life:

  • Health (37.5%, rising) — After achieving the best fitness of my life a decade ago, I allowed my health to slowly but steadily decline. I’ve arrested this fall and begun to turn things around, but there’s a lot of effort ahead of me if I want to become fit again.
  • Love (62.5%, rising) — I’m pleased with the relationship I have with Kim, but we both agree we could prioritize each other more, especially day to day. I also have work to do with my family and friend relationships. The good news is that I’m doing this work, and this area of my life is improving too.
  • Play (50%, rising) — I’ve neglected productive play for several years. Kim noted recently that when we met in 2012, I had all sorts of things going on: Spanish lessons, guitar classes, volunteering at a school, Crossfit five times a week. Perhaps because of my marijuana use, I discarded all of those things. My only play involves videogames and anime. I’m in the process of rediscovering productive play.
  • Work (56%, rising) — Since I repurchased this site, I’ve struggled to find purpose and clarity with my work. I lost my way. I believe that’s changing; I now have a clear vision for what I want this site to be. I’m not 100% sure how to reach this destination, but that’s fine. I’ll figure it out. The ship is now on course.

This first Designing Your Life exercise isn’t mean to be actionable. It’s an assessment. Like your net worth, this is a snapshot of a moment in time. But once you’ve taken this snapshot, once you’ve determined your location on the “map” of life, it’s time to figure out where you want to go. That involves building a metaphorical compass.

Building a Compass

In the second chapter of Designing Your Life, readers are asked to write two thoughtful mini-essays: a Workview and a Lifeview. These short reflections are meant to be statements of purpose. They are very much like the personal mission statement I encourage my audience to create.

Kim and I haven’t compared the results of this exercise yet, but on Tuesday night Craig and I connected by Facetime to discuss our visions of work and life. I enjoyed this process very much and felt like it helped me appreciate him more as a human being (and a friend). This was, in part, because our responses had a lot of overlap. We share a lot of core values.

With Craig’s permission, I’m going to share his Workview and Lifeview as well as my own. I think you might these interesting.


Here is Craig’s view of work:

Craig’s Workview
I work for money happily for awhile if it the pay seems fair, but experience, learning, and growth are essential if I am to remain happy for long. Work for money, or status, clouds any effort with petty concerns of parity, competition, and greed. Still, we live in this Capitalist system, cannot escape it on our own, and there are undeniably worse systems.

Confidence that the work I am doing is fair, supports life, and does not do permanent harm to natural systems, is important to me. This sort of “right livelihood” is aspirational, and perhaps impossible at certain timescales if all impacts are taken into account.

I most value work that I can see. Producing a tangible product in particular is rewarding. This is perhaps why growing things has always been a part of my life or aspirations. Fostering abundance in the form of food is endlessly satisfying. Tangible tools that enable my work are also satisfying.

I think the most meaningful work possible right now is in restoring natural systems.

And here is my own view of work:

J.D.’s Workview
Work plays several roles for me. It’s my primary means to earn money, of course, but it’s also a chance for me to spend my time in a way that brings me fulfillment while also contributing something to society at large. It’s a way for me to improve my life while also improving the lives of others. I’m fortunate to have found a way to do this while making money. (Right now, though, I make very little money.) I’ve found my ikigai.

I want to keep these two ideas — GRS can help me and others simultaneously — in the forefront of my mind as I make work decisions in the future. I want to remain clear on my passion and purpose.

My aim is to transform Get Rich Slowly into a valuable, easy-to-access resource for folks who want to learn how to master their money (and their lives). I want the site to be uncluttered, accurate, and reliable. I want to put the reader first. Ideally, it will produce income for me but I’m okay with that being a lower objective, one that might take time to figure out.

Craig and I were surprised to see that we had similar expectations of work. We understand that work is a means to obtain money. And we both agree that work ought to be fulfilling for us personally. But we both want our work to mean something more, to benefit the world at large.

Craig brought up the Buddhist notion of “right livelihood”. I mentioned the Japanese concept of ikigai. All of this reminded me of the discussion of “personal dharma” from Stephen Cope’s book, The Great Work of Your Life.

Personal dharma

After a couple of days to think about our discussion, I’d say that both Craig and I want to do work that fosters abundance, that achieves a win-win outcome for us and others.


Next, here are our reflections on the meaning and purpose of life. Note how much overlap we have here. It’s a bit eerie. (We didn’t discuss any of this in advance.)

Craig’s Lifeview
First, do no harm, and also do some good once in awhile, is essential advice for living. I live a rich inner life which has many rewards, but can be selfish when practiced to extremes. Sharing knowledge and insight is rewarding. Giving comfort to others, in whatever form that may take, is still more rewarding.

There is no god, but the human search for meaning that inspired the creation of gods can make certain religious traditions and rituals meaningful. The sublime fact that the entire earth is an insignificant dot in the vastness of space, and our lives here an unnoticed blip in the vastness of time, is somehow comforting.

Natural systems will eventually end our lives and use our remains for food, and participation in this cycle is also comforting. In the meantime, if stewarded, nature will shower us with abundance beyond belief.

In the end, laughter is the only reasonable response to life’s vicisitudes. Sharing laughter is perhaps the best way to conquer fear and pain. “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?” – Austen, Pride and Prejudice

And here is mine:

J.D.’s Lifeview
I believe that life has no inherent meaning. This could easily be a source of despair, leading to hedonism and/or antisocial behavior. I choose instead to see it as an opportunity to create my own meaning, to find my own sense of purpose.

I believe that morality has nothing to do with which god you worship, which country you live in, which political faction you belong to. Morality is about one thing only: How you treat other people. (And, to a lesser degree, how you treat all living things.)

Morality is about how you treat others. It’s about how you treat those with whom you have a power imbalance. (For instance, how you treat servers or sales staff, how you treat the homeless, how you treat your children or your employees or your pets.) And, especially, how you treat those with whom you disagree. (How Christians treat atheists, for instance, or how Democrats treat Republicans.)

I value curiosity. I value knowledge. I value kindness. I value mutual aid and support. I believe that we grow as individuals when we have deep connections with other people, especially those in our neighborhood and community. So much of the current conflict in our world comes from an unwillingness to engage productively with folks who disagree with us. I want to form bonds with people from all walks of life.

I believe that I can make the most difference in the world by working from the center outward. I must practice rational self-centeredness, putting my needs first (but without depriving others of their needs). From this strong base, I can support Kim. Then my friends and family. And from there, I can focus on improving the world as a whole.

My aim is to leave the world a better place than I found it.

After sharing our Lifeviews with each other, Craig and I discussed the notion of social capital. This is actually an idea that Craig introduced me to nearly twenty years ago when he told me about the book Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam. We agree that social capital seems to have collapsed in the United States — and perhaps the internet is responsible for this. We both would like our lives and work to encourage the growth of social capital.

Not Unto Ourselves Alone Are We Born

Not unto ourselves alone are we born Why do Craig and I share such similar worldviews? I’m not 100% sure. It could very well be because we attended the same college (Willamette University) at the same time. I think it’s worth noting that Angela Rozmyn (from Tread Lightly, Retire Early) and I also share similar worldviews. She also attended Willamette.

The Willamette University motto is non nobis solum nati sumus, which translates to English as “not unto ourselves alone are we born”. Clearly, both Craig and I have incorporated this notion into our views of work and life. Angela too.

The authors of Designing Your Life say that your Workview and your Lifeview are meant to act as compasses. They provide direction when you’ve lost your way. When you reach a fork in the road, consulting these compasses should help you determine which path to choose.

I think this is a great exercise. In fact, it’s likely that I’ll adapt it to fit my own presentations. I feel as if my workshops on finding purpose have certain gaps. The exercises in Designing Your Life help to fill those gaps.

Next up? Chapters three and four of Designing Your Life. For the next couple of weeks, Craig and I will each be keeping a “Good Time Journal” in which we log our activities and rate how engaged and energized we are by the things we do. Then we’ll use mindmapping to see what we can learn from this journal.

Should be fun!

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There are 11 comments to "Designing my life, part one: Building a compass".

  1. steveark says 01 September 2022 at 13:44

    One thing that older readers like me will tell you is its impossible for your health to keep getting better after a certain age. I ran my fastest marathon and 5K both at the age of 50 but now in my sixties I’m way slower and can’t do those long distance runs anymore. Up to 50 I could honestly say my tennis and running were better than anytime in the past but it is inevitable that there is a tip over point where you start to slow down and lose reaction speed. Up until then you can use last years metrics to determine how your health is doing but after that it is more a matter of having the right habits and routines and no longer worrying about your speed or strength versus the younger you. Many health conditions will be totally out of your control. My weight is fine, my level of physical activity exceeds most thirty year olds but I have to deal with arthritis, worn knee joints and some internal genetic flaws. None of that is going to get better over time, I just have to work around my reality. However continuing to exercise and take care of myself is a big priority just the same.

    • J.D. says 01 September 2022 at 14:31

      Right. I hear what you’re saying. And I don’t have unrealistic expectations of what I can achieve. The reality is that I haven’t done regular exercise in many years — other than walking. I walk almost daily for probably an average of an hour at a time. This is the only thing that saves me. It’s vital that I devote some time and energy to stretching and flexibility. My agility is poor at this point. And, as I’ll share on the blog next week, I just bought a Mazda Miata. Getting in and out of that thing is difficult because of my lack of flexibility.

      Anyhow, you’re right that our peak performance declines with age, and that’s to be expected. However, my main concern right now is baseline performance, my minimum performance. That could be much, much higher in every area (except walking).

  2. Melissa C. says 01 September 2022 at 16:22

    When you’re through with this book, or as an added exercise, you might check out Catherine Price’s book, “The Power of Fun: How to Feel Alive Again.” (

    It’s been an eye-opening read for me and I’m loving the exercises she includes throughout the book to help the reader identify and create more moments for fun to be infused into their life. She’s got a pretty good sense of humor, too, which makes the reading all the more enjoyable. 🙂

  3. Anne says 02 September 2022 at 08:42

    Please don’t ever abandon GRS or Apex, I love them both.

    Also, and I may not be remembering this correctly, but I thought years ago you were a dedicated Mini Cooper guy. Did you fall out of love?

    • J.D. says 02 September 2022 at 08:50

      No, you are remembering correctly. I loved my Mini Cooper. But Mini has been changing all of the things I love about the car because it just doesn’t sell well in the United States. I like the manual transmission. I like the small size of the thing. I like the handling, and so on. But Minis have been growing larger and they’ve been moving to automatic transmission. There’s less to set them apart anymore. It used to be that Mini owners tolerated the car’s weaknesses (road noise, marginal reliability) because of its quirks. With those quirks gone, owner satisfaction has plummeted.

      Anyhow, I’ve always had the Miata in the back of my mind for the same reasons I wanted a Mini: unique styling, small car, manual transmission, etc. And after ~48 hours of ownership, I have to say: I made the right choice. The first hundred miles of driving have been so much fun. But I’ll tell more next week… 😉

  4. Kat says 05 September 2022 at 02:40

    You have made the wisest decision for your mental health, you bought a Miata. During the great recession, my husband and I bought a beater one to get us through the summer after our layoffs. It was 16 years old with over 160k on the odometer. Turns out, that little beater is still going and it is the best dose of mental healthcare that we ever experienced.

    We made two rules for our car rides.
    1 – No politics may be mentioned at all – ever.
    2 – No job talk.

    We take out the car even in the winter, top down, mochas in hand, heater on full blast. We sing at the top of our lungs. By the time we return home, we are sated and in a blissed state.

    All hail the Miata. Welcome to happy.

  5. Treo says 05 September 2022 at 05:42

    The Miata seems to be an economical midlife crisis soothing option, lol. Glad to hear you got one and are enjoying it!
    With respect to fitness, man, I can relate. It’s hard, even once you have a routine, the mental load doesn’t really decrease. I was a heavy set pretty much my whole life since about 10-11 years old, I don’t really remember exactly when I started going off the rails, but I remember clearly what it did to me.
    When I turned 18, I was over 300 lbs. I could do all the things I wanted to do, but everything was a bit of an effort. I was, and still am an introvert, so being that heavy was not really a hinderance to my social life, but I still felt there was something missing.
    So, shortly after turning 18, I started dieting and working out. I had no muscle and so I started by lifting a vacuum cleaner in various ways to get me started. Eventually, I bought a few weights as I started feeling more confident in sticking with it. Over the course of 18 months, I lost about 90-100 lbs, I got down to about 210 and that felt great, but I also didn’t really have the mindset of “this is my life now”.
    After a while, life started to happen more and more, I began college, I started working physically intensive side jobs, and I actually didn’t fare too poorly, I kept gaining muscle (I was hauling building materials and construction debris for hours each day), and my weight went up to about 220-240 but would stay there.
    Towards the end of college, I started working desk jobs almost exclusively, and would often take clients to lunch and/or dinner, along with some traveling for various jobs. I thought this was great, I got to eat and drink on other people’s dime and my frugal nature would take full advantage of that.
    Well, fast forward, and over the course of about 15 years, I managed my way back up to 270 – 275 lbs. I was never miserable as a lot of people would tell you, I could still do all the things I wanted to do and never felt like I was missing out on anything.
    Finally though, when COVID hit about 2.5 years ago, and I found myself living in rural isolation, I decided I’d want that time to not be wasted (I never thought it would be just “2 weeks” like a lot of people… I knew it was going to be at least a year, likely longer). So I started walking each day, 6-8 miles at first, then 8-10, then 10-12. I’d walk for 3 hours almost every morning before work. As I got better and this would be less strenuous, I bought a weighted vest and would start wearing that. Eventually, this time last year, I felt I could start running, at least part of the way. Fast forward to today, and I can do a half marathon at about 1:50 now, which is both amazing and insane for me. I reached a normal BMI for the first time since my early teens in early 2021 (even when I was 210, I was still “overweight”) and am now consistently staying between 170 – 180. I still run 8-10 miles almost every day in the warm months, and try to do the equivalent on the treadmill in the winter.
    Some day, I will run the Boston Marathon, that’s the ultimate prize at the end of this transformational journey.
    All that said, I have no idea if I’ll be able to stick to this for the rest of my life. I’d love to, and I feel a lot more confident in it actually happening this time versus in the past, but I know how damn hard it really is to stick to this.
    JD, do what you can and do what you feel is right for you, I’ll be rooting for you!

  6. Mapleton Reader says 05 September 2022 at 09:29

    The lifeview statements reminded me of Viktor Frankl, who wrote “Man’s Search For Meaning” (parts of which are used in the “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” which you have reviewed on your blog). What an incredible idea that we humans can choose our response to what life throws at us. Thank you for sharing yours.

    I was surprised to find out that Frankl attended both church (Catholic with his wife) and synagogue, and that he prayed everyday [see wikipedia for additional references on this]. A belief in God is a personal matter, but not antithetical to seeking meaning in life. For me, a belief in God has helped.

    I look forward to a continuation of your review and experimentation on “Designing Your Life”. I appreciate your candid accounting of your experiences.

    • J.D. says 05 September 2022 at 10:39

      Agreed! Faith is not antithetical to seeking meaning. In fact, some of the most faithful folks I’ve known have been the most ardent seekers. I wish more people understood that faith can be an important tool, but lack of faith doesn’t make somebody a bad person.

      Also, Frankl’s work has had a HUGE impact on my own life and philosophy.

  7. Bill Brown says 06 September 2022 at 13:17

    Wow! I feel like you are writing this just for me at this particular season of my life. I retired 2.5 years ago at 58 with a pension and modest investments. Almost immediately, I had a cancer diagnosis, but treatments seem to have put that behind me, although I never stop looking over my shoulder.

    Life is good for the most part, but I am restless and feel like I need to be looking for “something”, but I can’t figure out what it is. I am hoping your new series of articles will point me in the right direction.

    Please keep writing the work you are doing is important. Thank you.

  8. Karen L says 14 September 2022 at 16:49

    I’m arriving late to the conversation, but I’ve really enjoyed this post and related discussion. I recently read the quote “Life has no purpose, only potential,” attributed to Joseph Campbell, and I saved it because I thought it was so well said. It also seems to fit here as food for thought on life views.

    Steveark: congratulations on your fitness achievements. Impressive!

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