• Before making a career change, start conducting “life design interviews” with people who have your dream job.
  • Ask your conversation partner what their day is like, and how they got to where they are today.
  • That’s according to Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, Stanford professors and the authors of “Designing Your Life.”
  • Applying design-thinking principles to your career is about experimenting, the authors said. 
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If you’re feeling frustrated at work, you may occasionally fantasize about quitting your job, packing your bags, and becoming someone else. A farmer, a chef, an actress, an MLB player — whatever seems like it would afford you greater freedom and less stress than your current gig.

But before you suddenly quit to pursue your dreams — or what you think are your dreams — a word of caution, from two Stanford professors who’ve counseled hundreds of people on retooling their careers.

According to these professors — Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, who are also the authors of “Designing Your Life,” based on a popular course they teach — the first step to take when you’re unhappy at work is to do some “life design interviews.”

A “life design interview” involves asking someone who’s achieved what you hope to achieve to tell you their story. How did they get where they are today and what’s it like to have their job? Their answers to these questions will help determine whether you decide to pursue the same line of work.

Initiating these conversations as a first step to changing careers is considerably less risky than writing a resignation letter. And in the current economy, in which millions of Americans have filed for unemployment in the last two weeks, risk isn’t something to take lightly.

You’d be wise to use this time to explore different career trajectories and lifestyles, and see which ones suit you best.

Find out what it takes to get the job — and the lifestyle — you want

The first step to a life design interview is inviting someone out for a cup of coffee for half an hour. (In the social-distancing era, a phone call works just as well.)

Even basic questions may elicit telling observations about certain types of work.

In “Designing Your Life,” Burnett and Evans recommend asking the person what they “love and hate” about their job. “You want to know what her days look like,” they write, “and then you want to see if you can imagine yourself doing that job — and loving it — for months and years on end.”

Once you’ve gotten a sense of what life as a software engineer or a pastry chef is like, you’ll want to assess the gap between that life and where you stand today.  Burnett and Evans write: “In addition to asking people about their work and life, you will also be able to find out how they got there — their career path.”

Design thinking is about experimenting your way to your ideal career

Conducting life design interviews is a form of what design thinkers call “prototyping.” Instead of building a model light bulb and seeing what works and what doesn’t, you test out different life paths by asking questions and gathering information.

The danger of not prototyping, of course, is that you can rush headlong into life as a farmer, only to find that you hate waking up at 4 am and that the smell of cow manure sickens you. If only you’d asked someone who does this job full-time about the highs and lows of their typical day, you might have known farming just isn’t for you.

The concept of life design interviews fits with advice from other experts on making a career change. Jenny Blake, for example, a career coach and former Googler, recommends a four-step process for “pivoting.” The process involves figuring out what’s already going well in your career and taking on contract projects with people in your desired industry — all before taking the proverbial leap into your new role.

And many entrepreneurs say starting a side business while still holding down your day job is the best way to mitigate risk as an entrepreneur.

Bottom line: No one’s telling you not to go after what you want — only to consider the possibility that you might not know what you want. At least not yet.

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