Designing Purpose

A few simple ways design can help you explore purpose

How many times have you heard a graduation speech that included the phrases “follow your dreams” or “pursue your passion”? While the intent might be to inspire, it can end up feeling pretty daunting, especially if you’re 18 years old. What if you don’t know what “your passion” is yet? Even if you do, how on earth do you “follow” it? And to what end? And what if it changes? You get the point.

At IDEO, I use design to tackle systemic challenges, many of which center around youth. Recently, I’ve found myself faced with one of the most complex and intangible challenges yet: Designing purpose. Specifically, designing a program that helps young people explore purpose in their lives.

This initiative was inspired by a pattern my coworkers and I were noticing in the world of education. I’ll never forget my interview with 20-year old Karen, a young woman living in the Bronx with her mom and sister, who had recently dropped out of college. When I asked if she thought she might return to college in the future, she said, “I do want to go back, but I don’t want to waste money until I know what I’m going for.” She had a point.

This conversation, along with many others, helped us see that so much of what comprises a young person’s priorities are expectations set by adults. In the increasingly competitive environment of academia, teenagers feel a mounting pressure to achieve, make the grades, get the test scores, fill the resumé, and graduate college as a pinnacle of success. But why? Without agency, is all of this achieving at risk of feeling meaningless if it doesn’t translate it into a pursuit or career they actually care about?

So we set ourselves up with a challenge: How might we enable students to design their lives and connect purpose to their education, both in school and out in the world? How might we get them closer to a life path that actually matters to them?

Two years later, with a course, a digital platform, and dozens of workshops under our belt, we’ve learned a thing or two on the topic. Most importantly, that “purpose” isn’t a singular thing you stumble upon one day, but rather, a mindset — a journey of experimentation and self-discovery. It’s the process of getting to know yourself better, so when faced with key life decisions, you know who you are, making it easier to decide where to go. And there are some surprisingly simple ways to start. Here are six of them:

Map it out

As any good organizer will tell you, you first need to take everything out of the drawers before you decide what to put back in. Start by simply observing where you are in your life now, without judgement. Give yourself time to take inventory and reflect on what makes up your life.

To explore this, our team prototyped an activity called “life-mapping” — where students mapped out the skills they have, activities they spend time on, topics they care about, and things they were curious to explore. Each component was written on a Post-It, and by the end of the activity, students could physically see and touch all of the aspects that made up their lives. They then prioritized and organized the components, thinking about questions like, “When do you feel most in flow?” “What couldn’t you live without?” or “Where do you feel like you have the most impact?” This made it much easier to define where to focus, and what they might intentionally de-prioritize. One 16-year old girl realized, “Wow, I have spent 10 years getting really competitive at basketball, but seeing it in front of me next these other activities, I realize how little I actually care about it.” Many students admitted they felt like they had too much on their plates, and this activity helped them to see how all the pieces fit together, and gave them permission to narrow in on a few key areas as a place to start.

Capture idea sparks

Somewhere between a “to-do” list and a “bucket” list lives an “idea” list. An idea list is aspirational (stuff you want to do, rather than have to do), but also tangible and near-term (something you could do tomorrow or over the weekend). To create one, write down all of the things you’d like explore in the next month, coming up with a range of ideas, just like you would in a brainstorm (some could be easy to accomplish and some that might be a bit out there). Then, pick just one thing to pursue, and make a plan to get it done.

When talking with students, we realized that they were so inundated with homework and tasks, they didn’t have much space to think about their own aspirations. Sure, most of them wanted a good job, a nice house, or to travel the world, but “What is one thing you’d like to explore this week?” was a harder question to answer. “Idea lists” were helpful as the near-term constraints actually gave them space to be generative, and created fodder for things students might explore based on their interests.

Share it with others

Sharing an intention or idea with other people can help keep you accountable. Not only does saying your idea out loud help you garner support, but it can also give you the perfect jolt of energy and inspiration to get started or keep going. We realized that feedback from a community of peers would play a key role in keeping students motivated and inspired with their own goals.

Building on the previous activity, each person wrote that idea or intention on a Post-it and stuck it to the classroom wall. Their peers then went around in their classroom and built on their ideas, adding resources, inspiration, or even just words of encouragement. The goal was to add to as many other ideas as they could before returning to their own. The results benefitted students in two ways: One — they were able to leverage the collective knowledge of the classroom for dozens of points of inspiration and ways to get started, and two — their intention became visible to everyone else, so people could offer support along the way.

Prototype it

Prototyping is a way to test ideas quickly and to learn what works and what could be improved before investing extensive time or money, often referred to as “building to think.” This approach can also be applied when experimenting in your own life. Instead of feeling overwhelmed by the resources needed to pursue something new, think creatively about how you explore an interest in a low-fidelity way first.

For example, it was common to hear students express interest in something, but not know where to get started. They often felt it required too many steps or resources. One student talked about wanting to learn photography, but not having the equipment or time to take a class. So, instead, he asked himself how he could just get started — prototyping a small way to explore photography with the fewest barriers. Ultimately, he ended up creating photography experiments for himself using just the camera on his cell phone — one day, experimenting with shadows, the next, shapes, and so forth. Just after a week, he already began to build a sense of confidence in his new craft and was able to identify what he enjoyed about the process and how he could build on it.

Balance action with reflection

Equally important in living with intention is the balance of doing and reflecting. Taking a few minutes to reflect after an experience or achievement can be easy to gloss over, but can ultimately be the secret sauce in building insights about self. We found that students were usually good at either doing or reflecting, but not always both. Some were constantly achieving, but rarely took a moment to ask themselves, “why?” while other students felt stunted to try anything because they spent too much time reflecting, and had trouble taking action. We discovered the sweet spot is when action and reflection are a continuous cycle. In practice, this means asking yourself a few key questions that build on the experiences you have:

Did this activity bring you joy? Why or why not?
Are you building a skill? How can you continue to push your craft?
Does this activity have an impact in some way? How so?

For students, these questions helped create a structure for reflection, and made it easier to pinpoint pursuits that might ultimately be more fulfilling. It was also a helpful way to figure out what they wanted to do more or less of, and what to explore next. One student knew that she loved coding websites, but felt that it wasn’t having much of an impact, so she decided to try her hand at teaching it to others. When students were able to see an overlap between passion, skill, and impact, they felt most connected to purpose.

Tell a story

How you arrange the details of your life into a narrative can help shape who you are. When someone sits down to write a story, they are instantly forced to make decisions: What points do they want to get across? How much detail will they include? What will they choose to leave out? By telling a story about your own experiences, you make decisions about what’s foundational to your identity and values. Dan McAdams, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University sums it up well, “Life stories do not simply reflect personality. They are personality, or more accurately, they are important parts of personality… traits, goals, and values.”

When students created their stories, it forced them to think about their experiences in a new and critical way, and the simple act of forming a narrative helped them unearth insights about themselves. Students shared short pecha kucha presentations focused on something they explored, what they learned, and how they planned to change moving forward. It gave them a point of reflection, and helped purpose begin to feel tangible. By putting pen to paper (or slide to powerpoint), they were able to pinpoint their growth and continue to evolve their understanding of self.

Curious to learn more? The Purpose Project is an initiative incubated and run by IDEO’s Design for Learning team. In close collaboration with a team of students, teachers, researchers and designers, we have created a curriculum and supporting platform to help students design their lives. It is currently piloting nation-wide, and will continue to scale in Fall 2017. If you are interested in piloting the program in your school, we invite you to get in touch.