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What's The Story Exercise

Lesson 17 from: Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life

Bill Burnett, Dave Evans

What's The Story Exercise

Lesson 17 from: Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life

Bill Burnett, Dave Evans

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Lesson Info

17. What's The Story Exercise

Summary (Generated from Transcript)

The topic of this lesson is designing your life and how to build a well-lived, joyful life through the "What's The Story" exercise. The exercise involves using imagination to create narratives for different life choices and then reflecting on the insights gained from those narratives.


  1. How does using imagination help with decision-making?

    Imagination allows you to tap into your emotions and intuition, providing insight into what truly matters to you and what brings you joy.

  2. How does the exercise help in choosing between different options?

    The exercise helps by allowing you to explore the narratives of different life choices, giving you a clearer understanding of what each option entails and which one aligns more with your values and desires.

  3. How can storytelling be helpful in designing your life?

    Storytelling can be helpful in designing your life by allowing you to communicate your vision to others and gain support and resources for your chosen path.

  4. What should you pay attention to when reflecting on the narratives you have created?

    Pay attention to any criteria or values that are present in your narratives, as they can serve as guiding principles in making decisions.

  5. How can sharing your narrative with others be beneficial?

    Sharing your narrative with others can lead to finding support and assistance in achieving your goals, as well as helping you refine and test your story.

Next Lesson: Energy Assessment

Lesson Info

What's The Story Exercise

So we often get asked, could you help us to do choosing better? You get biased action, how do you do this? And oh by the way, that EQ plus IQ is better? How does that actually work? So we have an exercise here that hopefully will allow you to both work on your choosing and bring EQ consciously into it. Now, we already said, you know, the emotional center of your brain does not communicate in words, so you can't get it to hang out with your verbal center, but you could get your left brain to go down, and hang out, and visit with your emotional center, and that's what we're gonna do right now. We're gonna do that, because our friend Ann Gomen would say, we depend on the wisdom of the emotions, which has a lot to do with the imagination. The imagination is a very very powerful tool. So we're going to use our imagination because it's all about the story. The premise we're about to give you is that decision making, when you're doing the kind of decision making we do in a life design class, ...

which is all decisions about competing goods. My guess is, none of the stuff you're struggling with has to do with a good thing versus a bad thing, or the obvious thing versus the stupid thing. That's not hard, that's easy. It's the good versus the good that kills you. Which of these good things do I do? In that situation, your life design decision is really just picking which story is right for you. I'll argue, you're not making a decision, you're just selecting a story. Because, again, these three versions, you remember the three versions thing, thing one, thing two, thing three? Well, let's take our friend Alan. So, actually I was having the conversation with some MBAs one time, you know, and let's call one of these guys Alan. True story, real guy. And he said, oh, the three thing, that really doesn't work for me, Dave, you know. And I said, quickly let me show you, Alan, how it works, you know, what's that thing you want to do? Oh I'm gonna go work for a medical consulting firm, so I'm going to hang out in the medical field, that's great. Oh guess what consulting is over, Alan, nobody does that anymore, what are you going to do now? Oh my God no, what do I do? Well, I guess I would do strategy for a media company, I want to be in a large media company. I think that might be interesting. Okay, and Alan, that thing, that thing you like to do. That thing you don't talk about very much, you know what I'm talking about. You know what it is. What is it, Alan, I promise you you can make enough money and no one's gonna laugh at you. And the real Alan, not his name, said, you promise they won't laugh? I said, yes Alan, I promise they won't laugh, what is it? He goes, well, I'd like to do boutique wine distribution. And by the way, I've told that story lots of times and no one's ever laughed. Oh, that sounds interesting, most people say. So that's Alan's three versions of himself, right? Now, the question would be, okay, those are really three legitimate versions of who Alan could be, and each of them come with a story. So, what's the story, Alan? That's the exercise we're gonna do. We're going to do the what's the story exercise. So, for instance, the way it works is, imagine actually living into some of your alternate plans you've already conceived. Actually being those people. Let's say number two and number three. We're gonna do this twice. You can pick any of the three that you worked on. But, let's imagine for the example here with Alan, that his number two and his number three are the ones he wants to play with for the moment. Imagine you've actually made this decision, you're actually this person. I am in fact strategy media guy Alan. That's who I really am, or I'm actually wine distribution guy Alan. You know, and it's two and a half years into the five. I'm halfway through this five year experience. And I'm going along, and I'm living it and it's working for me. I mean the good, the bad, it's not perfect, don't get me wrong. When there are compromises that every now and then I kinda, oh man, you know, I'd be making so much more money if I was consulting, but that's okay. Whatever it might be, that's the reality of it. And then you bump into this old friend on the street. And he goes, hey, Alan, how's it going? You know, and you say, you know, it's going really good. Alan says, it's going really good. And then the friend says, sweet, what's the story? Hey Alan, what's the story? And then Alan answers the question. So, in this case, I'm going to say, so let's say I'm Alan, and I'm doing media consulting. And he goes, hey Alan, what's the story? Sweet, what's the story? You know, I gotta tell you, I mean, I work with people who are right on top of the whole, you know, digital communal thing, this media thing is really happening, the online world is going so incredibly fast, I just feel like I'm riding this tsunami, cresting at a thousand miles an hour. It's really fun to be on the leading edge of a fast moving thing. I'm really enjoying that. And I work with very different kinds of people, and I'm just getting a really big kick out of it. I mean, the hours are incredibly long, I gotta tell you. 'Cause, you know, there's deadlines all the time. And it moves so fast, we're constantly producing, but part of that feels great, I mean, we put up stuff so fast, I'm incredibly productive. And, that's what he sounded like, Oh, that's cool. No, no, no, no, I'm sorry, no, no, It's your wine distribution Alan. So, I take five minutes, I imagine that. Where am I living now, I live in a different place, I see different people, what's my life really like in two and a half years, and I bump into Bill, hey Alan, how's it going? It's going great. Sweet! Tell me the story! Well you know, I gotta tell you, I have an MBA, and I spend half my time outdoors, how cool is that. I wear jeans everyday, you know, I get to go talk to vintners. I deal with distribution people. We do private buying on behalf of mostly really wealthy people and their amazing wine collections. I mean I deal with the most amazing range of socio-economic people, from, you know, immigrant workers in the field, all the way to these wealthy venture capitalists, and the truck drivers, wow that variety, it's really a gas, I gotta tell you. And there's something about bringing a little joy into peoples life, I mean, a nice glass of wine, that's really a pretty sweet thing. I do wonder sometimes, whether, like, does it really matter. I mean, I haven't taught anybody how to read or anything. You know, somebody's got to do it, and I kind of feel privileged I get to. Here he just makes up the story. And in the process, then you hold that story and think what do I, and we'll give you some tips on what you do with that story if you build it. But, that's what we're gonna do. Because, at the end of the day Alan could be any of these three people, happily, if he truly chose into it. And then that story tells him what that life is really like. Does that make sense? Great, Okay, so let's do it. Get out your Odyssey plan sheet. Not that energy thing, turn that over you don't need that yet. Yeah don't worry about energy, Odyssey Plans-- You got it too soon, Odyssey plan with all that stuff on it. Now, hopefully, if the back is blank you're gonna write your narratives there. If it's not blank, Casey will get you a piece of paper, if you need blank paper, raise your hand, or do it in your journal. If you've got a journal, you're a journaling person, that's the best place to do it. So step one is very simple. Pick, we're going to do this twice, so you get to have two of your plans be narrated. Later on if you do all of them, do more of them. So pick two plans you'd like to do the story for. Pick which of those two you want to do first, okay? Just pick one. Now, we're doing guided imagination here. Imagine you are that person. I am living that life. Now, not going to live it, I am living it. In fact I've been living it for two and a half years. It's late in 2019. You're trying to decide what Christmas presents to buy for people, and can't wait 'til the celebration of the upcoming New Year in 2020. You're living this way, you're doing this work. Who do you see, what's your lifestyle like? What time of day do you get up? Do you have a commute, if so, where? What are the issues you bump into all day? What's your favorite part of the week? What that grindy stuff that you and everybody has to put up with in this life? How are your relationships? Are you worried about money or are you okay for money? How's that going? Just be that person. You know, and then you bump into an old college roommate on the street, oh my God, oh my God! Francois I have not seen you in years! Oh, how the heck are you Derek, how's it going, dude? It's going pretty good. Sweet! What's the story? Get a minute, or three, journal your response. What's the story? You've written you're brief response and now we're just going to do it again. So, kind of wiggle a little bit, sort of get that story out of your head. Now, pick another one. One of your other plans. Jump down the page, turn the page of your journal, grab another sheet, whatever it might be. Now, clear your head, you're just your regular self again. And now I've picked, plan the other, second plan. 2020, looking back on it, that turned out pretty good. Maybe you're living in the same place, maybe lifestyle's pretty similar, it's just a different job, maybe it's a totally different version of you. You know my wife Claudia and I after doing two EIR gigs in spring of 2016-17 in New York, said you know, we're moving. Bill and his wife move to the city from Menlo Park, we're moving to New York. Sorry kids, sell the dogs, gotta go. You know, maybe it's entirely different. What's the lifestyle, who are the people? And once again, give yourself to imagine it. Sort of like, close your eyes, be there for a little while. And then, when Jonathan comes up and says, oh how the heck are you? What's the story? What I notice is, as soon as I put you into this imaginal exercise, boom you guys are writing. And you refused to wait for me to give you the imaginal moment again the second time because you jumped right into writing the story. And I did not see one pen stop once. Apparently you know a lot about these lives. Right, you've got to give yourself a chance to tell that story. Now, what I want you to do, is read what you just wrote. Again, as somebody who is, imagine you didn't just write this. Imagine you're Francois, or whatever, you know. And did you read, what are you, read what you just wrote. And ask yourself that question we've been asking in small groups before, like what do you notice? Or, what is jumping out at you, about what you've already said about these lives. Just give yourself a chance to notice what you just wrote. We're not gonna discuss these results per se, these are your very personal stories. They're yours to hold on to. But actually giving yourself a chance to sort of be in your own story can be insightful. Now, not necessarily definitively so, we were doing a not dissimilar exercise with a group of students one time, and in an imaginal story one of our students said, and we said, what'd you get out of that? And she goes, well I was walking around telling everybody, you know, I'm so glad I didn't go to law school after all. And she tells the story, and she was currently applying to law school. You know, because that was plan A, was go to law school. And she was talking about plan B in this role play exercise we did, and at the end of which she said, you know I did that like five times. I talked to five people during this simulated party we had and by the fifth time I said I'm so glad I didn't go to law school, I really don't think I want to go to law school. And we said, well, okay, that's a new way, not quite sure it's like, cancel the application today. I can just wait for the mother's call, you know. But, nonetheless, this can be a point of insight. You know, you can hear yourself talking. In fact why don't we do this as a whole group now, it says you're in pairs, but let's do it this way. Is this idea working for you? I noticed you worked the stories really quickly. Are you getting insights from this? Is this helpful? What kind of things are you noticing? I asked you what did you notice, what kinds of things do you notice? Yeah? So, I was a little surprised by the outcome of mine. Because I did my second and third, and one was more of a wild idea and the other is one that is an important service cause. And it's that important service cause that has a personal interest for me. As I wrote about it, what really came out is the weightiness of what's gonna have to happen here, and the responsibility that I'd be taking on if I went down that path. Whereas, my third option, it was a little more of the wild idea, it still has a service component but there was a lightness about doing it. Not so heavy. Yeah. And that was kind of news for you. You didn't know you knew that. But you did, yeah, others, yeah? I kind of had something similar, where I did my two and three as well. And so when I did my two it was kind of like, Oh, you know, I just got done with PT school, oh it was great, you know, UCSF was fun. And, oh yeah just getting into a program and helping people out, and then when I wrote my third, my story for plan three, I was like, oh man, I just bought these properties, we're building out with shipping containers, everything's great, there's a dog running around. (laughing) I've got to meet this guy he's so cool! Yeah, there's so much passion about working with communities, like I want to go down in Mexico and stuff like that. It just was, it was weird. It was weird, yeah, okay. I was like wait, I'm not even there, slow down. That's not like, the answer. This is not like how I'm this and that, like the voice of God or ventriloquism, that's not what I'm trying to do here. But it's trying to give you access to your other voices. Yeah, I think that initially just opens you up to the idea that there is this expansive multi-verse inside of you, and you can tap into that. It can then project, basically, these ideas onto yourself to where, like, okay well, I can live this story. I can live that story and this is all plausible and possible. Another thing about imagination by the way, is if we put someone in a scanner and we say, imagine doing this activity. And then, they actually do the activity, there are some things we can actually have them physically do in the scanner. The brain patterns are identical. You're imagining yourself in this world, it's actually true for a while in your brain. Your brain will believe it. You'll have the physiological reactions of lightness or heaviness. You'll get excitement or you'll get fear. Sometimes people write a story about one of these experiences and it's really scary. So, there's something about imagination that when you do it really well, and we train designers to have a really strong imagination so they can imagine things that haven't existed. But it's actually, if we look at the two scans in your brain they're identical almost. So, you were living in 2020, as a guy down in Mexico doing the stuff. For a moment you were there. The better you get at it, by the way, the better you do this visualization, the more real it becomes. Yeah? So one of the questions about that, wasn't there some Yale study done years ago about writing down your goals and the likelihood of those occurring. So, again, was the exercise meant to just sort of stretch the imagination or is it meant to actually recognize that there is something in there that you really want to do? It permits you to get access to the second if you wish to. So, I'm not trying to get you to do one thing or another we're trying to build ideas and tools to give you access to you, okay? Let's be really clear, Dave and Bill don't know anything about you. We do not have the answers to your life. We are not the secret wise guys. We have come up with a series of ideas and tools that will-- Not that kind of wise guys. Facilitate you accessing your own resources. You're highly capacious, intelligent people. You deserve to be here, there's a lot going on in you. You just need better tools to get your hands on. So, this imagination tool that we just gave you, is one way to allow, what I'm doing, is I'm tricking your left brain, conscious, verbal mind, into accessing the story. The story's told, the reason you can write so quickly is because the experiential, empirical, existential, emotional reality of this life is available to your unconscious mind and to your emotional valences. And then your narrative mind is happy to jump in and go, I'll write it down for you. And it gives you something to do. So that's what this is, the EQ, IQ combo. You know, the outcome of the importance of that realization is entirely up to you. And by the way, it is possible for imagination to just create a pipe dream, a fantasy. Sometimes re-living fantasies-- You can talk yourself into something. You can talk yourself into a fantasy and it's not true, so yeah, I think it actually is if something comes up for you and you think it's valid then use some of the others you know, prototype into that and see if that turned out to be true or not. But do be careful, there is a possibility of a pipe dream or of a fantasy. You can over or under do any of this. By the way, looping back to the IQ, let's say, I want to make a good solid objective decision. Great, third path's, this is extra credit homework, go back through your narratives and notice that those narratives are organized probably a little differently than one of the others right? What's lurking behind your story are criteria. Alright? When I told the Alan stories, you know, a wide range of people, so apparently growing rapidly in technological edge that's of value. High productivity, putting up a lot of product. I like this life because it is technologically advanced, I'm learning a lot of things, and I'm highly productive. I like this life because I'm socially aware and in broad ranges of the human experience. There are criteria, nice objective listing, bulletizing, quantifiable, excel spreadsheetable criteria, buried in your stories. I mean, if you like lists, go get your list after your story. And then you can combine the two and see how they, so have a meeting, have your IQ and your EQ sit down and have a conversation and help you make a good decision. Now, any other take aways from this? Or any other questions about the whole choosing thing? Yeah, I found that I've given this kind of exercise some thought and I've had a narrative for a few years now and I've found that as I share my narrative with people, it is becoming real. Because, people listen and they say, I can help you with that. And so just by putting it out there, even though it doesn't exist, it is happening. Absolutely, I mean, once you've, sort of, settled on a potential path, and particularly if you're trying to organize people around your ideas, you're going to have to be great at story telling. We have a whole module in our design program on story telling, because it's not just enough to have a good idea, you gotta put that idea in the future and make people want it, right? So yes, the idea of telling that story as a way of bringing people and services and resources to your cause, that's fantastic. And the more authentic-- It's a good way to test the story too. The more authentic it is, the more people want to help you. It's also a way to see that the way your life could potentially all connect back. How, and it could connect back in a number of ways. Not just that one way, so many ways. Yeah, and the more dots you see connected the more you will experience meaning making in your life. How you talk to yourself really does matter. Now, you don't want to fool yourself, you know reality is still ultimately in charge. But he narrative is up to you. So, take-away is, choose well to set yourself up to win, don't agonize, let go and move on, and remember, you choose your own story.

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Ratings and Reviews


A fantastic class for someone seeking to optimize their life for a greater sense of satisfaction and especially for someone who is considering a career transition. We are taught effective methods for brainstorming, examining, and prototyping our options, and we are given an approach for the hardest task of all: how to make a choice when faced with multiple good options! Also great tips for networking and getting your foot in the door. This class was very timely for me as I've been struggling with making a decision on what my next career was going to be. I now feel equipped with tools that will help me make that decision with less agony and more fun! Also, I'm a huge fan of design thinking, so it was great to see how that methodology could be applied to making one of the most important decisions in our life.

Karen Vitto

Great course! Great for who like me is on their 30's starting life in a new country with a new language and have been out of the industry for 4 years. Designing new goals, making new networking and starting a MBA for some updates on my carrear. Really helped with some focus. Super recommend!


Loved this class! It was high energy, fast paced and well organized, as well as inspiring. It helped me to make more concrete things I've been thinking and dreaming about. I'm so glad I took it. I made great contacts and will definitely use this material in the future!

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