ayse birsel, 51, designer and author

ageist EDITORS | february 7, 2016

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“Designing your life is not about happiness, but rather about creating an original life, one that looks and feels like you.”

We talk how to design the perfect life with Ayse Birsel, 51, the award-winning industrial designer and author, who has a delightful new book, Design the Life You Love. The Turkish-born New Yorker is co-founder and creative director of the design and innovation studio, Birsel+Seck, as well as running workshops on life design. Visually engaging and playful, the book effectively tackles massive life questions in a seemingly simple manner. It is thoughtful, smart, and thoroughly disarming, which is exactly how I found Ayse to be. 

David Harry Stewart for AGEIST: Hi Ayse! Great to meet, you, or Skype you. Love your red lipstick!

Ayse: Thanks!

AGEIST:  I read that the book came from doing workshops. What kind of people were in the workshops?

AB:  Very interesting people…usually there are accomplished people who have families and they're at a turning point in their lives and wonder about what’s next. And then sometimes, a little bit younger people who are maybe in their 30s and want to…connect with their purpose in life.  And then my favorite audience is high schoolers and college students who have their whole life in front of them. 

AGEIST:  We were interested in that certain kind of person who is either involved in the process that you described or they have gone through the process in their own way.  So we found there’s kind of like this timeline, this arc that people go through. And the question that I get asked all the time is… why some people are able to go through this transition and make these changes and other people with the same knowledge … fossilize. I don’t know why that is. Do you have any thoughts on that?

AB:  That’s a very interesting question. I noticed that it requires a lot of courage. There’s a very playful side to design because when you’re playing, you’re like children: you’re not afraid of making mistakes, and you’re not judging—you’re trying different things, and that’s key to designing and designing your life also.  So, I try to create that environment of re-playing: there’s nobody judging you. And it’s your life and it’s just, you know, pen and paper. If you don’t like it, you can scrap it and then you could start again. I think that’s really important.

AGEIST: There’s something about this idea, beginner mind and an expert mind. What I like about the approach in the book is it encourages this idea of the beginner, and the beginner can always make mistakes and can always play and always experiment, whereas the expert is not allowed to make mistakes. And I think that’s like the rabbit in the book; the rabbit is in attack on the expert mind and says, "Well actually, let’s be beginners." And I thought that was such a brilliant way to get to that.

AB:  Oh, I love that, connecting the rabbit to the beginners. I haven’t thought of it that way, but that’s so —that’s wonderful. 

AGEIST:  My feeling is that at a certain point in life — it seems like kind of mid-50s —that we’re able to look back and then say, "Oh, okay, this is what I did, this is what has worked out, this is who I am." Right? And so based on who I am, I can now make a rational decision about how to proceed, because now I’ve got this kind of second half of my life.  And the first half of my life may have been very reactive…I just kind of did what I was told or did the opposite of what I was told.  But now, here I am and I can say, I can make this -- I can have this other thing.  And when I saw this book and I read through it, I saw that this is exactly what I’m seeing.  You’ve put together a manual for it.

AB:  Yes, a manual.

AGEIST:  But I don’t mean -- I mean, I think that’s great because these …

AB:  Absolutely, no, I like that. I tried to show people that yes, life is probably one of the most complex projects you can imagine, but it’s manageable. You just need to kind of deconstruct it so that you can see what it’s made up of, and then you need to try to think about it differently so that you could see new possibilities, and make choices. Kind of put it back together knowing that you can’t have everything.  In my mind there’s a line process, and my process of Deconstruction:Reconstruction is really to help people simplify the complexity of their life.

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AGEIST:  Do you feel that a concept of spirituality runs into this process?

AB:  Oh, spirituality is one of my four quadrants. That’s really important in that I want people to think holistically. As a designer, it’s important to see the big picture so that you see what’s missing and think about maybe the context in which you’re designing.  So spirit is part of that…and it’s emotion, it’s physical. It’s intellectual, but it’s also spirit.  And spirit means different things to different people. For some people, it’s very secular, for some people it’s very much about God.  But those are the universal truths in a way, the intangibles that connect us to humanity.  So, I want to make sure that you think about those things.

AGEIST:  When we first started talking, you used the word courage. And I’m wondering if there’s a Venn Diagram of courage, faith and luck because [if] you’re going to do this process, you have some kind of faith that it’s going to work out. And if there’s courage, faith and…some kind of spirituality …

AB:  There’s love. Because love is like you want to go towards something you can embrace, right?

AGEIST:  Yes.

AB:  And so that’s the love part. And then the courage is knowing that it’s risky because you’re imagining something in the future based on what you know today.  And to me, all design is about risk-taking.  And then the phase I talked about in terms of optimism— that design inherently is optimist.  And because you always think —and this is true for a lot of designers, otherwise they wouldn’t do what they’re doing—you think that you’re going to come up with a better solution, no matter how complicated the problem is. That optimism is what propels you to the future.  And maybe if I were to add …I think often in design you strive for simplicity.  And a lot of the people who are coming, they want to simplify their life , because often life is messy and it’s massive, you know.  So it’s like, how do you know in a nutshell what matters to you? And it’s really the discovery of that.

AGEIST:  Yes, I think that’s one of the other things that we find is this, we would call it essentialism.  There was a wonderful social media thing that went around a little while ago of… Meryl Streep…[talking] about cutting away all the stuff that interferes with her life that’s not essential to it.  And I think it’s similar to what I read in the book.

AB:  And, you know, you could do this for -- like, what’s essential to me for the next three weeks, you could do this for the next year and you could do it for the next 10 years.  So that also is part of the flexibility of the process.  I mean, when I was writing the book, I actually did this …I drew three circles and I said, "In these three weeks, I will work on my book, I will hang out with my kids throughout vacation and I'm going to eat good food."  And as soon as I did that, that was like, "okay, everything else was nice to have or whatever and I did those three things."  And that got me so much closer to actually finishing my book.  And so, I really believe that you could also sometimes do it for a day.  Today, I'm going to do this, and this and this.  But the magical number is…three.

AGEIST:  I really like what you say, "Take your answers seriously". I think it goes along with this idea of being very loose and playful, the rabbit, and this opposing idea, which is [that it’s] important to hold both things in your mind, to take yourself very seriously, but also don’t take yourself seriously at all.

AB:  Absolutely. I think the most beautiful answers lie in that.  In a way, what you want is to play and to generate incredible ideas.  But what you need is also to be serious about this. And in that tension lies the answer. 

AGEIST:  Yes.  And I think there's so much great stuff in this book about spending five minutes drawing so you turn on your right brain. I personally have this theory of the way the brain works—that the right brain is where all the power is.  So, that’s what connects you to other people, it what connects you to creativity—that’s the ball game.  But the left brain is dumber and it’s really linear.  But because it’s rational, we believe it, right?

AB:  Yes.  Well said.  And again you need both. I find also, because I think of our education, a lot of people are afraid to draw. And I want to very quickly get over that and so they draw. It doesn’t matter how you draw; I’m not there to grade you and you don’t have a lot of time anyway.  But draw because drawing is your right brain, writing is your left brain, and together, they're so much more powerful. 

“When I’m passionate about something, when I'm inspired, then I find everything: the energy, the structure, the wherewithal.”

AGEIST:  Yes. I just -- I want you to talk a little bit about this thing about …designing your life is not about happiness, but rather about creating an original life, one that looks and feels like you.  So, one of the things that we found is that this generation that we’re talking about, these Americans, they’ve -- they’re the first generation in history that’s really taking care of themselves physically their entire lives.  And so, someone who’s in a group of people that we are talking to, at 55, is expecting, rationally or not, to live much longer.  And not only to live longer, but to live really an engaged, functional life going forward.  We’re not going to live forever, but there’s something about that idea … that somehow gives you courage and faith about creating this original life that looks and feels like you, because that’s really courageous -- that’s a big deal.

AB:  It is a big deal, and I think it’s really important. And I’m so glad that you brought it up because I think that often, life happens, comes at us, and this is about stopping for a moment and going at life with intention and creativity.  One of my biggest “a-ha” [moments] on designing life alone, is that there used to be a road map…like, if you did this and this and this, you have a successful life. But…just what you said…so many other things have changed, and I feel like there are no road maps.  So you need to design your life.  It’s almost like a necessity.  And in designing that life, why not build it on your values and who you are, and what you would like to get out of life.  I think what you said is so freeing, to say: I have this road, I’ll make another one today, and …I’ll put [the] drawing on my wall, and I’m going to keep in mind my road map.  But then, maybe this isn’t my last road map. 

AGEIST:  You know, maybe next year, maybe there’s nothing— make a new road map, because this one doesn’t fit me anymore. Because otherwise, I have to make the perfect road map.

AB: If I go back to my own metaphor of being a tree, a tree does two cycles.  And there are some cycles where nothing happens, or seemingly nothing happens. And then there are other moments where there’s abundance of activity … right?  And I think life is like that as well.

“When you’re playing, you’re not afraid of making mistakes, you’re trying different things, and that’s key to designing your life.”

AGEIST:  This idea of designing a life around your values—we find that some people are very willing to embrace, what would have a few years ago, been thought of as radical lifestyles.   But several people who are single in their 60s and 70s, they live with their significant other, and they have no intention of being there.  I mean, do you see people doing this?

AB:  Absolutely.  I mean, these days, everything is about transformation.  Like whether it’s gender or race, or cultural identity, it’s -- definitely.  And I think the reason I bring about values is -- from my own experience, I find that…when life gets hard…you kind of get frazzled, and you forget -- I forget my own values. I question everything that I do.  And so I find that, because I guess design is my tool and it’s my point of view, [applying] a foreign design process to my life helps me build coherence even in moments of challenge, to say, "Hold on a second, these are the things that are important to you. You can go up and down, but you need to have coherence, and just continue to believe in the things that are important to you, continue to build on your strength."

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AGEIST:  So have you, in your experience, found people who didn’t really know their value, or they found that they were living in opposition to their values?

AB:  Yes. Just yesterday, I was talking to someone who’s now become a friend, who came to my workshops, and she was saying that through the process, she realized, she just needs to go with her strengths, which seems obvious, but I think it’s never that obvious, right?  And she said she had come to a realization that to her, inspiration was the most important…not discipline.  So instead of trying to acquire discipline, she decided that she’s going to acquire and look for inspiration because as soon as she had inspiration, she found the structure.  And so, I said, "That’s brilliant."  You know, I love that idea. When I’m passionate about something, when I'm inspired, then I find everything: the energy, the structure, you know, the wherewithal.  And so, that was her. Then she said the other thing was humor.  She said, "I want humor in my day every day, and then sing it."  And I thought, "Wow, that’s beautiful." Because when she sings, she’s -- she feels she’s in the present and she doesn’t worry.

AGEIST:  Yeah. I think there’s—somewhere, there’s this message that we’re supposed to be balanced, and it is what this woman was saying that, "I’m really good at this one thing, I’m not so good at this other thing, so I’m going to work on this thing that I’m not so good at."  And I think it’s a natural human thing to try and do that, and it takes a while to recognize that actually, you’re going to be a lot happier and a lot better off if you just work on [what you are good at]. If you work really hard at it, you may become the best at that thing, whatever that thing is. 

AB:  Exactly.  Yes.  And so, that’s really, I guess, the thing about having to know what you do in life… things like where do you live, your life could be you… and then in that process, you really dedicate time to things that you love doing and you’re good at.  What’s interesting and unique about designing your life is that it usually is you, and almost all design is about the other; designers try to solve problems for other people. But here, you’re trying to view your own life’s user. It’s kind of like, you have to go back at yourself, empathize with yourself. First, you imagine your own life and then you bring your family along, you bring co-workers along, you bring your children, and then you enlist them.  And you say, "You know, this is what I'm trying to do."  And then you teach them the process.  And it becomes an incredible dialog with people in your life. And a big chunk of getting that idea to life is, you have to brief it and then you have to kind of raise it. That’s why the book is interactive, because if I just talk about it or write about it, then you’re not doing it. You’re not going to internalize this.

AGEIST:  Absolutely.

AB:  As you do it -- you have an insight, you have an “ah-ha” moment.  That “ah-ha” moment doesn’t come by itself…so, this whole book is about that.  It’s really like going to certain emotions until those “ah-ha” moments start to happen.  And then, you’re thinking about your life differently, naturally. That’s the whole idea.

Continue the conversation with Ayse: Facebook: Design the Life You Love by Ayse Birsel, Twitter @aysebirselseckwww.aysebirsel.com.