My Favorite Approach to Designing a Meaningful Career

I’ve had several clients recently who have been grappling with the question of what type of work would really light them up, bring them energy, and feel meaningful. I also recently attended a design thinking workshop, which was a great refresher on the topic and reminder of how this process can be used to help answer this very question my clients are facing.

It’s been a couple of years since I had the opportunity to help facilitate small group exercises in the Stanford class, Designing Your Life, where I got great exposure to how design thinking can be used as a methodology for approaching the wicked problem of what to do when you grow up – which, by the way, is really the problem of who you want to grow into.

You may have read or heard about Dave Evans and Bill Burnett’s book, Designing Your Life, which is based on the course they created at Stanford many years ago. If you haven’t had a chance to read the book and are looking for a way to help answer who you want to grow into, I highly recommend it!

In the meantime, I thought I’d breakdown what design thinking is and how this approach can be useful when it comes to career and life design.

What is design thinking?

Simply put, design thinking is a process for creative problem solving. It is a human-centered process, meaning that it first and foremost takes into account the human need and point of view, therefore leading to better outcomes (i.e. products, services, systems).  Design thinking starts with asking the right questions and taking action to try stuff out. It’s all about reframing our perspective to approach problem-solving in new ways.

The components of the design thinking process are: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test. While this process appears linear, it’s worth noting that it is not necessarily a linear process, as you iterate and revisit different phases throughout the journey.

Now let’s look at how design thinking can be applied to career and life design:


This step is all about understanding the needs of the people you’re designing for. In this case, it’s you! So, you’ll want to begin by understanding yourself, including your values, interests, skills, and personality. What’s meaningful and motivating to you? 

To do so, you’ve got to see things with a fresh set of eyes by observing, eliciting stories, watching, and noticing. Take self-assessments and do reflection exercises to document your observations and reactions. Stay open and curious, treating yourself as the subject of your research.


Define mode is about sensemaking. After synthesizing your insights from the empathy stage, what’s the focused problem you’re actually trying to tackle? Coaching sessions are a great place to get out of your head, see connections, and begin to unpack the information so that you understand exactly what problem you need to address.


Ideating means generating the broadest range of ideas or possibilities. You want to go wide and leave nothing off the table. There are lots of ways to do so. You could brainstorm, sketch, create mind maps, use post-its…whatever it takes to see many options in front of you.


A premise of design thinking is that designers are able to solve problems by building their way forward, not thinking their way forward. Prototyping is where you start building. In other words, you develop a few possibilities in order to learn from feedback. When it comes to life and career design, again there are many techniques you could use here. You could conduct informational interviews, shadow, volunteer, intern, freelance, etc.!


What resonates from prototyping? How will these careers align with your values, interests, personality, and skills? The test stage is where you try out, then iterate and refine the possibilities.


If you’d like a more in-depth explanation of design thinking and how to use it in different capacities for product innovation or organizational growth, for example, I encourage you to check out Ideo U’s course on Design Thinking or Stanford’s Virtual Crash Course in Design Thinking

In the meantime, try out the design thinking process as a way to design your own life. I’d love to hear what you learn from it!