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Planning Your Future

How can you possibly choose among all these options at Rutgers to craft your own amazing college experience? More importantly, what do you want out of life after Rutgers? If you’re wondering how to weave together what fits, what is doable, and what will truly be meaningful, design thinking can help.

When arriving at Rutgers, you are presented with several difficult decisions and stressful tradeoffs. How do you choose a single major given the multiple, varied interests you have? How do you discover all of the exciting opportunities Rutgers has to offer, given how large and widespread our campus is? And, once you’ve discovered them, how do you possibly choose among them? Most importantly, how can you ensure you will leave Rutgers feeling satisfied with your choices?

Using a process rooted in design thinking, you can start to navigate these challenging questions and design a college experience that aligns with who you are, what you hope to get from Rutgers, and who you eventually want to be.


Design thinking is a method of problem-solving that emphasizes “prototype iteration.” In simple terms, this means forming an idea (even an incomplete one), testing it, reflecting on it, and refining it over time. This approach lends itself especially well to the challenge of designing your career, which is often a large and vaguely defined task.

You won’t be able to think, theorize, and plan out your entire future without testing your idea first and refining it. No amount of research will guarantee that your first idea about major or career will be “the one.” Design thinking prioritizes action, learning through doing, and learning through feedback as you iterate real ideas in the real world.

Central to design thinking is prototyping, a concept borrowed from how product designers work. Let’s say you’re thinking of changing majors or careers. Interview someone who does the job you’re considering. Better yet, ask to shadow them for a day, or work in the field on weekends. If it feels right, take it a step further; if it doesn’t, move on. Thinking of a major in Communication? Take an Introduction to Communication class. Reflect on the experience and decide whether this idea is worth exploring further by testing it in an internship or other experience, or if you should test out a different idea altogether. Taking these small steps to test out your ideas is prototyping. You are meant to enjoy the process of testing these ideas and learning from them; testing and discarding an idea is not considered failure. 

Design thinking also emphasizes collaboration to generate new ideas. This is not a process you should do alone. Consult with professors or alumni and have a conversation about the work that they do. What advice do they have for you to explore your academic or career idea further? 

For a more in-depth overview of Design Thinking, check out the following article: Want to Find Fulfillment at Last? Think Like a Designer


To begin this process, it is important to do a thorough self-assessment. By reflecting on meaningful past experiences, you can discover any noteworthy connections that might inform your future plans. If you haven’t taken the Traitify career assessment yet, that might be a good place to start! After you have a better sense of where you’ve been, as well as your strengths, interests, and values, it’s time to start designing your future.

The Odyssey Plans exercise should be very enlightening. When you create your Odyssey Plans, you make a graphic representation of three possible alternative lives you might live over the next five years. To set this exercise in motion, start by asking yourself a simple question: “How many lives are you?”

If you are puzzled by that question, consider the following story. Imagine that somewhere in the depths of a Rutgers laboratory, someone has invented a “Time Duplication” machine that allows you to experience your life as many times as you’d like, and all of your alternative lives would run in parallel. You could be a doctor, a poet, a fireman, and a circus clown, all at the same time, and all with the amazing vividness of the real experience. The question of “How many lives are you?” becomes a variation on “How many different people, roles, and opportunities have you imagined for yourself before you picked the role you are in today?”

The implication of designing three pathways tends to be very freeing to students because it removes the pressure of having to “do it right” or pick the “one best career” for yourself. Instead, we acknowledge that there are multiple ways of going to Rutgers and multiple, valid career options you can pursue after Rutgers that can make you happy.


  1. Describe three different versions of your life/career that will unfold over the next five years.
  2. Give each plan a title, with a maximum of six words.
  3. Rank each plan on whether you have the resources to fulfill it, how much you like it, how confident you are in it, and whether it is coherent with your general perspectives on life or work.


  1. The first life is the one you already live, or that you've already committed to. The second life the one you'd create if the opportunity to live the first life were suddenly gone. The third life is the one you'd live if money and what others think didn't matter.
  2. In reflecting on these different lives, write down three questions about each version of your life.
  3. Share these plans with your mentors!
  4. Examples: 

The goal of the Odyssey Plan exercise is to realize that there are many different careers and lives within you. There's no one right answer. According to the creators of this exercise, "We all contain enough energy and talents and interest to live many different types of lives, all of which could be authentic and interesting and productive. Asking which life is best is asking a silly question; it's like asking whether it's better to have hands or feet."


Very few students arrive at Rutgers knowing immediately what they want to do with their lives; the large majority of students have to try a few things out and learn as they go. After you create your Odyssey Plans, go out in the world, do things, and then reflect on your experiences. You might take a professor out for coffee. You might explore a club on campus you know nothing about. In documenting and reflecting on these encounters, you will begin to piece together a portfolio of experiences that will help tell the story of your Rutgers career.

This journey is typical of any design process. You build a lot of stuff, you try a lot of stuff, but it’s always less than the whole product. Prototyping big decisions like declaring or changing a major or choosing or switching careers, meanwhile, guards against blowing up your life to rush headlong into the alluring unknown, or worse, taking no action for years, unhappily. It’s a stepwise process, allowing you to test an idea before fully committing. Taking small, but continuous actions and reflecting on them will help you redefine your beliefs about life and career decisions. Design thinking can help you find your way in a chaotic world through those principles of having a bias for action, prototyping, and teambuilding.


“Will I just be more bummed out when I realize that six or seven wonderful versions of me got away, and I’ll never be a doctor or an astronaut?”

Once you adopt the mindset of a design thinker, you know that you choose better if you choose from a lot of ideas. Designers know to never go with their first idea; it is almost always a bad one because it is incomplete, unresearched, and untested. Spending time imagining multiple parallel versions of your life makes sense from an ideation perspective since you can brainstorm a lot of potential ideas and start to make an informed decision about the best one.

And while it might be possible that you are disappointed in considering the lives you won’t pursue, what we know about choosing and decision-making from positive psychology research tells us that, if you do it right, making a good selection from a great list of possibilities can make you happier and increase the sense of meaning in your life.

It turns out that it’s not about what you “let go” that matters; it is about what you “choose, and how you let go of the rest” that matters. When you brainstorm a lot, then narrow your list down to a manageable number of choices (the brain science tells us that is 5-7, no more), and then make your choice irrevocable – you maximize your chance of being happy with your choice.

When that choice fits your worldview and life view, when it is a coherent choice, you are building meaning into your life. And, all the research and a thousand years of wisdom and spiritual traditions show that meaning is what we’re really after.