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Making Sense of Yourself

I recently completed co-teaching Making Sense of Yourself, a 12-week program developed with Alfi Oloo. Before the thrill of our first time teaching this material passes we wanted to capture this process in a series of three articles.

When Alfi and I started working together the idea was for me to be a peer as Alfi worked on a course about peer mentorship. Peer mentorship is a subject Alfi had been doing a lot of thinking and research into and we decided that starting our own peership through this process was the best way to help him test his theories and tools.

As we got into the instructional design for starting an effective peership, something felt missing. Or more so, we felt like we had jumped in too late, and into a process we were not sure was commonly effective.

In short, we worried that if people had not done a fair bit of introspective work they would not make for an effective peer for a number of reasons:

  • Without a clear view of ourselves, we don’t know what we have to offer, nor the help we need
  • Without clear values and intentions we don’t know what peership to seek
  • Without better models we don’t know how to guide peer interactions to be meaningful

This new understanding changed the focus of the course from teaching people to be more effective peers to teaching people how to be introspective, and use the power of peers.

Now that we are at the end of the 12 week journey of guiding our first cohort through this process we are more hopeful and trusting of our insights and the tools we have designed. We also have real student stories and feedback to integrate as we iterate in time for our next cohort which we are accepting applications for until March 17th.

Here are some of our favorite quotes from students of our first cohort:

“I went in with a healthy dose of skepticism around some of the early reflections, but by the end I was really impressed by how everything really did build and come together into a meaningful whole. I will definitely be taking learnings from this course into my personal and professional life!”

“MSoYS is like a guided and supported journey through the messiness you’ve been avoiding, alongside peers who are exploring their own messes that — surprisingly (but not surprisingly) — look similar to your mess”

“This course was not just beneficial for my life and goals, but just enjoyable.”

“It may seem like a big deal to commit to 12 weeks but you’ll find the pacing is accommodating, and it’s ok to get creative about how you spend your time. Abby and Alfi are perfect companions – kind, curious, excellent at creating a safe space… good eggs!”

In this series of articles Alfi and I will present the process we designed, and what we experienced teaching our first cohort. In addition you can hear Alfi and I talk through this content on our new Making Sense of Ourselves Podcast.

In this first article we will cover the first half of our course. Over the first six weeks we guide students through conducting an audit of their past while identifying a useful set of lenses to project their future.

Step 1: Audit Your Life through a Personal Timeline

The first step we planned in this process is documenting a personal timeline. This visual audit of your life can serve as a needed mooring when doing any level of deep introspection.

When students first started this exercise they quickly found out how hard, and needed this work is when making sense of yourself.

By looking back over their life, you are better able to:

  • Visualize patterns, connecting overlaps you may have never noticed
  • Contextualize each of your major path-shifting decisions
  • Converge personal and professional insights

During our first cohort of Making Sense of Yourself a student reflected on how she had used her timeline to identify a dangerous pattern. There were times when she was happy and times when she was doing the thing she is “best at” — but those were seldom ever at the same time. She said it inspired her to revisit what she was doing during those periods of happiness, and to examine the role of what she loves doing, versus what she is good at.

I have taught this exercise in a variety of settings in the past, and I am always blown away at how much pressure a simple timeline diagram can relieve for folks who are carrying around a life story without any scaffolding to hold it together.

Step 2: Explore Your Strengths, Passions, Communities & Roles

The next step we planned was for students to introspectively evaluate themselves through a series of four lens:

  1. What are you good at
  2. What you love
  3. What (you believe) the world needs
  4. Ways that you can serve

These four lenses were developed based on ikigai, a Japanese concept, often translated as “that which makes life worth living”.

“Ikigai encompasses a blend of personal satisfaction, meaning, and a sense of value in one’s life. It’s not just about personal joy or individual passion but also includes the value and satisfaction gained from contributing to the welfare of others – your family, tribe, and community.” – Alfi Oloo

One of my favorite parts of developing this course was watching as Alfi battled with the realities of building on top of a known (and often critiqued) framework. After torturing a Venn diagram within an inch of its life, Alfi instead developed 50 questions as part of this exercise. They were noted by students as the hardest, but also most critical part of this program.

Step 3: Ask Your Network for External Perspective

At this point in the process students had created a clearer view of themselves. But like all messes, an external perspective can be just what the information architect ordered!

As a bold next step in this process we challenged students to approach members of their existing network to be interviewed. We guided their interview process using similar tools to what I use to teach stakeholder interviewing in a more professional setting.

One of my favorite tools we developed as part of this exercise was our Network Connection BINGO card where we listed 25 prompts for the types of people that might be good to interview.

A few of my favorite prompts were:

  • A person who is generous with how they talk about themselves and other people
  • A person that has seen me work at different phases
  • Someone I admire for how they have achieved balance in a way that I would like
  • Someone I admire from a different generation than myself

Watching the students wrestle with committing to doing this activity was a good reminder of how hard this work is. Stakeholder interviewing is hard enough. When we are the subject, the whole process takes on a new pressure.

One student shared in office hours how the activity had helped her to reframe a good friend’s involvement in her ongoing process of introspection. What had been unstructured chats where it felt off to impose big questions now felt like space had opened up, not just in the interview — but in the relationship.

Step 4: Look for Themes

As we rounded out the first half of the course we encouraged students to look across their audit, introspection and interview results for ‘themes’

If I was to pinpoint the single most challenging part of teaching this process, it would be in the synthesis of themes. And this is not unique to this course, this also stands as the most challenging part of information architecture instruction in general.

Luckily a taxonomy can unlock instruction. In this case it was a simple three bullet taxonomy that Alfi wrote in preparation for office hours one day.

Themes might be …

  • Difficult questions to reflect on
  • Repeating narratives
  • Areas of desired growth

I felt particularly inspired by the simplicity of this list, and in its general applicability to work outside this course and introspection. We could use this same list to teach IA (and I plan to)

One student even made a matrix of the taxonomy above and went to town brainstorming potential themes. I loved seeing students hacking and expanding on the tools provided. We also saw a few students implement “body doubling” where they would work at the same time as one another on a video call, not always talking but just co-working to push through the hardest bits.

The Messy Middle Always Gets Messy

I would be lying if I didn’t mention how much trepidation and anxiety Alfi and I experienced during the first half of the course. It was hard to get into a rhythm to know how students were doing and it wasn’t until the very middle of the process where our results started to come into clearer focus.

In the words of cohort 1 students:

“This course is a series of exercises to help filter and align all the *seemingly* random and disparate thoughts and feelings about what you’re even doing in your life and/or career.”

“I found the workbooks to be very helpful, even if the questions were hard.”

“One of the things I really appreciated was to have space to do the work through the hard questions, and to have a group of people to work with.”

I could not be more thrilled with the insight and perspective this first cohort of students was able to apply to these materials. Alfi and I are spoiled in riches when it comes to student feedback, and we have been diligently reworking the materials for the next cohort (which starts April 1) while working on the launch of our new podcast: Making Sense of Ourselves

In our second article of this series Turning Values into Missions we will present how we guided students to use these themes to identify personal values and how to help balance those values in their life over the short and longer term. In our third and final article of the series we will talk about The Power of Peership and Dialogue. Stay Tuned!