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Creating a New Path: How Design Thinking Inspired a New School Alumna Stuck at a Career Crossroads

April 18, 2018

Zoë Skinner’s commitment to others and belief in helping her community can be traced back to her freshman days on the women’s college lacrosse team; she recalls the relationship she built with her coach and teammates as having a strong impact on her life even several years later.

“Our coach would remind us that in order to succeed on—and off—the field, we needed to do something truly remarkable.” said Zoë. “We could not sit idly by and hope for something to happen. We had to push ourselves – and our teammates – to grow, asking the tough questions and becoming a little uncomfortable in the pursuit of our ultimate goals. I’ve found that creativity and design thinking hold a lot of those same truths.”

Post-graduation, she took the skills she acquired in college to the nonprofit world, where she contributed to work that gave her a sense of purpose, feeling content in using her empathic nature to help others directly, and working hard to understand their needs and find the best solutions for them. She wanted to have an impact.

Zoë continued with this work for a while, until she found herself at a quarter-life crossroads. 

Everyday, she would wake up, take the subway to the train, head into the office, grab a cup of morning joe, prepare for and attend meetings, send off some emails, get back on the train and off again to head to the subway, go to the gym, cook dinner for herself, eat late at night, and then head to bed to do it all again the next day. It was the routine that had developed that drove her to question what was going on in her life. Zoë began feeling tired and worn down.

“I felt I was just going through the motions...and there is nothing bad about routine and habits, if they are energizing,” said Zoë. “I was not feeling energized, at all.”

In this slump, Zoë invited a personal mentor to lunch for some advice and guidance in approaching the next phase in life. The first thing she asked Zoë was, “Who do you want to be?” 

“From there, I started what would become a five-month journey of discovery,” said Zoë. “I am a firm believer that things don’t just happen; instead, we put in the time and energy and the universe responds accordingly. So maybe, I’d thought, this was the universe responding by giving me a nudge towards my next step.” 

This meeting prompted Zoë to get to work. She made finding her next career her “job” and constantly kept moving, reading blogs and articles for inspiration, scouring the Internet for like-minded professionals and organizations, and stepping out of her comfort zone to set up dozens of in-person coffee meetings with people across various industries so she could keep learning. In these meetings, these new mentors began asking even tougher questions that challenged her to look internally to her own skills and strengths, and forced her to confront the fact that life wasn’t just going to happen to her. She needed to start thinking about what it was that she wanted, and what steps she needed to take to get there. 

“I was 25 at the time and had no idea what I wanted to do next week, let alone in a decade,” said Zoë. “But these conversations led me into a state of deep reflection, looking at my career path thus far and taking an honest look at where I wanted to be. As I was describing my passion for creative problem solving, psychology and working directly with people, one of my mentors mentioned design thinking.”

She had never heard of design thinking before, but immediately took to her computer for more research. The more she uncovered about the topic, the brighter the light bulb seemed to illuminate in her mind. Zoë discovered this would be the perfect field to explore, as it would open up an opportunity that would satisfy both her need for creative expression as well as further awaken and inspire the ingrained part of her that desired to help others.  

During her search, she came across the Design Thinking course offered by Continuing Education at The New School. She immediately thought: THIS. IS. IT.

“The New School had always been in my back pocket, as I’d dreamed of going there for fashion design when I was young. While the career aspirations have changed, The New School has remained a mecca for designers across disciplines,” she said.

Zoë signed up for the course, quit her job, and took on part-time contract work, deciding to focus the same energy she had been putting into her old job into her new venture of finding exactly what she wanted to do next. 

She recalls the motivation she received at the start of the Design Thinking Fundamentals course from her professor, Lee-Sean Huang, who stressed that the principles they would learn could be applied to every situation in life. Design thinking offered a way to see and define any problem at hand more clearly, thus facilitating the process to come up with a sustainable solution. On  top of the insight and wisdom received from her professor and his own professional experience, Zoë was also encouraged by her online classmates.

“What is so awesome about Continuing Education is that the online classes really give you the freedom to work at your own pace from your own space,” said Zoë. “I really enjoyed e-meeting people from across the world and professions through this course. While I was often sitting in a coffee shop or library alone while doing the course work, I still felt that I was part of a community with my virtual classmates.” 

Where was she to go from here? How would she get there? What problems did she need to solve? To begin to answer these questions, she referred to her Design Thinking coursework and adapted the strategies she was learning to her current situation.

 “I started out by assessing where I’ve been, what jobs I had in the past, what I liked about them and what I didn’t,” said Zoë. “Then, I went to my skill level. What skills did I have? Which skills did I use daily? Which ones did I actually like to use and which ones did I not like? I bought a notebook and started to fill it with these lists. I still didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do for a career, but I had a better idea of what skills I wanted to put to use.”

Looking back to the crossroads where she found herself months earlier in that crucial hour of need for personal growth, Zoë thanks her increasing quest for post-undergrad knowledge, and the people in her life that cared enough to ask her the tough questions and encourage her to dig deeper.

She recalls her college lacrosse coach’s mantra: “If you do what you have always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.”

“Creativity has taken many forms in my life, but it overwhelmingly has fueled the way I approach and solve problems – both personal and professional. Creativity is not afraid to fail, but is afraid of the status quo,” said Zoë.

Currently, Zoë is living in Baltimore and preparing for her next steps. She thrives knowing that every day is different, but her constant openness to new ideas, opportunities, and conversations gives her the conventions necessary to approach problems. Design thinking helped give her the tools she needed to approach these challenges creatively. 

“I have been able to intentionally take a step back from my old life and become comfortable being vulnerable and trying new things without fear of failure,” said Zoë. “This time is about figuring out where I am going next, to be able to play and explore and discover tangible solutions to the problems we, and society, face. That is what design thinking is all about.”

Zoë has advice for others who may be looking for a change. She says, “Shifting careers is no small task and preparation is a key part of that process; wake up, get dressed, schedule meetings, do your research, connect with others, take breaks, take risks, be present. You owe it to yourself to take the time to figure out what you want in this life, no matter how long it takes. Oh, and remember, it’s important to have fun along the way!”

Written by Casey O'Connell.

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