New Book from a Modern Elder with a Young Soul

Chip Conley, the man who at the tender age of 26 founded Joie de Vivre Hospitality, a boutique hotel chain that went on to become the second largest such hotel brand in the United States, sold that company after 24 years and became the in-house “modern elder” to the three young founders of Airbnb.

Now CEO of the Modern Elder Academy in Baja California Sur and soon to be in Santa Fe, NM, Conley has written his eighth book, Learning to Love Midlife: 12 Reasons Why Life Gets Better with Age, which reframes midlife not so much as a time to panic, but instead a time for great positive change and evolution. The book goes on to give a pretty detailed account of how one might accomplish this task.

Below we excerpted a section on wisdom, which we all know is something people past middle-age tend to have in spades.

Take a read, and on Jan. 11, 10 a.m.–11 a.m. PT, Conley will be in conversation with ASA President & CEO Leanne Clark-Shirley in an ASA Live. Also, don’t miss Conley speaking at the On Aging conference in March, where he’ll be on hand to do a book signing as well.

At a time when we’re awash in knowledge, where is the wisdom the world so desperately needs?

Knowledge is “local.” Wisdom, however, is “global”—and portable; it can take you places you never imagined, well outside your usual sphere of influence and expertise. Yes, knowledge may be power, but wisdom is wealth, mentally and spiritually. Knowledge is static, and risks obsolescence with time.

Meanwhile, wisdom becomes more potent in your life the longer it ferments. Knowledge is simple interest. Wisdom is compounding interest.

Your wisdom has your fingerprints all over it. It can’t be found in an encyclopedia. It is based upon your unique experiences, history, insight, and humanity. It can’t be replicated.

‘Who would have guessed that more than 15 percent of the people coming to a program with Elder in its name would be Millennials?’

Skills are to knowledge what practices are to wisdom. In this chapter, I’ll offer you a few wisdom practices that you can incorporate into your life.

Philosopher and psychologist John Dewey writes, “Information is knowledge which is merely acquired and stored up; wisdom is knowledge operating in the direction of powers to the better living of life.” As we venture deeper into midlife and the file cabinet in our brain begins to feel fuller and fuller, being able to discern the essential from the tangential is an increasingly valuable skill.

I used to define wisdom as purely “metabolized experience,” but that now feels incomplete. So my new definition of wisdom is “metabolized experience that leads to distilled compassion.” A savvy person metabolizes their experience, but a wise person imparts the resulting insights for the common good. I call it “distilled compassion” because a wise person offers compassion in a way that is uniquely tailored to the person receiving it.

One of the revelations I’ve experienced since starting the Modern Elder Academy is how many young people are motivated to cultivate and harvest their wisdom. Who would have guessed that more than 15 percent of the people coming to a program with Elder in its name would be Millennials?

At 39, Adam McCants is one Millennial who has assiduously cultivated a relationship with wisdom early in his midlife. He is a faithful journeyer who had experienced the loss of multiple loved ones by the time he was a young adult. He believes those losses accelerated the growth of his own wisdom and compassion. Passionate about communicating hope to others, and motivated to apply his curiosity and knack for technology to the mental health space, Adam is creating tools that allow people to better process what they’re going through emotionally. For Adam, wisdom breeds empathy. Knowledge is objective, neutral, and emotionless, but wisdom has a heart. Cultivating his wisdom at a young age has influenced Adam’s career direction and probably saved him from the typical midlife career crisis many people experience.

As author David Brooks says,

“Out of your own moments of suffering comes a compassionate regard for the frailty of others. . . . Wise people don’t tell us what to do, they start by witnessing our story. They take the anecdotes, rationalizations and episodes we tell, and see us in a noble struggle. They see our narratives both from the inside, as we experience them, and from the outside, as we can’t.”

‘Caleb credits his investment in seeking wisdom through Buddhist principles with finding a better life so that he might avert a crisis in his late 40s.’

At 41 and with two young sons, a growing business, aging parents, and increasing financial and political influence, Caleb Quaid started witnessing his own story. Like Adam and many other Millennials, Caleb has been on a fast track since early adulthood. As the Director of Business Administration and Project Director for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the National Football League, he oversaw more than $200 million in capital projects for the Bucs, where he spent a decade. The job created huge sacrifices in his work-life balance, especially as a young father.

Even after the team, led by Tom Brady (truly a modern elder of the NFL), won the Super Bowl and Caleb earned a Super Bowl ring with his name etched on it, he felt a hollowness inside. His internal wisdom told him that his passion was no longer football, but he was instead to become an entrepreneur in the burgeoning “regeneration” world. Ironically, one of his new clients for his firm Regenerative Shift is his former employer, the Buccaneers. He’s planted an 1,100-square-foot living fence of bamboo and native plants at Raymond James Stadium. Caleb credits his investment in seeking wisdom through Buddhist principles with finding a better life so that he might avert a crisis in his late 40s.

There are three generations that can claim they’re in midlife these days — Boomers, Gen Xers, and Millennials. I’m encouraged that Millennials might finally help us rebrand midlife as an age dedicated to our calling, not a crisis.

Photo credit: Shutterstock/nika_st