In 2017, the self-help world fell in love with a Stanford design professor. In his book, Designing Your Life: Build a Life that Works for You, Stanford Design Program executive director Bill Burnett, suggests the way to feel better about our lives is to act more like a designer. Don't just think about how you would like to live, try it. Give it a whirl. Or as they say in design world, iterate.
"A well-designed life is a life that is generative—it is constantly creative, productive, changing, evolving, and there is always the possibility of surprise. You get out of it more than you put in."
Designers try lots of bad ideas before they hit on the right one. In that process they are learning, gaining skills, and actively engaged with the processes of problem-solving and creativity. This is how we should be living our lives. Why? Because it will actively increase our confidence and belief in what we're capable of.
"For most people, passion comes after they try something, discover they like it, and develop mastery — not before. To put it more succinctly: passion is the result of a good life design, not the cause," he writes.
See new opportunities as a way to redefine your identity
If you've long thought you were too undisciplined to run a marathon, too unskilled to cook a cassoulet, or too uncreative to paint a southern sunset, the only way to destroy those negative self-conceptions is to move into the unknown.
"To start dissolving your false beliefs, you have to start giving yourself new experiences," writes the Angry Therapist on Medium. "And THIS is what life's about. Not chasing money and things but constantly setting yourself up for new experiences that will change your beliefs, definitions, and perspective."
Assess your strengths…and your weaknesses
The Harvard Business Review—and they know what they're talking about—suggests writing down two or three of your greatest strengths and two or three of your weaknesses.
For most people, identifying strengths is a cinch. Closing in on their weaknesses, less so. So what do you do? Ask people you work with. You might be surprised for example, to learn what you thought was strong leadership is dictatorial micromanagement.
Then, make the right changes to grow into your full potential. Seek coaching and regularly solicit feedback from your colleagues and subordinates.
"This type of initiative takes time, humility, and a willingness to confront weaknesses, fears, and blind spots that many of us would rather ignore," writes Robert Stephen Kaplan. "But I never cease to be impressed by the capacity of people to change and improve once they recognize their shortcomings as well as their strengths."
Act like a Stoic
If you want to realize your potential to write a novel, compose the next great American rock-opera, or canoe the Great Lakes, then take the Stoics approach to goal-setting: Focus on what you can control, ignore what you can't.
It's the ancient Greek approach to micro-goals. Writing a novel becomes drawing up an outline, then writing 250 words per day. Canoeing the Great Lakes means getting out on the water this Saturday.
The problem with big goals — get married, have a baby — writes Johnson Kee, is we're focused on the result, not the process. "It's easy to believe your goals when you apply the Stoic's philosophy to them. They're very literal; you either do them or you don't."
Act as if
When it comes to recognizing your own potential, your imagination can be a powerful tool. If you've been telling yourself how socially awkward you are for years, telling yourself, "I am confident" as you brush your teeth may not be enough to unseat a long-standing belief.
Instead, try challenging this belief actively with imagination. Ask yourself, "What would a socially confident person do?" Then do those things. Ask someone out for coffee. Introduce yourself to three new people at a networking event. It's a skill called "acting as if," behaving as if you are already the way you'd like to be.
Behave as if you are a socially savvy person. "You might find that behaving in a more outgoing manner leads to more social success," Psychology Today writes. In other words, fake it till you make it.
"Failure, not being perfect, mistakes, not having people agree with me, not being completely accepted: these are not negative things. They're positive," writes Leo Babuta on Zen Habits.
How so? Think of it this way: If you're an aspiring writer, and you submit a story that gets rejected, you're engaged in the process of your passion. As you submit, and receive editorial feedback and notes of encouragement from editors, you continue to learn about your writing. You're also building relationships with people in your field. That puts you a lot closer to realizing your potential than being too afraid to try.
Celebrate your wins
You found a career mentor! You had a story published! You ran a 5k! Don't let these events pass by without properly feting them.
"As human beings we naturally have the tendency to get stuck on the negative and think about all of our losses for the day, instead of counting our wins and finding all of the good that took place," writes Matt Mayberry at Entrepreneur. He suggests using a gratitude journal to tally what's going right. Or you might even set aside a place in your planner or on the notes on your phone to document not only the to-do's but the went-wells.
"The key is to just get in the habit of capturing all of your wins," he writes. "This will bring you a complete sense of joy that will let you know that you have done some incredible things in the past and remind you that even bigger things can happen in the future."
Love what you do
Whether vocational or recreational, find pleasure in what you're working on. Enjoying the process, rather than focusing on the final outcome, will help you look forward to the task at hand and stick through the tough times.
"Loving what you do gives you the strength to weather personal setbacks, overcome adversity, face and address your weaknesses, and work the long hours typically needed to reach your full potential," writes the Harvard Business Review.
"It's not hard to imagine that if we added up all the hours spent trying to figure out life, for some of us they would outweigh the hours spent actually living life. Really. Living. Life," Burnett writes in Designing Your Life. But it's the actual living — the doing of life —that helps us learn, unlock our potential, and believe in ourselves. So get out there, champ. It's the only way to feel like you're #winning.