My Pillars of Stoicism and Design Thinking

Peas and carrots, biscuits and gravy, Tango and Cash, impressive duos all. Complimentary ideas and systems help us navigate the world. They help us find balance and understanding. And a current obsession of mine is the duo of Stoicism and Design Thinking.

I can’t remember if it was a podcast, blog post, book, video, or conversation that led me to learn more about Stoicism a couple years ago. But, it was during a season of change and the tenants of Stoicism have rippled through on almost a daily basis. The basic ideas according to The Daily Stoic are:

The (Stoic) philosophy asserts that virtue (such as wisdom) is happiness and judgment be based on behavior, rather than words. That we don’t control and cannot rely on external events, only ourselves and our responses.

Stoicism has just a few central teachings. It sets out to remind us of how unpredictable the world can be. How brief our moment of life is. How to be steadfast, and strong, and in control of yourself. And finally, that the source of our dissatisfaction lies in our impulsive dependency on our reflexive senses rather than logic.

When we work through a time of change our perception guides our reaction. A situation is neither positive nor negative. It just is. Our internal and external reaction is all we can control. Isn’t it freeing to understand that fact? Isn’t it liberating to believe that we are in control, and not passive victims to the reactions of those around us?

We were fortunate to recently learn from Ryan Holiday, author books such as The Obstacle is the Way, Ego is the Enemy, and The Daily Stoic, at the Round Rock ISD World Class Summit – our annual leadership gathering of campus and district leaders. I do my best – to vastly varying degrees of success – to follow the teachings of the Stoics as a personal operating system leading my teams and projects supporting our students, campuses, and departments.

Holiday shared many quotes and stories from the ancients as well as present day leaders who trusted the process, valued living in the moment, and embraced intentionality around their emotions. He spoke of the four disciplines associated with Stoicism – The Discipline of Perception, The Discipline of Action, and The Discipline of Will.

If Stoicism is an operating system for interacting with the world, then design thinking is a system for creating purposeful experiences.

I do remember how I was introduced to Design Thinking around that same time of personal and professional change. If Stoicism is an operating system for interacting with the world, then design thinking is a system for creating purposeful experiences. The Teacher’s Guild, a part of IDEO, revealed the world of Design Thinking to me and many others a few years ago and the idea has resonated in nearly every project since. Pair their website with the Design Thinking for Educators Toolkit and you will be well on your way incorporating this process for designing solutions and learning experience for students and staff.

Doreen Lorenzo kicked off day two of the Summit and shared the way the University of Texas at Austin is incorporating the tenants of Design Thinking into the work of undergraduates. A key idea we are incorporating into our work supporting students, campuses, and departments throughout our organization is directly influenced by design thinking. We create systems, resources, assessments, and experiences through the lens of those we serve. If there is a disconnect in the understanding or implementation of curriculum or an instructional initiative, then that is on us (designers), not teachers (users.)

Public education is mirroring many industries during this time in history which operate in shorter iteration cycles. If Google has a product change it believes may occur more than two quarters away, then it’s considered a long-term horizon possibility. Is six-months long term? We may not be working within such rapid cycles in K-12 education, but it’s difficult to have even a three-year plan.

A blend of Stoicism as a personal operating system and design thinking as a professional operating system will allow us to thrive where others are stifled by either fear of ambiguity or fear of sharing control. Constant iteration, flatter organization structures, open communication, and growing teacher agency all provide us opportunities to design systems to better serve our communities. It’s an incredible time to be a leader in public education. In recent memory, there have never been more obstacles in our path. With each of those obstacles, there are opportunities to use them to our advantage – to flip the perception of critics and create raving fans of bystanders.

Let’s finish with a poem from my favorite children’s book from one of my favorite coaches John Wooden which embraces our bias toward action and honoring of effort along with results.


I scurry ‘round and ‘round each day. Taking Action is my way. I get up and go and give it my all. When Action’s needed, I never stall. And when I look for lunch to eat, I’m not afraid to risk defeat. Don’t fear failure. Try your best. Take some Action for Success.