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3 strategies to disrupt yourself for greater success in changing times

Industrial designer Ayse Birsel explains the tactics to use based on lessons learned from older people who designed their lives.

3 strategies to disrupt yourself for greater success in changing times
[Photo: Wouter de Jong/Pexels]

I knew something serious was up when South by Southwest (SXSW) was canceled in March 2020. 

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I use design tools and process to teach people of all ages to design their lives. But for one beautiful pre-COVID-19 year, I traveled across the United States to help older people, 65 to 90+ years old, design their lives. This research was possible through a grant from The SCAN Foundation, and you can read the full report here 

We were going to present the outcome of this research to the audience that March at SXSW. Instead, we started sheltering in place, and I became an audience of one, with lots of time to think about what we had learned from these older, wiser people. 

They taught me how to adapt, be resilient, and manage uncertainty. In other words, they taught me how to thrive in the face of unknowns, and I was experiencing many at that time.  

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As I outline in my book, Design the LONG Life You Love: A Step-by-Step Guide to Love, Purpose, Well-Being, and Friendship, here are three strategies you can use to disrupt yourself for greater success in changing times, based on lessons I have learned from older people who designed their lives. 

Love yourself

This might be the hardest thing to do for many of us, but it is a game changer.  

Pause and think of the people you love in your life for a second. Your parents, kids, friends, your first lover, your partner, the person you’re falling in love with. You can make a rich list of people and all the different kinds of love you feel for them. 

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You missed one person, however. I bet there’s one person who doesn’t appear on your list.  

You. 

One of the advantages of living long is learning to love yourself and having a loving relationship not only with others but with yourself. 

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Our research showed us that love transforms from selfless love, where we give ourselves to another person, to self-love, where we start to practice self-compassion and preservation, somewhere in mid-life. 

But you don’t need to wait until you’re older to love yourself. Imagine all the things you do for your loved ones and apply them to yourself today. When was the last time you gave yourself a gift? Told yourself you are beautiful, inside and out? How about telling yourself, I love you, out loud? 

In these changing times, being kind, forgiving, and affectionate to yourself can make you more resilient and adaptable. This will make you kinder, more forgiving, and affectionate toward everyone else. 

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Help yourself to help others

When I couldn’t go to SXSW when none of us could go anywhere, I started a “virtual tea.” 

The idea was simple. We were going to design our lives through COVID-19. My team and I reached out to our community, and we decided to meet weekly on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. and do one exercise from my book, Design the Life You Love. 

Week after week, I would come out of the sessions feeling elated. It was the highlight of my week. I felt good about myself, and the positive feelings and empathy generated in the sessions would give me energy for the rest of the week. And just when I started to feel depleted, it would be Wednesday again, and I would have another session. 

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I thought I was helping others. And then, I remembered something else I learned from our work with older people.  

Helping others helps you. 

Helping others helped me find meaning through difficult times, just like what older people had taught us during our research.  

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Deborah Heiser, who explains how older people are neurologically wired to help others in her TEDx talk, Rethinking Aging: Mentoring a New Generation, founded her nonprofit The Mentor Project on this principle. 

Think of older people–mentors, grandparents, teachers, coaches–who have helped you throughout your life and career. You don’t need to wait to grow old to model them. You can do this today and disrupt yourself. 

Be a helpful person, especially in moments of volatility and uncertainty. Help someone. It will help you. 

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Start something even though you don’t know how it will end

When I started Virtual Teas, I didn’t know where they would lead me. I started with a low bar–if I could help one person, that would be enough. I certainly couldn’t have imagined how the community would grow by word of mouth and that we would celebrate our 100th session. 

Great projects are ambiguous, whether at work or in our lives. We start them not because we know how they will end but because that journey of discovery feeds our souls. 

Michael Bungay Stanier, the author of How To Begin: Start Doing Something That Matters, notes that people often don’t start something because they can’t see how it will finish. That sense of ambiguity and uncertainty can stop us from the beginning. 

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The best thing you can do is work in small bursts and then see if the work is still meaningful. Michael works in six weeks bursts. Six weeks is just the right amount of time–not too short that you can’t see progress, and not too long that you feel like you’ve wasted your time if you need to switch directions. 

Do you have six weeks? Start something. 

Here again, older people taught me the importance of giving yourself permission to do something that gives you joy.  

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Older people have no patience for doing things they don’t like and plenty of hunger for doing what they love. They know time is precious and not infinite, something the Pandemic brought home for many of us regardless of age. 

Success in these changing times is exploring the unknown, making yourself comfortable with ambiguity, and realizing it is never too early or too late to start something you love. 

You might transform people’s lives in the process, including your own. 

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Ayse Birsel is an industrial designer named one of the Most Creative People in Business by Fast Company. You can join her free Virtual Teas. 

This article is adapted from the book Design the LONG Life You Love: A Step-by-Step Guide to Love, Purpose, Well-Being, and Friendship, by Ayse Birsel (Running Press, an imprint of Hachette, December 2022).


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