Dear Brené Brown,

Will you be my thesis advisor?

*Disclaimer*

While this attempt did not work out (🙌 Dan Brown 🙌 is my thesis advisor) I wanted to re-post because I’m proud of the leap I took. Perhaps it might inspire others to try something new.

Written sometime in Feb 2017…

I hope this note finds you well. My name is James Vanié, Army veteran and Interaction Design graduate student at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. I am writing to ask if you would be interested and available to be my thesis advisor over the next three months. In a breath, I am helping teams build psychological safety to increase awareness of unintended outcomes of design and business decisions.

I became interested in empathy and behavior change long before I knew it was a term. As a sergeant in the US Army, I was in charge of an endless list of tasks, one of them being the morale of my soldiers. When deployed to the war zone or the field, soldiers are immersed in high-stress environments with even higher performance expectations. If morale was high, those moments were fun. If morale was low, those moments were painful… and potentially dangerous.

2010: Port-Au-Prince, Haiti. My unit was among the first to respond to the victims of the devastating earthquake.

Now in my final semester of graduate school, I am working with a range of organizations to build shared values and implement tactics to move towards aspirational goals of transparency, cohesion, and collective empathy. I have interviewed design teams to understand their most pressing organizational challenges, then created workshops that meet those needs. I am now in the process of distilling the insights and designing a prototype to help teams in this area.

Just wrapped up on a workshop with SoHarlem on psychological safety and shared values.

I stumbled upon your work three years ago, in a bar. I was ranting about empathy when a friend told me to read your book, Daring Greatly. Since then, vulnerability has been a key aspect of my life, design practice, and now my thesis work.

In thinking of an advisor, I wanted to collaborate with people who are equally passionate about my focus area, but from a field outside of design (my field).

There are three areas I believe you could help me in:

Essentalizing my research: Interaction design is a tricky field because it is scientific at times and imaginative at others (when it needs to be sold). I would like to incorporate more empirical research methods into my process so that I may better measure the outcomes and areas of improvement for my workshops.

Developing a stronger narrative with my insights: I’m a natural storyteller, but synthesizing my insights into a story and communicating my work to others has proven to be difficult at times. I believe you could help me frame my research into a cohesive, relatable, and compelling narrative.

Designing methods that foster vulnerability across teams: As a person of color in a homogenous industry, I have experienced first hand what it is like to not feel trusted or psychologically safe, while being subjected to unconscious biases. I believe vulnerability is the key to overcoming these challenges within organizations. I would appreciate your guidance on how to begin these types of conversations within teams so that the workplace can be safe for all kinds of people.

The end goal of my thesis is to create a framework through which individuals on business teams can evaluate and improve on empathy toward themselves, their co-workers, societies, and the natural world.

Responsibilities would include bi-weekly check-ins (as needed) to help drive depth into my research and direction. In return for your time, the department awards advisors with a stipend as compensation.

With that, would you be interested to chat? I also recently spoke about my research at a conference (summarized here) and would appreciate your feedback. I can be reached at vanie.james@gmail.com. I hope to hear from you soon.

Thank you for you time,
James Vanié