When I graduated high school, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. Fortunately, I was accepted to Minerva, a new university that is breaking the bounds of conventional tertiary education with its emphasis on experiential learning and global immersion.
One of the things I love about my university is how applicable everything we learn is to the real world. I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on my educational journey – traditional girls boarding school in South Africa, a passion for speech and debate that took me to competitions all over the world, a gap year adventure across five countries, and now a traveling university! So much of what I have learned in my freshman year at Minerva has given context to everything else in my life. This revelation recently came to me as we were doing our coursework on design thinking.
According to IDEO, the leading international design and consulting firm, design thinking is “a process of creative problem solving”. Design thinking can be developed as a strategy to guide how we approach just about any issue in our lives.
This past semester, the more we delved into design thinking, the more I realized that I had been applying some of these principles long before I came across the concept in an academic sense.
Embracing trial and error has been at the heart of my academic and professional journey. In high school, I always had a hunger to learn something new – I quickly grew tired of the dry manner in which we were taught subjects like physics or math. Don’t get me wrong, I had some brilliant teachers, but something about the set-up of the traditional school environment made it inherently stifle our creativity and our desire to expand our knowledge beyond the bounds of what was expected. So when I picked up books like Ashlee Vance’s biography of Elon Musk or Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus, I was instantly inspired to discover new fields of knowledge – anything that would expose me to new ways of thinking and challenge me to step outside of my comfort zone.
Instead of concerning myself with the chemical particulars of plant fertilizer or the stages at which intervention might eliminate the development of malaria in a mosquito’s life cycle, I ambitiously dabbled in everything from learning German, Russian and Spanish to attending a Forex academy. While my final grades might have suffered slightly from these “distractions”, a far greater lesson was learned: embrace trial and error, and do what you love. I couldn’t have known it at the time, but this attitude was similar to the first step in the design thinking process: empathy.
In this context, empathy means ‘know yourself’. What are the things that I need and want out of my education? How do I learn best? What are the patterns of my behavior? With these insights, I can move onto the second step in the design-thinking process: define. I can define my expectations and set clear goals for where I want to be because I have gained knowledge of myself. Someone consulting for a design firm might empathize and define by doing case studies and interviews, but when you are your own “user”, all it takes is a bit of introspection!
Now I look back and realize that my hunger for knowledge was (and still is) really a restlessness to discover the world on my own terms. I love taking risks. I love learning things for the sake of learning them. This is the messiness of ideation: everything is a possibility and you’re constantly asking “Why?”
For example, after three months of learning Russian with a teacher through Skype, I realized that picking up a language is easier than you think when you give yourself the right support and patience. At the time, I knew I seriously wanted to commit to learning a foreign language, but I was still undecided between German, Spanish, and Russian. I knew I would be living in Germany for a while anyway and would naturally pick up the language there. Although I wanted to learn Spanish, I had made no formal attempt to beyond a few minutes of Duolingo each day. I had made great strides with just three months of Russian, and my interest now spilled over to the culture and the literature as well. You might call this a sunk cost, but the point is I learned what I valued most by recognizing what I valued less.
Next comes developing a prototype. When I find something that I really love, I find ways to optimize what I do with that new information. When learning anything new, you develop the “prototype” through how you first interact with that subject matter. You read books, you listen to podcasts, maybe you take a course.
The final stage is testing: creating a routine and forming habits. Can you take this new branch of knowledge and build it into your daily life? Is this a once-off interest or something that you want to delve deeper into over a longer period? If it clicks, it becomes something for which you set aside time and energy. If it doesn’t, you go back to the drawing board – perhaps your approach is what needs to change, or perhaps this area just isn’t your forte and you had to try it to realize that you don’t like it. Either way, you learn to be okay with not succeeding at everything. More importantly, however, you learn that the only way you will ever master something new is by simply doing it.
Design thinking is just a blueprint for how we ought to approach problems on any scale. Whatever you call it, the principles are the same. As more institutions place an emphasis on applying what we know, it’s never too late to apply design thinking to your own life.
In the words of Mark Twain, “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”