Designing My Life — Reflections from one of Stanford’s Most Unique Courses
This quarter, I had the opportunity to take Designing Your Life (DYL), one of Stanford’s most unique courses, which focuses on applying aspects of design thinking to frame one’s personal and professional lives as well as experiment with ways to improve various aspects of one’s life.
If you’re not familiar with design thinking, it’s an iterative, human-centered approach to problem-solving that seeks to redefine problems in an attempt to expand the set of possible solutions and generate innovative ideas that you may not have come up with before. It’s a prevalent approach to design and problem-solving at Stanford and in Silicon Valley.
If you’re a Stanford student interested in life design, I would recommend that you take the DYL course (ME 104B), which is offered every quarter for juniors, seniors, and coterms. If you’re not a Stanford student, I would recommend Bill Burnett and Dave Evans’ book, Designing Your Life, which is the foundation for the course, or the Stanford Life Design Lab, which runs the course and provides other online resources.
This post is a slight revision of my final assignment for the course, which tasked us with reflecting on the quarter and identifying several learnings and unlearnings. The concept of a learning versus an unlearning is described well below from the assignment instructions. The main revisions I’ve made are primarily to provide additional context for those not familiar with the course.
The idea here is that as we grow and learn, some new ideas that come to us require not only learning, but unlearning as well. Some new ideas and information can enter into our awareness in a perfectly compatible and friendly way, and everything that was already in place previously stays put (learnings). In other cases, the new information overlaps current understanding or even directly contradicts it, requiring something to get materially edited, rearranged, or evicted altogether (unlearnings).
Over the course of the quarter, we completed a variety of assignments. Several were focused around journaling (logging screen time over the course of the week, reflecting on moments of being stuck, moments of gratitude, moments of flow, etc.). Others emphasized prototypes, such as conducting informational interviews and running a week-long experiment to address some aspect of our relationship with our phones. In one assignment, we completed the Clifton StrengthsFinder assessment, which produced a report and insights on our areas of strengths. Finally, the main project for the course was called the Odyssey Plan, which tasked us with generating and presenting 3 potential 5-year plans and a 10-year plan, including both personal and professional milestones, among other things.
With all of that said, these were my main takeaways from the course:
Unlearning 1: You need to have a 10-year plan.
Over the course of the past year, I’ve been asked what my 10-year plan is over and over again, whether it be in interviews for internships, informational interviews, or just through networking and sharing that I’m finishing up college. I never really knew what to say, and based on these conversations, it seemed like not having a compelling answer was problematic. Did I need to spend more time thinking about the future? Was I too preoccupied with current commitments? These were the kinds of questions I had started to ask myself.
While the Odyssey Plan assignment was helpful in outlining what the next 10 years could possibly look like for me, my bigger takeaway from the course was that sometimes it’s better to not have a plan, because not following a plan may lead you to exciting opportunities you wouldn’t have even considered if you had just stuck with your plan. Thus, to embrace this idea, I had to unlearn the idea that I needed to have the next 10 years figured out, and guest speakers’ experiences really demonstrated the value of not having or following a plan. Now, I’m comfortable not having a confident answer for what I want to be doing 10 years from now and am solely focused on determining what makes the most sense for the next couple of years.
Learning 1: Awareness is powerful.
Taking DYL this quarter forced me to be more reflective than I typically am, and in doing so, really showed me the power of awareness. Whether it be taking note of my daily screen time, moments of flow, things I got stuck on, or moments of gratitude, being aware is a critical first step to making any real change in yourself and/or your life. Without awareness, it’s unclear what the change you want to make is or what the set of possible solutions looks like. With awareness, you have a clear idea of the current state or situation, can accept that reality, and work from there to ideate possible solutions that you can prototype.
Learning 2: You get a better ROI from doubling down on strengths than from shoring up weaknesses.
From the StrengthsFinder assessment, it was interesting to learn that it’s generally more valuable to focus on your strengths to go from good to great in a particular area than to work on improving a weakness from poor to mediocre. This does make sense, as you’ll be able to improve faster in something that you’re already skilled at, but it wasn’t an idea that I had really thought about before completing the assessment. This doesn’t mean that we should ignore our weaknesses, but rather to be conscious of how we invest time between working on our strengths vs working on our weaknesses. At the end of the day, it’s our strengths that will be the main drivers of our success, and you can surround yourself with people who complement your skills to mitigate your weaknesses.
Learning 3: Experiment, Experiment, Experiment.
In many subjects in school (math, science, etc.), we’re pushed to find the correct answer the first time. While this approach works in some cases, in general there’s no right answer, and it’s unlikely that the first idea that we have will be the best idea. Through this course, I’ve learned that the best thing to do in order to get closer to a final answer/idea is to prototype and experiment. By trying things, identifying what’s working and what’s not, and leveraging those learnings to inform another version, you can iterate your way to the answer without needing to have everything figured out from the beginning. It’s also pretty easy to run experiments on our lives — just try something for a week, see how you feel, and then re-evaluate whether you want to continue that behavior or try something else. Doing this often doesn’t cost you anything and can provide valuable insights and help you identify new directions or better understand the problem at hand.
Learning 4: For me, it’s all about impact.
I wouldn’t say that this is a new idea, but many of the activities this quarter have really helped me clarify what I care about in work and in life. Reading my workview (thoughts on how I view work and what I think work should be), worldview (thoughts on how I view the world and our purpose in it), and poem (related to the world of work), as well as analyzing my Odyssey plans reveals a strong trend that I really care about the impact that I have. Wanting to have an important role at a smaller company that has a compelling mission fits with this. Potentially starting my own company one day fits with this. Not having any desire to work at a huge tech company fits with this. Wanting to leave the people and organizations I encounter better than I found them fits with this.
Looking forward to next year’s job search, this has really helped me narrow down the kinds of opportunities that I’m excited about, and I look forward to finding a job that is aligned with my desire to have an impact.
Unlearning 2: There is a single perfect job out there for me.
This idea is one that had made committing to an internship offer tough. Since I couldn’t evaluate all of my options at once (ie once you get an offer you usually have 2 weeks to make a decision), it was difficult to be confident that I was making the best decision, and that bothered me somewhat. I had the idea that there was an objective best opportunity out there for me, but I had no way of knowing whether my current offer was that best opportunity or how far off my current offer was from the best possible opportunity. However, through DYL and some of the conversations it spurred, I’ve realized that that single best opportunity doesn’t exist. There are many great opportunities that fit my interests and objectives, but after a certain point the experience will be what I make of it, so it’s pointless to question whether an opportunity is the absolute best I could have been offered. If it’s a role in an interesting space that will give me a significant opportunity to both learn and make an impact, that’s something I can be confident signing up for.
One thing I will do differently as a result of DYL is continue to experiment with aspects of my life that I’m interested in changing. It’s something that I’ve done before on occasion, but I want to make a concerted effort to continue doing this after DYL. Based on my Odyssey Plan, I want to get back to writing down 3 ideas per day, as I was most excited about plans where I eventually start my own company. Writing down 3 ideas per day will get me in the mindset of looking for opportunities, and if I do it for a while I’ll probably have generated some great ideas. If you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading, and I hope something resonated with you.