With the ever-increasing importance of digital intelligence in the workplace, it can often feel like professional power and potential sits primarily with the young. However, midlife (ages 35+) has a crucial role to play, deserving of its own reflections, rituals and relevance. That’s where the idea of a ‘Modern Elder’ comes in; someone who applies the perfect alchemy of curiosity and earned knowledge to solve modern day problems. Earlier this month, entrepreneur, TED speaker New York Times best-selling author, Chip Conley, spoke at The Conduit about shifting your mindset when it comes to ageing in the workplace. We caught up with Chip after the event to hear more about his advice for cultivating your wisdom, strengthening intergenerational collaboration and find deeper meaning in your work and personal life.
In your opinion, what make the ultimate Modern Elder?
During my time at Airbnb where I was twice the age of the average employee, I started to recognise that a new kind of elder was emerging in the workplace. Not the elder of the past who was regarded with reverence. What is striking about the Modern Elder is their relevance: their ability to use timeless wisdom to address modern day problems. Maybe it’s time we value wisdom as much as we do disruption? And, yes, I definitely think it’s time we reclaim the term “elder” but give it a modern twist. A Modern Elder is as much an intern as they are a mentor because they realise that in a world that is changing at increasing speed, their beginner’s mind and catalytic curiosity can be a life-affirming elixir for both themselves and those around them. In sum, Modern Elders are as curious as they are wise. Curiosity opens up possibility. Wisdom distills down what’s essential.
You’ve previously said that you’ve kept “wisdom books” since your early 20s. What inspired this practice and what has it taught you?
When I was struggling early in my career, I often felt a little bewildered by the end of my work week so I started writing a Friday afternoon list of what I’d learned that week. By documenting my learning, without knowing it, I was distilling my wisdom and documenting it for later use. I have more than a couple dozen of these journals that I’ve filled and I often go back to them when I feel like I’m struggling with something that felt familiar from long ago. It’s taught me that we all can cultivate and harvest wisdom if we build habits around it.
What do you see as the key benefits of getting a cross-generational perspective on an issue?
Let me succinctly define four benefits but there are many more: (a) cognitive diversity: teams that think differently (because their members represent diverse backgrounds or ways of thinking) tend to problem-solve more effectively; (b) mutual mentorship: my relationship with Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky was an EQ (emotional intelligence) for DQ (digital intelligence) exchange – I offered him the former and he offered me the latter and we were both better off for it; (c) power and wisdom exist throughout the org – at a time when power is moving to young people faster than ever before because of our increased reliance on DQ, intergenerational collaboration allows all 5 generations in the workplace to offer what they know best; and (d) most companies have a wide variety of customers of various age demographics – it makes sense to have employees from each of those demographics so they can be an internal voice of the customer.
What inspired you to set up the Modern Elder Academy?
Based upon my role as the in-house mentor to Airbnb cofounder/CEO Brian Chesky, I started to see that there’s a growing need for wisdom in young disruptive innovators and yet our societal narrative on ageing is relatively toxic. In many industries (especially tech), after age 40, it feels like you’re put out to pasture because your best days are behind you. So, I created MEA as the world’s first “midlife wisdom school” in order to help people aged 35-75 to understand how to navigate their midlife transitions and mind their mastery to repurpose it in new ways. We now have 500 alums (who’ve come to our Mexican beachfront campus) from 17 countries after our first year.
What goes on at the Modern Elder Academy?
It’s a social enterprise (60% of our first year students were on some form of scholarship that we gave them) so the socioeconomic diverse cohort of 16-18 people learn from each other over the course of their week together while also going through our 160-page workbook that helps them shift their mindset regarding ageing. Unlike physics or history, wisdom is meant to be shared, not taught. So, we’ve created an experiential, interactive arc of learning that doesn’t end when the students leave at the end of a week together as they continue their exploration into wisdom with on-going video calls into the future. And, in the process, great friendships emerge.
What are the best ways of cultivating cross-generational professional relationships?
First, understand what you have to offer. What is the mastery you’ve learned over your years in the workplace? Often, your greatest gifts and wisdom may be in intangible areas (emotional intelligence; how to harness your intuition; how to spark a creative idea) that could be transferrable in any industry. Then, ask yourself what you’d like to learn and who could teach you. Is there someone in your organisation who has a talent in an area that you could learn from? The smartest companies in the world today are leveraging learning & development by means of mutual mentorship and they’re tapping into tech-matching platforms that can connect a mentor and intern (and vice versa) for people to learn from each other.
What are practical steps more experienced people can take to adapt to the modern workplace?
I’d highly recommend people consider reading my book “Wisdom@Work: The Making of a Modern Elder”, as I outline the four steps that help someone to cultivate and harvest their wisdom such that they can become a Modern Elder. These are:(a) Evolve out of past identities and knowledge; (b) Learn something new by amplifying your curiosity; (c) Use your Collaboration skills to help create more effective teams and the “invisible productivity” that a Modern Elder can offer; and (d) Develop your Counselling skills so you can be an effective mentor full of presence and wisdom.
Wisdom@Work [https://www.modernelderacademy.com/wisdom-at-work] is available here. Check out the Modern Elder Academy’s upcoming workshops here [https://www.modernelderacademy.com/] .