Ayse Birsel’s One Best Question

As a designer, Ayse Birsel relies on creativity. In this interview, Ayse shares her favourite question, which seeks to understand what inspires other people and how that can be used to help them design their lives.


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Full Transcript

Michael: This is one of the short, sweet episodes of The Coaching Habit podcast. This is where I’ve had a longer conversation with each one of my guests, but we pulled a couple of little things out and just gone, okay, this is the taster about one particular topic. It’s about their favorite question. But, you may be saying, “Who is he talking to?” Well, I’m glad you asked.

I’m speaking to Ayse Birsel. She is a friend. She’s a colleague of mine through the Marshall Goldsmith 100 Project. She is a creative director of co-founder of Birsel + Seck, an award-winning design and innovations studio. She is the author of Design the Life You Love. It’s not only a book, but it’s a process, a program, as well. She’s from Turkey originally, but moved to the States in 1986 on a Fulbright Scholarship, and has since established to Birsel + Seck Design Studio in New York. She is well fated around the world. She’s in fast company, on Thinker’s 50, has won an award from the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and the Athena Award for Excellence in Furniture Design from The Rhode Island School of Design, one of the most prestigious design schools. And, I’m gonna say it again, she’s a friend of mine, so I’m excited to have her on the call with us. Ayse, welcome.

Ayse Birsel: Michael, thank you. I think my favorite part is being your friend.

Michael: I’ll take that. Thank you. At Box of Crayons, we are all about curiosity, helping people stay curious a little bit longer, rush to action and advice giving a little more slowly. And of course, questions are the currency of curiosity. One of the things I love is to ask people like you, tell me about one of your favorite questions. If you had to pick just one, what would that question be?

Ayse Birsel: My favorite question is asking people who their heroes are.

Michael: Love it. Tell me why. I have a specific reason, a time and a place why I ask people that question, but for you, why is that so powerful?

Ayse Birsel: I’m a designer, and for design inspiration, it is really, really important. When I ask people who their heroes are, it’s actually a way of inspiring them about thinking about their life differently. I say, “Look, these are not superheroes. Just think about who in your life, people you know, or people you know of, that you admire and has influenced you or inspired you.” That’s my favorite question because once they tell me like, my hero is my mom, my teacher, my daughter, Nelson Mandela, and I ask them, “So, why? What are their qualities?”

Then they say, “Nelson Mandela, it’s his perseverance and it’s his optimism, or it’s leadership.” Or, “My mom because my mom never quits,” or, “My mom has unconditional love.”

They kind of give me all these qualities and then I say, “You know, those are your qualities. Those are your values.” It’s really a fun way of asking and finding out what are people’s values, and it’s much better than asking somebody, “So, Michael, what are your values?” Which is really a hard question, right?

Michael: It’s impossible.

Ayse Birsel: It’s impossible.

Michael: I do the same thing, so I love that we have a similar process, because I think people’s heroes are somehow embodying the values that you think are important, but at an amplified, bolder, more courageous way. I love Jack White of White Stripes. But why? I love how he has a clear sense of identity, and a willingness to try new experiments, and a willingness to blow up the old stuff and start again new. I love all of that. You know what, that’s just telling me about what I care about. I just wish I could do it as well as he does it.

Ayse Birsel: Exactly. I find that our values are the foundation of whatever we do, whether it’s our life, our work, or in my case, when I design something. You need your values to know how to choose things, how to make decisions. Because I teach people how to design their lives, and how to design their work, first I need to inspire them. Remind them of their values, and then they can get on with the process of design. This is what I love.

Michael: Ayse, I love that question. It’s a favorite one of mine, as well, but I’d kind of forgotten about it, so I’m grateful for you bringing it back into my memory as a thing that I should use and engage people around, so thank you.

Ayse Birsel: My pleasure.

Michael: Some people are going, “I think Ayse might be one of my heroes.” For those people who are looking to find out more about you, and what you’re up to, point them to one or two places on the web they can find out more about your work.

Ayse Birsel: They can go to birselplusseck.com, and that’s like my last name B-I-R-S-E-L, plus written out, P-L-U-S, S-E-C-K .com. So, it’s birselplusseck, and Seck is my husband’s and partner’s last name. And then if you want to send me an email, please use the same address, just put an Ayse at the beginning, so ayse@birselplusseck.com.

Michael: Perfect. Ayse, it’s a pleasure. Thank you.

Ayse Birsel: Thank you, Michael. This was fun.

Box of Crayons helps organizations transform from advice-driven to curiosity-led.