What if You Tried Risking It?

Yuna Hur  &  Elaine Cheung  - Versions of a Retail Pop-Up, Spring 2018

Yuna Hur & Elaine Cheung - Versions of a Retail Pop-Up, Spring 2018

I’m honored to host a blog by one of my amazing mentees, Yuna Hur ‘18. Last year, as a senior, it was time to push academic limits 1 last time before graduating. This is her story about why it’s so important to take risk … because you never know what can happen! Thank you, Yuna!! *


Top: Elaine Cheung, Yuna Hur, students & Critiquers for ENGN 1971

Top: Elaine Cheung, Yuna Hur, students & Critiquers for ENGN 1971

May 2019: It has already been a year since I was persuaded to take a class Deb introduced to me my second semester senior spring [2018]. The class was called Iterative Design of Retail Value Propositions and Experiences - a blend of design and engineering. I never took courses related to business nor art, as I concentrated in cognitive science and education studies. My coursework had primarily focused around the topic of how people learn, both from a cognitive - neuro & psych perspectives - as well as an applied standpoint in my classes in the education department. I was in a good spot with regards to my concentration requirements. Like many other seniors, I was looking at loads of classes across departments. I asked Deb what time and how frequently the course would meet, and she said it would be once a week. If I’m honest, that was a huge selling point - again, because it was senior spring, though there was a huge part of me that was feeling incredibly insecure and unprepared for the course... no background in any of the topics that the course described. Nonetheless, because who can turn down Deb (?!!!?!!), I signed up for the course, not knowing what to expect, who’d be in the class, and how prepared I’d be for this mysterious course.

Here are 5 (of many) takeaways from taking this class (in no particular order) which are important for life beyond college:

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  1. Have a plan and be flexible - I started out the course thinking in my perfectionist mindset -- craving to find and work towards THE ideal solution. In this way, I have found myself digging deeper into details that were all uncertain because there was no singular “final answer”. I experienced a shortcoming from the expense of losing sight of what I initially set to work towards. Quickly, Deb convinced my perfectionist-self to take this class pass/fail -- and NOT just because it was my senior spring. This has been one of the best decisions throughout my time at Brown because it gave me permission and room to be okay with uncertainty, be okay with taking risks, and be okay with using my imagination.

  2. Value collaboration with individuals from diverse backgrounds - In this class, students came from a variety of concentrations, ranging from International Relations, Architecture, Sociology, Applied Math, Engineering, Economics...etc. My partner studied History of Art and Architecture, and I studied Cognitive Science and Education. We each brought different skills, as she shared her keen eye to visually display her reasoning, and I shared my systematic reasoning in informing detailed decisions we made for our project.

  3. Be human-centered - When thinking of different personas for the start-up the class was based on, there was no “one-size-fits-all” mold. My partner and I worked to create very different personas by pulling from our vastly-different experiences and socializations. This process, in-it-of-itself reminded me of how meaningful the individual experiences we bring to the table are. Developing these personas and then the different variations of the start-up’s pop-up store served as a reminder to know and expand intentional awareness to context-specific situations.

  4. Seek intentional feedback - Throughout the course, each group had consistent opportunities to pitch the progress they’d made to the class. Following each group’s presentation, there was always time dedicated for individuals to share thoughts, ask questions, and for presenters to ask and respond. I appreciated these interactions because the feedback I’d receive was immediate, relevant, and specific so that I would leave class with tangible things to work on for my ideas to continue growing.

  5. Trust your inner voice - During the first weeks, there were students from so many concentrations and with such awesome experiences. I was fangirling my classmates’ eloquent and thoughtful insights in awe of feeling like they were all so much better qualified for this course than I was. Students who were studying visual arts, for instance, had created aesthetically-pleasing vision boards, while students who were architecture concentrators precisely measured out floor plans. I didn’t feel confident in my ideas because I didn’t feel like I was good enough on understanding the business or design sides which the course was centered on. But what I was realizing throughout the course was that the value I was adding was the people-centered cognitive science and education background to my work. This was a rare moment in my educational experience where I relied on my intuition to brainstorm, create, and deliver the thousands of decisions that were made throughout the process.

Kathy Spoehr, me, Yuna

Kathy Spoehr, me, Yuna

I thank and am forever grateful for Deb, Barbara, and all of my classmates who I played with, explored with, and grew with together. These five takeaways have been incredibly valuable to the work that I not only engage with today but also in my future work -- which is uncertain AND exciting!

*In true serendipity, Yuna’s advisor taught me one of my first Cognitive Science classes 1st semester my freshman year, Kathy Spoehr. Generations of strong, bright women!!!

Are Our Souls on Treadmills??

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This academic year the cost of putting kids on treadmills from Pre-K onward is slapping me in the face through the students I mentor.  I’ve seen students’ stress, anxiety and depression increasing over the past few years but not with the exponential leap I’ve seen this year.  The current revelation of college admissions scandals and the plethora of recent articles on student’s anxiety and pressure over academic & social success reinforce what so many of us know and see every day.

You can and should hold me personally accountable. I was raised with earlier incarnations of this pressure and despite deliberately trying not to inflict this on my own children, I know I have and whatever I tried not to do or to reverse, the world, schooling and society all around them has reinforced par excellence!

The few minutes students will relax and chill are few - they are viewed as ‘unproductive’.

The few minutes students will relax and chill are few - they are viewed as ‘unproductive’.

The toll on our next generation is horrific.  I spend most of my mentoring helping students figure out how to at least slow down the treadmill.  Since they have no idea of life without being on it, they don’t know how to slow it down, reduce the incline or even dare ponder getting off. 

For many of my students, it’s not chasing the prestigious, expected Investment Banking, Consulting or Entrepreneurial grail to make your first millions before you’re 30, it’s about making the maximum possible positive impact on the world by the age of 25!  They’ve been taught to define success and worth by performance, by WHAT they do instead of WHO they are, because that’s all they’ve known. We know that extrinsic rewards are never fulfilling – there’s always someone else doing more/better, there’s always more to get, attain, have … there is never ‘enough.’  We’re telling them a lie.

Relaxing dinners do happen…

Relaxing dinners do happen…

So, what can we do? Especially if our kids are at the later end of the academic treadmill heading into or already in the real-world treadmill? We can talk to them – be honest about our own treadmills, the why & how we got on them, stayed on them and the struggles we’ve had (trying to) get off (if we have).  We can be honest about the anxiety and struggles we’ve worked so hard to hide over the years and we can try to change our own lives, slow down our own treadmills, reduce the incline, find our own balance and share how we’re finding our have found our own meaning and purpose.  Are you willing to try this with your own kids? With other people’s kids? Would you be willing to try this with and for yourself?

Atoms vs. Bits - Making Matters

Students working on projects in the  Brown Design Workshop

Students working on projects in the Brown Design Workshop

We live in a world infatuated with bits (tech).  We value, encourage, praise bit-making over atom-making.  Creating with atoms doesn’t have the cache or import it once did, and we’ve lost something precious by doing so.  Our hands* were not made (just) for typing, they were made to be sources of input to our brains to learn about our world – and learn by creating.

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Making, physically making, with atoms, not bits (or at least not just bits), is powerful!  Numerous studies have shown the power of physically making for muscle memory, learning new cognitive skills, and much more.  Making helps us develop empathy, helps us learn to iterate and prototype, to try stuff

Making with atoms usually involves almost all, if not all of our 5 senses – we use sight, touch/texture, hearing, smell and even taste, think cooking!  If you ever created with wood, do you remember the constant touch & texture of sanding an edge? Eyeing a joint? The amazing smell of cut wood (ahhh!)**? the sound of a planer or saw so you knew it was working perfectly? Making builds a sense of self-confidence and self-sufficiency, of knowing you can be ok, you can rely on yourself if need be.  And, making is a source of peace, calmness, harmony in our very hectic anxious lives.

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Making is how we learn about our world, both in reality and as a metaphor.  For instance, if you build a drawer by just nailing the sides together, does it have the same stability, endurance and resilience as a dovetailed drawer? By building both types of drawers, what could we learn, extrapolate about systems-level thinking vs. discrete parts? Doesn’t this resemble our healthcare, education and other failing systems - as a bunch of parts nailed together instead of dovetailed? By making, we can see why systems matter and how to design them.

As you go through the rest of this month, what can you make – out of Legos, Play-Doh (yes, it’s for adults too), food, wood, glass, paper and pen? It doesn’t have to be big, it doesn’t have to be profound, it doesn’t need to be auctioned off by Sotheby’s.  Just make something – for yourself or with someone.  With someone is even better.  Because, remember – we’re made of atoms, not bits.

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*The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture

**If anyone ever wonders why I love doing my office hours in the Brown Design Workshop, just come in and smell the wood!