Stanford’s Most Popular Class Isn’t Computer Science–It’s Something Much More Important

It’s called “Designing Your Life,” a course that’s part throwback, part foreshadowing of higher education’s future.

Stanford’s Most Popular Class Isn’t Computer Science–It’s Something Much More Important
[Photo: Flickr user Michael Smith]

Before Kanyi Maqubela became an investment partner at the Collaborative Fund, an early-stage venture capital firm focused on social enterprises, he was a typical Stanford student in need of career guidance. He was working with startups, studying philosophy, dating someone special—and feeling overwhelmed.


Enter “Designing Your Life,” a new and wildly popular course for Stanford juniors and seniors that is grounded in design thinking concepts and techniques. The course’s lessons gave him the perspective he needed to navigate decisions about life and work post graduation.

“It really helped me understand what the concept of vocation was,” he says. “I had thought of it either as a narrowly religious concept or for a specific job. But it’s this feeling that I have true agency over my work, because I know what I stand for and I have tools to fix the things that I encounter in my life.”

He felt liberated, he says, by how the course positioned the idea of career success: “Take your work personally, but it’s not your person.”

At the time, “Designing Your Life” was still an experiment, spearheaded by Bill Burnett, executive director of Stanford’s design program, and Dave Evans, who led the design of Apple’s first mouse and co-founded Electronic Arts before embarking on a second career in the classroom. They launched the course in spring 2010.

“It took off in just about a heartbeat,” says Evans, who oversees instruction with help from guest lecturers and a small army of student volunteers, who lead discussion groups. Today, 17% of seniors enroll in “Designing Your Life,” and many more vie for the limited seats in each section. “We’ve had students literally teach the class on the side to their friends who weren’t enrolled,” he says.


Evans divides the course into two parts: first, he says, “We reframe the problem. That’s where dysfunctional beliefs get blown-up. Then we give them a set of tools and ideas to take steps to start building the way forward.” Each course section convenes for one quarter, two hours per week.

Here’s what they learn: gratitude; generosity; self-awareness; adaptability. All reinforced by design thinking-based tools, from a daily gratitude journal to a deck of cards featuring problem-solving techniques. In lieu of a final exam–the class is pass/fail–students present three radically different five-year plans to their peers. Alumni say they still refer back their “odyssey plans”–a term that Evans coined–and revise them as their lives and careers progress.

Maqubela eventually found out that he had played a role in his now-wife’s odyssey plan—but at the time, “she wouldn’t show it to me.” Today, they still reference “Designing Your Life” when making decisions together. “Building your life around somebody else, and orienting around love as part of one’s career, is part of the class,” he says.

For years, students have resisted this kind of overlap between university-sponsored programs and their private lives. After the Civil War, mandatory chapel disappeared, academics rather than ministers became university presidents, and courses like “Evidences of Christianity” vanished from the required curriculum.

“Universities didn’t think they would necessarily be abandoning the moral aspects of students’ education,” says Julie Reuben, a Harvard professor who studies the history of American higher education. “Instead, they believed that freely chosen activities were more powerful than externally forced activities.”


But, to the chagrin of university leaders, many students abandoned religion and instead embraced extracurricular outlets like athletics and fraternities, which in their own way took on the function of character-formation. In the mid-20th century, the university’s role as authority figure became even more problematic and contested, as protesters dismantled the Ivory Tower’s paternalistic structures and paved the way for increasingly diverse and inclusive institutions. The success of “Designing Your Life” suggests that students may be ready to revisit that earlier university model, with conditions–conditions that design thinking is perhaps well-suited to address.

“In the early academy it was all about moral formation. These days you can’t do that,” Burnett says. “Design doesn’t speak to ethics and spirituality and all those things, but they work within its frameworks. Our only bias is, hey, we can make the future better.”

The goal of “Designing Your Life,” he says, is to change higher education–not by returning to religion, but by reintroducing methods of “forming you into the person that will go out into the world, effect change, and be a leader.”

That message resonates with Stanford students. They are filled with a sense of purpose and determined to solve the world’s problems–but ill-equipped, in our secular society, to make sense of what they value.

Karen Wright, a management science major with a wry sense of humor, says the odyssey plan exercise better prepared her to live out her commitment to making a difference in the world. “I felt a lot of pressure before the odyssey plan: I need to pick a career,” says the California native. At the course end, she presented three starkly divergent scenarios to Evans and her classmates: working in health care and going to business school; joining the Peace Corps; and competing on American Ninja Warrior (surely an odyssey-plan first). “Your eyes light up when you talk about the Peace Corps,” her classmates said–so for now, she’s focused on door number 2.


What’s more, her parents are more supportive than they were before; Wright presented her odyssey plan to them, too. “My family is all from one area,” she says. “Ultimately, after graduation, I plan on not being around. I think I was able to convey to my parents more effectively why I want to travel and what I want to get out of it.”

As Burnett sees it, the course is also a neat fit for the mercurial economy that students are graduating into. “The thing that’s true about design problems is that you don’t know what the solution is going to look like. You don’t start with the problem; you start with people,” he says. “You create a point of view about what a better consumer experience would be. Then you prototype, you test, and you constantly change your point of view. That’s perfect for your ‘Designing Your Life.’ You can’t know the future, but you can know what’s available and you can prototype different versions of the you that you might become.”

Photo: Flickr user Esparta Palma

That approach stands in contrast to the habit of “accumulating accolades” that Burnett sees many students exhibiting at Stanford. Indeed, pressure to succeed is very much top of mind for Stanford students like Nick Xu, an architecture major from Sydney, Australia. He pauses for a moment from his Aussie-accented praise of Evans’s course (“freaking awesome!”) to reflect in a more serious way on the campus climate he and his peers inhabit. “Here, you’ve got to be viewed as successful,” he says. “There’s a very empty pursuit of money–money’s a big part of it–but also fame and perception, how other people view you.” “Duck syndrome” is a common malady: “You look like you’re floating on the surface, but you’re paddling furiously underneath.”

“I was a total duck,” he adds. “I really needed this class.”

Stanford administrators have taken notice of reactions like Xu’s. “It’s a model, as an administrator, that is not cheap, because it’s hands-on and requires small groups,” says Harry Elam, vice provost of undergraduate education. Nonetheless, he has asked Evans to develop a pared-down version of “Designing Your Life” for freshmen and sophomores as a complement to their academic advising. The resulting program, “Designing Your Stanford,” launched with its first cohort last fall.


Elam views both offerings as an answer to the prominent skeptics, like Peter Thiel, who question whether the traditional four-year college experience is worth the investment. “It’s very important that we reclaim what it means to get a liberal arts education,” he says. “College is not just a means to an end, but an end in itself.”

Buttressing that philosophy has taken on new urgency as “college” migrates online; in 2013, over 5 million U.S. college students, out of roughly 20 million, enrolled in at least one web-based course, according to the Babson Survey Research Group. American universities–today an unwieldy mix of liberal arts, professional training, and research–may have to focus in order to compete, education writer Kevin Carey argues in his new book, The End Of College. At a recent New America Foundation event, he pointed to the University of Minnesota-Rochester, located near the Mayo Clinic, as emblematic of the new model; the school offers only two majors, health sciences and health sciences administration, resulting in a cost structure that is is “a million times better than that of a typical second-tier institution.”

Stanford is very much a first-tier institution. Last year, it admitted just 5.7% of the students who applied. But as a residential college, it’s not immune from the vagaries of the shifting digital landscape.

“As online education becomes more appealing, residential colleges are thinking, what are the things you can only do face to face?” Reuben says. “Colleges never dropped the ‘we’re about the whole person, we’re about character’ from their rhetoric. In reality, it’s been easy for them to talk about that but do academic content and skills. That’s what they spend big resources on, and that’s how they select students.”

If online learning provides one backdrop for “Designing Your Life,” new research on the role of character in students’ long-term success provides another. Qualities like grit and curiosity are as important as spelling and long division, according to research conducted by two professors at the University of Pennsylvania. Their work has inspired organizations as varied as KIPP, a network of public charter schools, and Riverdale, one of New York’s most prestigious private schools, to take on the challenge of defining and evaluating “good character,” an undertaking detailed by Paul Tough in The New York Times Magazine.


On the surface, it’s hard to object to these initiatives, or to the very idea of designing your life. “We’re an invitation to have more and different ideas,” Evans says. “There’s more than one person running around in you, and they’re all you. Creating multiple solutions empowers the one you ultimately decide on.” He views the course as a continuation of Thomas Jefferson’s description of the University of Virginia as a “learning community to form citizen leaders.”

Photo: Flickr user Southern Arkansas University

But in my conversations with “DYL” students, both past and present, I was sometimes struck by how exhausting their pursuit of “flow,” “leadership,” and “positivity” had the potential to become. It was as if Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic And The Spirit Of Capitalism had been re-staged in Palo Alto, California, circa 2015. Self-improvement, after all, can serve as a stand-in for salvation.

One phrase in particular–“being intentional”–was what caught my ear. I’d only ever heard it in church, where pastors often talk about “intentionality” in prayer, giving, or other behaviors.

“I’m now thinking about how to live my life with an intentionality that I didn’t have before. It’s in my hands,” Wright, the aspiring Peace Corps volunteer/American Ninja Warrior, told me.

I asked Nadia Mufti, a social entrepreneur who graduated from Stanford in 2011, what the phrase meant to her, after she used it several times. In all of her odyssey plans, she says, there was one common theme: “I wanted to take care of myself.”


She went on to describe how she has followed through on that goal: each morning she meditates for 30 minutes; she eats lots of green smoothies and vegetables; she has gone gluten-free. “I’ve done experiments on my body, and that’s when I feel best.” She tries to work out everyday, rotating between swimming, running, and yoga. She invests in relationships. “I have been really intentional in cultivating and maintaining close friendships, even when I’m really stressed.” She tries to read at least a book a month. “At one point, this is kind of taking it to an extreme, but I had this chart on my wall with habits that I wanted to create. Did you eat healthy today? Did you not drink today? Did you see friends outside of work today? How do you feel, on a scale on 1-10? I try to track if the things that I thought would make me happy really worked, at the end of the day.” She recognizes the importance of gratitude. “My boyfriend and I, before we go to bed, say at least three things that we’re grateful for.” For her 25th birthday, she spent 25 days in the service of friends and family. It went so well, she extended the project to 50 days. “I’d read a lot about servant leadership,” she says. “I don’t know if I would have had the courage to do that if I hadn’t taken the ‘Designing Your Life’ course.”

Her example left me feeling both inadequate and exhausted by association. I began mentally calculating whether I had time after work to bring a green smoothie to a friend I hadn’t seen in months–relationships, service, and nutrients, all accomplished in one efficient calendar block. Maybe I could bike there, for some added exercise.

But at the same time, it was hard to argue with Mufti’s choices. In her case, “Designing Your Life” had truly fulfilled its mission: she was happy, healthy, and making the world a better place.

Recently Mufti has been back on campus, helping pilot “Designing Your Stanford.” Nearby, at the Graduate School of Business, another “Designing Your Life”-based pilot is also underway.

Photo: Flickr user VFS Digital Design

Carly Janson, a director in the business school’s career management center, has been been adapting the course for incoming students. “It’s not always easy to connect the dots between the legacy you want to leave on the world and the career decisions you need to make today,” she says. Design thinking, values-based but practical, provides a bridge.


“Career services, as a field, could totally change the way that we think about careers by applying design thinking,” she says. Students today are doing “careers design, plural,” and schools need to catch up to that reality.

The course’s success stories have started to attract attention outside of Stanford’s lush campus, and now plans to expand are in the works. Evans and Burnett are raising funds from Stanford donors, expanding their team, talking with other universities, and even working with Google to develop a new version of the program for working professionals. A book based on the course is due to hit shelves next spring.

Finding a way to replicate the avuncular Evans, the charismatic heart of the course, will be one of their primary challenges. Students gush about his intelligence and warmth. “An amazing, amazing, amazing human,” says one. “He is just the man,” says another.

“We started this as a thing on the side, and now we’ve got some stuff we have to build,” says Evans. But at the core, the program remains the same: “We invite people to live intentionally, in a generative, thoughtful way, and we give them a bunch of tools.” What happens next is up to the students.


About the author

Senior Writer Ainsley Harris joined Fast Company in 2014. Follow her on Twitter at @ainsleyoc.