Can You Engineer a Life?

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Sebastiaan ter Burg

Sebastiaan ter Burg

When I started to read a book by a Stanford engineering professor, I thought I’d learn more about how to think than how to feel. I certainly didn’t expect the first line of the first chapter to read: “Your life has no meaning.” But Bernard Roth, author of The Achievement Habit and founding member of Stanford’s d.school, shares lessons learned from over 40 years of teaching his students – and himself – how to engineer a life.

It all started in 1969 when Roth created a course for the d.school – Designer in Society — to help students “think differently about how they achieve goals in their lives – to get them to stop thinking wistfully about possibilities and start actually doing.” He used principles we now associate with design thinking, and he required students to apply those skills either to doing something they’d always wanted to do or to solve some problem in their lives. The results are powerful.

Prototype to Achieve

At the heart of Roth’s teaching is his belief that students need to act on personal goals much earlier in their lives:

. . . students need to learn not to wait until after they graduate. Many students develop the idea that they’re supposed to follow a prescribed path, in which they’re not allowed to achieve anything until after they get a diploma. And if they don’t develop the habit of doing things of their own volition, they will not change after they graduate.

The earlier students build an achievement habit, the sooner they gain a sense of empowerment that carries over to the rest of their lives.

Prototyping plays a big role in Roth’s teaching and in his students’ learning. It’s one of the design principles he harps on the most, mainly because it gets students doing. Think of a prototype as a model or rough draft. It’s something we can share, so that we can get feedback and learn. Prototypes can be physical objects, like sketches or products. They can also be lines of code or conversations. The form they take depends on where we are in the problem-solving process.

Just Do It! – In Stages

An a-ha moment for me was thinking about prototyping in stages. It’s a lot less overwhelming, allows for more feedback more quickly, and gives the process a bit more structure. Roth talks about three:

1. The concept prototype stage: This is the starting point. It’s where you want to “inspire a good concept” to solve the problem. Let’s say you need to schedule more exercise into your life. At this stage, you might check your schedule. You might also brainstorm a list of activities you’d enjoy or want to check out. And you might poll friends to learn what they like to do or whether they’d like to exercise with you.

2. The feasibility prototype stage: This is where you “evolve the solution.” You’ve checked your schedule and decided afternoon or evening workouts. You’ve researched gyms and exercise classes. You then take the next week to test your working prototype. You find you’re more tired and hungry than you expected, so you skip several classes. To address your lapses, you decide to shift your exercise to early morning.

3. The functional prototype stage: Now you’re validating your solution. It’s been three weeks since you shifted to early morning workouts. With few exceptions, you’ve stuck to your commitment. When you’ve slept in, you learn it’s because you ate too much or failed to get enough sleep the night before. Gradually, you’ve used that feedback to make healthier choices. So far, your functional prototype seems to be the solution you needed.

Roth’s book is about so much more than achievement. It’s about authoring a life you want to lead – not the life your friends, family members, parents, marketers or advertisers want for you. Design thinking principles, especially prototyping can be powerful tools for living. They force us to take action and to learn. Even better, they give us a way to get started – we don’t have to have it all figured out or do everything all at once.

So what will you prototype?

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