Chip Conley of Modern Elder Academy: 5 Things You Should Do To Optimize Your Wellness After Retirement
An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis
Give back. There are so many ways to give: know-how, know-who, money, energy. Mutual mentorship is my favorite. Be open to sharing your knowledge and wisdom with someone younger, but only if you’re going to learn something from them. I had over 100 mentees during my seven and a half years at Airbnb, but, in almost all cases, I was learning as much from them as they were learning from me.
As a part of my series about the “5 Things You Should Do to Optimize Your Wellness After Retirement”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Mohammed Elamir, MD, FACP.
Chip Conley is the Co-Founder and CEO of Modern Elder Academy–the first-ever ‘midlife wisdom school’ dedicated to guiding and supporting adults through periods of transition in life. Chip is also a New York Times bestselling author, the former CEO and founder of Joie de Vivre Hospitality, and the former Head of Hospitality and Strategy at Airbnb, where he served as a “modern elder,” offering wisdom to the company’s three founders. His book, Wisdom at Work: The Making of a Modern Elder forms the core of Modern Elder Academy’s curriculum and is inspired by his experience at Airbnb.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
The Modern Elder Academy (MEA) — for which I am the Co-Founder and CEO — encompasses three businesses in one: hospitality, wellness, and education. My entire career has been spent as a hospitality entrepreneur, beginning when I founded one of the first boutique hotel companies, Joie de Vivre, and then when I served as “modern elder” — offering my hard-earned wisdom — and Head of Global Hospitality & Strategy at Airbnb, a company that was becoming a global phenomenon. In addition to incorporating wellness practices throughout my adult life, I also owned the largest spa in San Francisco and created one of the first spa hotels in San Francisco. Lastly, I served on the Board of the Esalen Institute, and for a dozen years, taught workshops at America’s first human growth retreat center. The curriculum for MEA came from my fifth book based on my experience at Airbnb, “Wisdom@Work: The Making of a Modern Elder.” This new path MEA is taking me on feels like the perfect trifecta of my past career history.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
Joining Airbnb at age 52 after having been a CEO for two-dozen years was fascinating. I was no longer the “sage on the stage,” but instead the “guide on the side” for the three young founders who were nearly half my age. They called me their “modern elder” because they told me I was as curious as I was wise. I was the elder statesman for a company disrupting the hospitality industry — an industry I had been in for a quarter-century.
Can you share a story with us about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? What lesson or take-away did you learn from that?
My first hotel purchase was a poolside motel in a rough part of San Francisco. I wanted to turn it into a rock ‘n roll hotel called The Phoenix. When I was buying it, I noticed they were running at 98% occupancy so I thought I was buying a successful business. However, I came to realize that the reason they were running those high occupancies was that they were renting rooms very inexpensively on an hourly basis (mostly to prostitutes). Vinny, the pimp, and his girls were the hotel’s biggest corporate account. Once I cleaned the place up, almost all of the old clients left and I was very cash poor. For the first 3 years, I took no salary, but fortunately, the place became famous for hosting well-known musicians. Over the next 24 years, I purchased over 51 more hotels and I always asked them who their business corporate accounts were.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I never met my mentor. I had a pen pal relationship with the long-time CEO of Southwest Airlines Herb Kelleher. I originally reached out to him because I wanted my hotel company to have a fun, thriving corporate culture like Southwest. His assistant told me he couldn’t take phone calls from me, but that I could write to him once a year for advice. I did that for ten years in a row, and I was always impressed that he would thoroughly answer my questions each time. I was featured on the cover of Southwest’s in-flight magazine many years later, the month before Herb passed away, so I’ve always felt a kinship with him.
What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?
Create and respect boundaries for all of your employees. Ask your leadership team to state proposed boundaries to their direct supervisor. Then, have the whole leadership team present their boundaries as a group and create a document outlining them. Quarterly, have each leader outline how they are doing with their boundaries and offer a 5% year-end bonus for each one who self-determines that they lived up to their boundaries during the year. This is what we’re doing at MEA and it’s amazing to see how it gives our people more agency.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
In my book “PEAK: How Great Companies Get Their Mojo from Maslow,” I outlined how the employee hierarchy of needs has ‘Money’ (or the full compensation package) at the base of the pyramid (a “survival” need), ‘Recognition’ in the middle (a “success” need), and ‘Meaning’ at the top (a “transformation” need). If you can build your culture keeping this hierarchy in mind, you will have more loyal, happy employees. The real differentiator isn’t at the bottom of the pyramid (Money), it’s at the top (Meaning). However, if your compensation package is just not competitive, it doesn’t matter how much Meaning you’re providing. Your people will go elsewhere.
From your point of view or experience, what are a few of the reasons that retirement can reduce one’s health?
Stanford’s Dr. Phil Pizzo has shown that the three foundational elements of healthy older people are Purpose, Community, and Wellness. When people retire, it’s obvious that they may lose the first two of these elements unless they find a new purpose or community to be a part of. It’s essential to “retire to” something, not just “retire from” something. The big surprise is that wellness declines in retirement and it’s primarily because work creates structure and discipline for most people. On average, people accelerate their mortality rate by 2 years when they retire.
Can you share with our readers 5 things that one should do to optimize mental or physical wellness after retirement? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Find a mindfulness practice that suits you. For three decades, I loved meditation and hated yoga. (I later got over the yoga aversion thanks to an amazing “hack”.) As Viktor Frankl wrote, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is your power to choose your response. In your response, lies your growth and your freedom.” Meditation gives my monkey mind a nap. It allows me to create more space and not be reactive, which might be one of the most important emotional tools you have at your disposal.
- Every two years, find a subject you’re passionate about and become an expert on it. Management theorist Peter Drucker did this for the last 30 years of his life until he passed away in his mid-90s. For me, I’ve studied everything from festivals to emotions to hot springs to the cultural history of Bali. Curiosity lubricates the mind and spirit.
- Walk 10,000 steps a day. You can do whatever you want for exercise, but in my opinion, this is the gold standard for measuring your fitness. There are so many apps that allow you to see whether you’re meeting this goal. I average 8,000 per day except during those weeks when I’m more intentional about long walks with my dog, Jamie.
- Give back. There are so many ways to give: know-how, know-who, money, energy. Mutual mentorship is my favorite. Be open to sharing your knowledge and wisdom with someone younger, but only if you’re going to learn something from them. I had over 100 mentees during my seven and a half years at Airbnb, but, in almost all cases, I was learning as much from them as they were learning from me.
- Pursue “long life learning.” Life-long learning gets all the attention, but we learn differently at 30 than we do at 60. Long life learning is all about creating a life that is as deep and meaningful as it is long. I wrote a white paper on this topic (“The Emergence of Long Life Learning”) and it’s what MEA is all about.
In your experience, what are 3 or 4 things that people wish someone told them before they retired?
Three questions that are relevant here: (a) What percentage of your adult life (starting counting at 18) is still ahead of you? If you’re 54 — the average age of our MEA alums — and you’re going to live till 90, you’re only halfway through your adult life, so why retire so early? (b) What’s something you know or have done now that you wish you’d known or done 10 years ago? Now that you’ve thought of that, what will you regret 10 years from now if you don’t learn it or do it now? This is how I learned Spanish and to surf in my late 50s. And © When you hear the sentence “I am what survives me,” what does that mean to you and what will be your legacy?
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?
Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning,” a story based on a Jewish psychologist in a Nazi concentration camp, is always a reminder that my life isn’t so bad. I had this book in my briefcase when I flatlined at age 47 after giving a speech in St. Louis. I had an allergic reaction to an antibiotic, but at first, it wasn’t clear why my heart stopped 9 times in 90 minutes. Having that book with me when I was in the hospital for a couple of days meant that I created an “Emotional Equation” (the title of one of my other books): Despair = Suffering — Meaning. So, from that point forward, I constantly focused on what meaning I could find in my life. The more meaning I had, the less despair I would experience.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Yale’s Becca Levy’s research has shown that when you help someone move from a negative to a positive perspective on aging, they will likely live 7.5 years longer. This is stunning because that’s more than if you stopped smoking or started exercising at age 50. We have all kinds of public health campaigns focused on smoking or exercising, but the societal narrative on aging is pretty toxic, even though the ‘U-curve of Happiness’ research shows that our life satisfaction in our 50s and beyond grows with each passing decade after a low point in our mid-to-late 40s. This is what MEA is all about and why we’ve created a movement with 26 regional chapters all over the world.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
This quote gave me the soul (and spine) to say no to an offer from one of the most powerful men in the world who wanted to hire me just as we were getting the Modern Elder Academy off the ground: “The cost of something is measured by how much life you have to give for it.” In fact, I quoted those exact words when I turned down that job, as I intuitively knew I would have to give my whole life to the role he was positioning for me. I wasn’t willing to pay that high of a price for the power and prestige that working for this well-known man would have offered me. And, based on my life these lovely past four years, I’m so glad that quote gave me the courage to say no to my ego that was pressuring me to say yes.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
Netflix founder and CEO Reed Hastings is someone who I met long ago when I was still running my boutique hotel company. I quoted him in my book “PEAK” and I’ve long admired his willingness to be a contrarian. He disrupted his own business by spending hundreds of millions
to make Netflix a streaming giant — putting their movies by mail business out of business. I really appreciate his approach to culture and became friends with his head of HR. He’s also been an advocate for innovative approaches to education. I just need to summon the courage to reconnect with him.
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Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!
Chip Conley of Modern Elder Academy: 5 Things You Should Do To Optimize Your Wellness After… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.