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Careers Café

Designing your future


This month, let’s try looking at the future through the lens of design thinking.

While design thinking is certainly trendy, its popularity is at least partly due to its utility as a way to approach complex problems. Unsurprisingly, it has already been applied to career exploration, and is particularly useful when you reach points in your career where there is a problem to solve – like what to do next if you feel stuck, or what to plan for even if you’re content where you are, but can’t envision and prepare for the next part of your career trajectory.

I like the “prototyping” phase of design thinking that Bill Burnett and Dave Evans use in their career course at Stanford, Design Your Life. You may get more out of this if you’ve already started thinking about what makes you tick. (You can speed that process along by using resources from your university’s career services office. If you’re employed or are married to someone who is, you might have full or partial coverage for career support through an Employee Assistance Plan.)

The exercise is simple enough: write at least three different future life stories, featuring career options that are as different from one another as you can imagine. They should all hold some appeal, even if you just feel curious about a path, rather than committed to it. Then, fill in more details. Where do you live? What do you do with your spare time? Who else is in your life?

The prototyping phase in Burnett’s and Evans’ course accomplishes a few things at once. It can break people out of one of the most common misperceptions among career counseling clients: that their options are limited to the profoundly unappealing. It can also help people better consider the ways in which their hours outside of work might be impacted by the career they choose. And it can help very focused people to develop multiple back-up plans, since the best-laid career plans are still susceptible to chance.

When I tried out this exercise in the course I teach, some students found it challenging to come up with three different options that were really diverse; others found it was hard to narrow the options down to three. Some said it would be helpful to have access to a quick means of researching what a potential career actually consists of (say, through the “Information on Occupations” at, or through reviewing job postings and professional organization sites).

More helpful still was the feedback stage. Students take some time to present their futures to one another, and to give one another feedback. Feedback might come in the form of questions that force you to get more detailed about your potential future, or it might include observations about when you sounded enthusiastic and when you didn’t. It might include suggestions of similar roles to investigate.

Like any other means of career exploration, this individual exercise is probably not going to resolve, in an hour, indecision that you may have been feeling for months or years. But it can get you considering multiple paths, thinking about how work fits with the rest of your life, and talking about yourself in a way that recognizes that your career is not your identity.

Liz Koblyk
Liz Koblyk is the associate director of the Wilson Leadership Scholar Award at McMaster University.
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