Stanford University’s most popular class is called “Designing Your Life,” according to an article at Fast Company. Its aim is to get students to think more carefully about their life and career choices and learn ways to bring their lives in line with their thoughts.
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.”…
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. “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…
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.
Is there a philosophy-based version of a course like this? Should there be?
“Designing Your Life” takes up, in a certain manner, the question, “How should I live?” — and it is not as if that is a question unfamiliar to philosophers. Further, it is not hard to imagine that various elements of logic, decision theory, and ethics, for example, could be combined into a course whose explicit aim is to help students improve their lives in various ways. But how, exactly? And is this a good idea? (And is this a way for philosophy to prove its value to administrators and legislators?)
(image: photo of “Center of Convention” by Ghost of a Dream)