Note: I wrote this blog for Metropolis Magazine’s POV column – view the article at MetropolisMag.com.
I once wrote a poem called “Profession of Mission” in which I attempted to write a personal mission statement. The poem rambled a bit, begged for clarity in my life’s purpose and ended with the word “crossroads” – no punctuation or finality – intentionally open-ended.
I wrote the poem in 2009 at age 44 – clearly the beginning of Mid-Life Crisis. Yes, young’uns, even older folks wonder what to do with the rest of their lives.
One week ago, at age 47 – no closer to an answer or closure – I took myself to Manhattan.
If I can “figure it out here, I can figure it out anywhere,” right?
I’m pleased to report that I found clarity in Chelsea … without a stitch of help from any of Woody Allen’s analysts.
But I did have help.
I attended a daylong workshop called “Design the Life You Love” created by New York-based product designer Ayse Birsel.
Ayse became a friend after I heard her speak at a user conference put on by a client of mine, Swedish design-software company Configura. Born in Turkey, Ayse is Pratt Institute-educated, a Fulbright Fellow whose work is in the Museum of Modern Art and the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, both in New York City.
She is perhaps best known for designing Herman Miller’s Resolve office system and Moroso’s M’Afrique collection. She and partner Bibi Seck own Birsel+Seck, a design studio that also works with Johnson & Johnson, Hasbro, Hewlett Packard, OfficeMax, Renault and Target. Ayse designed a potato peeler for Target that’s just $7.99, she says. So, even if you never make it to MoMA or Cooper-Hewitt, you can see (and buy) her products at a Target near you.
Ayse has taken her product design methods – which she calls Deconstruction:Reconstruction™ – and developed the “Design the Life You Love” workshop with concepts and exercises that even non-designers can easily grasp.
The workshop has become a mission for Ayse: “Our lives are our most important project,” she says.
A brisk walk from my hotel on the Upper West Side to the School of Visual Arts on West 21st Street, site of the workshop, puts this Michigander in a New York state of mind – ready to design.
The seventeen other participants – twelve women and five men – are already in the room or just arriving.
I sit next to a lovely woman, Christine, a retired lawyer originally from France. She leans toward me and whispers, “Who comes to these workshops?”
I whisper back, “People like us.”
Her eyes twinkle.
And then Ayse begins – not with the de rigueur introductions but by asking us to turn to the person next to us and sketch each other. Each of us has been given simple sketching notebooks.
I turn to Christine. I’m no artist, but sketching her is easy. Her bone structure is like the Louvre – pure symmetry and elegance. … I don’t envy Christine her task.
Ten minutes later, Ayse reveals the purpose of the exercise: “Your right brains are now kicked into gear … this is my favorite warm-up – one I learned from a professor at Pratt.”
Then, Ayse asks us to share our drawings and a little bit about ourselves.
Most attendees are from New York City, but a fellow Midwesterner is from Peoria, Illinois. Nearly everyone is some kind of designer by profession – graphic, product, industrial, architectural, interior, fashion. I’m a writer and public relations strategist with A&D clients. One woman is in between jobs. Another woman is starting up a tourism business specializing in South America. The Peoria person edits books on design. Another just wants to drink red wine – which elicits lots of laughter in agreement.
Like me, everyone here is seeking clarity – how to recognize and cultivate one’s gifts, how to best use one’s time, how to be intentional in one’s life.
“Life is just like a design problem: It is full of constraints – time, money, age, location, circumstances, etc.,” Ayse says. “You cannot have everything. If you want more, you have to be creative about how to make what you need and what you want co-exist. This requires design thinking.
“But,” Ayse continues, citing one of her mentors, designer Ralph Caplan, “‘when it comes to life, there is no such thing as design. There is only redesign.’”
In other words, we’ve already designed our lives to some degree, whether intentionally or by default.
And so, the 18 of us, with Ayse’s help, begin the process of redesigning our lives.
We start by dissecting our past and present into parts and pieces.
Ayse loves the power of metaphors and, in this part of the workshop, she likens one’s life to a pot of soup – say, chicken noodle. Collectively, the ingredients are one thing (soup/life); separately, well, they’re components that could be combined differently to create something entirely new – in other words, a redesigned life.
So, Deconstruction is like reversing the process of making soup. What’s on your kitchen counter after you’ve pulled everything out of the pot? You might have chicken, carrots, celery, onion, spices, broth and noodles.
Seeing these parts and pieces there on the counter, you might begin to look at them in a different way. You might realize that you’re tired of chicken soup. You might want vegetable soup. You might just want chicken. Or, you realize chicken soup really is your favorite soup – but maybe you just need to spice it up a bit.
“It’s irreverent. It’s disrespectful. And if you already love your life, then don’t redesign it,” Ayse says. “But what drives creative people is we always think we can do better. So, Deconstruction is also freeing.”
Carving up one’s life into a timeline with milestones is usually part of the Deconstruction section of Ayse’s workshop, and we are encouraged to do so later – but right now, she wants to try something new. She writes on four giant pads of paper propped up on a chalkboard: Emotion. Intellect. Physical. Spirit.
“As a group, I want you to shout out words that come to mind with each of these aspects of our lives,” she says. “What do you want? What don’t you want?”
Passion, joy and love are three of probably 50 words that wind up on the Emotion board.
Good health, travel and yes, red wine, find their way onto the Physical board, along with dozens of other words that describe the necessary and ideal in one’s sensory life.
Curiosity, wit, work and education share space on the Intellect board.
Humility, empathy, confidence and gratitude make it onto the Spirit board.
All told, we’ve “shouted out” hundreds of words.
Throughout the exercise, there’s spirited discussion about which words actually belong on which boards. Freedom, for example, could go on every board.
“It all depends on your point of view,” Ayse says.
Just when our right brains have been playing the mental equivalent of volleyball, it’s time to switch to an individual “sport.” Ayse asks us to think about our personal heroes.
“Who inspires you – and why?”
She puts on some Turkish music called A Touch of Spice and gives us about 15 minutes to reflect and write.
I keep waiting for some famous actress to pop into my mind. But the image I keep seeing is my mom.
“There’s a reason these people are our heroes – an aspect about them that we admire, maybe that we want to emulate,” Ayse says. “Our heroes say a lot about us, and what we want in life.”
So, if my mom is my hero … does that mean I want eight kids? Too late for that … and I already have two anyway.
I think it’s my mom’s nature that I admire more than anything. Have you ever read the book The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein? – that’s my mom.
Life as a metaphor
As I think of my mom who is The Giving Tree, Ayse asks us each to find a metaphor for our own lives – our lives today – and how we want our lives to be tomorrow.
Something other than chicken soup.
If we’re stumped, Ayse encourages us to Google “metaphors for life” for inspiration.
My metaphor for today is Lake Michigan.
My metaphor for tomorrow is … Lake Michigan.
An earlier draft of this article explained why – but I decided it’s better to leave a little to mystery. The lake doesn’t give up all of her secrets.
However, now I’m in a conundrum. Have I traveled all the way to Manhattan only to realize my life is what it always was and always should be? Cue the Stephen Sondheim soundtrack and Send in the Clowns. Or maybe one of Woody Allen’s analysts. Or a glass of red wine.
As you read this article, the workshop must seem to be moving very fast and maybe a little disjointed. But the day is appropriately paced, with time for reflection and getting to know one’s Redesignmates.
Leah Caplan, Birsel + Seck’s director of design and project management (daughter of Ralph Caplan), keeps everything organized and on schedule.
By the end of the day, the elements of the various exercises will all come together in Reconstruction.
Our break for lunch is a delight. Some of us pair off into quiet corners to do what designers do – solve problems! For my part, I had lunch with the editor from Peoria, and it was wonderful making a kindred writer connection.
When we regroup in the workshop room, Ayse says we must dance. She puts on some upbeat music (P-Square’s Danger). Suddenly, we’re doing the Conga.
Any inkling for a nap has been nipped in the bud, which is good – there’s a full afternoon ahead – but what follows below is about three hours abbreviated into a few paragraphs. (You’ll just have to attend a workshop in person to experience the full effect.)
In this exercise, Ayse draws two overlapping circles. She asks us to put what we want in one circle and what we need in the other. Of the wants and needs, do, or can, any “co-exist” in the middle section?
Constraints into opportunities
Next, Ayse asks us to look at constraints not as threats but as opportunities. Designers’ constraints when developing a new product might include a tight budget, a looming deadline and a shortage of a particular material – forcing different (but perhaps better) choices.
In one’s life, the constraints really are no different: money, time and resources are usually limited to some degree. Doors may seem to close on us (such as with the loss of a job) but a window usually opens if we look.
“I was raised on the idea that things happen for a reason and to look for the silver lining,” Ayse says.
It’s time to take the results of our various exercises and put the parts and pieces back together.
I look at this part of the workshop as “sifting time” – kind of like mining for gold. With Ayse’s help, we’ve scooped up a bunch of ideas, thoughts, impressions, feelings – and there are nuggets of gold among them.
As a group, we “sift” all of the words on the four boards by choosing only the best to go on one board. The exercise isn’t meant to force all of us to agree on the best words to describe the ideal life but, rather, to warm up our brains for our own private sifting.
Ayse projects a slide with a large oval, a medium-sized oval and a small oval. She asks us to draw the same in our books.
“Reconstruct the life that you love. What is at the center – what complements it and what completes it?” Ayse says.
What I love about this workshop is it has its own built-in constraints – for example, the day will come to an end. And I am here to force myself to get answers, so the deadline is not lost on me.
I don’t “overthink” my word choices as I sift. Using the results of the other exercises helps me to “validate” my choices. For example, I “cross-check” if my hero – my mom – aligns with the words that I have chosen. I think about my Lake Michigan metaphor and if “future lake” fits with the words. I think about my current constraints and what I can realistically do to redesign my ideal life.
Then I fill in my three ovals.
Seeing it there, on paper, for me is like looking at one’s newborn for the first time. “Oh, it’s you,” you say.
Somehow, you knew all along. …
Could I have done this on my own? The soul-searching, sure. I mean, I’ve done a lifetime of that. What I needed was a process with structure that forced me to make choices – and Ayse beautifully provided that. If you need the same, indulge yourself!
After the workshop, I’m walking up 8th Avenue, crossing Broadway, and a song is playing in my head that I listened to in the 7th grade – Get Right Back to Where We Started From.
I’m grinning and gazing up at the big buildings and I know I look like a tourist.