In 2009, my law career stalled. I was burned out and ready to make a professional change, but I had no idea where to start or what my next step should be. Should I continue to practice law, but in a different setting or practice area? Should I start my own business, and if so, doing what?
One of the most important aspects of resilience involves developing a flexible way of thinking about challenge and adversity and being able to solve problems in an accurate way.

Design thinking is a type of innovation methodology – a problem solving process to help you generate options, test strategies, and get feedback so that you can develop something (often applied to facilitate the creation of new products or processes). As I discovered, design thinking is also a great tool to help you get unstuck and problem solve life’s biggest challenges.
Design thinking can help you craft a more meaningful life, create the type of relationships you want after a divorce or breakup, or open up new pathways for you at work. Here is how I used design thinking to help me identify a new career (and save lots of time and money in the process):

  1. Observe. If you were going to design a new product, you would first learn all about the end-user to identify pain points and patterns of behavior. In my application of design thinking, the end-user is you, and you have some work to do.
  • Define the problem. What is the exact problem you’re trying to solve? This is an important question because you can lose years working on the wrong problem. The trick to uncovering the right problem is to think like a beginner and get curious.
  • Reframe counterproductive thinking. Your automatic negative thoughts (“ANTs”) about stress can cause you to miss critical information. As a result, you need to be able to quickly reframe ANTs in order to think more flexibly and accurately.
  • Cut yourself some slack. Self-compassion involves being kind to yourself, getting support from others, and taking a balanced approach to your emotions.

The problem I decided to get curious about was, “What do I love doing at work?” I had ANTs about feeling like a failure for quitting my law practice, but I soon realized that many thousands of lawyers had done the same thing. Practicing law is simply one of many things you can do with a law degree.

  1. Ideate. Too often, people get stuck chasing their first idea or trying to find one perfect idea or solution to a problem, which rarely works. My first idea was to become a pastry chef. I was so certain of it, in fact, that I applied to pastry school in New York and told my boss that I was quitting. Thankfully I had the sense to do an internship for a week only to realize that I hated it – hated every minute of it. It’s important to withhold judgment during this step and create as many ideas as possible, even those you might consider to be wild and outside of the box. In design thinking, more is better when it comes to idea generation.
    Back at square one, I realized that I had to generate more ideas and possibilities, so I created what I called “THE LIST.” I wrote down all of the things I had loved to do in my life, going back to childhood. I thought about all of the things that excited me, how I used my strengths, when I was happy, and made a list. I didn’t edit it at all – I simply captured every idea or memory that came into my head and my heart. When I was done, the following themes emerged: writing, research, talking to people, teaching, and traveling.
  1. Rapid Prototyping. Take your ideas and conduct small experiments. Prototypes should be designed to get some data about what you’re interested in so you can visualize alternatives in a very experiential way. Most importantly, prototypes allow you to try and fail rapidly. The easiest form of prototyping is a conversation.My pastry internship is an example of rapid prototyping. That internship saved me $40,000 in tuition (and potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars starting a bakery) and forced me to identify other ideas, which led me to a more feasible solution quicker. After I developed the LIST, I had dozens of conversations with people who had careers that I thought matched my LIST ideas. I talked to a local reporter; reviewed the requirements for PhD programs in psychology; interviewed business owners about entrepreneurship; and I talked to life coaches.
  1. Feedback & Iteration. What did you learn from your small experiments? What worked? What didn’t? Do you need to have additional conversations with anyone or take additional action steps? Take that information and make changes to your prototypes as necessary until you fine tune your solutions. The reporter I talked to was clearly burned out and wasn’t inspiring. I learned how hard it is to start a business from scratch, and I discovered that I didn’t want to spend the next five years of my life pursuing another doctorate degree. However, one of the life coaches I talked to had just completed her master’s degree in applied positive psychology. I had never heard of positive psychology, but I was intrigued. I talked to more people who had graduated from that program (prototyping), researched the professors and the school (prototyping), learned how much it would cost and talked about expenses with my family (more feedback and iteration), then decided to apply.
  1. Implementation. Once you have validated the utility of your solution, it’s time to act. In my case, I applied to the positive psychology program at the University of Pennsylvania and was accepted.

Design thinking is a problem solving process that can help you build your resilience and get unstuck. If it seems overwhelming, remember these three points: get curious, talk to people and try stuff.

Paula Davis advises law firms and organizations and teaches lawyers and busy professionals tools to prevent burnout and build resilience to stress.