Sunday, January 8, 2017
Everyone in our work encounters students who are in crisis about their callings, opportunities, and direction. Most of us are sympathetic because we have all passed through those years, bedraggled and anxious about what we should do and how we should get there. Some of us still are.
Students seek counsel and advice as they try to choose between their several options or as they despair at having too few. Many students (and professors and people) suffer profound questions about their lives and purpose as they finally achieve admission to law school with great dreams of how they imagine it to be, only to be utterly confused and depressed at the reality. Many students (and professors and people) are paralyzed by the fear of missing out, worried into stasis because choosing one path will necessarily eliminate others. They cannot square their reality with their expectations, and they are terrified of making an early step that will lead them into the wilderness instead of their home. In my experience, I meet many students who are people of faith, praying desperately and waiting to learn what God wills for their lives.
Today, I listened to a very wise episode of The Hidden Brain with Shankar Vedantam, applying design thinking to the problem of people feeling stuck in lives that do not reflect who they see themselves to be. I recommend it for teachers and students looking for a useful framework for thinking about work, vocation, purpose, and decision-making.
Many of his students come to him saying they don't know what to do with their lives. They want to find the "right" answer. He tells them, 'There is more than one you in there.'
"So the problem with the current approach that lots of people are taking," he says, "is it starts with the wrong question. And the wrong question is, how do I figure out that one, best solution to my life?"
Design thinking is about recognizing your constraints, realizing there isn't just one answer, and then trying something: "Building a prototype," getting information from it, and then trying something else.
This reflects some of the advice I often give students, hard won as the wisdom of my own failures and struggles.
It’s important to understand the difference between a problem and a circumstance, the “gravity problem” in the podcast, that can help us set more realistic expectations as a basis for our decisions.
Rather than slogging through anguish trying to decide what to do in their work, students should imagine what kind of life they want to live. Making decisions consistent with values and preferences can be more liberating than pining for the perfect job. This also addresses the fear of missing out, because many options might be consistent with values and preferences along an evolving path. As the podcast suggests, there are many different potential versions of our lives, so we experiment with prototypes to refine the best possible options in a moment within our circumstances.
The episode suggests design thinking, not as self-help or mystical psychology, but as a framework to guide decisions and reflection for students stuck at the end of education and the beginning of a career. This is a critical moment, but it is only one more step in a long journey.