What I’ve learnt from life changing class at Stanford D.school

“Write your eulogy by next Monday! Please take this seriously, otherwise your partner will be unable to work!” That was my first task in a Stanford University class.

One year ago, I had a hard talk with my former boss at RBC media company, Derk Sauer, the Dutch media entrepreneur. “You have to go study abroad,” he told me. Derk has worked in Russia for 20 years, and started the first Russian newspaper for an English-speaking audience. He launched the Russian edition of Cosmopolitan Magazine and, together with the Financial Times and Wall Street Journal, founded the business daily Vedomosti.

I had mixed feelings: I believed in Derk’s strong intuition about my homeland country, but I was skeptical about the idea of being a student again. I was doing fine: I had completed an MBA, had taken some short courses abroad, such as a two week leadership module at Harvard University. Most importantly, I loved my job as chief-editor of RBC, where I ran a team of more than 200 journalists. “But Derk is the first boss, the one who pushes you to do something good for yourself,” my inner voice told me.

I knew about the most prestigious journalism programs in the world, including Nieman at Harvard and JSK (John S. Knight) Fellowships at Stanford.

I applied and was accepted for both. I spent a terrible week choosing between them and decided, if I had to go West, I would go all the way West.

As a JSK Fellow, I’m allowed to take almost any course at Stanford, out of hundreds.

This choice drives me mad: I can study psychology, biology, neuroscience, astrophysics, take piano or acting classes… I spent sleepless nights trying to build my ideal schedule, but finally gave up and decided to focus on the classes I pointed out in my application.

One of those was the d.school, Hasso Plattner Institute of Design — it is one of the Stanford’s best sellers. The d.school was founded by one of Stanford’s “rock stars”, engineering professor and product design guru David Kelly. What do they design there? Everything. The d.school doesn’t teach design as beauty, but design as process.

“d.thinkers” can be easily recognized by the tiny colorful paper squares they stick chaotically on white boards in the room. The first time I saw it, I thought about John Nash and his secret house from the “Beautiful Mind” movie (why not? Nash gave lectures at Princeton).

Although d.school students will not be graded or get a diploma, design classes are in high demand among students of all ages from 20 year old undergrads to experienced MSX fellows. I applied for two courses, Innovative Design, by Tina Seelig, and Transformative Design, by Bernard Roth. “You will apply d.thinking to the most important project for yourself: you own life,” the description of the last course said. Well, this is just in time, I thought. Before coming to Stanford I lost my job at RBC media holding, as a result of the Panama papers scandal.

If you need it, you will get it. I was accepted into Transformative Design.

At the first class gathering, I realized how unusual the class is. Instructors asked us to sign a paper with our “responsibilities,” as if we were in elementary school, “to attend class, do the homework, aspire to do our best”. Well, probably that’s reasonable, if your first assignment is to write your own eulogy. If one of us had not shown up with the signed paper, it meant he escaped from the class.

We all had to find a partner (or a client) for our first design project. We started to work with GSB (Stanford Graduate School of Business) students. My partner was an Indian automobile engineer, who wants to take part in the technical revolution in his industry. I found it was easiest to define myself as a top Russian editor, who got fired because of massively publishing Panama papers.

“Let me introduce myself, please, and read my eulogy,” was how our introduction started. Then we had to observe our partner doing what he likes. We both decided to go whale watching.

How do you think you’d react after listening to another person’s story? Well, you strive to help him and offer solutions. Like, maybe you should talk to you mom? Did you try writing a diary? Or, let’s go somewhere for a new experience!

This was our biggest mistake. We wouldn’t understand the problem first. But how could we know that? Is it enough just to read his eulogy and to see how he watched whales from the beach? How could I help him carefully?

We ended up with a prototype of behavior for each of us. I suggested that my partner write a diary, describing the company of his dreams. I got an assignment to introduce myself to American journalists who are interested in Russia (I still have a couple of dozen people to talk to!). To be honest, I was 100 percent sure I failed and was surprised that our instructors thought the opposite. According to them, I extracted the main lesson of the class: If you want to help someone, try walking in his shoes, otherwise you will fail. If the solution you suggested is not sustainable, you fail, too.

The next design project had the name “Self-discovery Missions.” We received an assignment to accomplish at least six missions out of a list of 20, within three weeks. One of the assignments offered: “Glad you’re gone! Seek out the person whose eulogy of you would be, ‘Good riddance! I for one am glad you’re gone! Learn why.’ This one is hard but will be amazing.”

To be continued.