By Devon Skerritt, Ed.D.
“Work is, by its very nature, about violence.” —Studs Terkel (1974)
Growing up in a low-income, single-parent household in the 1980s–early ’90s, my concept of work started from a negative, almost fatalistic approach. Until I realized I was on a path to become the only person in my family to attend a four-year college, work appeared to be physically punishing, psychologically exhausting, and devoid of any agency or choice. Studs Terkel captured this perspective in his seminal book Working (1974), a searing critique of labor and identity. He weaves together a diverse array of interviews and vignettes—everyone from steelworkers to airline attendants—uncovering deep reflections on the human condition of work. The word “violence” evokes both bodily ache and pain at physical labor (or, for deskbound workers, inertia) as well as mental strains from automation, stress, and pay inequities. Sound familiar?
Alongside these persistent challenges, one might wonder how many of us are prepared to engage the simple yet philosophical query, “Why work?” This prompt is foundational to understanding the meaning of work using an approach called Life Design. Roughly ten years and one New York Times best-selling book (Designing Your Life, 2016) after Bill Burnett and Dave Evans first got together at Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (or the d.school) to test out a course applying design thinking to vocational exploration, Life Design has emerged as a prominent thread in design thinking application.
Life Design, according to Burnett and Evans, is a process of thinking like a designer and embodying design mindsets to reframe what one should do next with their work and life. Through learning experiences at Stanford (and a growing number of institutions), people are being introduced to reflective, experiential activities crafted to source information about their values and aspirations (compass building), come up with lots of ideas (Odyssey Plans), and prototype (testing and iterating). While other scholars (see Savickas, Nota, Rossier, et al, 2009) and institutions have conceptualized and practiced methods around the self-construction of life and work, Stanford’s model of Life Design is prominent for integrating design thinking language and concepts to drive emotionally resonant outcomes. Burnett and Evans describe that goal: “[A] well-designed life is a life that is generative—it is constantly creative, productive, changing, evolving, and there is always the possibility of surprise” (p. xvi).
Life Design is coming to widespread attention while a confluence of factors impact employment and education. First, the pace of technological change indicates that job functions and their requisite skills are rapidly evolving. The emerging narrative goes something like this: innovation and automation are fundamentally changing occupation types, roles, and norms; thus a Future of Work is coming “and may already be here” (Deloitte, 2017).
Second, there is great attention from business, education, and public policy to workforce development and talent pipelines. Higher education continues to grapple with modest graduation rates from community colleges and four-year institutions, especially for growing demographics of non-white, low-income, and first-generation students. At the same time, employers cite a lack of candidates with job-ready skills for more technically sophisticated positions and new, emergent jobs.
Third, recent Gallup research has focused attention on the lack of engagement (and worrying state of disengagement) among workers. Even with record numbers of people in the labor force following the Great Recession, there is evidence that people lack a sense of agency and confidence in crafting jobs that are satisfying, enduring, and meaningful (see Amy Wrzesniewski).
When the rules and forms of work start changing, are people ready to take ownership of their professional trajectory and pivot when things don’t go according to plan? This might be why now is exactly the right time for people to start practicing design thinking on themselves. It certainly was for me.
I worked in a career services department for liberal arts students when I was introduced to design thinking in 2015. There, I awoke to this novel method of conceptualizing how to counsel my students and conceive of my own professional work. I tested ways to help students externalize their motivations, creatively expand on ideas, and imagine themselves as entrepreneurs open to new opportunities. While I found design thinking paired well with our counseling model, using words like “prototype” and hosting “ideation sessions” sometimes clashed with our office’s more traditional norms and expectations of how to best serve students. That said, I was redesigning aspects of my job, creating new opportunities for myself to interact with social innovators and entrepreneurs who could encourage me and mentor my students. Design was helping me get unstuck from a role I no longer fit, and it helped me “build my way forward,” in Burnett and Evans’ words. This process of professional transformation intensified until I found myself recruited to work with a team of designers running a program teaching human-centered design (MADI—Master of Arts in Design and Innovation) at Southern Methodist University (SMU).
I was fortunate in my new role to attend the very first Stanford Life Design Lab University Educator Studio in summer 2017. With the Lab faculty’s support and encouragement from our growing community of Life Design educators, I implemented a series of prototypes facilitating Life Design experiences around the university. In these past two years, I have designed and led nearly 20 workshops, guest lectures, and presentations for a variety of students. The culminating experience for me was teaching a full-credit course in spring 2019 while I was in the midst of a full-blown job search. Having followed the traditional route of job searching for various roles in higher education, I was eager to try something different. Along the way, I learned a few things that stood out about why Life Design is important for career development professionals.
One, applying design thinking to career development offers a powerful opportunity to help people reframe a job hunt as emergent professional exploration while reclaiming their sense of agency about work. This is exactly what Burnett and Evans describe in Designing Your Life, and when well delivered, it works. Different activities, many of which came from my Life Design Studio training, appeal to different people depending on where they are in the journey and where they lie on the introvert/extrovert spectrum. Overall, I found a heightened degree of energy and engagement surfaced by personal reflection, sharing with vulnerability, and collaboratively generating and testing ideas. This stood in stark contrast to the isolating, linear, traditional experience of searching for the right way to launch a career I found in my career services work. I found the amplified engagement true, whether working with international master’s engineering students, graduate business students, or underrepresented undergraduates.
Two, Life Design is an accessible and powerful framework to cultivate social-emotional behaviors like self-efficacy (think David and Tom Kelley’s description of creative confidence, 2013) that stretches participants beyond sometimes-artificial experiences with design thinking (for more on this, read Julie Schell’s article on design thinking pedagogy, Journal 2018). While teaching the 15-week course, I incorporated readings, concepts, and activities that deepened students’ sense of their ability to overcome challenges they experienced working with others as discussion partners, in ideation activities, or even when crafting low-resolution prototypes in our campus makerspace. In another example, providing a more robust conceptual framework about self-awareness allowed our class to understand how hard it is to reflect on understanding our values, motivations and limitations. As Tasha Eurich (Harvard Business Review, 2018) explains, authentic introspection is hard, and self-awareness includes both the ways we perceive our own emotional reactions and the external mirror reflecting how others perceive us. Students were able to connect these ideas to key concepts like flow (see Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi) and develop more well-tuned compasses to guide their ideas and prototypes—and ultimately how they applied their learning to current or aspired jobs.
Three, Life Design delivers on the element of surprise by illuminating through the design process how people uncover ideas (through Odyssey plans) and information (through Life Design prototypes) that help them understand changes in their work and lives, and larger possibilities of pivots they could take. It was deeply satisfying as an educator to observe students in my course, half of whom had little to no design thinking exposure, explore their workstyles by trying to create a home woodshop, or identifying self-efficacy by testing teaching skills when running a workshop. Of note is how some students reported in their final papers that advising sessions with me, and conversations with their classmates, opened their minds to different opportunities and pathways than they had considered before the course, even as those ideas connected to their evolving understanding of what mattered in their work and life throughout the course. Through my own Life Design journey, I prototyped conversations and experiences as a researcher, consultant, and coach—none of which were roles I previously conceived. As Burnett and Evans explain, these surprises come from people working together in radical collaboration, not isolation, to identify multiple paths of opportunity instead of forging ahead in search of the one right path to a perfect career.
Life Design has the potential to unlock students’ and workers’ assumptions about identity and career at a time when economists, business leaders, and technologists argue that industrialized societies are witnessing a Fourth Industrial Revolution of employment. Using principles of Life Design can help workers and leaders create conditions to express themselves more fully and authentically, bringing their best selves to work and feeling more alive (Cable, 2018). These suggest Life Design can matter for businesses and organizations, from the onboarding experience to ongoing professional development and retention.
College career development offices have been tasked with helping students answer the time-honored question, “What do you want to do when you graduate?” Today, those same departments are facing calls to be more experiential, less transactional, and in short, more innovative in their approaches to supporting students. With the explosion of design thinking offerings at an increasing number of colleges and universities, Life Design stands out as a means of increasing student engagement in their career exploration and even supporting staff development. In effect, Life Design is helping to reframe the question into something more accessible and generative for people of all ages and stages.
When I became part of the privileged college-going population, I was also programmed to can a response to what I wanted to do after finishing my degree. In superficially addressing this question, I failed to understand the opportunities afforded me to consider not just how I would make a living, but how would I spend my time and energy in an effort to make a meaningful, rewarding contribution. As I reflect on my Life Design journey over the past two years and embark on a new professional adventure, I feel a deep and satisfying sense of personal fulfillment and even joy in my work. In a sense, Life Design has healed my understanding of work, because, “In experiencing work as meaningful, we cease to be workers or employees and relate as human beings, reaching out in a bond of common humanity to others” (Bailey and Madden, 2016, p. 60).
Devon Skerritt was formerly the Associate Director of Design and Innovation programs at Southern Methodist University. He is now Deputy Director of Design Research in the Sandbox at Southern New Hampshire University.
Bailey, C. & Madden, A. (Summer 2016). What Makes Work Meaningful—or Meaningless. MIT Sloan Management Review, 52–61.
Burnett, W. & Evans, D. J. (2015). Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Cable, Daniel M. (2018). Alive at Work: The Neuroscience of Helping Your People Love What They Do. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.
Csikszentmihalyi, M., Lefevre, J., & Sarason, I. (1989). Optimal Experience in Work and Leisure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 56(5), 815–822.
Eurich, T. (2018, January 4). What Self-Awareness Really Is (and How to Cultivate It). Harvard Business Review.
Kelley, D., & Kelley, T. (2013). Creative Confidence : Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All (First edition.). New York: Crown Business.
Savickas, M., Nota, L., Rossier, J., Dauwalder, J., Duarte, M., Guichard, J., … van Vianen, A. (2009). Life Designing: A Paradigm for Career Construction in the 21st Century. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 75(3), 239–250.
Terkel, L. (1974). Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do (1st ed.). New York: Pantheon Books.
Wrzesniewski, A., & Dutton, J. (2001). Crafting a Job: Revisioning Employees as Active Crafters of Their Work. The Academy of Management Review, 26(2), 179–201.