We wish constantly. We wish we went to the gym more often. We wish we could finish home improvement projects. We wish we could remember people’s names. We wish we could show up to meetings on time.
What stands between us and our ability to transform our wishes into reality?
Bernie is the Rodney H. Adams Professor of Engineering at Stanford University. He is also the Academic Director of The Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, better known as the d.school. He arrived at Stanford in 1962, an expert in the world of machine design. He has, however, worked diligently to help students explore their lives and their work beyond their raw technical skills.
I have had the privilege of working at the d.school alongside Bernie for nearly two years. I read the early version of his manuscript, which had the working title “Yellow-Eyed Cats”. The title refers to a parable that appears in Snell and Gail Putney’s "The Adjusted American: Normal Neuroses in the Individual and Society”. The Putneys write of their son who had only known Siamese cats, which have blue eyes. When their son comes across a Persian cat, he goes in for a closer look and, surprised, runs back into the house announcing that he has seen a cat with yellow eyes. The parable illustrates how the limits of our exposure stand to constrain our actions and warp our understanding of the world around us.
I sat down with Bernie to discuss his book, which serves as both a memoir and a workbook. The exercises are largely drawn from his class, “The Designer in Society,” which he currently teaches at the d.school and has taught in multiple incarnations at Stanford since well before the d.school was founded. What appears below is an edited transcript of our conversation. The conversation was edited for clarity.
ME: What’s the leading thing standing between people and achievement?
BERNIE: Well, I define “achievement” as having a good life, feeling good about yourself and feeling in command of your life and your circumstances. So, if you want me to tell you who’s in the way, it’s you. I, Bernie Roth, am in the way of Bernie Roth having a better achievement in his life — no one else, really. So, that’s the bottom line, and I say that in the book.
Really, in general, the person stopping you is you.
Most of us don’t want to do more. We have pipe dreams. In the book, I emphasize that you have to have the intention to do something and you have to give it the attention it requires. So, you have to have the intention to do it — not just the pipe dream. It’s not going to happen magically, you have to give it some attention — take some time or whatever it takes to have it happen, and then it will happen.
A good example are names. Many people think they can’t remember names. My experience is everyone can remember names. They just don’t give it any attention and they don’t have the intention to do it. They’d just like to magically have that ability. Well, if they did, that’s fine. If they don’t, and they want to memorize people’s names, they can.
I notice you say “reasons are bullshit”. You don’t say excuses. You call them reasons. Why?
Reasons are the polite way of saying excuses. Excuses are a negative thing. So, other than "excuse me,” if you say "my excuse is this; please excuse me", there’s a kind of negative connotation. So, most people don’t use the idea of excuses except pejoratively.
People use reasons to explain their behavior, and they think there’s nothing wrong with giving reasons. They’re really excuses. So, it’s a labeling thing. What I’m saying right out, and I’d say it’s almost universally so, is that any time you give a reason for your behavior — your personal behavior — it’s kind of a lie. Because, if you were not born, whatever reason you gave me wouldn’t be germane. So, your being born is a reason for everything, and then I can give you a thousand other things which brought me to this moment. Then, of all the things that happened, you pick one of them. Generally you pick it to make yourself look good, or, if your self-image is that you're a rebel, you pick one to look bad. It’s just to be in support of your self-image. That’s what I mean when I say reasons are bullshit. Because most of the time we use them to cover up what would be an excuse. So we give reasons as an excuse.
The story I give in the book is about my epiphany that came when I was always late to this board meeting and would use the traffic as the reason, and there was heavy traffic. Of course that was just bullshit, because I left a little late, and I didn’t leave enough time. I don’t say that when I go in to apologize. I say the traffic was heavy, which it was. And that’s not the reason I was late. There were lots of reasons, including when I was born.
In summary, I’d say it’s really not useful to use reasons. You have to use them though, because you’re not a reasonable person if you don’t use reasons. So, it’s kind of complicated. Use them as little as possible would be my advice if someone asked me.
There’s a lot of talk about finding your passion. And you write about achievement as a habit. What is the difference between what you are proposing and the discovery of a passion?
Passion is deeper than what I am talking about. You can wait your whole life to get a passion. So, when people say "you have to discover your passion” — I think, I wish I knew what my passion was.
I have nothing against passion. I love passion as much as the next person.
In general, most of us don’t have a passion that’s sitting in front of us. So the way you do it is you start to do stuff, and by doing it you get a passion for it. Or you reject it and you find something else. You keep doing things — different things — until you find something that resonates with you, and that’s what you call your passion.
So, I am talking about a more pragmatic thing. It’s what we call at the d.school, or in design thinking, “bias towards action”. So, my thing is you just start doing it. You don’t just sit around waiting for the passion to strike. If you have a passion, that’s great. You’re a step ahead. My experience is I never knew what my passion was, and there are a lot of things I’m passionate about. I would have never gotten where I am if I was waiting to be struck by lightening or passion.
The d.school is 10 years old. But you have been practicing design thinking long before that. Can you tell me a little bit about what people most misunderstand about design thinking?
Design thinking is, to me, a set of mindsets and you can apply them in any order and in any which way. It’s also a set of sensibilities. So, if you have those mindsets and sensibilities, the rest are just pedagogical artifacts or maybe conveniences or the habit of working in certain ways.
People will define design thinking as step 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. There’s nothing wrong with that way of defining it. You can define it any way you want. I think the biggest misunderstanding is that it’s not a set of steps you memorize; it’s a set of ways you see the world and behave in the world.
Tell me a little bit about your background and growing up. You’ve lived an incredible, exciting life and I’m curious when, in your youth, you realized you wanted to go about things differently. At what point did you make the connection presented in this book?
My mother died before I was 13 years old, and my father was not capable of really caring for me. So, I was on my own from a very early age. I lived a kind of street-kid life in New York, which was great, though it’s not the kind of life you’re talking about.
So, being what I am now was the furthest thing from my mind. In college, I was just going along — not even thoughtful, not even interested. Then, I hit a point where they were going to flunk me out, and I realized they can’t do that to me. I’m not that dumb! So that changed my study habits overnight from somebody who didn’t do anything to someone who did everything.
So, I went from a straight “D” student to straight “A” student in one, fell swoop. Still, in all, I was just doing that to get the grades — to graduate. I didn’t have any specific goal. I didn’t know what an engineer really was, and I chose that because someone advised me. It was just really poor advice, really poor guidance — it was no guidance, really. It was half information, and I was stumbling along.
I would say I didn’t really get much of a direction until somewhere in the middle of graduate school, when I started working on one PhD and it wasn’t the right topic. Then I switched, and I found something that clicked for me and that set the path that I’m on now. A lot of what happened, as I point out in the book, were accidents.
I still feel that the biggest things in my life came by accident to me. So, people say, “You were prepared for it". That is true. I was prepared for a lot of things. Some didn’t happen. Some did happen. So, I prefer not to use that prepared argument. I don’t think it’s that germane.
I think we go on a path and we come across certain opportunities. We take some, and they turn out to be fantastic or they may turn out to be awful. We take others, and that’s what makes up our life. In my case, I would say it’s stumbling along rather than planned out. Now, some people do plan out, apparently. I’ve never been that type of person. I do make local plans, though I don’t make life plans in terms of big things like the d.school, which came along ten years ago. I didn’t plan on it, I didn’t know I’d be here today with you.
Can you talk a little bit about the best or most successful exercise or method you’ve used in your own life or that you’ve seen used to make for a healthy, long-lasting relationship.
What can I say? I was a kind of out-of-it teenager when I got married, and I got married for all the wrong reasons to the wrong woman and it turned out fine. So, like many things in my life, I stumbled into it. I was a teenager, and some of my friends got married.
The point I’m making, which is made, in a way, much stronger than I do in my book, is in “The Adjusted American.” It is the idea that falling in love is not looked at correctly in this country, and that we exalt falling in love as the highest state of things.
Love has a lot of things involved in it — lust, projection and things like that. So, it may not be the best state to be in when you decide to get married. There’s nothing wrong with falling in love. It's great. There’s nothing wrong with lust. That’s great also, if it’s done properly and not criminally. So, these are all good states, though they get mixed up; they get confabulated when they shouldn’t be. They are separate entities.
So, the decision to marry someone, if you want it as a lifelong institution, is a serious thing. It’s going to take up a lot of your life and shouldn’t be entrusted to frivolous young people or not-thinking older people. A lot of people get married later in life wrongly also.
It’s a matter of properly understanding what you want from it, what you expect from it, the reality of what you get from it, and finding someone that is suitable in that way and someone who reasonably, when you change — because we’re all going to change — will change in a compatible way. That’s a hard thing to figure out.
Now, we have a system that doesn’t quite work because there’s a lot of divorce and a lot of unhappily married people. We’re stuck with it, I guess. As an individual, you can opt out and you can look at it in a slightly more independent way. As I mentioned in the book, I admire the arranged marriages I’ve seen in India where people around you are part of the process in helping you find the right person. Now, you don’t have to do that, yet within that there’s this whole idea that you’re not just marrying a person, you’re marrying a family. There’s this whole idea of compatibility. There’s this whole idea of what you’re backgrounds are in term of expectations and things like that. So, it’s a very complicated thing, and at best it’s a crapshoot. Some marriages aren’t going to work out no matter what.
The other thing is divorce. I don’t mention that in the book. Most people get divorced and they can’t stand the person they were married to. I’d say, if it ends, it shouldn’t end as a life and death thing. It should end amicably where both people can say, “Well, we’re two friends. It’s just not working so well for us now, and we just part ways and we’re still going to value each other." Now, that to me is something I admire. So, on both ends, neither seems to work so well in our society.
What do you most want people to know from your book? Let’s say I flip through and I can only read one chapter or one page, where would you send me?
I’d say there are two chapters, depending on what you’re after. If you’re after getting your life together and all that — chapter two: “Reasons are bullshit" is the best one to read. On the other hand, if you’re always stuck and can’t seem to handle your problems, I’d say chapter 3: “Getting unstuck" would be the best one to read. If you want my view of the world, then chapter 9: “The big picture" is the one to read. And if you want to know what to do with yourself, chapter 10 tells you how to move forward with all of this stuff. So, it varies with the reader’s specific interest. However, since each chapter treats a different set of life skills, I suggest you read the whole book.
(Illustrations by Thomas Both)