5 Common Pitfalls in Defining the Problem

In my experience working with students as both an academic adviser and as a Life Design Educator, I’ve observed that students often stumble into a few common pitfalls when trying to define the problem facing them. These include:

  1. Defining a problem as an either/or question. Should I work at Google or Facebook? Pursue academia or industry? Medicine or law? New York or DC? Designers hate binary choices – since they’ve already closed off all but two options, they leave little room for creativity or possibility.
  2. Defining a problem with an obvious answer. When it comes to our lives and careers, sometime the answer is right in front of us, but because of peer or family pressure or our own self-doubt we are unable to commit to a decision. If that’s the case, you can always use design thinking to prototype ways to move past what is preventing you from taking action rather than prototyping ideas to a question you have already answered.
  3. Defining a problem too broadly. What should I do with my life? What kind of career will make me happy? What is my life’s purpose? These are big, important questions to be sure but aren’t useful questions for building your way forward.
  4. Defining a problem that has straightforward or process-based answers. What steps do I need to take to get a job in the financial services industry? How do get into graduate school? Any question for which the answer is a series of boxes to check is probably the wrong question to be asking.
  5. Defining a problem before empathizing with themselves. In Life Design, it’s important to give enough time to the EMPATHIZE step, so that you understand your values, interests, and goals. Students who skip this crucial first step often end up designing a life that someone else imagines for them rather than truly designing their own life.

In future posts, I’ll be exploring techniques for how to define a problem effectively.

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