Prototyping Your Way Forward

The Story

Winter quarter of my freshman year at Stanford, I declared as a Physics major. This is pretty early to be choosing a major at Stanford; you don’t need to pick an area of study until the end of sophomore year, and I’ve known folks who didn’t declare until junior year. But at the time, I was completely sure that I wanted to spend my undergraduate years studying physics and doing research, and I didn’t realize until more than halfway through my college career that I might not actually enjoy being a physicist.

What might have been helpful was to try out physics as a major (and career) before actually committing to the field so that I could understand what I was getting myself into. In Stanford’s Designing Your Life course, and in the design process in general, this is called prototyping. A prototype is a first version of your product that lets you learn things that you can apply to the next version. Whether that product is the iPhone or your life, it’s good to invest in some prototyping in order to have a product that you can see, feel, and/or live.

The key to a good prototype is that it must be quick and cheap. That is, it should provide excellent bang for your buck by giving you lots of insights for relatively little time and money invested. For example, prototyping the iPhone by building the whole thing would provide lots of insights, but would be costly and take a long time. Instead, Apple might just build the exterior to see how people respond to holding the phone, or add cameras in different places to see how people take photos differently.

Let’s look at my decision to major in Physics. Something that would have been useful to know at that time is whether I enjoyed doing research. A quick and easy prototype would have been to try out different parts of the research process. I might have tried reading a seminal research paper, or attending a talk by a professor, or shadowing a physics grad student for a day as they drank Nespresso and pored over experiment data. The point is to do something cheaply and quickly to get some hands-on experience and insights.

Not prototyping can be costly. I spent two years at Stanford on the physics track: several physics and math classes, summer research with an engineering lab, a part-time admin job at the theoretical physics department. These experiences count as prototypes. But they weren’t good prototypes because they weren’t quick. I could have learned those lessons much more quickly and cheaply, and moved on to more interesting and fulfilling things.

An Exercise

Want to design your own life prototype? Let’s give it a shot.

  1. Pick a life experience you’re thinking about pursuing. It can be big, like a career, or it can be small, like taking a road trip.
  2. Ask yourself what about that experience you’d like to know more about before pursuing it. For example, if I wanted to be a yoga teacher, I might want to know what having students is like. If I was thinking of taking a road trip across America, I might wonder how I’ll feel sleeping in the car.
  3. Brainstorm some potential prototypes! Quick and cheap are your only two requirements. Feel free to go crazy; you don’t actually have to do all of them. For example, to test out being a yoga teacher I might try teaching my grandma how to do downward dog, or invite some friends to a ten-minute workshop I’m leading, or arrive early at a local yoga class and pretend to be the instructor until they kick me out.
  4. Pick a few and do them. Seriously. Write them down somewhere, set a reminder, add them to your Asana. Try it out. Why not? It’ll cost you nothing, and you’ll learn a ton.
  5. Reflect on the prototypes you did. How did it go? Was it what you expected? What did you learn? How do you want to move forward? Do you want to try more prototypes in this direction, or do you want to move in a completely different direction? (This step is something I’m still figuring out for myself, so feel free to add your own questions to the list.)

Final Thoughts

Prototyping is a useful practice for moving forward in life. Not only does it give you real insights quickly and cheaply, it’s also helpful for stepping out of the thinking and planning stages and into the action stage. If you have a good prototype, the only thing stopping you from doing what you’ve wanted to do is yourself.

One particularly useful kind of prototype is the informational interview, which is where you interview someone who is doing the thing (or something similar) that you want to do. Not only is it quick and cheap (reach out, schedule a time, chat, say thank you), but you get insights that you would otherwise only get from actually doing the job for, say, several years. If you’re looking to prototype something, I highly recommend this route.

Requests

As you might have guessed, I am currently prototyping different ideas right now. This blog is one; I’m trying to get a feel for what writing regularly is like. I’d also like to prototype being a meditation teacher and a mentor or “life coach,” i.e. someone who you can talk to about different aspects of your own life and come up with next steps. For all of these prototypes, I could really use your help.

For the blog, I would really appreciate feedback. Did you find it interesting? Useful? Why or why not? Which parts worked for you? Which parts didn’t? Would you like more posts on topics in this vein, or should I switch to new topics? Answers to these and other questions would help me hone my writing, as well as give me a clearer sense of whether I’d enjoy blogging long-term.

For the meditation teacher and “life coach” prototypes, I’m looking for students and “coachees.” This might be the wrong words to characterize our relationship, though; a more appropriate word might be “guide” and “visitor.” I’ve navigated certain territories in life more than your average 20-something, such as the meditation “industry” and existential crises, and I believe I have something valuable to share from those experiences for those who are interested. Of course, that might be less true than I believe, or I might need to work on communicating it, or my experience might be fairly unique and not pliable enough for extrapolating to other people’s experiences. That’s why I’d like to prototype it, to see what’s true and what’s not, what works and what doesn’t.

If you’re interested in either of those things, please, please let me know. Feedback would be greatly appreciated as a chance to grow as a writer. Requests for a “guide” would be welcomed as opportunities to share what I know, and also to just connect/re-connect with folks. I look forward to hearing from you and having a conversation.

All right, that’s enough writing for today. Thanks for reading, and may the rest of your day intrigue and interest you.

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