Life Design – Designing Our Lives, Practice and Profiles in Resilience

This post by Tessa W. McKenzie was featured The Outgrowth Monthly Newsletter in September 2021

Life Design is more than the model of student success I ascribe to, it is also a holistic practice I engage in to see and seek out my life’s purpose on a daily basis.

Reflection, brainstorming, radical collaboration, and prototyping have led me to meaningful involvement in several communities whose missions match and amplify my own – not only Johns Hopkins University but my church, disability advocacy organizations (the International Autoimmune Encephalitis Society), the Maryland Career Development Association (MCDA), and the foster care system, for example.

For me, to be at the intersection of education, career development, advocacy, and positive psychology can feel insincere unless I practice what I preach. My students and the marginalized communities I serve are my reality check. It is a privilege to walk beside people as they go beyond their comfort zones to articulate their values and realize their visions for the future. I never lose sight of what a gift and inspiration it is to help them author their own resilience stories and purpose-driven lives.

So many folks will tell you to “follow your bliss,” your “passion” or even your “curiosity.”  These are awesome ideas but what if you/someone else can’t identify your mission based on those areas?

Let’s get REAL – What issues make you/your clients’ blood boil? What are your students’ perceived deficits/those bumpy areas in their stories where they’ve struggled with the most? What kind of support do they wish they had received in their life’s journey? Does that motivate them to serve others in a relative way/mitigate barriers to success for others?

If not, that’s just fine! It’s all about changing the narrative so folks’ “messes” are transformed into powerful “messages” of strength and fulfillment.

Teaching “The Course You Need Right Now: Stories, Service and Resilient Roots” at Johns Hopkins University over the Winter Intersession of 2021 significantly broadened my understanding of our students, the possible impact of scalable coaching practices, and how the pandemic was shaping the moment.

Notably, the pandemic fostered a moment where students dug deep to identify where they had overcome obstacles in the past, could double down on those strengths, work on developing areas of growth, and identify opportunities to employ the tools in their personalized resilience tool-kits in real-time.

There is so much more than meets the eyes with folks – especially when students attend elite institutions where they are staying in the same dorms, eating the same foods, taking the same classes, etc.

Due to the pandemic and the virtual and intimate nature of the Resilience course, discussions about identity, safety, health, privilege and hardship took center stage.

We all walked away much more aware of the scope of limiting beliefs holding each other back or compelling our actions. By accepting gravity problems, reframing wicked problems and cultivating a social/professional network, the course allowed us to transform our struggles into “profiles in resilience” for the construction of personalized pandemic and post-pandemic guidebooks.

I move forward much more aware of my own privilege and ability following these discussions around resilience.  As a part of that, I look to create more, scalable safe spaces for resilience-focused conversations to foster transformative personal and collective change.

Tessa W. McKenzie is a Life Design Educator at Johns Hopkins University and employs her experience in training, nonprofit capacity building, and branding through her private practice (Envisage Vocation Creation). Tessa partners with organizations including the International Autoimmune Encephalitis Society (IAES) to promote disease awareness and support warriors of chronic illness through “resilience” education. In her spare time, Tessa serves as President-Elect of the Maryland Career Development Association (MCDA) and is mom to one awesome bio son and foster kiddos.

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