“Fifty years ago, living into one’s seventies was considered the mark of a long life. Today, seventy feels young, eighty feels normal and ninety is within reach.” — Ayse Birsel
A long life is a gift that previous generations did not have, so it challenges how to live it with purpose and joy. Planning for the latter part of your life is not simply about preparing for what’s next. It is about applying your problem-solving skills used in your current life to create an even more enriching future.
Ayse Birsel explores this idea in her new book, Design the Long Life You Love. The book is based on workshops for those over 65 that Ayse conducted with research partners at Amazon and the SCAN Foundation. An award-winning industrial designer by trade, Ayse applied the discipline of design to teach elders how to apply the discipline of design to their personal lives. (It’s an approach she used in her earlier book, Design the Life You Love.)
Ayse told me in a recent interview that a designer is a problem-solver. Their approach must be optimistic, holistic, empathetic and collaborative. “These are all the principles of thinking like a designer. And what they do is help us reframe our situation. So when we think of design as a problem-solving discipline, these are all the tools you can use or the principles you can use to solve problems.”
This way opens the mind to possibilities that may be tried, experimented with and eventually implemented. “So you ask what-if questions, which is all about opening your mind and saying, well, what if this is an opportunity? And that moves you [away] from a space of fearing the future to thinking about ideas and being excited by ideas and potential solutions.”
Fundamental to the book, as Ayse explained, are four concepts:
- Love — opening your heart to others and yourself;
- Purpose — discovering what you want to do now in the latter part of life;
- Well-being — keeping yourself engaged mentally and physically (even with limitations); and
- Friendship — making connections with new people.
Purpose is something that may be re-learned, says Ayse. For example, people reaching mid-life may ask, “‘What’s the meaning of my life?’ That’s where you need to dive into self-made purpose. And as we get older, we get better at creating that self-made purpose. And one of the keys [to doing that] is helping others.”
In the research, Ayse never heard people say they were too old. “We had some people who were [in their] the late eighties and early nineties. When we invited them to come to design their life, none of them said, ‘Hey, aren’t you too late to ask me this?’ They were, ‘Yeah.’ We never know how long we will live, but we are all wired to want to design our life and do something that brings us joy.”
Social isolation is a problem, particularly for older people. A solution? “You seek friendship factories.” These “factories” can be volunteer activities, book clubs and group events. What is essential is a willingness to participate. When they do, people find that they help not only themselves but others, too. Assisting others invigorates the mind, body and spirit.
Putting design to work for a long life
As a designer, Ayse is about practicality. In her design work, she conducts warmup exercises to prepare herself to work. You can apply the same kind of warmup to design your life. Begin by thinking about what makes you happy. “Then you can draw it. You can take a picture of it. You can send it to a friend and say, ‘Hey, these clouds made me happy. I wanted to share it with you.'”
Designers are doers, and so too can we be when we apply skills we have to ponder, deliberate and illustrate with our drawings or the pictures we take with our smartphones. Sharing them leads to the design application of collaboration. Enlist others to help us on our journey of renewal and discovery.
As we age, the challenge arises about integrating purpose into a life that may or may not include employment — and can with creative planning and design — but can and should include love, health and companionship. Doing so, as Ayse advises, is fundamental to finding meaning and fulfillment.
John Baldoni is a member of 100 coaches and leadership keynote presenter. He has been recognized as a top 20 leadership expert by Global Gurus, a list he has been on since 2007. He is also ranked as a Global 100 Leader and Top 50 Leadership Expert by Inc.com. John is the author of 15 books. His leadership resource website is www.johnbaldoni.com
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