Your course, Design Your Life, helps MBA students do just that, with a focus on their careers. Which aspects of this are related to innovation?
Many of them are, but to understand this, one has to develop ‘innovation literacy’. Innovation literacy is the knowledge and competence required to bring something new and useful into existence, and it is a skillset that can benefit us in just about every aspect of life. There are two key parts to it: conceptualizing the thing you want to accomplish or create, and then taking effective actions to bring it to life. This can play out at the level of the individual, a team, an organization or at a societal level.
Of course, professional designers have been conceptualizing things and bringing them to life for a very long time. However, even they can’t do it alone — they need to collaborate to get feedback and to scale the thing they’ve created and bring it to a wider audience. For me, innovation literacy is about understanding your role and how to collaborate with others to make things happen for yourself and others.
When it comes to designing your life, you need to understand two things really well: where you currently are and what your desired future state is. Once you have that knowledge, it’s all about designing and implementing courses of action that can help you get from where you are to where you want to be.
You have said that designing one’s life involves ‘re-framing’ and opening up new solution spaces. Please explain.
If you think about it, every job is really just a pre-conceived pattern that we try to match someone up with. When you look at everything out there as being created by humans, it becomes clear that every job or role has been framed in a certain way — and that it can be re-framed. If you accept that, is up to you to take steps to proactively create the reality that you want to live in.
Yale’s Amy Wrzesniewski and University of Michigan Professor Jane E. Dutton have found that re-framing your work or ‘job crafting’ in a way that is line with your life’s motivations can be a powerful thing. Design Your Life takes a more holistic approach, extending the idea to life beyond the workplace.
To re-frame a key part of your life, you need to understand who you truly are, what you value, what fulfills you and what motivates you. Then, if your job is the focus, you can start thinking about and questioning the pre-existing job profiles that are out there and use your creativity to reframe them so they fit your future profile. By doing this you are opening up a new solution space that can enable you to find a future that is both fulfilling and meaningful.
Talk a bit about how Positive Psychology fits into this picture.
The traditional approach in Psychology has been to focus on making people healthy or ‘normal’ again. The question that Martin Seligman and others have asked is, Why can’t we focus instead on helping people to live more fulfilled, meaningful lives? This approach fits very well with the idea of changing current situations into preferred ones — which is what design is all about.
Bill Burnett, co-author of the book Designing your Life, teaches a similar course at Stanford. He recently said: “A lot of what we do to make ourselves happy is actually wrong.” Please explain.
For a long time, there was this idea of seeking ‘the pleasurable life’. In a way, most of industry is built around pleasure and entertainment. But the type of happiness we get from such consumption is short-lived, as we now know. When you post something on Facebook and you get a ‘like’, it gives you a quick hit of dopamine; the whole concept of gamification is constructed around giving players short bursts of satisfaction. But these things do not fulfill us over the long-term. The question for each of us is, What will give us that feeling over the long term?
For example, research shows that engaging in activities where you experience ‘flow’ actually makes you feel more fulfilled. When this happens, there is an absence of ‘want’: You just completely engage in the activity — whether it be painting or gardening or working — sometimes for hours at a time. Compared to short-lived dopamine hits, this is a much better thing to strive for, because it tends to only occur when you are doing something meaningful. Designing Your Life is really about making your life more meaningful.
I imagine some people have unrealistic goals. What roles do self-awareness and humility play in all of this?
I actually think there is a beauty to unrealistic goals, because they can provide motivation or a ‘North Star’ to aim for. When my students say they want to contribute to world peace or become the leader of the free world, I always say, ‘Interesting. Tell me more’ or, ‘What motivates you to want to do that?’ Answering these questions can help you discover a lot about yourself.
On the one hand, being overly ambitious can be an obstacle to understanding who you really are. And with that, you might end up being disappointed about what you’re capable of achieving. On the other hand, being under-ambitious can stop you from trying things that would make you happy. Conceptualizing a ‘life prototype’ — consistently trying things out to see how they make you feel — can help you develop the self-awareness necessary to balance humility with courage.
Changing current situations into preferred ones is what design is all about.
Prototypes are a big part of the design thinking process, as is obtaining feedback and incorporating it into your next iteration. How do you embrace these principles in designing a life?
There are two ways: Talking through things with other people and taking action, and there is value to both. The most important thing is to do something, to engage in some way in order to learn and inform the next step or iteration.
In terms of engaging, there are some great examples out there of people starting to ‘play a role’ to see how certain situations or roles fit them. It could be as simple as shadowing someone on the job or engaging in an internship. There are also some extreme cases of people ‘slipping into roles’ — like Alexa Clay, who dressed up as an Amish person to discover New York City from that perspective; or A.J. Jacob, who lived for an entire year according to the lifestyle depicted in the Bible. In these examples, individuals have embraced a new ‘frame’ to see what a different life would feel like, and gathered experiences to help inform their future.
On a smaller level, you could just interview someone who has a job or profession you think you might be interested in. What is the job really like from day to day? What was the person’s journey like? Then, see how this new knowledge informs your gut-feel, your decision-making and your ambitions.
What is your advice for readers who are eager to progress to the ‘2.0’ version of themselves?
Whether I’m working with students, alumni or professionals, it has become very clear to me that most people do not understand themselves very well — and this leads to a lot of confusion, challenges in decision-making, and insecurities that affect the individual as well as those around him or her.
To get to ‘you 2.0’, I would first encourage people to understand their 1.0. — their current self — and empathize with that self. Then, identify what is important to you and where you want to go next. We all experience transition points in our lives, and we’re constantly developing. We used to believe that we get one career in life; but that is simply not true anymore. If there’s one thing that I would encourage people to focus on, it’s developing an ability to conceptualize their future and act on that conceptualization. As indicated, that requires innovation literacy. In the end, the only true failure in life is settling for a life that makes you unhappy.
Ingo Rauth is a post-doctoral researcher at the Rotman School of Management, where he is studying how to foster innovation in large organizations using design and behavioural science. He is also an adjunct professor at IE Business School in Madrid, Spain.
The only true failure in life is settling for a life that makes you unhappy.