Design Thinking Could Help Those Who Want To Get Unstuck Psychologists and self help gurus have advice for people who feel stuck. If you're looking for new ways to reboot your life as you enter the new year, you could also turn to the tech world.

Design Thinking Could Help Those Who Want To Get Unstuck

Design Thinking Could Help Those Who Want To Get Unstuck

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Psychologists and self help gurus have advice for people who feel stuck. If you're looking for new ways to reboot your life as you enter the new year, you could also turn to the tech world.

Renee Klahr/NPR
Psychologists and self help gurus have advice for people who feel stuck.
Renee Klahr/NPR



At one time or another, many of us feel stuck, stuck in the wrong job, the wrong relationship, maybe the wrong city. NPR's social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam has a story today about one possible solution that comes from Silicon Valley.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: After more than a decade of working in education administration, Christine Metzger awoke one day and realized she wasn't the person she wanted to be. She found what seemed like just the change she needed - a new job at a boarding school in England. She quit her job, sold her belongings and prepared to embark on her new life.

CHRISTINE METZGER: I was sleeping on an aerobed and had my three suitcases next to me. I was right about to leave Hoboken and be on my way, and I received a phone call from the folks in England saying we're really sorry, but we couldn't get you a work visa.

VEDANTAM: Instead of heading to England to start her new life, Christine found herself unemployed. The next job she found didn't have visa issues, but...

METZGER: It was a long process. And unfortunately, in the end, it turned out that the organization had a hiring freeze, and the board did not give permission to hire me.

VEDANTAM: Then the next position came - working for a nonprofit organization for the performing arts. This job she got.

METZGER: And then another transition came (laughter) a little earlier than I anticipated.

VEDANTAM: Christine was downsized. In fact, on the day she and I talked...

METZGER: Today is my last day at the organization.

VEDANTAM: She couldn't understand it. Here she was, an educated woman with years of experience under her belt, and inside she felt as rudderless as a college freshman. The pressure to discover her ideal life weighed heavily on her.

METZGER: I put a lot of pressure on myself to make sure that I made the exact right decision.

VEDANTAM: Christine is not alone. Lots of people feel the way she did at one point or another, lost and stuck. Psychologists and self-help gurus have tried all kinds of different advice for people like Christine, but recently, we heard a new idea from the tech world. It turns out that engineers and designers often face similar challenges when it comes to designing new products. How do you build something when you don't know what to build? Dave Evans used to work in Silicon Valley. One challenge he faced was in designing the Apple mouse.

DAVE EVANS: Should we have one button on the mouse or two buttons on the mouse?

VEDANTAM: Dave said that he and Steve Jobs and the other engineers at Apple quickly realized they actually had two problems to solve.

EVANS: Before you do problem solving, you have to do problem finding - what's the right thing to be working on?

VEDANTAM: The first challenge for the engineers was to figure out which kind of mouse users liked best. They built a couple of prototypes. Now, a prototype isn't just a model. It's a psychological tool.

EVANS: We reveal the assumptions we make that are probably wrong. We get to, as we call it, sneak up on the future and involve other people with your ideas.

VEDANTAM: It turned out people preferred one button. Now, figuring out how to build a mouse with only one button was a complicated engineering problem, but at least now the engineers knew where they were trying to go. This approach to innovation is called design thinking. A few years ago, Dave says he realized that design thinking might be useful outside the tech world too. He started teaching a course at Stanford University called designing your life. In college, many students ask themselves a really big question - what should I do with my life?

EVANS: When you can't know what you're doing - you can't navigate like a GPS would because you don't have a map and you don't have all the information - you have to wayfind. And wayfinding means taking one step at a time knowing something about the direction you're going, trying a few things, tuning it up and then doing it again and doing it again.

VEDANTAM: Dave's students often come to him saying they don't know what the right path is. He tells them...

EVANS: There's more than one of you in there. So the problem with the current approach that lots of people are taking is it starts with the wrong question. And the wrong question is how do I figure out that one best solution to my life? There is one exclusive, unique, optimal version of me, and I'm supposed to already know it, and I'm probably already late. And how do I figure it out? And how would I know if I knew? How can I be sure? And we think all those questions are the wrong questions.

VEDANTAM: So this is the guy Christine turned to for help. She went to a workshop Dave was running in New York. He asked her and the other participants to come up with three different paths they could realistically pursue.

EVANS: Once you realize none of us knows the future, we're making it up as we go along, so let's get really good at making it up as we go along. In fact, let's design it as we go along. That turns out to work much more effectively.

VEDANTAM: Now, there are many things in our lives we just can't control, like Christine not being able to get a work visa or being laid off from her job. People often spend years feeling frustrated by their constraints. But Dave says much of the time these are gravity problems.

EVANS: I happen to be a cyclist, and I'm getting older, so I'm doing that thing of putting on a little extra weight. And it's starting to bother me, so if I said, Shankar, I've got this terrible problem. It's gravity.

VEDANTAM: It might sound ridiculous, but Dave says...

EVANS: A lot of people are in fact dealing with a problem that's just like gravity.

VEDANTAM: So let's say your problem is that you desperately want to be a musician, but you can't make any money doing that.

EVANS: That's not a problem. That's a fact.

VEDANTAM: Dave says, once you accept that fact, you can find ways to design your life around it. You can figure out how to live on much less money while being a rising, starving musician.

EVANS: Or I could ask the question, since I'm never going to get to be a professional musician, how can I craft a lifestyle that keeps my income going while making my avocation, the thing I do for love not money called music, as satisfying as possible? That's a life I could design.

VEDANTAM: This is the heart of design thinking. It isn't about becoming your perfect self. It's about looking very honestly at your circumstances and asking what room you have to maneuver. Think about those designers in Silicon Valley. They're always releasing programs in beta. The idea is you try something very practical, something you can do quickly, send it out into the world and then learn from how it performs. You come back, iterate and then go back into the world again. As for Christine Metzger, she still doesn't have it all figured out, but she says this idea really helped her think about her problems differently.

METZGER: In fact, I liked what he said about with design thinking your goal is to fail early and often.

VEDANTAM: Fail early and often and then try again. Shankar Vedantam, NPR News.


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