Professor Emily Tsiang offers the tools to navigate life

Professor Emily Tsiang, an Associate Professor at NYU Shanghai in the Creativity + Innovation program, and a design researcher at Stanford talks about becoming a life design educator and the importance of prototyping and designing one's life.

With her dark chocolate, straight hair, perfectly shaped almond eyes, and growing love for K-pop and K-dramas, Emily Tsiang may not appear to be your typical university professor. She loves her acupuncture and spa and has recently started to learn that there is wisdom in stillness. As of now, Tsiang lives in Shanghai with husband Dan Blum and her 2-year-old son Jaesun Tsiang.

Blessed with a smile that radiates intelligence and, coupled with a bubbly personality, she loves to surround herself with students. “I teach to illuminate the transformative lights within each of my students,” said Tsiang, aged 39

Before we explore the meandering journey into her past, you might be wondering what is life design? It evolved from a class called Design Your Life that was started by two instructors at the prestigious Stanford University 10 years ago.

Design thinking is based on rapid prototyping methods and is used in the creation of products. Therefore, the main goal to start such an innovative class was to incorporate design thinking as a tool that allows people to design their own lives.

But, in a world dominated by mathematics, economics, and the sciences, it is uncommon to see a course that teaches you about designing your life.

Offered in a studio setup to maximize experiential learning, students are encouraged through the provision of design frameworks to explore their college experience and life after graduation. In addition, life designers participate in testing different career interests, participate in behavior design, and ideate on multiple future career paths. 

Emily Tsiang believes that it is the professor’s responsibility to create and provide a safe space for students to try things out. It is also their responsibility to normalize failures. 

“How do you expect a student to get things right on their first try? It is necessary for them to explore various paths even if they fail, but most importantly we must encourage students to try harder every time they fail,” she said.

Tsiang dealt with failures in her school life and tried multiple career paths before stumbling across the world of academia. She believes that since design thinking was ingrained in her from a young age, it helped her navigate her way to NYU Shanghai.

She has incorporated design thinking prototyping methods in her life since a very young age. She recalls setting milestones for her school project timelines, using Post-it notes to map out readings, and using heat maps, i.e., colors, as a mode to determine different factors.

While life design originated from design thinking, the latter was born out of the mechanical engineering department at Stanford.

Tsiang’s father is a mechanical engineer from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and therefore the way he operates is essentially design thinking.

“Now it makes sense,” she said. “I was raised by a mechanical engineer who is also a product designer, thus I was groomed to have a designer’s mind,” she said. However, reflecting on the 10-year-old Emily, even though prototyping seemed like a daily routine, it wasn’t until her early adolescence that she realized it wasn’t as normal as she thought.

Tsiang completed her Bachelor of Arts in Economics and East Asian studies at UCLA and then pursued her Master of Business Administration in Organizational Strategy and Design from the University of Michigan.

As a fresh graduate, she wanted to help solve problems at the state level, so she pursued a career in federal and state policy. She worked with Mayor Bloomberg in New York City on translating federal policy into state policy and then into what it might look like for local residents.

Through testing various career paths, she realized she wasn’t as interested in the public service sector as she was in the process of organizational design and leadership. “From a career perspective that is how I got into life design, which is about getting space to process the changes in thoughts and emotions,” she said.

A major health crisis further influenced her movement into life design. At the age of 28, she was diagnosed with arthritis, which limited her movement. So, as the career momentum of everyone around her was building, she was forced to slow down, not because she wanted to but because she physically had to. 

We live rich lives, yet we don’t reflect on those experiences thus, she recalls, the experience was a wake-up call which forced her to reflect.

“As an experiential learning educator, I am constantly channelling John Dewey’s reflective practice – ‘We don’t learn from experience … we learn from reflecting on the experience’ – and through the designer’s mindset,” said Tsiang.

Before joining academia, she co-founded Culture LABx, led global M&A integrations for Cisco, managed urban economic development initiatives for the City of New York, and co-authored a book.

However, teaching life design was a whole new path.

In a quest to find a job that paid well, offered breaks, and allowed her to practice what she preached, she stumbled across the world of academia. Before joining NYUSH in 2019, Emily was working as an educator at Stanford University.

Born in Boston, lived in San Diego, LA, San Antonio, Boston, NYC, San Francisco, Copenhagen, Ann Arbor, Hong Kong, and Shanghai, Emily has had true global experience. She loves to travel around the world and gain a deep understanding of each country’s culture.

Since Shanghai is so diverse and diversity is a distinguishing feature of NYU Shanghai, it was a perfect match for her. Whether it was traveling to Seoul for the weekend or eating fresh sashimi in Japan, she could fulfill her passion for traveling while teaching life design.

“Everyone, whether they know it or not, is attracted to this place because we all fundamentally believe that we value cultural exchange,” said Tsiang enthusiastically.

On the question of the importance of life design, Tsiang said “it gives theoretical credibility that validates exploring as a factor that influences creativity.” She strongly believes that if we don’t allow students to explore, then we’re just producing machines.

Tsiang lives by the quote of Eleanor Roosevelt: “The purpose of life is to live it, to taste and experience the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.”

Therefore, she loves life design, as it facilitates changes and drives curiosity.

Tsiang believes the beauty of being a life design educator is having the privilege of a lifetime, to see the transformation happening before your eyes through rapid prototyping. “It gives you the tools to navigate life and prototyping allows you to say, ‘I’m just trying. I don’t know if this is it, but I am going to attempt and try’,” she said.

When asked if the course should be made mandatory, she believes that it should not be forced on students, rather they should take it when ready and wanting to spend the time and effort to be introspective.

This article was written by Riya Shrestha. Please send an email to rs6085@nyu.edu to get in touch.

Photo Credit: Clockwise from top left: Emily Tsiang at work at NYUSH; with her class at NYUSH in Fall 2019; Emily and son Jaesun take time out to relax in Zhujiajiao; Emily with husband Dan Blum and Jaesun get set for Halloween.

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