The human-centered design process — from empathy and research to rapid prototyping, iteration, and so forth — often helps us to bring meaning, joy and discovery into other people's worlds. But what if this same design mindset could be used to design ourselves and our lives?
What if we perceived our own abilities, lives, and careers as opportunities for discovery, rapid prototyping, and iteration? In other words, what happens when we are the product?
This phenomenon originated at the Stanford d.school, where students across majors scramble each year to enroll in a course called Designing Your Life. The curriculum’s core frameworks have now been disseminated through a best-selling book and bundle of online resources to equip students, mid-career professionals and elders alike with the tools to reimagine their lives through a design lens.
Take a moment to try one of the Designing Your Life exercises right now, using this worksheet.
The idea is this: Instead of envisioning your life as a linear route from Point A to Point B, imagine three disparate paths forward, each addressing a unique set of questions you might have about your future life and career. Title each path like a story, and rank your resources, enthusiasm, confidence and coherence in moving forward. You might be surprised by the unique directions you explore when you give yourself permission to dream a little longer.
This exercise is only scratching the surface. Like other “self-help” approaches, designing your life is a process that requires deep self-reflection, personal awareness, time and courage. And like other design processes, it’s one that involves frequent iteration.
When the methodologies first sunk in for me during my freshman year at Stanford, I couldn’t help but think, “I wish I had learned this back in middle school.”
Growing up in the heart of Silicon Valley, I attended a competitive all-girls school for seven years that championed the motto, “Women Learning, Women Leading.” Being surrounded by high-achieving peers plus teachers with high expectations turned out to be a double-edged sword. My 13-year-old self was ambitious, inspired and motivated… to be perfect.
"I remember once literally wrapping my report card into a gift box to give my parents for Christmas, hearing repeatedly that this was all they wanted."
I was trained to see the world as right and wrong, yes and no, A+ and A-. I would hand-write my essays first in pencil and then over in pen, dutifully erasing the pencil marks from underneath to make my homework as neat as possible. I would raise my hand in class to repeat exactly what the textbook said. I once literally wrapped my report card into a gift box to give my parents for Christmas, hearing repeatedly that this was all they wanted.
Most of all, I remember spending hours with my back curled over a spiral-bound notebook, my right hand vigorously racing across the pages. Through adolescence, I would fill dozens of journals with written reflections on my feelings, relationships and “plans for the future.”
Katie and her Girl Possible team on the road.
Planning our lives is a perfectionist’s dream but the antithesis of designing our lives. Unlike planning events, meetings or meals —which are quite useful exercises with direct, tangible benefits — planning our lives can be futile at best and destructive at worst. The process confines our dreams to the little we know, locking doors before we consider they might exist in the first place.
What color, texture and magic the world opens up to us when we stop having a plan and start exercising a mindset for constantly learning, pivoting and immersing in every moment.
Here are two more exercises you might explore to further apply a design mindset to your life:
1. Lean into your discomfort zone.
a. Draw three concentric circles on a piece of paper, like a target. The innermost circle is your comfort zone. As you move farther from the bullseye, you get farther outside your comfort zone. Everything outside the circle or by the edges of the paper are activities you need the most courage to do.
b. Starting from the center and extending to the outermost ring, write down five to 10 activities in each area that you want to do but might need a little extra nudge to make happen.
c. Finally, compare your comfort zone map with a partner. Did you flag skydiving as “level-three scary,” only to find that it’s squarely within your partner’s innermost comfort zone? Maybe they could show you the ropes. See if there are also activities where the opposite is true and your partner can lean on you in return.
2. Challenge your assumptions and hypotheses.
a. As with any design project, start with what (you think) you know. What are your assumptions about the type of work or environment that makes you feel happy, fulfilled or grounded? What are your hypotheses about the type of industry, role, or company where you belong?
b. Design a low-risk experiment where you can test these assumptions. Are you curious about what it would be like to work at an early-stage startup? Set up a few “lunch and learns” (similar to design research interviews) with people employed at seed-stage companies you admire. Do you fear that you might hate working in sales but recognize a small part of you that wonders, “What if?” Draw analogous inspiration by making calls to boost voter registration or to support a political candidate. Catalog the things you hear, learn and feel along the way.
c. Synthesize your learnings and insights, and keep going.
When I first learned this way of thinking, learning and doing, it flipped my worldview and set me free. I was determined to help bring this mindset to more people — especially youth who might be struggling with the same pressures that had held me back when I was their age.
A few colleagues and I co-founded Girl Possible, a 501(c)3 nonprofit geared towards empowering middle-school girls to become leaders of social change through design thinking. We raised $35,000 on Kickstarter to spend 14 weeks driving across the US in an RV, teaching design thinking and leadership workshops to 1,500 girls across 32 states. Since then, we’ve evolved our curriculum into a series of teaching toolkits, a summer program and more.
Girl Possible helps middle school girls uncover their individual leadership abilities, think critically, articulate their ideas and connect with others to tackle real issues in their communities. Photo credit: Austin Meyer
In our workshops, we address the million-dollar question that every student has been asked: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
A writer? Doctor? Lawyer? Musician? This question suggests that at some point, we suddenly “grow up” and become a single entity that already exists in the world and has a name. It assumes our journey to be finite, our path linear, and our destiny meant to be predetermined.
At Girl Possible, we flip this question and ask girls instead, “What kind of change do you want to create in the world, and how can you take the first step towards achieving that dream today?” In other words, we ask girls to stop planning their lives and start designing them.
Katie leading a Girl Possible camp session. Photo credit: Austin Meyer
Most recently, I co-founded Period Futures to help spark curiosity and conversation on the future of periods. Inspired by the same design mindset and question of “What if?”, our team regularly releases design provocations intended to push the boundaries on what’s possible, equitable and culturally-acceptable in menstrual health.
For example, what if “leak-free” apparel were no longer the exception, but the norm? Imagine a world where “100% period-friendly” was a universal standard or formal certification for clothing manufacturing that you could expect to see clearly marked on the tags of underwear, shorts, skirts, pants, dresses and suits across major brands and suppliers.
Or, what if middle schools were visited by a traveling “maker-space on wheels” where students could build their own custom period product? Envision 11- and 12-year-olds gaining hands-on learning experiences on the menstrual cycle as they 3D-print their own menstrual cup or disc, or sew their own washable pad.
Katie also co-founded Period Futures, which sparks curiosity and conversation around the future of periods. Illustration by Roshi Rouzbehani
If you had asked me a year ago, I would have categorized “talking about periods” squarely within my discomfort zone—let alone launching an organization focused on igniting more conversations in this space. Now, it’s difficult for me to imagine a more fascinating or meaningful sector to explore. Designing around the future of periods has unlocked new ideas for me around what my own future might hold, too.
We are all living, breathing prototypes, constantly growing, evolving and transforming in beautiful ways. Forget perfect plans, narrow paths, and what we should say when we raise our hand and voice. Through designing our lives, we can unlock futures we might have never thought possible.