Design Your Career: Defining the Challenge
Design Your Career: Capturing Your Learning

Design Your Career: Gather Inspiration

Inspiration is the fuel for your ideas. Plan activties to learn from multiple perspectives and to explore unfamiliar contexts. --Design Thinking Toolkit

Over the course of the next few weeks, I'm showing you how to apply design thinking and principles to your career planning and development. The series of posts so far is here. 

Today we enter the Discovery phase and talk about gathering inspiration to work on the career challenge you've defined

Defining the career challenge you want to work on is an important first step in clarifying the issues and creating some focus for yourself. Once you've accomplished this, it's time to move into the Discovery phase of your project. 

The Discovery Phase

Discovery is all about being open to possibilities and to the context of your challenge. This is where you want to immerse yourself in people, ideas, and resources that can fuel your thinking as it relates to your project

From a career perspective, there are many potential projects you may be working on. You may be:

  • Considering a new career.
  • Looking for a new job.
  • Considering starting up a business.
  • Exploring how to use your talents and strengths in more creative or effective ways.
  • Looking for ways to develop particular skills or to gain experiences in different facets of your career. 
  • Seeking a mentor or wanting to create a Mastermind Group for yourself. 

To begin exploring any of these areas, you want to start gathering materials and information that can serve as a source of inspiration and potential experimentation later on. 

Here are some strategies for Discovery. I highly encourage you to try all of them because each brings its own insights and ideas. 

Inspiration journal

Create an Inspiration Journal

As you begin the Discovery process, it will be helpful if you have a place to begin documenting and gathering your inspirations. What I've found to be most powerful is to create an Inspiration Journal--a notebook I keep for the specific purpose of gathering notes, ideas, articles, etc. related to the topic I'm exploring. 

This is your "designer's sketchbook," a place where you can begin to dream and explore. 

For me, what has worked is to get a sturdy artist's sketchbook, because I like to both write and paste materials into my book. Other people have found success with 3-ring binders or even simple Composition books. 

Be sure to put a copy of your Design Challenge at the front of your book. This sets the stage for your ongoing explorations. 

You can also go digital, using Pinterest or Evernote to begin gathering your inspirations. What's important is that you have a place to document your Discovery  process that works for you. 


Do Some Research

A key part of the Discovery phase is doing some research  related to your career challenge.

  • Look for websites, articles, blog posts, etc. that relate to your topic and start to read and take notes. 
  • Watch videos
  • Listen to podcasts or audiobooks.
  • Look through magazines, professional journals, etc. for relevant articles or information. 
  • Find books related to your challenge. 

As you immerse yourself in this material, pay particular attention to where you feel excited or curious about something, no matter how "impractical" or "ridiculous" it may feel to you. I tell people to "follow the energy"--if the information is drawing you in, that make sure you document that. It may not feel immediately relevant or actionable, but you'll be surprised at how later on, you may return to information that keeps showing up and finding new ways to incorporate this into your process. 

Be sure to use your Inspiration Journal as you research. Use it to take notes, write down key ideas, paste articles, etc. 


Connect with Interesting People 

Other people are one of your best sources for inspiration and discovery. They can have insight, connections, ideas, etc. that help you expand your sense of possibilities or challenge your thinking. While reading, watching videos or listening to podcasts can certainly get you started on your challenge, you will find that your Discovery process explodes when you start getting out and talking to people. 

Who you meet with depends, of course, on the nature of your challenge. If you are thinking about starting a small business, then you want to talk with other people who have done this and potential customers who may be interested in your idea. If you are thinking of making a career change, you will want to talk with people who are in your target career area or industry and other people who have made career changes. If you are looking to improve a particular skill, then talk to people you admire in that skill area. 

Also look for ways to expand your network to new people, beyond those to whom you are currently connected. This will be particularly important if you are exploring something out of your comfort zone, like a new career or the possiblity of starting your own business. One of Herminia Ibarra's key findings in her book, Working Identity, is that new connections will add "juice" to this Discovery process, not only providing you with new insight, but also potential connections you can develop to access new opportunities later on. Here are a couple of resources that might be helpful here:

Again, document what you're learning in your Inspiration Journal. Take notes, write down key quotes, take pictures--whatever you need to capture the information that will feed your creative thinking. 


Build a Question Bank and Question Guides

One thing that may help you both in your overall Discovery process, as well as in your conversations with new connections is to develop a Question Bank. This is something you can create in your Inspiration Journal. 

To build your Question Bank:

  • Identify key topics you want to explore--What do you want to learn more about related to your challenge? What do you want to understand about your own or others' motivations, experiences, etc.? What do you want to learn about their activities? 
  • Formulate questions to explore these topics--Frame these as open-ended questions that will help you get at deeper, more powerful information. (I highly recommend exploring The Art of  Powerful Questions as part of this process). Good questions for yourself include "What do I most enjoy doing--what are my strengths" or "Why is this challenge/project really important to me? " Good questions for other people include "Tell me more about your experience with . . . ?" or "What are the best/worst parts about. . . ?" or "Can you help me understand more about. . . ?" 
  • Pay attention to questions that are percolating in your mind and keep adding to your list--As you go through the Discovery process, new questions will begin to emerge. Document these in your Inspiration Journal and use them as fodder for discussions and further research. 

Question Guides for Meeting with Connections

Use the Question Bank in your Inspiration Journal to construct Question Guides that can help you in your conversations with connections. It's helpful if you create a Question Guide for each meeting, as this will help you be able to structure your conversation and make sure that you cover the areas that interest you. To do this:

  • Review your Question Bank and identify questions that seem most relevant to the person you're meeting with. 
  • Organize your questions--Start specific, with questions your connections will be comfortable answering. "Tell me about how you go started doing this" or "Tell me about your experiences with. . . " are good examples.  Then you can move into deeper or broader questions like "What are some of your fears about this work?" or "What do you do in this situation. . .?" 
  • Create a 1-2 page Question guide for yourself--If you're meeting with someone new, it's a good idea to include in your guide any background info on the person that you have that might help you in the conversation. None of this has to be fancy or formal, but you do want to be somewhat organized about the process. 

Your Question Guides can be included in your Inspiration Journal, along with your notes from the conversations.

Get Visual

One particularly powerful way to explore is by really engaging with visual inspiration. Look for magazine photos or other images that suggest ideas about your topic. Take pictures of people, places, objects, etc. that relate to your challenge. Maybe you see an office-set up that appeals or phrases in a magazine that suggest something you want to experience. Collect all of this and include it in your Inspiration Journal. 

You can also expand your Inspiration Journal into an Inspiration Board--something to hang on your wall and continue to add to as you go through the Discovery process. This can serve as a regular reminder to you of what you're project is about. 

Give Yourself Permission to Wander--and to Wonder

The Discovery Phase is about immersing yourself in your challenge, allowing yourself to explore, wander and consider various possiblities and experiences. Tune into your emotions and to a slower pace, where you allow yourself to think about what could be and to OK with uncertainty for a few weeks or months. 

We live in a society that encourages us to be "productive," and for some people, Discovery can feel very open-ended and impractical. But giving yourself a little space and time to just do some wandering can be invaluable later on. It may open up new areas you never considered, or put your initial challenge in a new light. Don't rush yourself too much in this phase. Allow for curiosity and exploration. 


Discovery is all about being open to new questions, new ideas, new concepts and new people. Use this phase to immerse yourself in your topic and to learn as much as you can before moving on to the next phase, Interpretation. 


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Another gem, Michele. This is also great advice for people who are trying to figure out a personal learning network for a particular topic around which they need to deepen their knowledge or skill.

Thanks, Catherine--and excellent point! I particularly think the Question Guide info could be helpful there.

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