Getting Unstuck (COVID-19 Edition)

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In my last activity post, Re(Design) Your Summer Internship, I shared ways that students could employ design thinking to reimagine their summer so that they can continue to build their way forward and advance their career goals in spite of the COVID-19 restrictions.  But what if you have no idea what direction you want to head in or what career goals you want to move towards? Maybe you were on track for one career path but COVID-19 is forcing you to pivot and you aren’t sure where to pivot to. Or maybe you want to begin the process of discerning your career direction but find that being at home is making it impossible to get started.

In other words, you want to move forward but find that you are STUCK.

If that’s the case, here is a progressive series of activities that you can try to help you get UNSTUCK.

Dysfunctional Belief

“I’ve spent the last several years preparing for my dream career, but COVID-19 has forced me to find a new path and I have no idea what I want to do. I’m stuck!”

Reframe

“While COVID-19 has required me to pivot from my original career goal, I can use this time to reflect and to reorient myself so that I am able to continue to build towards a new career that aligns with my values and life purpose.”

Part I: Energy and Engagement Gauges

For this first step, we are going to start with a version of a core practice of Designing Your Life, the Energy-Engagement Activity Log (or Good Times Journal). As Bill Burnett and Dave Evans explain in Designing Your Life , the log has two aspects. First, you want to document how you are using your time. Over the course of any given day or week, what activities consume the bulk of your waking hours? Second, you want to “drill down into the particulars of your day and catch yourself in the act of having a good time” in order to identify which activities are engaging and energizing. (51)

For our activity log, we are going to print out (or write out, if – like me – you don’t have a printer at home) two copies of the Energy-Engagement Activity Log. Why two? As I argued in my earlier post, Reflecting on Two Lives, the EMPATHIZE step has been complicated by the idea that many of us are now living two lives. There’s the life that we were living pre-COVID-19 with all its attendant joys, frustrations, promises and challenges. But there is also the life we are living right now in this COVID-19 moment – likely inside (or perhaps working on the front-lines in a suddenly dangerous essential position), with new responsibilities and workflows, and different ways of connecting, communicating, and engaging with ourselves and with the world. Because both of these lives contain potentially useful insights we want to make sure we empathize with both.

On the top of the first log write “Pre-COVID Life” and think back to the 8 or 10 activities that occupied the bulk of your days just two months ago. These can be obvious activities – lectures, labs, homework, part-time jobs, etc. – but can also include things like clubs or extracurricular activities, volunteer work, hobbies or leisure activities, or even things like cooking to which you may have devoted considerable time (and perhaps received considerable satisfaction). If you are struggling to come up with 8 activities – a not-uncommon problem for students deep in the research process who might spend 8-10 hours a day in the lab or at their desk writing – then try to break down large task into smaller one. For example, “RESEARCH” might be broken down into laboratory experiments, literature review, data analysis, lab meetings, grant writing, etc.

On the top of your second log write “COVID Life” and write down the 8 to 10 activities that occupy your day at the moment. If you are like many students, some of the activities in this log will be the same as the first but with “Virtual” added to the beginning. But there will hopefully be differences as well. Some of you may find yourself suddenly teaching younger siblings or caring for grandparents during the day. Or you may have developed new hobbies or returned to old ones. Or perhaps you’ve started a new project or volunteer assignment. Make note of these differences.

Once you have your activities listed, fill out the gauges for each activity based on how engaged you are in each and how much energy each activity provides you (relative to how much it consumes). For example, teaching volunteer art classes for the local after-school program may have been incredibly engaging and also provided you with energy for a long night of studying, while you may be incredibly disengaged from your class discussions over Zoom and feel that you need to nap when they are over (a phenomenon known as “Zoom fatigue”).

Now take a look at your two lists:

  • Which activities are particularly energizing and engaging? Circle those.
  • Which activities are particularly draining or uninteresting? Cross those out.
  • Are there any activities in which you find yourself “in the zone” or in a state of total engagement in which time seems to stand still or go by in an instant (a state the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi termed Flow)? Put a star next to those.
Want to learn more about Flow? Here is Professor Cziksezentmihayli discussing the concept in a 2008 TedTalk.

For some people, merely identifying their energizing and engaging activities is enough to help them move forward with designing their life. If that’s you, congrats! You are now unstuck.

Still stuck? Move on to Part II.

Part II: Mindmapping

Part II will utilize a familiar brainstorming technique, the Mind Map. However, unlike traditional mind maps, in which ideas flow from a single term at the center of the map, your mind map will ideate on two terms. While there are any number of free and paid software solutions out there, all you need for this activity is a sheet of paper or white board (the larger the better) and a pen.

[Unfamiliar with mind maps? This post from IDEO can help you get started]

Step 1: At the center of the paper, draw two small circles. At the center of each circle, write an activity from Part I that you found particularly engaging or energizing, or through which you achieved flow.

Step 2: From each of the two circle draw 3 or 4 branches, each containing ideas related to the activity. For example, if one of your activities was “Gardening” your branches might be “food” “flowers” “outside” and “dirty hands”.

Step 3: Keep doing this for each of the ideas you generate, pushing out to at least 3 or 4 layers or until you reach the edge of your paper. As you add to your mind map, move quickly, writing down the first idea that comes into your head rather than trying to come up with the “right” answer. You want wild or crazy ideas, so moving slowly so that you can self-censor defeats the purpose.

As you continue to branch out, you may find that seemingly unrelated terms merge into each other, with an idea from one branch relating back to an idea from another, as your mind map becomes an increasingly tangled web of free associated ideas.

Step 4: Once your mind map has reached the edges of the page (hopefully 3 to 4 steps removed from your initial concepts), review the words at the outer edge of the map, paying special attention to those terms that connect to both the Pre-COVID and the pre-COVID halves of your map.

  • Which words make you smile or feel happy? Circle those.
  • Which words sounds intriguing? Circle those.
  • Which words seem out of place, unexpected, incongruous? Circle those.

Now review the words that you have circled. For some, the mere act of getting past a blank page and generating ideas that move beyond the central problems with which they are grappling are enough to help them move forward. If that’s you – congrats! You are now unstuck.

Still stuck? Totally okay – let’s move on to Part III.

Part III: Fantasy Job Descriptions

For this next activity you are going to need a partner. Preferably you can find a partner who is also stuck and has worked through steps 1 and 2 themselves (even if they don’t readily admit it, many people are stuck, so finding someone shouldn’t be hard).

STEP 1: Share your mind maps. Take turns explaining why you circled each of your words. For the person doing the listening, as your partner explains their thought process and their reactions to each of these ideas, listen with an uncritical mindset. Look them in their eyes and note when they seem to come alive or express their authentic self. Only stop your partner to say “tell me more.”

STEP 2: After explaining your mind maps, each partner will write a Fantasy Job Description incorporating all of the terms in their partner’s maps. Like any basic job description, your fantasy job description should include the following:

  • Job Title
  • Job Location (remote options allowed!)
  • Job functions – try to list 3-5 tasks that a person in this job would perform

For example, a mind map that began with “Research” and “Gardening” may, through several stages of ideation, land on such delightful terms as “Tuscany”, “travel blog”, “science fiction” and “taco trucks”. A Fantasy Job Description incorporating these terms might look something like this:

TITLE: Owner and Proprietor of Galaxy Tacos, a space-themed taco truck

LOCATION: Tuscany, Italy

DESCRIPTION:

  • Serve freshly made tacos at alternating locations along the coast of Tuscany
  • Function as a gathering place for local science fiction book clubs and host weekly science fiction gatherings in collaboration with local bookstores and authors
  • Maintain a website that advertises the truck’s daily locations and events but also hosts a travel blog where you document your journeys.
Photo by Artem Saranin on Pexels.com

STEP 3: Return your Fantasy Job Description to your partner. When you receive your description, take the time to read it quietly and sit with it for awhile. No matter how silly or far-fetched it may seem, don’t immediately dismiss it out of hand. After all, the world is filled with people in interesting and fulfilling careers that at one point might have seemed impossible, crazy or non-existent. When the Smithsonian announced a search for a Craft Beer Curator a few years back, history graduates across the country asked themselves “Why didn’t I think of that?!?” Perhaps the description in front of you invites similar possibilities.

STEP 4: If you aren’t wanting to jump right in on pursuing your Fantasy Job Description in its entirety, reflect on what aspects of the job are worth pursuing. Perhaps you don’t want to start a taco truck, but the idea of living in Tuscany seems promising. Or you aren’t interested in starting your own company, but the idea of working in a career where you can bring together communities based on literary themes sounds appealing. Or you don’t necessarily want to start a travel blog, but would love to find a career that takes advantage of your creativity and ability as a writer. Jot down these possibilities.

STEP 5: For each of the possibilities, define a question that would allow for further exploration or ideation. It might be helpful to review previous posts on the DEFINE step (HERE and HERE). For example:

How might I prototype the experience of working abroad?

How might I begin to explore careers that would allow me to build and engage with literary communities?

How might I design an internship that would allow me to learn more about what it is like to work as a writer?

You now have a set of questions that can help you generate more ideas, ask questions of alumni and professional mentors, and engage with your Virtual Ideation Team. Even if your Fantasy Job Description doesn’t yield any concrete paths or options, the questions it inspires can help you move forward in the design process and start building towards your future, whether that means Re(Designing) Your Summer Internship or making a career pivot.

Congratulations! You are now UNSTUCK.

Life Design Images (c) 2017 Bill Burnett, Dave Evans and Stanford University

This post build off of the “Mind Mapping With Your Good Times Journal” activity in Burnett and Evans, Designing Your Life, p. 82-85.

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