Some lessons from my first quarter as a d.School Fellow

We unconsciously kill creativity at an early age.  

We don’t do it to ourselves.  We are naturally wired to be creative.  Just watch a bunch of five year olds with crayons, glue, paper.  We are drawn to create.  But somewhere along the way – adults feel a need to label.  To tell kids whether they are a “creative” or not.  And that sticks.  We take it heart.  I was running a training in the summer, and the group was in the middle of a brainstorming session.  Each member was rapidly putting up crazy ideas on post=its and sharing it with the group.  An older 65 year old gentleman sat back and looked defeated.  He said “none of those ideas are mine.  I was told at a really young age I wasn’t creative.”  I saw before me a 65-year old man transformed into a school boy who had never overcome that label. What he didn’t realize is that he was also not giving himself permission to be creative. Being creative – means removing your inner judge.  It means not accepting the labels others put on you at such a young age. It involves understanding that our natural state is to create, to think, to imagine.  We as adults need to be careful about inadvertently labeling children as ‘creative’ or ‘analytical’.  We need to just encourage them to engage and try new things.  And we also need to be sure to question the labels others have put on us.  Create your own labels.  I never thought I was “creative” – maybe creative with processes and people – but not with art or things.  I still may not design something that will be museum or store-worthy, but making stuff now makes me happy, and the more I do it, the more comfortable I feel calling myself creative.

Sometimes higher education suffocates our basic instincts, and we have to reclaim them

 I graduated from Stanford in 1998, and spent the next ten years learning how life really works.  While at Stanford, I was drawn to organizational sociology but was told by some advisors that it was not practical – so I went to economics and international relations instead.  But the entire time I was an economics student – I was fighting with the idea.  The assumptions never made sense.  They were assumptions about people but they didn’t apply to me, or the people around me.  I grew up in a Middle Eastern household in California.  Yes, we were rational at times – but a lot of decisions were made out of emotion.  So no, we are not always rational beings.  And we don’t always make decisions that maximize our utility. Sometimes, we make them because we just have to .  Yes, I’m oversimplifying, but the entire process of studying economics was forcing me to suppress my instinctual observations, and instead impose an analysis that I was told was more academic.   Most of all – we were always ASSUMING.  But I always wondered – why assume when we can just ask?  Why assume, when we can actually watch, observe, and uncover.

So coming back to the Stanford 15 years later, I am learning how to stop turning people into data points, and instead turn the data points into stories.  Each story has layers.  Each story provides hints into what people need.  Each story uncovers a path that someone can take in addressing a need for one person, that usually translates into addressing the needs of many.  It’s the difference between making people into data points, and then putting data points into a regression, and throwing out the outliers. Instead, we can actually focus on the outliers and the rest of the data, and see what it tells us – and then compare it to the trends in the data and see what the bigger story tells us.

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Vulnerability is at the root of identifying real solutions

 I lived in a land of experts for many years.  I was working at think tanks such as the Carnegie Council, Council on Foreign Relations, World Bank, UN, and the world of philanthropy.  These organizations are rooted in expertise.  People go there to find answers.  They go there to seek direction.  But whensomeone is given the label of an expert –it often comes with an accompanying fear of not being able to expose what you don’t know.  Or publicly acknowledge what questions you haven’t answered or that you are struggling with.  Because at the end of the day, you’re the “expert”.  It is easy to hide behind these titles.

Expertise is important.  We cannot simply take a superficial approach to given problems and issues.  But we need experts, scholars, and leaders to acknowledge what they don’t know.  To see answers in others.  To see that each person is an expert in their own experience. To explore collaborative processes in identifying a solution.

People are not satisfied anymore with people who think they have all the answers.  Because with the internet – we know increasingly that that is impossible.  The questions people ask reveal who are the real experts.

It is ok to be confusing  to others

 When people ask my three year old niece what her aunt Leila does for a living – she says “a dentist”. When they ask what her dad does for a living, she says “a doctor”. When they ask what her mom does for a living, she says “a journalist.” When they ask what her aunt Nadia does for a living, she says “nobody knows”…  If you have ever struggled to explain to people what you do for a living, or how to synthesize your job description into two sentences at a dinner party – its ok.  One of the first session at the dschool Molly said “If you’re in this room right now, your probably confusing to other people.”  That was one of the most validating comments I had ever heard.  Its ok to be confusing – because in some ways you are searching and all the pieces intersect.  It is not enough to say I’m a nonprofit expert, or I’m working with a foundation, or I’m trying to build communities, or I love collective human experiments.  You can sit in a space that lacks labels and titles, and you can just be learning, exploring, experimenting.  It all makes sense to you – and it might make sense to a few others – but if it doesn’t make sense to everyone – just go with it.  Every dinner party I experiment with a new way of describing what I do – one day, one of them will stick.  Till then, I try to share what I’m learning with others, in the hopes that the information will speak louder than the title.

Getting Unstuck

Design thinking is not just for ‘creatives.’  Design thinking is a useful methodology, and a set of tools, for anyone, especially those working in the nonprofit sector.

If you are running a nonprofit, working in government or a foundation, or involved in a public/private initiative, you are probably struggling to figure out how to do what you can with the resources you have, or how to get more resources so you can do more.  Somehow you are always trying to  stretch what you have – money, resources, space.  You want to serve more, reach more, advocate for more – but with limited resources.

From applying design thinking to my own nonprofit and philanthropic work, here are some things I’ve learned:

  1. we are often solving for the wrong problem;
  2. we need to get out of our heads and go out and talk to people;
  3. don’t assume – ask;
  4. don’t be generous with time – find the stopwatch;
  5. find an interdisciplinary team of thinkers and doers to brainstorm and build with, not just talk to;
  6. institute ‘yes, and’ rather than ‘BUT’ for almost everything;
  7. recognize that the process is iterative;
  8. don’t try to solve for everyone but focus on extreme users;
  9. don’t try to answer the entire problem – find a solution that works and then work upwards from there;
  10. Tell a story