Life Design your career


A while ago I gave a presentation at work about applying the Life Design concepts to career development. I promised a blog post about the topic to a bunch of people and lo and behold, it took me only six months to get it done. All I can say about that is, do as I say, not as I do.

The theory on Life Design was developed greatly thanks to Mark Savickas. Although there's a lot more to it, in a nutshell, the Life Design approach to career coaching focuses on how work needs to happen around your current circumstances and your identity, instead of your personality. Especially for this second part, picking a career has long been thought as a function of what your personality is like and looking for a job that fit your innate abilities and preferences. The biggest shift the Life Design approach brings is in making us look at ourselves in terms of the perception we create of ourselves, our own narrative, not a set of embedded qualities we must carry with us forever. From this perspective, Life Design puts a lot more emphasis on what you can (and want to) achieve, instead of focusing on the immutability of what you are.

Our economy has seriously changed in the last 30 years. A job is no longer this stable thing which you hold on to for the better part of two decades (or even longer). New professions pop up almost in real time, and something that wasn't even possible five years ago is a promising career now. One good example of this change is the knocker upper. This person was tasked with using a long baton or a pea shooter to hit workers' windows and get them up on time for work. They were human-powered alarm clocks. In the UK and Ireland, this profession started around the Industrial Revolution but lasted well into the 1950s, given that the poorest populations could not afford an alarm clock. This now odd-seeming profession was replaced by technology, as many others have. In comparison, Digital Media Management hasn't been a thing for even ten years, but it has already had several iterations, due to the constant changes in media channels, formats and technologies, but it hasn't been extinguished. Yet. After all, if we can develop a machine that perform these duties, why wouldn't we?

And there's the added matter of how people approach work these days. With each generation, work becomes less of a money-making activity and more a part of how people perceive themselves. Of course, making ends meet is still important, we haven't figure out universal income just yet. But it is undeniable that work is not only there for the payslip anymore. It provides us with a sense of self, with social circles that can replicate the interactions we have with our own families. And when companies realise that fostering these strong social relationships benefits the work itself, we end up all the more engrossed with the people we work with, among table tennis and videogames, on-site baristas and swimming pools.

So, how can we figure out our careers if understanding our personalities is not the key anymore?

Life Design compels us to think about our own self in a different way, and we can apply that to the career decisions we make. Understanding what is the life story you're after is the most important part here.

To provide a starting point for anyone who may be lost, I co-opted another piece of coaching technique, the Wheel of Life.

This wheel has some of the most common areas around which we design our lives. These areas have serious impact on the satisfaction with feel, and it's worth understanding where you stand in each of them to begin your journey.


Now comes the funny bit:

  1. Print the above image twice

  2. Get one of the sheets and a colored pen to fill out each wedge with the rating you'd give it in terms of how important this area is for your happiness, from 0 to 10.

Let's call this first one the Wheel of Expectations. So, if I feel it's important to be at 8 for Physical Environment, then my wheel would look like this:

As much as it seems like you could give a 10 to each area, you must remember that everything comes at a price. You want to have a 10 for Fun and Recreation, but then you also want to have a 10 in Money and a 10 in Health? Start thinking what it would take to get your life to that level, because it's easy enough putting numbers on paper, but to make them a reality takes effort and time you may actually prefer to spend elsewhere. Remember that time and effort are finite resources. Take time to understand what you mean by a specific rating so that you don't create an unreachable plan for yourself, which will lead to frustration. What is it you're expecting from that area of your life that makes it a 10, and how does that impact other areas?

In my example, in very practical terms, an 8 would mean that it's important to me to live in a house I feel good at, with maybe a bay window, a bathtub and a kitchen that's larger than the one I currently have (that's not very hard). A 10 would mean a house located in town, with even more bay windows (I think you can tell I love bay windows), a bigger bathtub, a kitchen with an island, and with transportation at my doorstep. But, in order to afford this version of my expectation, I'd have to put Money at a higher level of priority and focus a lot of my attention in getting enough money to have this dream home, leading to, possibly a focus on Work as well, given that my attempts at lottery haven't been very successful. This focus would probably take away from my Family and Friends wedge and, in my particular case, chip away on my Health wedge. So beware of you actually wish for, there are consequences to everything.

Go through all areas until you've made a decision for each. Once that's done, it's time to start the second wheel. Oh, yes, did I forget to mention there's a second wheel? It's the Wheel of Reality.

It's time to evaluate where you're currently at with the same areas where you made your life's wishlist. Get that second print and start working.

Once you've got both, it's time to compare and contrast. What are the main discrepancies? Think through the reasons why you've rated that particular area and ask yourself what can be done to improve the rating, up or down. Maybe you've put Work at a 5 for your Wheel of Expectations, because you'd like to work less and repurpose that time towards Personal Growth. Then, you look at the Wheel of Reality and Work is at a 9, because you can't help but work long hours in your current position. What steps can you take to bring the number closer to what you'd like it to be? Is it a new job, a frank conversation with your manager, or perhaps it's the whole career path that leads to this kind of lifestyle?

If you're looking to understand if you're on the right track at work, you must understand first how your current choices affect your life. It may turn out that your current career choice provides great sense of fulfilment, but impacts negatively in other areas of your life. For example, a person who has asthma (like me) may enjoy working at a shop and interacting with the public, but if part of the work requires them to spend a lot of time in a dusty warehouse, which can start an asthma attack, they must consider the toll this takes on their Health wedge. From there, they can look at the aspects of that job that really speak to their interests, and start a search for one that provides these aspects without the added stress on health.

Always remember: changing any number may affect other areas. Reducing work hours, for example, can bring in less money, but gives you more free time. How does that affect other areas of the wheel and other expectations you may have for yourself?

Whatever comes out of your wheel comparison, don't despair. This exercise allows yourself to look at life, and work, through a more practical lens. Sometimes we know something is out of whack, but it's hard to pinpoint it, and our emotions get on the way of seeing what's the real issue. This exercise gives you a structured approach to reviewing areas that impact on your happiness.

As a next step, I would certainly recommend a consultation with a career coach. They are equipped to help you work through the concerns you may have raised through this exercise, and the needs you might need to address, in a more personal way. It helped me a lot and I think it can help anyone with career doubts.