In 2009, my law career stalled. I was burned out and ready to make a professional change, but I had no idea where to start or what my next step should be. Should I continue to practice law, just in a different setting or field? Or should I start my own business, and if so, doing what?
Design thinking is an innovation methodology–a series of steps for generating options, testing strategies, and getting feedback. Most of the time it’s meant to help you develop a product or process. But as I discovered, design thinking is also a great tool for getting unstuck from problems that may seem intractable–including when you hit a career plateau. Here’s how I used the process to carve out a new career path I didn’t even know existed, and why it helped me identify a new career path (and save lots of time, money, and frustration in the process).
Step 1: Observe
If you were going to design a new product, you’d first learn all about the end user to identify pain points and patterns of behavior. When it came to my career problem, though, the end user was me.
The first step in design thinking is simply defining the problem: What issue are you trying to solve? And are you sure that isn’t just a symptom of a deeper problem? These are important questions because you can lose lots of time working on what turns out later on to be the wrong problem. The trick is to put your finger on the core issue itself, then thinking like a beginner in order to jumpstart your curiosity.
The problem I decided to get curious about was, “What do I love doing at work?” To me, that seemed the most fundamental issue at hand. If I couldn’t answer that first and foremost, I wouldn’t be able to identify a new career path. But right away, I found myself confronting one common experience people face during the observation stage of any design-thinking exercise: automatic negative thoughts (sometimes abbreviated as ANTs) that arise anytime you’re contemplating solutions to major challenges that involve making potentially big changes.
After all, career changes are stressful. But stress can cause you to miss critical information. As a result, you need to be able to quickly reframe ANTs in order to think more flexibly and accurately–and you’ve got to do it early. I had ANTs about feeling like a failure for quitting my law practice, but I soon realized that many lawyers had done the same thing. Practicing law is simply one of many things you can do with a law degree. Being able to realize this simple fact, though, first required cutting myself some slack. A little self-compassion can go a long way to balancing out your emotions and working toward a solution you can feel good about.
Step 2: Ideate
Too often, people get stuck chasing their first idea or trying to find one perfect idea or solution to a problem, which rarely works. My first idea was to become a pastry chef. I was so certain of it for a while, in fact, that I applied to pastry school in New York and told my boss that I was quitting. Thankfully I had the sense to do an internship for a week, only to realize that I hated it–every minute of it.
This wasn’t a false start, though. In fact, it was a helpful next step into the second stage of design thinking, which is to generate new ideas to test out–even those that may seem terrible in retrospect. It’s important to withhold judgment during this phase and create as many ideas as possible, no matter how wild and outside the box they may seem. In design thinking, more is better when it comes to idea generation.
My pastry internship over, I was back at square one (of the ideation stage, anyhow) and realized that I needed to generate more ideas and possibilities before moving forward. So I created what I came to affectionately call “The List.” On it I wrote down all the things I loved to do in my life, now and previously, going back to childhood. I thought about all the activities that excited me, how I used my strengths, when I was most happy–and just kept adding to it. I didn’t edit The List at all, though. I simply captured every idea or memory that came into my head and my heart. When I was done, some pretty clear themes had emerged (and none involved the pastry arts):
- Talking to people
Now this, I realized, I could work with.
Step 3: Rapid Prototype
My next step, according to design thinking, was to take some ideas based on those themes from The List and conduct small experiments. I knew that in order to lead me closer to my goal of a career change, I’d need to design prototypes that would help me gather some basic data about what I was really interested in; the key would be to help me visualize alternatives in a very experiential way. Most importantly, prototypes allow you to try and fail rapidly.
My pastry internship is an example of rapid prototyping. That internship saved me $40,000 in culinary education and related costs, and luckily I had an extremely understanding boss who let me return to work when I changed my mind. But you don’t need to find weeklong, immersive opportunities to try on new careers when you’re using design thinking to reinvent your professional life; simple as it sounds, the easiest way to rapid prototype is to have conversations.
After I developed The List, I started to have dozens of conversations with people who had careers that I thought matched the ideas I’d gathered on it. I talked to a local reporter. I reviewed the requirements for PhD programs in psychology. I interviewed business owners about entrepreneurship. I talked to life coaches. These were crucial, low-stakes ways to take my ideas and bounce them off other people in positions to give advice. Those discussions turned The List from a document of possibilities into a powerful data-gathering tool–allowing me to visualize what the experience of a certain career option might be like, and whether I’d actually enjoy it.
Step 4: Get Feedback And Iterate
What did you learn from your small experiments? What worked? What didn’t? Sorting through the results of rapid prototyping is the next stage in design thinking. In my case, I asked myself whether I need to have additional conversations with anyone I hadn’t spoken to, or go back and ask new questions of anybody I had. As data comes in, design thinkers take that information and make changes to their prototypes, fine-tuning potential solutions and scrapping anything that doesn’t seem to work.
The reporter I talked to was clearly burned out and wasn’t inspiring to talk to. I also learned, from various entrepreneurs, just how hard it is to start a business from scratch. And I discovered that I didn’t want to spend the next five years of my life pursuing another doctorate degree. However, one of the life coaches I talked to had just completed her master’s degree in applied positive psychology. I had never heard of positive psychology, and I was intrigued.
So I talked to more people who’d graduated from that program (prototyping), researched the professors and the school (more prototyping), learned how much it would cost, discussed expenses with my family, and did some budgeting (more feedback and iteration), then finally decided to apply.
Step 5: Implement
Once you’ve validated the utility of your solution, it’s time to act on it. In my case, I applied to the positive psychology program at the University of Pennsylvania and was accepted. I’m now a speaker, writer, and coach who specializes in helping people prevent and cope with burnout through resilience training. It’s a career that draws on all five of the key themes I’d noticed on The List back at the end of Step 2.
Resilience involves developing a flexible way of thinking about challenge and adversity, and being able to solve problems in an accurate way that isn’t clouded by swarms of ANTs. So you won’t be surprised to learn that I still draw on design thinking in my current career–even after using the methodology to help me arrive at it. Indeed, since design thinking can help you solve problems that might otherwise seem insurmountable, it’s a tool for building your resilience and getting unstuck. I should know–it worked for me.
And if these five steps feel too daunting, then keep it simple: Get curious, talk to people, and try stuff.