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Stanford's Most Popular Class Isn't Computer Science -- It's Something Much More Important Called "Designing Your Life"

Stashed in: Young Americans, Gratitude, Emotion, life, education, Mindfulness

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Ainsley O'Connell explains a class that's part throwback, part foreshadowing of higher education's future:

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.

Seems like a good use of their tuition money.

Wow, 17% of Stanford seniors enroll in the class and even more want to:

"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.

They've had students literally teach this class on the side to friends who haven't enrolled.

I guess the key phrase is "being intentional".

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."

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