Design Thinking

I Resigned From Apple…. Here’s What’s Next.

I resigned from Apple, What’s next?  It’s a question that I’ve been asked many times since I graduated with my doctorate in Global Executive Education in the summer of 2020. As I reflected on the experiences and choices I’ve made in my career so far, the questions posed by David Brooks in his book, “The Second Mountain,” helped me refine my thinking and gave context to how I often found myself feeling. 

I Resigned From Apple…. Here’s What’s Next

I thought it would be a poetic tribute to share the start of this new journey with what David Brooks would call “my second mountain” with quotes from his book. If there’s one resounding theme I hope inspires others, it’s that these decisions or turning points came as either a response to adversity and/or as a result of sharing content as part of building my personal brand. In fact, looking back, I would say that having a personal brand allows you to make decisions. And confront adversity and change from a stronger position. 

After I Resigned from Apple – The First vs Second Mountain

The book begins by defining the difference between the first and second mountain:

On the first mountain, we all have to perform certain life tasks: establish an identity, separate from our parents, cultivate our talents, build a secure ego, and try to make a mark in the world. The goals on that first mountain are the normal goals that our culture endorses—to be a success, to be well thought of, to get invited into the right social circles, and to experience personal happiness. It’s all the normal stuff: nice home, nice family, nice vacations, good food, good friends, and so on.

David Brooks | The Second Mountain

Growing up so many of us are groomed for the first mountain. Success has already been defined for us. Our social circles have been chosen for us. And happiness has been defined for us. I know it had been for me. From the schools I went to, to the expectation that I would go to college after high school, to the friends I had, everything had been determined for me. This is neither good nor bad. It’s simply an important element to recognize in how decisions unfold to develop a deeper level of self awareness. 

Two Life Changing Events

I often talk about how two events, the Great Recession in 2007, which was the year I graduated, and my parents divorce in 2010 challenged all the beliefs I held about work and life. One of my favorite interviews on the podcast was with Brant Menswar where he shared that there are many instances where other people’s ideas, systems, and thoughts are making our decisions for us.

To break away from this you have to identify your own values to drive the outcomes you want for your life.  Adversity is an opportunity to lean into your values. Your values will guide your decisions. 

While it never becomes easier it is true what they say: 

And once the storm is over, you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.

Haruki Murakami

The Great Recession challenged everything I knew and had been taught about the world of work. It took a series of layoff notices to discover that school had prepared me for a job. I needed to learn how to be a linchpin as Seth Godin would say. This book would be the catalyst to a turning point in my career.

The job is what you do when you are told what to do. The job is showing up at the factory, following instructions, meeting spec, and being managed. Someone can always do your job a little better or faster or cheaper than you can. The job might be difficult, it might require skill, but it’s a job. Your art is what you do when no one can tell you exactly how to do it. Your art is the act of taking personal responsibility, challenging the status quo, and changing people. I call the process of doing your art ‘the work.’ It’s possible to have a job and do the work, too. In fact, that’s how you become a linchpin.

Seth Godin | Linchpin

And with this understanding I set out to conquer my first mountain, proving my unique value and redefining the roles I had. From high school social science teacher, to Instructional Technology Specialist at Fairmont Private Schools to Director of Innovative Learning at the University of Southern California, to Education Leadership Executive at Apple, I created art that led to new roles, and a personal brand that led to others recruiting me, instead of me applying to them. 

A year into my role at Apple I began to wonder what David Brooks so eloquently lays out:

The first mountain you climb in life is about worldly success, career achievement. You get to the top of the mountain and realize it’s not totally satisfying. “Is this all there is?” you wonder. So you begin to climb a second mountain in life–a journey of searching for deeper meaning.

David Brooks | The Second Mountain

Pause to Reflect:

Are the learning experiences as you walk your campus preparing students for the first or second mountain? 

The Bridge Between the First and Second Mountain

I believe that practicing your art as a linchpin is the bridge between the first and second mountain. In practicing your art as a linchpin you draw others toward you. You build relationships through both proximity and with those whom you’ve never met based on shared purpose and passion. Also, you are relentless in the pursuit of addressing the problems and opportunities you see. And your passion acts as a catalyst that ignites others to join the cause.

You don’t climb the second mountain the way you climb the first mountain. You conquer your first mountain. You identify the summit, and you claw your way toward it. You are conquered by your second mountain. You surrender to some summons, and you do everything necessary to answer the call and address the problem or injustice that is in front of you. On the first mountain you tend to be ambitious, strategic, and independent. On the second mountain you tend to be relational, intimate, and relentless.

David Brooks | The Second Mountain

The Second Mountain – Here’s What’s Next

With deep gratitude to everyone in my community, and enthusiasm I’m so excited to share the start of what I believe is my second mountain where my mission is to design schools that give young people the mindset and skills to thrive in their workplaces and as global citizens. My new website shares in depth the different areas I’ll be focusing on. And the different projects I’ll be working on to amplify this work being done across the world. 

If Linchpin by Seth Godin was the catalyst to my ability to climb the first mountain, then the catalyst to climbing the second mountain was a line from Erik Brynjolfsson:  

Technology is not destiny, we shape our destiny.

Erik Brynjolfsson

I first came across Erik’s work while watching a session at the World Economic Forum Conference in Davos called, “The Fourth Industrial Revolution: Technology Driven, Human-Centered.”

I was fascinated by the idea of human-centered design.

Later that month, I attended an EdCamp in San Diego, CA where I saw how two 1st grade teachers – Stacey Lamb and Kelly Eveleth were using human-centered design to teach literacy at Design39 Campus. At this time I had just started my role at the University of Southern California with the Physician Assistant program where I was Director of Innovative Learning. Having come from K12 this was an entirely new experience. And design thinking would be the missing puzzle piece that would help bring the program’s vision to life. 

Learning about human-centered design changed the way I approached change with schools, both K12 and higher ed. Too often we lead with technology, introducing new tools and apps or citing platforms before people and vision (ex: We’re a Google school or an Apple school), design thinking shifts the dialogue from products to people. The first time I launched a 1:1 iPad program, I remember how every week we would introduce a new tool. Some would like it, some would hate it. Overall we didn’t truly impact people or shift culture. However at USC, I leaned into people’s motivations and fears. This reminds me of an episode of the podcast where I interview Bree Goff and she shares:

People don’t resist change, they resist loss.

From shifting the conversation from products to people I learned, “cultures of innovation begin with a culture of empathy.”

These experiences formed the foundation for the work I would do with leaders to design schools. In 2018, I knew this was a story I wanted to tell through the lens of research. So I applied to the Global Executive EdD program at the University of Southern California. And led a research study at Design39 Campus. The problem of practice addressed by the study was:

How can design thinking be used as one approach in K12 education to define and design a new grammar of school, providing students with the knowledge, skills and mindsets to innovate, create new products, services and business models so that they can thrive in future workplaces and as global citizens. 

The focus group were the educators, or as they call them – learning experience designers. Which brings me to the grand finale – the launch of the documentary based on the dissertation. I’ll be sharing the trailer in January 2022, and the full documentary coming in the summer. I had the privilege of being able to capture the stories of the Design39 community and we’ve merged the research with their stories.

To receive an update when the trailer launches fill in the form below.

design thinking problem of practice

The Podcast

Launching the podcast in 2019 began as a part of an empathy experiment when I went back to school. For over a decade I talked about designing schools, and I wanted to experience what those changes would feel like from a learner’s point of view. From taking notes in a digital format, to taking what I was learning and sharing it with an authentic audience, my doctoral program provided me an opportunity to practice what I had been preaching. It’s been an insightful and validating experience.

Of the many experiments I tried, the podcast was the highlight. The podcast allowed me to not just read and cite authors, such as Erik Brynjolfsson, whose line “technology is not destiny, we shape our destiny,” inspired the entire dissertation, but to be able to connect with them and interview them. If you haven’t heard the episode with Erik, it’s a must listen. 

If you’ve been a listener of the podcast, you’ll know I’ve mostly interviewed individuals who are in different industries outside of education about how they navigate change using design thinking methodologies. I now have the opportunity to expand the guest list and when we relaunch in January 2022, alongside industry leaders, using design thinking. I’m sharing the last episode of 2021 and it’s with high school freshman Seth Raphael. With this being computer science week, I can’t imagine a more perfect episode for the value of design thinking for today’s learners. 

The Opportunities

If there’s one thing I missed the most over the past four years while at Apple, it’s been public speaking and connecting with so many of you around the world. From growing up as a student, to being an educator, to working with organizations to design school, to returning to the classroom as a learner, I’m excited to share stories and strategies that will motivate and inspire you in your work to prepare learners with the mindset and skills to thrive in today’s workplaces and as global citizens. I’m looking forward to expanding on the research with my two signature keynotes:

  • Designing Schools: From Trust to Transformation
  • Leadership and Social Influence: How to Encourage Creativity, Build Trust and Inspire a Collective Vision.

Academic Partnerships Manager at Wix

If there’s one thing that has defined my ability to navigate change and design a life at the intersection of my passion and purpose it’s because of the investment I make each and every day in building my personal brand. I could not be more thrilled to be working with Wix to bring this experience to young people in universities. As Director of Innovative Learning at USC, we began the portfolio and personal brand journey on day 1, instead of their last semester as is often the case. 

We taught students the mantra, “Find and Be Found.” A personal brand and portfolio for young people isn’t just about having a link to an application. It’s an opportunity to share your skills, strengths, and ideas with the world. It’s an opportunity to learn about opportunities and people you may have otherwise never known existed. Whether they want to build their own business, or are looking for opportunities, a website is the one piece of online real estate that they own and can serve as their home base for decades to come.

Thinking About Your Second Mountain? Questions for Reflection

The pandemic has challenged us to rethink what we do and what we could do.

One of my favorite quotes from the book is:

A job is a way of making a living, but work is a particular way of being needed, of fulfilling the responsibility that life has placed before you.

David Brooks | The Second Mountain

If this is something that has crossed your mind, here are some interesting questions that Brooks shares in the book and your answers might provide the insight you’ve been looking for:

  • What do I believe in?
  • Where do I belong?
  • What am I motivated to do?
  • What activity do I love so much that I’m going to keep getting better at it for the next many decades? 
  • What do I desire so much that it captures me at the depth of my being?

I’m Sabba.

I believe that the future should be designed. Not left to chance.

Over the past decade, using design thinking practices I've helped schools and businesses create a culture of innovation where everyone is empowered to move from idea to impact, to address complex challenges and discover opportunities. 

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  1. Sai Narain says:

    Congratulations Sabba. Following your heart. You are going to do amazing things and climb many a mountain, inspire others to do the same.

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