Recently I came upon a concept I can’t stop thinking about. I had participated in a design thinking workshop called “Designing Your Life” developed by Stanford professors Bill Burnett and Dave Evans. Their goal was to teach participants how to use design thinking to create a life that is both meaningful and fulfilling, regardless of who or where we are, what we do for a living, or how old we are.
If you’re not familiar with design thinking, it is a process and a way of thinking about tough-to-solve problems. Design thinking draws upon empathy, logic, imagination, intuition and an iterative approach to explore possibilities of what could be — and to create desired outcomes that benefit the user. Design thinking requires you to leverage the following key elements:
- Bias to Action
- Radical Collaboration
As a facilitator by trade and a design thinking junkie, Burnett and Evans’ workshop had a significant effect on how I think about my life and actions, so I immediately bought the professors’ book by the same name. That’s when I discovered the concept that really stuck with me.
There are many kinds of problems in the world; some are much easier to solve than others. Problems that we get stuck on that are challenging to solve, the authors call “wicked problems.” There is another type of problem that is even harder than wicked problems; these are problems that are virtually unsolvable. The authors call these “gravity problems.” A gravity problem is a problem that no matter what you do, it won’t change.
Gravity problems are, in the authors’ words, “…not real problems. Why? Because in life design, if it’s not actionable, it’s not a problem. It’s a situation, a circumstance, a fact of life. It may be a drag (so to speak), but, like gravity, it’s not a problem that can be solved.” Their point is not that we shouldn’t swing big, aim for the moon, or fight city hall. But that we should choose a bias for action and not waste our time and our energy fighting against the things we cannot change. If we can see things for what they are and accept the starting point for what it truly is, we can use our energy to design solutions to things we CAN change. We can look for places we can have the most significant impact.
Here is an example from my own life of a gravity problem. In my sophomore year of college, I was studying to be a high school theater teacher. My theater teachers had such a significant impact on my life as a young person, teaching me about communication, teamwork, human motivation, leadership, connection, and trust, and I wanted to pass these skills on to others. However, as I started to learn more about the job, it became clear to me that I was investing in a career where jobs might be hard to come by and furthermore didn’t make much money. I looked at my options. Could I design a future where theater teachers were better paid? Where all high schools had full-time theater teachers? Perhaps. But at the time, for me, that was a gravity problem. I didn’t have the skills or the resources to impact that kind of systems-level change. I knew I didn’t want to invest my resources into preparing for a job that was extremely competitive and didn’t pay well.
Instead, I got curious — what was it, exactly, that I wanted to teach others? Were there other careers that allowed me to teach these things? Were there different environments I could teach in? Were there other ways I could give back to young people besides becoming a teacher?
The key to design thinking is first to make sure we are working not just on obvious problems, but on the right problems. According to the Designing Your Life authors, “Deciding which problems to work on may be one of the most important decisions you make because people can lose years (or a lifetime) working on the wrong problem.”
As I entered my junior year of college, through many conversations and some radical collaboration, I reframed my situation. I designed my dream job. I got clear on the vital components of the long-term career I would flourish in. To make a very long story short, that is how I got to where I am today: a culture and leadership consultant, an entrepreneur, and a badass mom boss. My career design journey has been full of wicked problems and it’s been full of gravity problems, and it’s only been by recognizing the difference between the two that I was able to move forward.
Burnett and Evans say: “The only response to a gravity problem is acceptance.” In your work, what are potential gravity problems you or others face? Have you found acceptance of specific problems helpful for you to move forward? Does this approach feel too fatalistic?
What are some of the truly wicked problems you have designed for in your career? What set them apart from gravity problems?
Thesis: Don’t get stuck on a gravity problem. Instead, fire up a bias towards action and get to work on the wicked problems in your life and your organization.
Burnett, Bill; Evans, Dave (2016-09-20).
Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.