In their book Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-lived, Joyful Life, Bill Burnett and Dave Evans discuss making changes through a design perspective. One piece of advice from the design world is that the problem must be solvable.
It’s the gravity idea. For example, we might complain about gravity. It makes it harder for us to get uphill when we’re biking. It makes parts of our body fall as we get older. Gravity is the worst. But since we can’t do anything about gravity, other than complain about it, from a design perspective, it’s simply not useful to concentrate on it. Instead we should focus on the things we can do something about.
Now this may sound a little academic, but think about how often we fight ‘gravity.’ For example, over the years, friends have said to me, “I’d go into education if the pay were better. Why can’t the pay be better?”
We would all like the pay to be better for teachers. But while increased teacher pay is a noble cause and one that should be supported, it’s not very helpful as a design problem.
The better questions to ask might be something like these:
- How can I find a way to support a family and teach at the same time?
- Since I can’t afford to go into teaching right now, how can I incorporate it into my free time or hobbies?
- Would corporate training satisfy my need to teach as well as my need to make a certain salary?
- Do I even like teaching? Maybe I should volunteer somewhere first.
We have all been taught that the first step in problem solving is to define the problem. But we should also be make sure that the problem we’re defining is one we can actually solve. Because if not, then we’re probably just going to end up complaining.
I’ve been serving on a search committee, and as I read the applicants’ application materials, I realized that they had put a lot of thought into their career trajectories. They had made moves that inched them closer to their final career goal. I admire that, although I have not followed their example. My career has been more about trying something new than following any sort of carefully plotted out plan. Still, it has worked out for me.
To me, the only way to fail is to not change at all. When I was in college, I took a physics course. The only thing I remember about the course is that the professor gave us handouts that had been made at least twenty years earlier. Each time his book went into a new edition, he took out the handout originals and marked out old page numbers and added the new ones. By the time I took his class, some of his handouts had ten or so marked-out page numbers. That would not have been so bad if it had not soon become obvious that he simply taught the same semester over and over. It doesn’t have to be this way.
I have friends who have taught composition for years, yet they have never taught the same class twice. They watch students’ reactions to see what doesn’t work and change instructional strategies for the next semester. Sometimes, they change instructional strategies between one period and the next.
We don’t need to be ambitious, but we all need to be preparing for our next act: whether it’s applying for a new job or being better than we are today at our job.
However, as I get closer to retirement, I have been thinking about my second act: I want to be a cat lawyer. It seems a perfect job. One, cats are complete jerks, so they are always in trouble. Two, they are so completely cute, they’ll never be found guilty. Think about it.