How do you ask the right questions about yourself? In life design, it’s important to define questions that are both open and focused. This helps to generate a diversity of relevant possible answers. However, there is still a need for more ‘definition’ focused activities. This post offers 3 activities to help you ask the right questions about yourself.
The framework outlined in this post was initially designed for college students participating in the Johns Hopkins University’s 2020 Life Design Summer Institute. The activities outlined here could easily be adapted for other audiences even though these activities were first designed for college students.
Life Design x Design Thinking: Define Phase
Life Design harnesses design thinking methods to tackle key questions and major decisions surrounding key facets of a person’s life including education, career, and overall life’s ambitions and purpose. Both life design and design thinking have a similar overarching framework. The activities in this post can be clustered in the ‘Define’ phase.
Define Phase Challenges
The ‘Define’ phase is challenging because it is important to have the right question(s) in order to think of solutions and test them out. These questions also should be based on robust data and insights typically occurring in the Empathize phase.
If you don’t frame a good question, then you likely won’t come up with good answers.
In life design, the ‘Define’ phase lacks a plethora of frameworks and activities to help participants ask the right questions about themselves. My colleague, Justin Lorts, has written a few pieces on this:
- The Importance of Defining the Problem
- 5 Common Pitfalls in Defining the Problem
- Attributes of an Effective Problem Statement
This post offers 3 activities to help you tackle the Define phase and ask the right questions about yourself.
3 Activities to Help You Ask the Right Questions About Yourself
This section will detail 3 main activities to help you ask the right questions about yourself. Here is a quick outline so you can jump to relevant posts:
Activity #1: Mind Mapping
Mind mapping visualizes information about certain ideas or topics while highlighting connections. Life design has traditionally applied mind mapping as a form of visual brainstorming. There are many ways to mind map and I adapted my instructions from IDEO’s directions.
In our class, we used mind mapping as a form of visual reflection of key Empathize phase activities, as well as the 3 imagined lives they sketched out. I led my students through a guided brainstorm to help them generate these maps through 2 activities detailed in the next section.
For those new to mind mapping, it can often feel a bit chaotic. I decided to ask students to start by mind mapping something they knew well first (e.g., previous Empathize phase activities). This helped them get used to mind mapping.
Then we mind mapped their future selves. These mind maps were more challenging because they just started to sketch out their imagined lives in the previous Institute session.
Mind Mapping Activity #1: Empathize Reflections (8-10 minutes)
- Step 1: Collect your Workview, Worldview (Lifeview), Collegeview, and Good Times Journal.
- Step 2: In the middle of your paper write, ‘Current Views’
- Step 3: Make one branch from the main topic, call it ‘Collegeview’, circle it (hub).
- Step 4: Mind map for 2 minutes.
- Step 5: Repeat for Steps 3-4 for Worldview, Workview, and Good Times Journal
Mind Mapping Activity #2: Three Imagined Lives (9-10 minutes)
- Step 1: Collect the sketches of your 3 imagined lives
- Step 2: In the middle of your paper, write your 4-6 word title for your first life.
- Step 3: Mind map for 3 minutes
- Step 4: Repeat steps 2-3 for Life 2 and 3 (each on a separate piece of paper)
Activity #2: Point of View Statements
Point of View statements are a common design thinking activity. I created a life design version of Point of View statements inspired by the Interaction Design Foundation. The goal is to create informed insights to then turn into actionable problem statements (3rd activity in this post).
Students examined their mind maps of their three imagined lives and selected one life to work on in class. Based on the mind map, they generated 1-3 Point of View statements through quiet brainstorming. If they got stuck, they could refer to their first mind map summarizing their Empathize phase reflections.
After creating a point of view statement on their own, students paired up to discuss. They were encouraged to ask each other ‘Why?’ for at least one statement in order to capture insights that revealed deeper values, motivations, and mindsets. Students were also given the opportunity to revise or add statements.
Activity #1: Point of View Statement Generation (5-7 minutes)
- Step 1: Examine the Point of View statement prompt:
- “I want to [verb] because [insight]”
- Step 2: Go over examples:
- I want to travel because I want to experience life outside of my home country.
- I want to work as an intern at a local non-profit because working directly with the community is important to me.
- I want to volunteer my writing skills because it’s the easiest way to get experience in policy writing.
- Step 3: Select one imagined life to work on and put its mind map in front of you.
- Step 4: Take 2 minutes to create 1-3 Point of View statement(s) based on your selected life mind map. Avoid the verb ‘to be’ (e.g., I want to be a XXX…)
Activity #2: Paired Discussion Asking Why (10 minutes)
- Step One: Pair up and share your Point of View statements for 10 minutes.
- Step Two: Go deeper and ask why about at least one insight for each person.
- Step Three: Revise or add statements Point of View statements as needed.
If you had time, you could repeat the activities for every life. In our case, we assigned the generating Point of View statements and asking yourself ‘Why?’ for the other two lives as homework.
You could also do the 5 Whys activity to dive even deeper with the insights. This is a great option for groups who might have Point of View statements that do not adequately reflect individual values, motivations, and mindsets.
Activity #3: How Might I… Statements
How Might We statements are a quintessential design thinking activity for the Define phase that reframes challenges. There is a lot of literature and discussion surrounding How Might We statements and I found this Stanford PDF helpful. I decided to translate How Might We statements into life design oriented How Might I statements.
How Might I statements start with the insights generated from the Point of View statements. From there actionable statements How Might I’s are generated. Figuring out the scope of these statements requires balancing both how and why (e.g., How/Why Laddering).
There are many possible How Might I statements for individual insights. A good How Might I statement is both open and focused. It has more than 2 possible ‘solutions’; however, it’s not so broad in which you can easily think of 20+ ideas in 5 minutes.
This activity is very challenging. In order to help students, I created a word bank of verbs to help anchor the desired scope of action for their statements. Furthermore, it was to critical to walk students through the How Might I statement process as a group before breaking them out into pairs.
Activity #1: Group How Might I? Walk Through (10 minutes)
- Step One: Introduce How Might I statements by showing the following prompt:
- “How might I [word bank verb] [details]?”
- Step Two: Share the verb word bank and explain who these verbs can help spur open yet focused statements.
- Step Three: Go over examples of how to translate Point of View statement insights into How Might I statements:
- “Working with the community helps me feel like belong.”
- How might I explore local community-led work opportunities?
- “Cultural immersion can help me provide better patient care.”
- How might I assess what makes quality patient care?
- “Volunteer to get policy writing experience easily.”
- How might I engage in the policy writing world?
- “Working with the community helps me feel like belong.”
- Step Four: Ask one person to volunteer their Point of View statement
- Step Five: Ask the group to review the work bank for a verb that could after ‘How Might I?’
- Step Six: Come up with at least three How Might I statements as angroup while helping to expand and contract the scope of statements accordingly.
Activity #2: Paired Discussion to Generate How Might I Statements (10 minutes)
- Step One: Pair up and work on generating at least 1 How Might I statement for each group member.
- Step Two: Each person should read their Point of View statement, focusing on the insight, and group members should offer potential How Might I statements or suggest verbs from the word bank.
- Step Three: If stuck, try going deeper with the insight from the point of view statement or try a different verb.
This is a challenging exercise. It might be worth infusing more examples or doing an extra round of a group walkthrough. Time permitting, also might be useful to give participants 2-3 minutes to try to generate a ‘How Might I?’ on their own through quiet brainstorming before going into paired discussions.
It is important to ask the right questions about yourself as you make key decisions in your life. However, it’s often hard to figure out how to do so. The activities presented in this post aim to start helping with the ‘How‘.
Figuring out how to ask the right questions about yourself links up with the Define phase in both life design and design thinking. While the Define phase can be very challenging, the Empathize phase is often cut short in time-constrained design challenges. However, the information from Empathize phase activities is crucial in generating insights and defining a compelling question.
Mind mapping was employed to help organize thoughts and see connections based on previous Empathize phase activities. Point of View statements helped frame insights, which entailed critically examining an individual’s motivations, values, and mindset. Finally, How Might I statements were generated to define open and focused questions that were actionable.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from these activities is that there is no one right answer you will arrive at in the end. Instead, there are many possible results (and resulting questions) that can be generated through mind mapping, as well as Point of View and How Might I statements. If one direction is not feeling coherent, you can easily change course and try out another framing.
The key is to come up with exploratory questions that are actionable, open yet focused, and based on key insights about yourself. This will facilitate the ideation of a diverse range of potential solutions.