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Designing Your Life: a personal journey with Susan Burnett

We were hammering out a restructuring plan, which of course included layoffs.  Our mission was to lead a new business strategy for growth, and then drive the execution over three years.

I felt nauseous – the “I have to leave the meeting right now” type of sick.

In the ladies room, I took stock of my situation. With 32 years of business experience, I’d led five major restructurings. I knew what this would involve.  I also knew that I had to believe in the leadership team’s vision, goals, and plan. Looking in the mirror, I realized I felt sick because I didn’t believe in our new direction and new CEO.

Now what?

If I couldn’t lead this effort with integrity, I had to leave. But where would I go? And what would I do? I was the sole source of financial support for my family!

In the leadership research, this is called a crucible experience. It is “a trial and a test, a point of deep self-reflection that forces leaders to question who they are and what matters to them. It requires them to examine their values, question their assumptions, hone their judgment.”*

I was having a crucible experience, and I was terrified.

So, I called my good friend and brother, Bill, who was teaching a class called Designing Your Life at Stanford. I had been a “mentor voice” in the class, so I knew he was applying the tools of product design to help his students design a fulfilling life. I needed to take his class, but he said I couldn’t because I wasn’t a Stanford student.  Always creative and supportive, he proposed that I facilitate a section of his class – this would give me the opportunity to do all the coursework, as well as facilitate. I was pretty desperate, so I signed up for this 10-week adventure.

And it was a crucible experience!

On top of my demanding job, I taught for three hours a week, and did my own homework. I articulated the meaning of work and my life, and used this as my new new compass. I reflected on the sources of my energy and tuned into what drained me. I identified my strengths, evaluated my work-love-health-play balance, and acknowledged my need for change and impact in all that I do. I kept a gratitude journal and learned all about the positive psychology research on flourishing. I internalized the research on decision-making, and honed my own process for choosing.

How did I not know all this before?

Best of all, I created Odyssey Plans for three potential future journeys. When I presented my three plans, my students pointed out that I had lots of excitement and energy for my “Wild and Crazy Plan”, and it didn’t seem so wild and crazy to them.  I shared my Odyssey Plan with my family, and they pushed me into reframing “experiences I want to have when I retire” to “experiences I can have now.”

I prototyped different aspects of the plans that I really liked, conducted informational interviews, contracted with companies I found interesting, and lived part-time in Pacific Grove, the place I’d always wanted to live. In true design thinking style, I built my way forward, learned what worked and what didn’t, iterated, evolved, and made choices based on the results of my prototypes.

My prototypes taught me a lot and reduced the anxiety and risk I felt as I contemplated change.  Ultimately, I did leave Silicon Valley and moved to a small community near the ocean. I also designed a part-time Vice President role for small consulting firm that had been one of my prototypes. I even reframed a tortuous commute into “my time for fun audio books”.

Five years later, what’s next? I have just designed my new Odyssey Plan for the next five years called “Empowering Women to Change the World”.

Why women?

Research proves investing in women produces great financial, health, and social returns. In honor of this plan, I’ve co-created Designing Your Life for Women; I am teaching in Antioch’s Women in Leadership program; and I’ve joined the Board of Trustees for Rising International, a non-profit dedicated to empowering women in the poorest parts of the world to reach economic self sufficiency.  Again, my life has changed based on a crucible moment called “the 2017 presidential election”.

Two Odyssey Plans later, I’m a real life example that the design methods and mindsets I teach really work!  I’m on a new path now: learning, prototyping, iterating, and loving the journey. And I have the tools to help me handle the crucible experiences to come.

* Bennis, Warren and Robert J. Thomas. “Crucibles of Leadership.” Harvard Business Review, September 2002 issue. Accessed 4 October 2017.