Designing My Life — Reflections from one of Stanford’s Most Unique Courses

Nicholas Benavides
Mar 22 · 7 min read

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.

Bill Burnett & Dave Evans’ book, Designing Your Life

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).


One of my 5-year plans from the Odyssey Plan Assignment

With all of that said, these were my main takeaways from the course:

Unlearning 1: You need to have a 10-year plan.

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.

Learning 2: You get a better ROI from doubling down on strengths than from shoring up weaknesses.

Learning 3: Experiment, Experiment, Experiment.

Learning 4: For me, it’s all about impact.

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.

What’s Next?

Nicholas Benavides

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Data Science @ Stanford | Founder @ Blue Ocean Entrepreneurship Competition | Sports guru learning about all things startups