SHANKAR VEDANTAM, HOST:
Hey, there. Shankar here. We've spent the last several weeks exploring a series of ideas about how you can use social science research to make your life better. If you've missed those episodes, go back and listen to them. We have looked at how you can make work more meaningful, the importance of limiting distractions and a scientifically proven technique to achieve your most important goals.
Today's episode is the last one in the series. We first put it out in January this year. It asks a very important question, if you happened to find yourself in a blind alley, nowhere to turn - you're frustrated, dejected - what psychological techniques could help you get unstuck?
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VEDANTAM: This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Many of us feel we are not leading the lives we were meant to lead - that we're not living our dreams, that life is passing us by. This sense of doubt leaves many of us feeling rudderless, confused and stuck.
CHRISTINE METZGER: I put a lot of pressure on myself to make sure that I made the exact right decision.
VEDANTAM: Today, we're going to explore the psychological traps we construct for ourselves that keep us from living our best lives.
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VEDANTAM: For many years, Christine Metzger thought she knew what she wanted to do with her life. But after more than a decade working in education administration, she woke up one day and realized she wasn't the person she wanted to be. She didn't know exactly who she did want to be, but she was certain that that ideal version of Christine was out there. She just had to find her.
She stumbled on what seemed like the perfect opportunity, developing a coaching program for teachers at a boarding school in England. She took the plunge. She quit her job, sold her belongings and prepared to embark on her new life.
METZGER: I was sleeping on an AeroBed and had my three suitcases next to me. I was right about to literally 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.
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VEDANTAM: Instead of heading to England for her dream job, Christine found herself unemployed. Still in search of that ideal career, the next position she found didn't have visa issues. She would be working for the American Bible Society as liaison to the president. Even better, he had personally asked her to apply for the job.
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. And actually, eventually, the president ended up leaving that company. And I was left in a lurch one more time and in a transition that I wasn't expecting or planning on.
VEDANTAM: It wasn't just losing the job that bothered Christine. A nagging fear was growing at the back of her mind. She started to worry she wasn't even on the right track. The next job came, working for a nonprofit organization in the performing arts. This one, 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: Christine couldn't understand it. Here she was, a smart, talented woman with years of experience. And inside, she felt like a rudderless college freshman. The pressure to discover her ideal life weighed heavy on her.
METZGER: And I think for most of my life, I had that sense of - when I'm looking for work or if I was in a transition, I put a lot of pressure on myself to make sure that I made the exact right decision.
VEDANTAM: Turns out, Christine is not alone. Lots of people feel the way she does, lost and stuck. They beat up on themselves because they not only feel they aren't getting where they want to go, they don't know where they want to go in the first place. Psychologists and self-help gurus have tried different kinds of advice for people like Christine. But recently, we had a new idea from an unlikely source - Silicon Valley.
It turns out that engineers and designers in the tech world 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 at Apple. One challenge he faced was in designing a new 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 other Apple engineers quickly figured out they really had two problems to solve. The first was to understand how people interacted with a computer to see what kind of a mouse would work for them.
EVANS: Before you do problem-solving, you have to do problem-finding, what's the right thing to be working on?
VEDANTAM: To say it another way, the first challenge for the engineers was in figuring out what the problem was that they had to solve. The second challenge was to solve it. Apple founder Steve Jobs thought he knew the answers. But the designers wanted to find out what was actually best for users. 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.
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VEDANTAM: Lots of people in Silicon Valley call this approach 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 the class, Dave talks about how everyday life produces challenges that are actually made up of two entirely different kinds of problems. One kind is tame, and the other is what he calls wicked.
EVANS: A tame problem is one you know how to solve. A wicked problem is one where the criteria are changing all the time; even if you come up with a solution, you don't get to reuse it over and over again; the status of what you're working on changes constantly and never is stable, problems like, you know, education and poverty and your own life or raising a kid. So wicked problems are particularly good for the method of design thinking because design relies on the empirical process of iterating multiple ideas with prototypes - so going out into reality, not just into your head, and trying something out.
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VEDANTAM: Solving these two different kinds of problems requires two different approaches.
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, you know, tuning it up - and then doing it again and doing it again. And life is like that.
VEDANTAM: Like lots of other well-educated and competent people, Christine is a good navigator. The reason she feels paralyzed is that the problem she's facing isn't one of navigation but wayfinding. Dave's students often have the same dilemma.
EVANS: Everyone turns out to be pretty interested in what they're doing with their life. And nobody was given a toolkit for how to figure that out.
VEDANTAM: Wayfinding isn't just about finding out where you need to go. It's about getting comfortable with the idea that you may not have just one destination. When students come to Dave and tell him they are worried they do not know what to do with their lives, he tells them...
EVANS: There's more than one of you in there. So there are many more than one right answer to what your life looks like. 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, and he asked her and the other participants to do a series of different exercises, to apply design thinking to whatever problem they felt stuck on. One of the exercises is what Dave calls odyssey planning. The principle behind the odyssey planning exercise is that there isn't just one career or one life plan for any of us. Dave asked everyone to give...
EVANS: Three completely different variations of the next five years of your life. We've already said, we're pretty sure there are lots of you in there. There's lots of Shankars who could be doing - you're having a great time being a public radio host and doing really interesting work with the HIDDEN BRAIN.
But if I suddenly said, you know, the radio world just died, Shankar. That's over completely. You have to go do something else. Well, you wouldn't just sit on the lawn waiting time to go by. You'd go do something else. There are other things you could do.
So we have people come up with three completely different versions of themselves and then go try some prototypes in each of them so that what you end up with is not just the one perfect life but recognizing there are many lives I could have. And now I'm going to choose the one that I'm going to have. It's going to be a good life. It could even be a great life. But it doesn't have to be exclusively good. It's just the good life I'm living now.
VEDANTAM: Think of these life prototypes like a mouse with one button and a mouse with two buttons.
EVANS: Interestingly, when we do these odyssey plans and people now have, you know, three plans in front of them that are quite different - you'd think that possibly what that does is give people even more reason to be disappointed and dismayed. Like, now I know exactly what I don't get to do. I've actually written down, you know, two things I'm not going to have time to live into. What a drag is that? And exactly the opposite occurs.
What happens is, when you lay out three ideas that you might be able to live into and then said, well, if I really have to pick one - because I can't be three people at once - I'm going with plan A.
So after people have the chance to articulate to themselves what their real alternatives are, they feel better about the choice they're making. That's completely in contrast to this, are you sure you're doing the right thing? You haven't settled, have you? Is this really your passion? - these questions that have such an incredibly unrealistic demand of hitting this high bar. That question, you can never answer perfectly. Are you really passionate enough? I mean, who knows if they are? Are you sure that is it?
The unknown competitor that you haven't had a chance to think up yet is a vicious antagonist to your peace and happiness in life. 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 about their constraints. Let's say, for example, you dream of being a musician but no one will pay you to do that. Dave Evans says that's a gravity problem.
EVANS: And a gravity problem is a very specific class of problem. 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. It's making me crazy. It's slowing me down; it's ruining my bicycle ride. It's getting worse with time. I've got to do something about it. Can you help me? And you'd just look at me, kind of go, no, Dave, I - it's gravity - it's not a problem. It's gravity. What do you want me to do?
But a lot of people are, in fact, dealing with a problem that's just like gravity. Again, design is oriented to action. One of our mindsets is biased to action - when in doubt, do something - which means if you can't do anything about it - if it's not actionable, it's not a problem. It's a circumstance. And a lot of people have a problem that isn't a problem. It's just a circumstance.
So let's say the problem is you can't make any money as a professional musician unless you're in the top one one-thousandth of 1 percent, which at - now that I'm 37 years old and, frankly, only nominally talented at doing this thing, my chances of attaining are about zero, that's not a problem. That's a fact. People get stuck on the wrong - say, how do I - how can I make a living and keep my mortgage paid by being a musician? That is not an actionable problem.
Once you accept your gravity problem as, in fact, not a problem but a circumstance - maybe a difficult one, maybe a heartbreaking one - but once you realize it's just a fact, you free yourself to go do something you can do. So once I've decided - oh, I'm never going to be able to make this income as a musician, that's not a problem. It's just an awful fact. Now what do I do?
Well, I have two different paths I can go right off the bat. I can say - great, how can I learn how to live on $15,000 a year and feed my family of three - obviously not in this house - while being a rising, starving musician? And I could actually figure out how to do that. I know people who successfully did. 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 and very doable, something that 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 to the world again.
This is Dave's idea about how you should design your life. Rather than sitting around thinking about what would be ideal, try a series of experiments, learn from them. And here's the important thing - keep doing this indefinitely. There is no perfect you, but there's probably a better you that is achievable.
EVANS: Designers aren't necessarily more creative than everybody else, but they are better at getting unstuck.
VEDANTAM: Christine Metzger says this idea really helped her think about her problem differently.
METZGER: There's not just one right job for you. And I think, for most of my life, I had that sense of - when I'm looking for work or if I was in a transition, I put a lot of pressure on myself to make sure that I made the exact right decision. And we talked in the class about how there's so much potential in each person and you have so many different skills and talents in the way you're wired that there's not just one thing that you can do, but there are many.
VEDANTAM: Abandoning the idea of finding her ideal life was liberating.
METZGER: I really liked this idea with design thinking about, what can I do in the next two weeks that can give me some new information? That just seemed really doable. And I think that's important when you're trying to make decisions or get unstuck - that you - you're not thinking about, oh, I just have to figure everything out perfectly. But - in fact, I liked what he said about - with design thinking, your goal is to fail early and often.
VEDANTAM: When we come back, we look at another example of design thinking, a writer who felt she lost her way but then found a new path forward.
HELEN ELLIS: I was raised, you know, write every day. Write 1,500 words a day. Go to graduate school. Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. And this was never a way to write that was given to me. I really did just sort of make it up.
VEDANTAM: Stay with us.
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VEDANTAM: Welcome back to HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. We started today with Christine Metzger, who sought out design thinking to help her get unstuck. Next, we'll hear from someone who exemplified design thinking without even knowing it. Our producer Maggie Penman has the story.
MAGGIE PENMAN, BYLINE: Helen Ellis grew up in Tuscaloosa, Ala., dreaming of being a writer. In her mind, being a serious writer meant moving to New York. So at 22 years old, that's what she did.
ELLIS: I came to New York dressed in Alabama's finest at the time, which was Talbots, a full plaid ankle-length skirt and turtleneck. And I went from publishing house to publishing house trying to get a job in publishing. No one would hire me. And I ended up getting a job at Talbots (laughter).
PENMAN: Helen worked in retail for a few years and then as a secretary, but she kept her eyes on her goal. Finally, she got her big break. She got into NYU's creative writing program off the waitlist and started writing her first novel.
ELLIS: And it was like a dream. I came out of graduate school. I sold the book within a year. It was a nice sum of money. It did very well.
PENMAN: Helen was just 29. She was living in Manhattan, and she was a published author. She had arrived.
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PENMAN: She immediately started working on her next book, but no one wanted to publish it.
ELLIS: I think it was about a poker-playing serial killer.
PENMAN: She wrote another book.
ELLIS: About a 19th-century prostitute in Mississippi.
PENMAN: Nobody wanted to publish that either. She decided the problem was that she wasn't focusing enough on writing, so she quit her day job and doubled down on being a full-time writer. She wrote another book and, again, couldn't get it published.
ELLIS: I just didn't write anything good enough.
PENMAN: Helen put the manuscripts away in a drawer.
ELLIS: And then I quit, and nobody cared. Honestly, all that happens is you put on 10 pounds (laughter).
PENMAN: Helen felt like a failure, like maybe she wasn't meant to be a writer after all. Having quit her day job and now writing, too, empty days stretched out before her. But Helen is not the kind of person who is content to do nothing. As it turns out, Helen likes to cook and clean and decorate. So she became, in her words, a housewife...
ELLIS: I'm a housewife.
PENMAN: ...And threw herself into it.
ELLIS: It's art. Yeah, it really is.
PENMAN: Helen may not have used this word to describe what she was doing, but she was wayfinding. She turned her entire Manhattan apartment into a masterpiece of whimsy. She put up flamingo wallpaper in the entryway and had a little flamingo painted on the next wall, as if he escaped the wallpaper and strutted around the corner.
ELLIS: Sort of a tribute to flamingos in the front yard where I grew up (laughter).
PENMAN: She got the most amazing refrigerator. It's bright orange and looks like something straight off the set of "Mad Men." When I went to visit her, it was one of the first things I noticed.
Oh, love the fridge.
ELLIS: Thank you. It's my - some people have dream jewelry, and I had a dream fridge.
PENMAN: That's perfect.
And if you cared to poke around in her medicine cabinet, which Helen insists everyone does, you'll find little bits of humor and color there, too.
ELLIS: Well, there's a gnome. There's a 1940s kitty cat planter filled with cotton balls. And it's, of course, arranged by color.
PENMAN: Of course. But even as she collected art and records and antiques, she was sometimes reminded of the dream she had given up.
ELLIS: And I would go places with my husband, and people would ask me, what do you do? And I would say, honestly, I'm a housewife. And the next question they would ask - if there was another question - was, what do you do all day?
PENMAN: After getting that question one too many times, Helen came up with an answer in the form of a snarky Twitter account. She called it What I Do All Day.
ELLIS: I just started tweeting about my life, funny little things. And as I gained more followers, I gained confidence again.
PENMAN: Helen's Twitter persona is like a 1950s housewife on steroids. She tweets things like...
ELLIS: (Reading) When in doubt, dust.
ELLIS: (Reading) My idea of crushing it is making a graham cracker crust.
PENMAN: Her Twitter account also includes plenty of translation of what Helen calls Southern lady code, which she describes as...
ELLIS: If you don't have something nice to say, say something not so nice in a nice way.
ELLIS: Her Instagram is very curated is Southern lady code for she is a hotter mess than spaghetti and meatballs in a clothes dryer (laughter).
PENMAN: Her Twitter account became increasingly popular. People loved her self-deprecating humor and related to the daily struggles of cooking and cleaning and laundry. And there was another benefit, too. Little by little, tweet by tweet, she was writing again - 140 characters at a time.
ELLIS: It got me unstuck. It really did.
PENMAN: Even better, her followers gave her instant feedback, telling her which ideas were funny and which jokes fell flat.
ELLIS: I found that Twitter was an excellent editor. So if I tweeted something and it wasn't retweeted in, say, 20 minutes, it's deleted.
PENMAN: Tweeting allowed Helen to just throw something out there, see if it stuck. In the language of design thinking, she was prototyping.
ELLIS: I had gone about writing in a very structured, traditional way for my entire life, you know, writing 1,500 words a day, going to graduate school, having a full-time job, writing in the morning. If this doesn't work, write another one. If this doesn't work, write another one in the same way. And I think it was - well, I know it was breaking that pattern that helped me find my voice again.
PENMAN: When she had enough tweets to fill a book or even two, she printed them all out to see what was there. A few themes emerged - love and marriage, dinner parties, cutting commentary about housework, her neighbors and her two cats. So she did something she had been trying to do for years. She wrote another book and got it published, a book of short stories inspired by her tweets. It was called "American Housewife."
ELLIS: After years of trying to write books that I thought other people would want to read that were never published, I thought maybe I'll write what I know. I had 10 years under my belt, and I thought - well, there is nothing more unpredictable than a woman left alone in her home all day long. Let's explore that.
PENMAN: The first story in the collection is called "What I Do All Day."
ELLIS: And that story is made up probably 96 percent of tweets that I tweeted over three years and then cobbled together. And people always say, every other line is just a killer. And it's because Twitter was my editor. You know, if it's not retweeted, it's deleted. So every sentence in that story was retweeted or applauded or approved, and it was just this new way to write.
PENMAN: When Helen was 29 and had just published a successful literary novel, she felt tremendous pressure to write the perfect second book. But now, in her 40s, having failed so many times, she looks at things differently.
ELLIS: I mean, one of the nice things about the failure and saying that I was a housewife and having the anonymous account was nobody knew it was me. Nobody was watching. There were absolutely no expectations. And it really freed me. And I had been able to - as of, you know, today - keep hold of that.
PENMAN: Her second book has done very well.
ELLIS: But if it hadn't, I really would have been fine (laughter). So - and it was 15 years between books. I really don't feel the pressure until I'm 60.
VEDANTAM: Helen Ellis speaking with producer Maggie Penman.
Many of us feel stuck - stuck at work, stuck in the wrong city, stuck in life. When that happens, we often end up asking ourselves, what should I do? Where should I live? What's my ideal life? It turns out, these normal questions are counterproductive to getting us unstuck. They place an unbearable pressure on us, the pressure to know how things are supposed to turn out.
The next time that happens to you, think of your life the way a designer at a tech company thinks of a new product. You don't quite know what you want to build. Just for fun, you come up with a prototype, then a second and a third. You pay attention to whether you enjoy building one kind of prototype or another. You listen to feedback from others. You go back to the drawing board and try again. When someone asks you years later how you knew what you wanted to be, you can tell them - honestly, I didn't.
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VEDANTAM: HIDDEN BRAIN is produced by Maggie Penman, Jennifer Schmidt, Rhaina Cohen, Lucy Perkins and Parth Shah. Our supervising producer is Tara Boyle. Our team also includes Renee Klahr, who does great videos and illustrations for our Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts. If you liked this episode, please share it with a friend who doesn't know about our show. Tell us whom you've tapped on social media. We want more people to find our show.
Our unsung hero this week is Tanya Blue. Tanya works in NPR's development department, and she got us unstuck as we were getting this project off the ground. It takes money to build great audio. So if you think you can write a check with a few zeros, please drop Tanya a line at email@example.com.
VEDANTAM: I'm Shankar Vedantam, and this is NPR.
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