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Designing Your Life

As part of my work as a cluster guide, I’ve been continuing to read about design thinking. One of the books that I recently finished (in a mini-book club with my friends Ann and Pat) is called Designing Your LifeThe authors, Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, work in the design program at Stanford, known as the I heard about the book in an interview on The Diane Rehm Show at a time when the First Year Seminar Coordinating Council was discussing the need to get students to really own their educational experience and how we might be able to begin that process in the First Year Seminar (FYS). Although there are some aspects of this book (well, really probably only one) that I think first year students might have difficulty with, I think the lessons and activities described in the book would be very useful for our students. In fact, the lessons and activities of the book would be very useful for anyone, no matter their age or where they are in their career or life.

When asked what they do at Stanford, the authors give an elevator speech: “We teach courses at Stanford that help any student to apply the innovation principles of design thinking to the wicked problem of designing your life at and after university.” I wrote about design thinking and wicked problems in my last post but here are a couple of short definitions. Design thinking is an iterative process with 5 clearly defined stages that the designer moves through non-linearly. The stages are: empathize (get to really know the people to be touched by whatever you’re designing), define (reframe the problem as one whose solution will satisfy a human-centered need), ideate (think about many different solutions to the need identified in the definition stage), prototype (build several small-scale prototypes that implement particular aspects of the solutions to the need), and test (determine whether this prototype will actually satisfy the identified need). A wicked problem is a social or cultural problem that is difficult or impossible to solve. The authors start by explaining how and when a person’s life is a wicked problem. They say, “Let’s face it, you’re not reading this book because you have all the answers, are in your dream job, and a have a life imbued with more meaning and purpose than you can imagine. Somewhere, in some area of your life, you are stuck. You have a wicked problem.” And the rest of the book is about how to apply the iterative, 5-stage design process to the wicked problem of why you are stuck. I won’t go through all of the exercises of the book but will give just enough to get the idea of how the life design process works.

And so we begin by empathizing with ourselves. We need to get to know ourselves first so we can try to figure out how and why we are stuck. The first activity suggested in the book involves taking stock of your current situation by filling out the “Health/Work/Play/Love Dashboard.” The dashboard is a series of gauges like a gas or oil gauge in a car. The 4 gauges in this exercise (health, work, play, and love) tell you something about the state of your life. Each gauge runs from 0 (empty) to FULL. In this exercise, you color the 4 gauges to represent how full you are in that area of your life. And then you write about why you think the individual gauges represent your level of health, work, play, and love. There is no perfect mix for the 4 gauges and the mix will change at different times in your life. But even though there is no perfect mix, when we reflect on how full we are in each of the areas, we can sometimes tell from the dashboard that something is not right. For example, I noticed that both play and health were lower than I’d like it to be on my dashboard. This exercise allows us to begin to identify why we might be feeling stuck or unhappy or whatever unsatisfying emotion we might be feeling. Even though I am really happy with my life, I found this exercise to be useful in getting me to slow down and notice myself and how I’m feeling in the variety of areas of my life. This exercise helped me to figure out what problem I might want to work on.

The next step in the book is about building a compass to point us in a particular direction as we make changes in our lives. The compass is based on two things–a Workview and a Lifeview. These two things are about trying to articulate a philosophy of work and a philosophy about life. The book provides a series of prompts that help us to think about large, existential questions so that when we’re designing our lives, we know which direction we want to point toward. So we will answer questions like: what is work for? makes good work good? what makes your life worthwhile or valuable? and so on. These views will change as you change but the point is to create your compass for now. The authors say that the goal of the life design process is to create a “coherent life” which “is one lived in such a way that you can clearly connect the dots between three things: who you are, what you believe, and what you are doing. I think our first year students may struggle a bit with articulating a Workview but I think it would be worth trying these exercises with them to see whether my gut is correct or not.

As I said, I won’t go through all of the exercises but want to point out that the authors embrace the design principle of a bias towards action, that is, focusing on action-oriented work rather than discussion-oriented work. So the prototyping phase is very important. Instead of believing “If I comprehensively research the best data for all aspects of my plan, I’ll be fine,” the authors reframe this belief to “I should build prototypes to explore questions about my alternatives.” In other words, you should design experiences that allow you to “try out” some version of a potentially interesting future. For example, if you think you want to open up a restaurant because you love to cook, you might try catering first. Or you might interview three happy and three unhappy owners of restaurants like the one you want to open to learn about the dirty details of everyday life as a restaurant owner. And you should build multiple prototypes, not just one.

I’ve done many of the exercises myself and am excited about implementing at least one of the insights that came from my reading of the book. As I said earlier, I found my play and health gauges to be lower than I’d like it to be. In thinking about health, I realized that I haven’t always been good about finding stress relievers on a regular basis. One of the activities that I find most relaxing is something that I do for fun: take pictures. So after a series of steps I decided that I will spend more time working on my photography skills. To keep me motivated, I started a photography blog.

Anyway, I think this book might make a great basis for some of the work in FYS to get students to own their educational experience.


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I am currently Professor of Digital Media at Plymouth State University in Plymouth, NH. I am also the current Coordinator of General Education at the University. I am interested in astrophotography, game studies, digital literacies, open pedagogies, and generally how technology impacts our culture.

1 Comment

  1. Pingback: AAC&U General Education Conference – Desert of My Real Life

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