Nuggets From Chip Conley's Call
Posted by Joe Houska on Mar 5, 2020
Chip Conley is an iconic boutique hotelier and entrepreneur who helped Airbnb's founders turn their tech start-up into a global hospitality brand. After selling the company he had started at age 26, Chip found himself working with millennials, including as mentor to the Airbnb CEO. He embarked on a “mid-life” journey -- from being a seasoned expert in his field to being “a newbie among tech geniuses” -- and eventually discovered both that he had much to learn in the form of digital intelligence (DQ), and much to impart in the form of emotional intelligence (EQ). A life-long meditator with bestselling books at the intersection of psychology and business already under his belt, Conley – inspired by his intergenerational experience of being both a mentor and an intern (a “mentern”) in his 50s – wrote a new manifesto on ageism, Wisdom@Work: The Making of a Modern Elder.
Below are some of the nuggets from the call that stood out for me ...
- Chip describes defining his life’s trajectory by following his joy and enthusiastically describes creating a workplace in which employees, customers and shareholders flourish and even self-actualize.
- On the pursuit of joy v. pursuit of happiness: "I think I thought of pursuit of happiness as being something that we all were supposed to do, and it was part of the American way. And then I read something from JD Salinger who wrote Catcher in the Rye, who had said happiness is a solid and joy is a liquid. What that meant to me was that happiness is circumstantial, and in fact, we often pursue happiness. But if you actually look at the word pursuit, in some dictionaries, it is defined as 'to chase with hostility.' How do you chase happiness with hostility? ... But what was nice about joy is, instead of it being a circumstance, phase or a solid, joy is something that comes from within you. It is the liquid. It is something -- you don't say, happiness bubbles up. You say joy bubbles up. And it is something that actually feels much more intrinsic to who you are and less about the circumstances that you are in."
- During their first half of life, most people accumulate knowledge, wealth and possessions, but then hit a happiness low in their mid-life (anywhere from age 35 to 75, while we define midlife as that range, the U-curve of happiness shows that the low point is typically 45-52). Then happiness climbs back up as they eliminate what has not been working. Chip recommends doubling down on what is working.
- He learned that following his father’s footprints -- that is, trying to live someone else’s life -- divorced himself from his feelings, and left him unhappy. His happiness returned after, despite the challenges conservative politically and socially parents, he came out that he was a gay man.
- And meditation and journaling also helped him find himself. He wrote only for himself, not distracted by others. This time spent not comparing himself to others also reduced his suffering.
- Each weekend, he captures the week’s lessons, in what has become many volumes of his journal titled, “Wisdom Book.” It helps him see what was going on in his mind during difficult times, and integrates and transforms his life lessons into wisdom. "Just because you're older doesn't mean you're necessarily wiser. You need to cultivate and harvest the wisdom. You don't have to do it the way I did with a wisdom book. You need to start living pattern recognition and being able to see patterns and learn from those."
- At age 47, everything was going wrong. One friend committed suicide and another went to prison. Chip was on crutches with a bacterial infection and a broken ankle. After waking up from “flat line” unconsciousness, Chip read “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Victor Frankl. [Frankl observed during his experiences in a Nazi death camp that the prisoners who tended to survive were those who had a purpose and reason to live.] So, while invisibly handcuffed within his own prison of depression, Chip had a literal wake up call carefully reading Frankl’s message that meaning can transform even the worst suffering.
- Chip has applied positive psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of individual needs into a 3-level pyramid -- summarizing the levels as survival, success, and transformation (corresponding with money, recognition and meaning, or job, career, and calling). Chip continues to work on the question that Maslow was working on at death, “How do you apply this hierarchy of individual needs to the collective (organizations)?”
- Chip recognizes employees to help meet their success level needs, and offers meaning for their transformational needs. His drive to self-actualize others in the workplace led others to seek his advice. He advises that “people first” will lead to a healthy long-term business.
- He notes that work leaves emotional fistprints on employees (as in getting socked in the face by a fist), which spreads virally to others, such as to those they come home to. While the employee might potentially come home angry, he gets to hear how his employees’ home life is so much better based upon creating a better company culture. "We've gotten so much better in the last 20 years at being able to calculate the ecological footprint or the environmental footprint of companies. And because of being able to measure that ... we've gotten better at measuring ecological footprint, and therefore companies got better at it. But we're not very good at what I call measuring the 'emotional fist print' .... An emotional fist print is when someone comes home from work and they feel like they were just socked in the jaw at work that day. And the emotional fist print is the effect that bad work has, not just on that employee, but on everyone associated with that employee because they bring it home with them. It's like a virus. I hate to use the example right now, given the times we're in, but it's like a virus they brought home. The virus is contagious and the virus is their lack of happiness, their lack of joy, their sense of being disrespected, potentially their anger .... So what we don't have a lot of evidence on -- and there's starting to be some better research on this -- is what's the effect of a toxic workplace on not just the employee, but everybody who surrounds the employee at home."
- Making a successful mid-life people requires knowing what wisdom and skills you have that are valuable and letting go of things and ways of being that no longer work ("the great midlife edit"). He recommends to be curious and open to what you don’t know. Let go of your ego. Mentorship is being in service of others, as well as allowing others to serve you. Chip learns as much from those younger to him as they learn from him. The world is not the hierarchy of the past. Be respectful and expect to learn a lot from others. "Be curious about what you don't know and be open to learning. ... And let go of your ego. I mean, I was the CEO of my own company for 24 years, and now I'm the guide on the side, not the sage on the stage. I'm the person helping these young whippersnappers grow their company. But I'm not going to have my name in the paper. I'm going to be the ones supporting them. And so I had to learn what it meant to be in service, without any of the ego attached to being the person in charge."
- The impetus for his Modern Elder Academy: "The word 'adolescence' only came into being 116 years ago, and prior to that, we thought you were an adult at puberty, which is why child labor laws were necessary, why we needed to help people realize that they didn't have to get married at age 14 and have two children by the time they're 18. And it's when we really started to create public junior high schools and high schools in the United States that are dedicated to helping you realize that adolescence is an in-between stage between childhood and adulthood. Well, there's a new word that's 25 years old in the gerontology world, sociology world, which is called 'middlescence.' So if adolescence is the emotional and hormonal changes that you go through at a young age of life, middlescence is when you go through your emotional and hormonal changes in midlife, and it's often between age 45 and 60. ... Long story short is we have no schools or tools to help people through what is a liminal transitional era between adulthood and elderhood. And when I say elderhood, I don't mean elderly. Elderly is the last 5 or 10 years of your life. Elderhood speaks to you in comparison with those surrounding you -- that's a relative term. ... An elder is someone who is older than the people around them, but they have something to offer."
- On his growing edge and listening to his body: "I have cancer, intermediate stage prostate cancer, which fortunately, prostate cancer moves slowly. I'm literally at the cusp of the edge of having my prostate taken out. So that's a little scary. And having my body be this messenger to me. My body was the messenger 12 or 13 years ago and I had a flatline experience and said, 'okay gotta leave this job.' So I'm not sure what the prostate cancer’s telling me, so that is sort of a growing edge for me -- it is how to listen to my body even better."
- As an elder, are you going to focus on generativity to future generations or stagnation?
- Some emotional equations from his earlier book:
- "despair equals suffering minus meaning." "If suffering is a constant, then despair and meaning are inversely proportional. The more you have of one, the less you have of the other." So he began to look at his life and asked daily "what did I do to create some meaning today? Because I had this belief that if I created more meaning, that I would probably have less despair. When I was using that wisdom book, I would actually make my list of what was it that I did this week that gave me some meaning; not just in learning, not just some wisdom, but actually some meaning. The meaning often came from a place of feeling like I was doing something for someone or something way beyond myself."
- "happiness is wanting what you have divided by having what you want. Or, in other words, wanting what you have is gratitude, and having what you want, which is in the denominator, is gratification. What that basically means is that the fastest way to get to happiness is often finding gratitude, not gratification. In fact, in the pursuit of happiness is often gratification. Pursuit of happiness often means once you've got something, the value of it wears off and you start looking for the next shiny object."
- "disappointment equals expectations minus reality. If expectation is high, reality is low, or maybe the opposite. If reality doesn't have expectations then you have delight. I think learning how to manage expectations is a really essential part of life, both for yourself and for anyone else, especially if you have a boss."
- "Anxiety equals uncertainty times powerlessness. This is an interesting one. What it basically says is wow, when you're anxious it's likely one of two things. If it's both, it's a combustible thing; it's not a plus sign, it's a times sign. It's either uncertainty, the things that you don't know, or it's powerlessness, the things you don't feel like you can influence. What I learned from that one, and I think it's a pretty valuable learning, is yes, there's a possibility that you can actually get better at one or the other. If you could take uncertainty or powerlessness down to close to zero, if it's a times sign, it actually does have an effect on the other part of the equation."