Waking to the sound of Pacific waves breaking had become a welcome change to the usual morning symphony of traffic and sirens in our Harlem home. It was my last morning at the Modern Elder Academy and I wanted to get out for one more beach run before the meditation class. As I headed out I definitely felt different than when I arrived a week ago.
Meeting Chip Conley
I’d first met Chip Conley a few months back when I’d approached him at a ‘Wisdom at Work: The Making of a Modern Elder’ talk he was giving at Soho House, New York, to ask for some guidance with our new members’ club, The Wylde. The Maslowian principles in Chip’s earlier book ‘Peak’ were instrumental in our design thinking and many of our members are ‘modern elders’ so I was keen to get his take. I’d also become increasingly intrigued by Chip’s prediction of ‘midlife wisdom schools’ emerging as a new category — something felt prescient about this.
As always, Chip was warm, enthusiastic and encouraging. He invited me down to the MEA to learn more and carry on the conversation. He kindly offered me a scholarship but I knew there were likely others that could benefit more from the generosity. (Still, what a cool way to ensure inclusivity and diversity.)
Approaching Modern Elder Academy
Perception can often be reality and so I was determined to approach with an open mind. However, on the way down to Baja I did find myself wondering if the programming would be a touch woo woo for a busy Brit living in New York. What would the rest of the group be like — the lost or the found? At 46 would they out me for being an imposter, or was I close enough to elderhood now to be included? What does being an elder today even mean?
A little more than an hour drive north of Los Cabos (SJD) and you are at The Academy in El Pescadero. I met three fellow students (aka ‘compadres’) at the airport and we shared the ride chatting about why we were here, what we hoped to find, etc. They were from New York, Chicago and Boulder — smart, accomplished people who were interested and interesting. So far so good.
Beach in Southern Baja
The MEA is beautifully set on the beach in southern Baja. Chip has a home here and whilst writing Wisdom at Work the idea of establishing a place to share these principles came to him. Instead of San Francisco or any other major city, why not have it right there on the beach? Being so close to the Tropic of Cancer with mountains behind and an ocean in front has long made this a place of good vibrations. Shamans and surfers alike figured this out many moons ago.
The campus is well laid out with generous accommodations, shared spaces, and wellness areas. The hospitality is soulful and the food is cooked with love — no doubt a reflection of Chip’s own hospitality roots. In many ways, he’s created a perfect retreat from the busy world for intentional midlifers wanting to take a step back, regroup and repurpose. In just 2 years they’ve built, tested, launched and successfully graduated 500 alumni with another 500 signed up at the time of writing. The net promoter score is unprecedented, the sticky alumni network meets regularly for digital Town Halls and had their first sell-out reunion last year in San Francisco. It’s working.
EQ and ‘Menterning’
The first evening was about orientation, settling in, meeting my fellow 17 compadres, Chip and the faculty team. We were a diverse group — aged 36 to 77 (the average age at MEA is 54) and from the US, Mexico, France, UK and Australia — but everyone seemed at ease with themselves and mingled in quickly.
I won’t spoil it for future attendees by going into too much detail on the daily curriculum but I will say that I found the programming to be intellectually and emotionally stimulating. It’s well thought out and in tune with today’s world. Chip and his team take you through practical sessions in harnessing ‘modern elder’ life skills such as EQ (Emotional Q) vs IQ, liminality, developing a growth vs fixed mindset, effective listening, appreciative inquiry and mentoring aka ‘menterning.’ (Interestingly, some 75% of millennials wished they had a mentor and 2% actually do, but this is changing and we predict that mentoring will become a major part of 21st Century Learning & Development programming.)
We also workshopped relationships, vocation, money and planning. There’s a lot of positive work around letting go of stuff that doesn’t serve you, in addition to embracing mistakes, keeping things simple and getting out of your own head. I applied the last three in the group surf lesson and managed to stand up for the first time ever. Sometimes less is more. Go figure.
Patience and Non-Judgement
We all agreed that the daily cadence flows well making for a comfortable mix of group programming and optional activities. This also allowed for a civilized amount of downtime if we wanted it and the haciendas are discreetly positioned so you always have your own private retreat nearby.
There is an atmosphere of respect at the MEA and our guide advised that the best approach is to assume good intentions, be patient and non-judgemental with each other, to be present and vulnerable, to notice more and to move towards what may make us uncomfortable and explore where the discomfort comes from. We were encouraged to listen and steer away from teaching or giving advice (unless asked). Everything that’s shared is treated as confidential.
Power of the Collective Experience
Outside of class we meditated as a group, shared all our meals, walked on the beach, baked bread, took art classes, played and laughed a lot together. We also shared a lot in what feels like a safe and egalitarian space. We relearned some old truths about the connection between happiness, unselfishness, and the simplification of living. It was a lot of ‘humaning’ for the collective good and it felt great. Personal highlights for me included a mountaintop dawn meditation and cleansing with Saul the MEA shaman and making a serendipitous friendship with a fellow compadre that will last for life.
On another, deeper level I could never have imagined the power of the collective experience. Here you have 18 people aged 36 to 77, from different countries and walks of life, all cast together on a beach in Mexico. Granted, we’d all made our way to the MEA so were on a similar path, but the speed with which the group bonded and lifted each other up was profound and unexpected. There was a refreshing willingness to be vulnerable, an absence of competition, a sense of belonging and a shared group meaning.
We Need People Like Chip and His Team
In many ways our society today can be alienating, technical and cold, whereas our fundamental desire, as human beings, is to be close to others. We spent a million years in tribes sharing and caring for the greater good of the group and where the elders had lasting relevance. It’s a natural setting for us and in today’s hectic world it’s wonderful to know that you can still connect with diverse strangers easily given the right environment. This isn’t woo woo. We need people like Chip and his team to help us find new ways of doing old time-honored things.
I think my cohort was a fair reflection of millions of people in or approaching midlife around the world today. They weren’t washed up or ready to be sidelined because of their age like previous generations. On the contrary, there was an incredible sense of openness and optimism in the group. Granted, some of us were dealing with the identity challenges that today’s social narrative around aging can still bring, and the MEA experience is finetuned to help with that, but fundamentally, everyone was there because they want to move forward in their lives with enthusiasm, curiosity, agency, and impact. Most of the group were now done with what society expects in terms of career and family duties and were gearing up for a whole new chapter on their own time.
The World Needs Positive Influencers
In addition to affirmation and connection with a like-minded group, they are seekers who are looking for practical tools to set themselves up for success. We’re living longer than ever before and we need new rituals to communicate this new experience of elderhood to the wider community. What’s the benefit? Everyone in my group wanted to use their life experience, outlook, time and resources in meaningful ways to make a substantive sacrifice to their community. They were conscious about their impact and the fact that the world needs positive influencers. I found this intentional, collective energy to be encouraging at a time when we need human potential and the wisdom of elders more than ever before.
It’s been stated that to feel content we need to feel competent at what we do, to feel authentic in our lives and to feel connected with others. The MEA programming and community goes a long way in helping people of all ages with this, especially those who are gearing up for success in midlife and beyond. We agree with Chip that just as Canyon Ranch developed the destination spa resort category, a new life growth category of ‘midlife wisdom schools’ is emerging with the MEA as its trailblazer. Not everyone can make it to Mexico, and so to this end we’re talking with Chip about a sample MEA workshop on effective ‘menterning’ at The Wylde in New York next spring.
So what does it all mean? Joseph Campbell said: “People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life…I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive.” As I headed down the beach on that last run after a week of ‘humaning’ at the MEA I definitely did feel different. I felt fully alive.
Crispin Baynes is a founding member of The Wylde (@wyldepeople) which brings people together around culture and purpose. They’ve launched in New York and are currently beginning memberships and programming. To find out more sign up here or contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.