Design Thinking

by Shawn Nason

Over the past several years I have been on a personal journey to decide what I want to be when I grow up. My wife, Carla, would say, “he still doesn’t know, because he will never grow up.” What I never realized on this road of discovery was how much developing one trait in my life would impact who I am.


Empathy is the ability to share and understand the feelings of others.

Now, let me say this, I am no expert at it and I am still on this journey, but empathy should be at the core of each and everyone of us. I spent several years of my life as a pastor. A great deal of my time was understanding the places, feelings, and situations people were going through.


Why did it wreck me? Those experiences went to my soul.

I was transformed daily by:

–the mother who did not know how to deal with her teenager, because I became that struggling parent trying to connect to her teenager. It was so frustrating.

–the wife trying to connect with her husband, but felt hopeless and defeated, because I became that spouse and tried to understand her point of view. It was so heartbreaking.

–the child who just wished his parents would understand him, because I became that child and I understood just how painful and lonely it was to feel misunderstood, alone, and unloved. It was agonizing.

–the widower who lost his best friend after 50 years of marriage, because I became that husband and could understand the size of the hole in his heart. It was devastating.

Yes, these experiences were frustrating, heartbreaking, agonizing, and devastating, and they didn’t HAPPEN TO ME! But, I could empathize. I could feel these peoples’ heartache and pain. I walked with them. Though, I was by no means suffering the way they were, I was nevertheless able to feel deeply for them.

Empathizing is not easy. It should wreck you! It should shake you to the core. And it has done just that to me–to my life. I am so grateful for the people who I have met, who have shared their struggles, because I have learned so much from them. It has strengthened and enlightened me–my entire life–and it started with my own mother.

My mother had a heart of gold and would give the very shirt off of her back, but also the shirt off of my back, my brother’s back, and my dad’s back. Though she used to tell us, “We will not give a hand out, but a helping hand.” (I can attest she gave more than a hand!) How I miss so much of that wisdom today. My mother gave her life helping others and building them up to succeed. And, through her example of selflessness and generosity, I have learned how to be a leader, a father, and a friend.


How? Today as I walk in the mall, the grocery store, the mall on our campus, or just in the office, I stop and think about what might that person being going through today that I have never experienced. Through a work project I spent several months in the wonderful state of Mississippi to understand how poverty affects health, and I learned what it was like to really be hungry and to really not be able to meet one’s basic needs. I learned EMPATHY in such a real and raw way.

I watch my wife on a daily basis not only love our seven-year-old daughter, but also our newborn son. I have never seen empathy seep out of the pores of one human being like I see it come out of hers. She did not give birth to these children, but she has the ability to share and understand their feelings. She can communicate and love them from depths of her being.


As a mother, she has taught me to be a better father. She has taught me to set aside my wants and desires. Daily I see her set her wants and desires aside to make sure our kids needs and wants are met. Somedays I know it is really tough, but she does it with a smile on her face (most of the time). She has taught me not to be so serious, but to just love them and have the time of our life watching them grow-up.

What does all of this have to do with DESIGN THINKING?


Design thinking teaches you to learn how to empathize first, by putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, experiences, trials, or even successes. I have spent the last several years working with the Goliaths of the world to help move the needle when it comes to empathy. From a patient’s experience in the doctor’s office to the guest’s experience when they walk into your park. The consumer, the guest, the customer, the student (what ever you want to call them or should call them in your respective industry) are always (and should always) be FIRST!

I get the honor every day to work with a team and community that not only believes and practices this, but it is at the core of who they are. They love to understand what the student is going through. They love to understand what the problem the business or team we are working with is facing. They let this pour out of everything they do, and I get to watch it, live it, and love it!

So how did empathy and design thinking wreck my life? By one simple thing, it is my life! It is who I have become. It is who I will forever be. As I stated in the beginning of this post, I am not perfect and I do not always do it right. But as a leader, a husband, a father, and a friend, I try to remember what everyone is going through or facing that day–and it wrecks me–in the best possible way.

To all of you I say, thank you for sharing your life with me. I am a better person because of each of you!

image credit – cea +

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Shawn Nason, Innovation Evangelist & Chief Innovation Officer for Xavier University says, “Innovation isn’t work, it’s a lifestyle.” At Xavier University, Shawn leads the strategy and implementation of the innovation process within Xavier, while developing a portfolio of innovation clients and strategic partners, which will drive non-tuition based revenue within the university through the Center for Innovation.