Bringing Designing Your Life to a Business School in Europe

Our journey at University of St. Gallen, by Sebastian Kernbach

I was part of the DYL studio for University Educators in June 2018 at Stanford. It was such a great week filled with new learnings, new friendships and a lot of enthusiasm. When I got back to Switzerland I thought it would be easy to pitch DYL to various authorities to run courses and workshops throughout campus.

However, it was not as easy as I thought it would be. Despite the popularity of the course at Stanford and the best-selling book of Bill and Dave, people were still doubting what this “Design Your Life” was all about and considered it a bit too esoteric for a business school.

That situation pushed me to actually dig deep into the aims of programs, visions of departments, even the vision of the business school to empathize with the authorities to pitch DYL better. Luckily, DYL enabled me to pitch it to various audiences and needs. Here comes a brief summary of what we did.

What we did

DYL course for graduate students

We pitched DYL to the contextual study program of graduate students in the focus area of “creativity” as creativity enabler in general and as creativity for life design in particular. The pitch was successful and we ran a 12-week-course with 2 hours every Thursday afternoon from 4-6pm with 40 graduate students.

The course was so popular that twice the amount of people wanted to take it but we were only allowed to take in 40 students. I got about 10 requests from people asking whether they could sit in the course without getting grades. So despite the doubts of the authorities of being esoteric, the student feedback confirmed the popularity of the course.

Students had to deliver individual assignments and group assignments. In the individual assignment they had to document their life design journey and reflect upon their learnings from the process of DYL. One student mentioned that she quit her summer internship with a consulting company as it was primarily what her friends and family were expecting from her, instead she wrote “I want to spend the summer prototyping different jobs and figure out what I really want”. Reading those assignments often came with getting goosebumps.

For the group assignment, we asked groups of students to summarize their key learnings from the course and connect it with contemporary challenges or with the future of work. The student groups made incredible videos including role play, animations and visuals. Surprisingly, three out of nine teams had chosen the phenomenon of FOMO (Fear of missing out) and how DYL would help to better deal with it. One group created a fantastic video in which they reframed FOMO into JOMO aka “Joy of Missing Out” and gave insights into how DYL had helped to this reframe. Again, watching those video really included many goose bump moments.

DYL workshops for PhD students and Post-Docs

Next to the 12-week-program, we were able to pitch DYL to the research support center as enabler for PhD students and Post-Docs to figure out what they want from their (academic) career. They were so happy with that idea that we were able to run two 2-day-workshops in a small location outside of campus close to nature. The workshops took place on Friday and Saturday with an overnight stay.

Participants really appreciated to be away from work and their usual environment for those two days and also staying overnight as it gave them time and space to think about important aspects of their life. We set up the workshop without any PowerPoint presentation and worked only with the flip-chart which was very much appreciated by the participants. We also let the participants create their own “visual walls” for all their interventions to be in one place which also helped them to see everything in one eye span and to synthesize information. Finally, we actively integrated walks in the forest for creative ideas and reflection.

Impressions from the DYL workshop with PhD students and Post-Docs

Impressions from the DYL workshop with PhD students and Post-Docs

As we had done the course for graduate students and the workshops for PhDs and Post-Docs, we were invited to give smaller talks in other places at our University and also other Universities in Switzerland started to contact us. One thing many people have asked us is what the effects of DYL workshops are. We therefore also started to collect data in our courses and could show that we have significantly increased self-esteem, self-efficacy and decreased anxiety toward the future.

What We Learned

We learned a lot over the last almost two years which we would like to bring together in six lessons learned from thinking, trying and reflecting about DYL courses and workshops in Switzerland at the University of St. Gallen and beyond.

#1: It is all about framing

The first thing we learned is to frame DYL in line with requirements and expectations of the audience which is first and foremost the authorities who have the budget. The good thing is that DYL can be framed in many ways such as creativity, self-management, career development, etc.

#2: Work visually

At the very core of DYL is the notion of having good conversation with yourself and others about what matters in your life. Bringing it out of your head and having it visually in front of you, e.g. in the Odyssey Plan, makes it so much easier for you to reflect and get insights as well as to describe your inner world to other people.

As described before, we let our participants create their own “visuals walls” which helps them to take a step back, to synthesize their information and also share their insights. We also develop new visual templates such as the “Dream Realizer”.

#3: Go off-campus (if you can)

Participants of our workshops have all said how much they appreciated to be away from their “normal life” for 2 days. Especially the physical distance has helped them to move away from usual thinking patterns.

#4: Share (and conduct) research

Here in Switzerland, we learned quickly that backing up the notion of DYL with research and conducting our own studies was really helpful in being taken serious. We aim to do more research in the future and wish to build a global community of researchers to give scientific arguments for the effects of life design.

#5: Admit that you are also prototyping

From the start, we emphasized that we are also prototyping the workshops and are eager to learn from them. In this way, it made not only the entire process more relaxed and was such a breath of fresh air but we are also demonstrating design thinking and DYL mindset in practice.

#6: Go through the DYL process yourself

Sharing stories from my own DYL journey in early 2018 in Zurich with a group of friends where we met every 2 weeks for three months and also my experiences at the DYL studio session at Stanford in June 2018 were tremendous in making DYL concrete and also building a good ground for the workshop, e.g. this guy is not only talking about it but actually doing it. It really helps to share stories and be more authentic with participants.

Hopes for the future

We are very happy with where we are right now. We will continue with giving courses for graduate students and giving workshops for PhD students and Post-Docs. We get more and more requests and will give workshops for MBA-students in the near future. We are invited for key note speeches and will run a workshop called “Design Your (Academic) Future” at the Swiss Summer School.

We will continue to do more research on topics such as self-efficacy, self-confidence, self-regulation and others in the future and we aim to find other researchers interested in doing and sharing research about DYL. We will also continue to develop new interventions bringing in knowledge about positive psychology, affect regulation and visual thinking.

Finally, we were able to build a lab at the University of St. Gallen which is called Life Design Lab that brings together our efforts on giving workshops and courses, creating new interventions and conducting research. We hope to make Switzerland an even more healthy place and happy to be in touch with anyone interested.