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Money & Career

Mutual Mentorship is the Way of the Future. Here’s Why.

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At age 26, Chip Conley founded a boutique hotel brand that eventually grew to be the second largest in the United States.

In his early 50s, he sold the company and was trying to figure out what was next. That’s when he was approached by the founder of a new company, called Airbnb. Conley was offered the opportunity to act as an advisor, helping to shape a company run by young entrepreneurs. He’d found his second act.

In his first week on the job, Conley discovered he didn’t understand the tech-lingo-laden language his colleagues were speaking, nor was he familiar with the sharing economy industry. Although hired as an advisor, he quickly realized he had as much to learn from his millennial colleagues as they had to learn from him. He began referring to himself as a “mentern” — “The mentor and the intern combined,” he laughs.

In time, he came to the conclusion that in order to be effective, he couldn’t be fearful of the fact that he was outside of his comfort zone. Instead, he began to look at himself as a kind of cultural anthropologist who was supposed to be learning everything he could. He shared his wisdom and emotional intelligence with his younger colleagues, and they had plenty to teach him about digital intelligence. “That helped me get to a place where I was OK being in a beginner’s mindset,” he says.

Conley recently wrote a book on what he’s learned, called [email protected]: The Making of a Modern ElderIn it, he says his second act taught him that, “We workers ‘of a certain age’ are in fact less like a carton of spoiled milk and more like a bottle of fine wine of an especially valuable vintage.” He took the time to share with Get Old some lessons he’s learned about the value of different generations collaborating with one another.  

  1. Accept that you still have a lot to learn. Conley, in his book, refers to this as “evolving.” He says that it’s important to accept that, while you may have had a lot of education and a lot of roles throughout your life, that education and those roles are not necessarily relevant to the task at hand. Rather, open your mind so that you can continue to grow. “We spend the first half of our lives accumulating things and the second half of our lives is all about editing,” he says.
  2. Mutual mentorship is the way of the future. In the past, there have been different types of mentorships. First, there’s the traditional relationship, where an older person mentors someone their junior. More recently, companies are realizing the benefits of a “reverse mentorship,” where younger employees pair with older employees. [see Senior Intern]. Conley says that he expects the future to hold a different kind of mentorship: one in which the mentoring is mutual for both parties, young and old.
  3. To establish a mutual mentorship, consider what a person can teach you, and ask what you can teach them. Watch, and see what you can learn at your office. Perhaps a colleague is constantly using a social media site for sharing photos, or an online group communication tool. Ask them if they’d be up for having coffee and to teach you about one of the platforms. Once you’ve established a comfort level, the younger person may be inclined to ask you for help in an area such as leadership within a meeting — like, how do you get more people in the room to participate? Conley says it’s a stereotype, but one that often proves true: younger employees may be able to share insights about technology, while older employees may have wisdom to share that revolve around leadership and emotional intelligence.
  4. Relevance beats reverence. There was a time when a certain reverence was bestowed upon older generations, says Conley. Today, however, older people are staying a part of the conversation longer, rather than roosting above the conversation. “People who are younger are looking to not revere the older people, they’re looking for older people who have something to teach them, but also who are relevant enough to have a thoughtful conversation about something,” says Conley. It’s a reminder, says Conley that “older people are well-served to stay on top of what’s happening in the world culturally and technologically, so they can contribute to that conversation.”
  5. We’re retiring the old retirement model. Many of us grew up expecting to go to school until our 20s, earn money into our 60s and then retire. But now, that model is starting to evaporate, especially among millennials. “The idea that you have to do everything in an age segregated way and doesn’t make any sense, and people that are in their 20s and 30s are literally doing things where they’re earning, learning and retiring at the same time,” says Conley. As the digital nomad lifestyle becomes more prevalent, careers can be more fluid and flexible, often removing retirement from the equation.
  6. You’ve only just begun. Whether you're in your 40s, 50s, 60s or beyond, you've got an open road ahead. Conley, who is 57, says that he’s had longevity websites that predict lifespan tell him that he’s going to live until 98. “If I start counting at age 18, I am less than halfway through my adult life,” he says. That leaves a lot of time left to learn in his 60s, 70s and beyond, whether it’s formal education, insights from the younger generations or both. Midlife, he says, is “a good time to reexamine who you are and who you want to be.”

Wisdom flows both ways. Today, with around five generations in the workplace, it’s time to remember that everyone has something to teach and everyone has something to learn. “It’s like a potluck,” says Conley. “A potluck’s a lot more interesting when people bring what they do best to the table.”

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