Be a Learner, Not a Knower
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‘Design Thinking’ for a Better You
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By Tara Parker-Pope
A strategy called “design thinking” has helped numerous entrepreneurs and
engineers develop successful new products and businesses. But can design thinking
help you create healthful habits?
Bernard Roth, a prominent Stanford engineering professor, says that design
thinking can help everyone form the kind of lifelong habits that solve problems,
achieve goals and help make our lives better.
“We are all capable of reinvention,” says Dr. Roth, a founder of the Hasso
Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford and author of the book, “The Achievement
I’ve applied design thinking to my own life the past few months, and it seems
to be working. I’ve lost 25 pounds, reconnected with close friends and refocused
my energy on specific goals and habits.
Design thinking has helped me identify the obstacles that were stopping me
from achieving my goals, and it’s helped me reframe my problems to make them
easier to solve.
In the words of Dr. Roth, design thinking helped me “get unstuck.”
To get started, design thinkers focus on five steps, but the first two are the
most important. Step 1 is to “empathize” — learn what the real issues are that need
to be solved. Next, “define the problem” — a surprisingly tough task. The third step
is to “ideate” — brainstorm, make lists, write down ideas and generate possible
solutions. Step 4 is to build a prototype or create a plan. The final step is to test the
idea and seek feedback from others.
Design thinking is normally applied by people who are trying to create a new
product or solve a social problem or meet a consumer need.
For instance, Stanford students went to Myanmar to work on an irrigation
project. The first two steps of design thinking — empathize and define the problem
— meant that the students spent time with the farmers to understand their
problems with watering crops.
In doing so, they discovered that the farmers’ real problem was not irrigation
but light. The farmers used candles or kerosene lanterns, and the fumes filled their
small huts. Managing their needs for light without electric power consumed a great
deal of time and income.
As a result, the design-thinking students used empathy to shift their focus to
the actual problem that needed solving. They developed affordable, solar-powered
LED task lights. They have since provided millions of lights to 42 countries,
creating an affordable lighting solution in parts of the world that don’t have
electricity, or have spotty service.
Dr. Roth says the same type of thinking that solved the lighting problem for
the poor farmers can be applied inward. To start, think about the problem you
want to solve. Then ask yourself, “What would it do for me if I solved this
One example Dr. Roth uses is a person who wants to find a life partner. Ask
yourself, “What would finding a partner or spouse do for me?” One answer might
be that it would bring you companionship. The next step is to reframe the problem:
“How can I find companionship?” There are more and easier answers to the new
question — you can meet friends online, take classes, join a club, take a group trip,
join a running group, get a pet and spend time at the dog park.
“Finding a spouse now becomes simply one of many possible ways to find
companionship,” Dr. Roth says. “By changing the question, I have altered my point
of view and dramatically expanded the number of possible solutions.”
For years, I would have told you that my biggest problem was being
overweight, but I simply could not find a diet that worked. But design thinking
helped me reframe my problem.
It happened a few months ago when I declined an invitation to a party with
many of my favorite people who I hadn’t seen in years. I didn’t go because I was
embarrassed by my weight, and I just didn’t feel up to seeing people who knew me
when I was thinner. I realized that my issues with my weight were getting in the
way of me living my life.
It was time for design thinking. At this point, a design thinker would ask
“What would losing weight really do for you?”
The answer surprised me. I wanted to feel better about myself, feel less tired
and have more energy and confidence to socialize and reconnect with friends.
Conducting my own personal empathy exercise helped me realize that weight loss
was really not my problem. Instead, I needed to focus on my friendships, on
boosting my energy and getting better sleep.
So reconnecting with friends and getting better sleep became my focus. I
bought new clothes, which made it easier to make social plans.
And surprisingly, this new, more empathetic approach to my own needs also
illuminated some ways to improve my diet. I realized a carb crash around
lunchtime was making me very tired during the day, so I eliminated sugar and
processed carbohydrates and immediately had more energy. In shifting my focus
away from weight loss to the real issues weighing on my life, I ended up losing 25
I still have a long way to go, but developing empathy for myself was truly a
breakthrough made possible by design thinking.
“Design thinking on the highest level is a way of reframing the way you look at
the world and deal with issues, and the main thing is this idea of empathy,” Dr.
Roth says. “If you have tried something and it hasn’t worked, then you’re working
on the wrong problem.”
© 2016 The New York Times Company
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