Alumni and medical students at a mentoring breakfast in October.

Designing a Successful Life and Career

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Recently I have been blanketed by questions and discussions about design thinking as a process to answer a multitude of life’s most pressing questions. Meanwhile, two of the most frequently asked questions I get as president of the Northwestern Medical Alumni Association are “Why did you decide to pursue your interest in medicine and surgery?” and “Why did you pursue an MBA later in your medical career?” Instead of promoting a surgical specialty or an MBA, I encourage bringing design thinking into the picture when answering those questions for yourself.

I just finished reading the book “Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life” by Stanford professors Bill Burnett and Dave Evans. I think the biggest truth that this book revealed to me is that the most important feature of a well-designed life is alignment. It is a life in which who you are, what you believe in and what you do align together. Your well-designed life becomes a collection of adventures, experiences and lessons learned from failures and missteps that evolve through a process of maturation into a life well lived.

But the most interesting concept in this book is that designers don’t think their way forward, designers build their way forward. The authors encourage you to build things (prototypes), try things and evolve into yourself during the process. The Stanford Center on Adolescence suggests that only one in five people between 15 and 26 years of age have a clear vision of where they want to go, why they want to go there and what they want to do. So 80 percent of young people do not know what they are passionate about. Passion can only come after trying something and discovering that you like it, not before.

Let’s face it: We all spend the majority of our waking days at work. Especially as growing physicians with long residencies, fellowships and professional lives staring us in the face, work can be a source of enormous joy or sheer misery. I think design thinking has the potential to improve our chances of finding the happiness we all want in our work and life.

The design thinking process involves five mindsets:

CURIOSITY: Make everything new and invite exploration. Looking at the same problem from entirely different aspects is a huge advantage.

BIAS TO ACTION: Try stuff and build your way forward. Designers can create multiple prototypes, but they embrace change and focus on what happens next rather than on the final result.

REFRAME THE PROBLEM: Certain viewpoints can keep you from finding the career and life you are looking for. Exclude prejudices and open up to new solutions.

AWARENESS: Let go of your initial ideas and your damaged solutions. Let go of the end goal and focus on the process and see what happens. It is a process.

COLLABORATION: Ask for help — this is a key mindset. The best designers know that radical collaboration is key. You should not be alone in the journey. Design thinking is a collaborative process and you must use mentors and support communities to help with your life design. Have good mentors in your professional life. Mine were Oglesby Paul and Ovar Swenson, both physicians who were experienced role models and mentors who interacted well with students and residents and understood the pressures on young physicians.

I do disagree with one aspect that this life design book speaks to. The authors believe employing the mindset helps people “get good at being lucky.” We obviously begin to see things in a more positive light as we pursue a more successful life course, but to bring “luck” into the equation in a critical decision-making process is not realistic. I personally prefer the approach of a fly fishing friend of mine, B. Knight: When luck is called into the formula, he says “Really good things happen to those who work hard.”

In my final article as president of the Northwestern Medical Alumni Association, I want to thank all of the alumni relations team for a job well done, including Babette Nyka, Dan Schwarzlose, Jillian Kurtz Brubaker, Meghan Monaghan, Kirsten Byers, Susan Clausen and Larry Kuhn. Thanks to the medical alumni of Northwestern for allowing me to serve.