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Today, finding meaning and purpose stands as one of the greatest pursuits of people, and one of management’s greatest challenges to fulfill. Some researchers suggest that 50% of those in the workforce lack a sense of meaning and purpose. If we want to find deeper meaning, within our lives and our work, in this busy modern age, how can we ensure that that our lives and work are as fulfilling as possible?
When the economy crashed in 2008, award-winning product designer and innovator Ayse Birsel turned a challenging time for her business into an opportunity to reflect on this question by applying her creative design process to her life. Birsel realized that “Design is imagination, and if you can imagine something, you can make it happen. Why not create your own, original life?” Now she has helped thousands of people “think like designers” and transform their lives through her workshops and book Design the Life You Love.
Born in Izmir, Turkey, Birsel came to the U.S. on a Fulbright Scholarship to pursue her master’s degree at the Pratt Institute in New York. With designer Bibi Seck, she co-founded the design and innovation studio Birsel + Seck and has designed products for leading brands including Herman Miller, GE, IKEA, Toyota, and Target.
I spoke with Birsel about her approach to design as a way of life. Says Birsel, “Life, just like a design problem, is full of constraints: time, money, age, location, circumstances, etc. You cannot have everything. If you want more, you have to be creative about how to make what you need and what you want coexist. This requires design thinking.” This includes our jobs. Birsel notes, “Our life and work are a continuous loop. If you design your life, you will also design your work.” Here are some of the principles that Birsel asserts can help you design a life “that is coherent with who you are – a life that feels like you, that looks like you, that is you.”
Design in small doses
Birsel distills her creative process down to the phrase “Deconstruction-Reconstruction.” This involves first “taking the whole apart” and breaking it down into the smallest building blocks possible. When Birsel designed Resolve, a new office system for Herman Miller, she first deconstructed the idea of an office to its most basic components, asking “Why are people still coming into the office?” and thinking about what keeps them there. She realized that in today’s office, rather than having cubicles that separate us, we need to “socialize and connect and learn from each other.” This inspired her to “take the notion of a cubicle and turn it on its head.” Rather than “boxing people in,” she wanted to “give them a sense of space and connect them.” So, she designed an office system that was lightweight and adaptable.
This process can be applied to designing a life you love. Birsel proposes breaking down your life into its most basic building blocks and laying out all the different elements that make up how you spend your time. With that mapped out, “you get to choose what you want in your life – what to keep, what to leave out, and what to change. Your choices will determine the kind of life you are designing.” By deconstructing your life, you can “shift your perspective in order to reconstruct a new reality that is more than the sum of its parts” and “focus your attention on what matters.”
Birsel suggests prototyping different versions of your new life design, just as you would in product design. For instance, you might “live in a city like a local for a couple of weeks before you decide to move there or take evening classes before you quit your job and enroll full-time.” You should allow room to try it out, test it and refine it, and then modify it. Just like a design project.
Emulate your heroes
Find inspiration in other people you admire – your “heroes.” Whether Peter Drucker, Frances Hesselbein, sports legends or faith leaders, our heroes can be people we know, people we know of, or even fictional characters. Birsel finds that the “qualities we recognize in other people that inspire us are things that we have and want more of.” As an exercise, Birsel suggests listing your heroes and the qualities you admire about them. Then replace their names with yours to see that “their qualities are your qualities. The values you admire in your heroes are yours. Those are the founding principles on which you should build and design your life.”
Rescript self-limiting beliefs
At times we may blame something or someone else for the way our lives are unfolding, but we are often our own worst obstacles. By shifting our point of view, we can learn to “see the same things differently” and turn “constraints into opportunities .” We all have weaknesses and aspects of ourselves we view as negative, but instead of seeing those as obstacles, we can “transform what we cannot change to something we can utilize to create a more positive outcome.” When Birsel designed Resolve, “the constraint was size. Smaller and smaller cubicles were turning offices into Dilbert-land. Going along with the constraint instead of opposing it, we shrank the cubicle to its smallest possible footprint and imagined it as a point in space. This became the start of a new idea, an office system based on poles in 120-degree configurations instead of the traditional office panels.” That is the same as the space we open our arms to when we embrace others.
Blend “need-want” tensions
Sometimes what we want and what we need are in conflict. We might say, “I need to work, but I want to go on vacation.” According to Birsel, our needs and wants can live in the same space. She encourages us to expand our thinking and get creative: “What if you worked a little bit on vacation? When you’re at work, how can you feel a bit like you’re on vacation?” Resolving the dichotomy between what we need and want can help us achieve our goals by blending options rather than pitting them against each other. When Birsel was designing a potato peeler for the Target Giada Collection, the product needed to be affordable, but she also wanted it to have a great design. The final product was functional, visually appealing, inexpensive, and even included an ergonomic handle.
Let design-values underpin your dreams
Birsel identifies five interdependent values that underpin the principles of design and can guide the creation of your ideal life: optimism, empathy, holistic thinking, open mindedness, and collaboration. Designers “think positively” and believe they can find a better solution no matter how hard the problem. This optimism fuels their creativity. If you find yourself confronting a challenging problem, try to imagine “positive possibilities within given constraints” and let yourself be inspired by solutions to similar problems that you might have noticed in other contexts. Having empathy for others is “often the first step in solving problems.”
Thinking about problems from a new perspective can inspire creative solutions. This is true of holistic thinking as well. Stepping back to “see the big picture,” the larger context in which your ideal life will exist, can allow you to see new possibilities. Open mindedness gives you the freedom to “ask yourself ‘what if?’ and take your answers seriously.” By keeping an open mind, you can see possibilities “like a beginner” in order to find breakthroughs and allow yourself to visualize a future self. Finally, collaborate with others “as this makes the ideas so much richer.” Says Birsel, “Today’s problems are too difficult for one person to solve alone. Great teams and strong collaborations are the secret sauce of leading, innovative corporations.” And in my experience, our greatest meaning and love of life is found on the faces of those with whom we live and work closest .
In Birsel’s words, “our life is our greatest project,” so why not go ahead and “create an original life, one that looks and feels like you”? That’s what it means to create a life you love.
May 13, 2019 at 08:03AM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs