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Money & Career

The Modern Elder: “Learn Everywhere, Belong Everywhere”

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Five years ago, Chip Conley was feeling adrift.

He had recently sold the chain of boutique hotels he’d spent his career building.  It had been hard to let go of his life’s work; he’d taken underperforming properties and transformed them into thriving businesses.

Joie de Vivre, he called his company – meaning, “joy of life.”  And indeed, the business was his life.  A self-described workaholic, he’d seen his business through two recessions, maintaining growth and building a reputation for unique hospitality.

He’d begun to wonder if this was all there was.  His father, a businessman and real estate entrepreneur in his own right, helped convince Chip to move on. “He helped me realize it was okay for me to step away and do something else,” said Chip.

Then in 2013, a young entrepreneur named Brian Chesky gave Chip a call.  Brian was a co-founder and CEO of Airbnb, a start-up seeking to use the internet to pair travelers with available lodgings in people’s homes.

“How would you like to democratize travel and hospitality?” Brian asked.  “And be my mentor in the process?”

Brian was 31.  Chip was 52.

Chip wasn’t sure.  He knew nothing about tech companies.  But he agreed.

Starting out as a 15-hour-a-week consultant, Chip mentored Brian, his two co-founders and the employees at Airbnb – where, like most tech companies, the average age was 26.

Chip’s story intrigued me because I’d had a similar experience.  At age 70 and retired from a long career in business, I’d joined the Pfizer summer intern class of 2016.  I mentored the millennials, and they mentored me.  I taught them classic business communications – they taught me social media.  I encouraged them to dig a little deeper; they helped me get to the point faster.  I felt awkward at first, worried they’d see me as an old know-it-all.

The same was true for Chip.

“I had to think of myself as Margaret Mead amongst the Millennials,” he says.  “I had to be open to learning, as opposed to coming across as judgmental.  It was a very strange experience, sitting in a room with engineers.  I didn’t understand their lingo.  I knew I had to start asking questions – to learn from them before I could contribute.  Gradually, I became kind of a public intern – giving others the confidence to ask questions as well.  And gradually that led to my role as a ‘mentern’” – mentoring others, while learning in the process.”

“I enjoyed building relationships with younger people the most,” he says.  “It’s symbiotic – learning from each other.  I felt relevant, needed and appreciated.”

Chip also contributed new ideas.   For example, he was one of the first to identify the opportunity with the growing number of “empty nesters” becoming hosts in their 50s and 60s – renting out their kids’ bedrooms as a way of creating alternative retirement income.

Chip’s role quickly morphed into full-time work.  He became an integral member of the management team that would build Airbnb into the ubiquitous online marketing and hospitality company it is today.  The job was fulfilling, he says, but “singularly” consuming.

Recently, Chip decided to take a step back from his full-time duties.

“It’s been fulfilling to help build a quality management team – we’re 25 times the size we were – and I can still advise on strategy as needed,” he says.  “But I need to get some quality personal time back into my life, and I have other things I want to do.”

Already, Chip’s enjoying the change of pace.

He’s spending more time with family.  He’s working on his fifth book, “[email protected]: The Making of a Modern Elder,” whose theme, he says, emerged from his experience at Airbnb:  “Learn everywhere, belong everywhere.”  And he’s planning to start a non-profit organization that will help guide people in mid-life “looking to hit the re-set button.”

Now 57, Chip Conley is, once again, doing just that. 

Chip Conley’s Five Attributes of a Modern Elder
1. Good judgment. Good judgment comes from experience. A lot of learning happens from making mistakes. A Modern Elder can advise what “invisible rocks” may be ahead.
2. Unvarnished insight. A Modern Elder can cut through the clutter quickly to find the real issue that needs attention.  They aren’t trying to impress anybody or prove themselves; there can be a certain authenticity to their observations. 
3. Emotional intelligence. Empathy:  How much we can give younger people depends on how well we’ve been listening.
4. Connecting the dots. The ability to synthesize and quickly get the gist of a thought or idea can grow later in life. 
5. Stewardship. The older you are, the more you may realize your small place on the planet.  And the more you want to put your lifetime of experience and perspective to work for future generations.

Photo Credit: Lisa Keating

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