Gandhi suggested, “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” It was barely two years ago that the idea for the world’s first “midlife wisdom school” sprouted in my brain while I was running on the beach here in the southern part of Baja California. We quickly kicked into gear with a beta program stretching over 14 weeks with 13 cohorts and more than 150 students. As we finish our first year of being open the public, we’re now up to 500 graduates from 5 continents. But, to be perfectly honest, I didn’t know this endeavor would become such a profound catalyst for a new way of thinking about midlife. So, today, as I glean wisdom from our first academic year with my partners Christine Sperber and Jeff Hamaoui, I look at these five lessons as not just fodder for our social enterprise’s business strategy. I see these lessons as fundamental to how society reconsiders the map of life.
- Connection and ritual aren’t just for the playground of youth.
Historically, rites of passage and celebrations to mark births, puberty, graduations, weddings, and death have been the mainstay — events to help people through common transitions. But, with average longevity at 47-years-old in 1900, middle age wasn’t even a consideration. But, today, as western world longevity has surpassed 80-years-old, midlife is a multi-decade period chock full of transitions. It’s time we started developing proper rituals — in and out of the workplace, and beyond a gold watch on retirement day.
As children, many of us were sent to summer camp — a place for curiosity and connection. This ritual often created long term friendships with whom we felt a special connection. More than a few of our alums have made this summer camp comparison with MEA and the number one request from our beta participants was for us to create an alumni program. Because we humans need to give the mirror neurons in our brains an opportunity to play with each other, which doesn’t happen with a text, tweet, or even a video call. Plato was an inspiration for our experiential curriculum when he wrote, “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.” It’s ironic that many Silicon Valley midlifers — thirsting for community in a work environment that can feel anything but human — make the annual pilgrimage to the Nevada desert for the Burning Man festival, which is a rite of passage to “burn” the old and start with a fresh beginning.
Bill Apablasa, who joined our first workshop of the calendar year, articulates his experience this way, “Magic happens when you do something you’ve never done before, especially if you’re uncomfortable doing it, and even more when you’re supported by nurturing friends.” Sounds a lot like summer camp, right? But, as Bill outlines in his blog post, the implications for experiencing this kind of connection and ritual in midlife are even more profound because so many of us feel a sense of disconnection and disaffection as we drift into the second half of our lives.
- Midlife is a marathon.
The Oxford Dictionary defines middle age as 45-65, so that was initially our age requirement at MEA: you had to fit into that bracket to be a student. But those linguistic scholars don’t live in Silicon Valley, Hollywood, or Madison Avenue, where people have begun to start feeling old in their mid-30s. In fact, with 7 of the 10 most valuable global companies today being in the tech world, all companies seem to be more obsessed with quickly accelerating their DQ (digital intelligence) versus their EQ (emotional intelligence). As power in a digital society cascades younger, and more of us are going to make it to 100, it might be that midlife lasts from 35-75. Our 50s may not just be midlife, but might be mid-career. Midlife in the modern day can feel like a run-on sentence without punctuation. Adding some celebratory rituals could add just the punctuation we need to experience our humanity in what’s now a longer story.
We’ve welcomed “compadres” (our name for our students) from age 30-78 with the understanding that MEA was created to help us navigate our midlife transitions. Just as it’s been shown that training and running for a marathon is more effective when you have training partners, MEA offers a safe crucible for people to stretch themselves. Part of the magic is that once people are committed, their experience is not mediated by their personal wealth. This allows for a lot of the usual posturing to fall away and for people to come together as equals. While 60% of our compadres were on some form of scholarship in our first year, no one sweated who’d paid full tuition and who hadn’t. Add to this, diversity across all of our parameters (age, social, culture, sexual orientation, gender, geographical, etc.) has an enormous impact on our compadres, in the sharing of unexpected wisdom, in the shedding of prejudices and in the unexpected friendships that emerge.
People in midlife are often at a pivot point where they are stretched thinly up and down. Isidra Mencos arrived at MEA grieving the recent loss of her mother and depleted from four months of caregiving a very sick friend. She writes about how MEA offered a new “meaningful path,” almost like a midlife pitstop that gave her a “second wind” and allowed her to embrace the marathon with a new sense of vitality.
- We must become great editors.
If we’re running a marathon, we better not be carrying extra baggage. The first half of our life is often about accumulating: knowledge, friends, roles and titles at work, romantic relationships, children, community responsibilities…you know the drill. It can be exhausting. And a heavy weight to bare. If you try dragging all of your historical knowledge and identities along this marathon, you’re likely to be worn out by your 50th birthday. The compadres who showed up to MEA with the greatest sense of need were those who realized it was time for their “great midlife edit.”
The first half of life is often defined by the question, “What does the world expect of me?” After a week in Baja, the question I hear many of our alums asking is, “How can I serve the world while also seeking contentment?” The first half of life is pursuing happiness often with the operating system being one’s ego. The second half of life is seeking contentment with our heart and soul being our guiding influences.
Stanford Professor Tina Seelig poignantly outlines this kind of midlife edit in her blog post, “The experiences over the week were designed to help each person shed the things that were no longer useful to them and to build upon those that are. By doing this as a group, in a concentrated time, we got to witness each person’s liminal state. It was both fascinating and instructive to watch all of the transitions, some of which were clearly very hard. I wish we had taken a before and after photo of the group because the internal changes were matched by dramatic physical transformations as each person unfolded into the person they wanted to be. Magnificent crashing waves provided an endless audio backdrop to all of the activities. At times it felt as though we were in a womb, listening to the heartbeat of the earth.”
- Personal and societal narratives on aging are vastly different.
In her new bestseller “Elderhood,” geriatrician Louise Aronson suggests, “We treat old age as a disease, rather than as one of three major life stages.” The societal narrative on aging is damning: we stumble into midlife, have a crisis, and — on the other side of that — we can look forward to decrepitude and death. It’s no wonder that we don’t look at the transition from adulthood to elderhood in the same anticipatory way we do childhood to adulthood.
But, social scientists’ evidence that a U-curve of life exists, such that happiness escalates starting in one’s 50s, is at serious odds with society’s narrative on aging. Author Jonathan Rauch’s perspective matches what we hear from many of our compadres: the second half of life is more about attuning than attaining. When we shift from a “can do it” mindset to being a “conduit,” we move from feeling like rugged individualists to being part of a collective. We’re not striving anymore, we’re flowing…and supporting others in the process.
Yale Professor Dr. Becca Levy found that older people with a positive perspective of aging lived 7.5 years longer than those with a negative perspective: a bigger increase in lifespan than associated with starting to exercise or quitting smoking. Maybe it’s time to implement a public health campaign against ageism?! Hopefully, we’re adding not just length to our compadres’ lives, but we’re also adding depth. Amanda Jones wrote about her experience of “growing whole, not old” in her Los Angeles Times story about MEA. For many of our alums, the well-known metamorphosis of the caterpillar to butterfly serves as their reminder that maybe midlife is just our dark, gooey chrysalis before the emergence of this new, colorful, flying beauty. When we stop competing on the playing field defined by youth, we realize how both presents and presence are bestowed upon us in the second half of life.
- We need schools and tools to prepare for elderhood.
One of our 35-year-old compadres, Adam McCants, whipped-up this alternative reading of modern day www: he suggested that MEA’s mission is to help us to “wield wisdom well.” In the course of a century, we’ve moved from an economy defined by extraction to one reliant upon human production, to one predicated upon scalable learning in the digital world.
But, we’ve done precious little to prepare adults for this vastly different world. And, in a world where power cascades to digital natives, it’s becoming more apparent that “Modern Elders” — who are as curious as they are wise — are needed to offer insight and wisdom, especially around issues that require EQ. Along the way, we’ve come to believe “elder” is a relative term as it’s dependent upon who you’re surrounded by, and this is why we’re seeing elders in their 30s show up at MEA.
So where do we “mint” these Modern Elders, help them mine their mastery, and give them a new vocabulary for elderhood? We’ve had people from 17 countries apply so the need for a midlife wisdom school spans the globe. Yet, we didn’t have any academic models as we developed our core curriculum, But we have learned, as Jeff Hamaoui says, “You don’t teach wisdom. You share it.” Teaching wisdom is not the same as teaching physics. It is more akin to mentoring through questions and teasing the wisdom out. Our cohorts will often have 1,000 years of diverse collected experience in them. This is a well deep enough to plumb for all kinds of knowledge, insight and experience. One of our beta alums, Jeff Tidwell, wrote this Forbes article about how experiential learning is core to how we share wisdom at MEA.
While we’re not yet seeing midlife wisdom schools all over the map, there is evidence that there’s a growing consciousness that this is needed. My friend Will Travis, former US CEO of the well-respected advertising agency, Sid Lee, Dentsu and Attik, has created Elevation Barn with five locations around the world where successful midlife leaders imagine how to transform themselves through a greater focus on purpose. Like MEA, Elevation Barn emphasizes a growth mindset (what they call an “explorer’s mindset”) to cure the “confidence crisis” that can often arrive when one feels a growing irrelevance in their 40s, 50s, or 60s.
Will is a branding expert. I’m a boutique hotelier. We’ve spent our lives scouting the horizon for what’s next. We believe both the cultural zeitgeist and the societal need are ripe for a new kind of school to emerge, which offers refueling at midlife. With disruption expert and author Clayton Christensen predicting that half of all colleges and universities will be closing in the next decade, maybe it’s time we looked at how we reimagine real estate assets for real society purposes.
This article was contributed by Chip Conley, the founder of the Modern Elder Academy. Chip discovered that he was a “modern elder” during his leadership time at Airbnb when he was the Head of Global Hospitality and Strategy, the in-house mentor to the cofounder/CEO, and twice the average age of employees in the company. Instagram: @chipconley