Feb. 17, 2020

Confronting Suicide with Chip Conley

Confronting Suicide with Chip Conley

New York Times Best Selling author Chip Conley describes the period of his life between the ages of 45 and 49 as his ‘dark, gooey stage’ of life. A pattern of events led Chip to believe the entire world was conspiring against him, and that suicide was the only option -- a chance to just press the reset button.

Several of Chip’s male friends had committed suicide (it's more common for men to be successful at taking their own life), and taking a fatal jump off his beloved Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco seemed like a romantic way to go. He grabbed his journal, keys and headed to his car. 

Miraculously while sitting in his car jamming his keys so hard into a numb hand, Aretha Franklin’s soulful version of ‘Amazing Grace,’ the classic gospel song, came on the radio. In that moment, Chip reached for his phone and called a friend for help.

Chip’s a Modern Elder and his message of hearing grace in a dark time is one of hope. Chip now works with men and women at his Modern Elder Academy in Baja, Mexico to help them see that they have choices -- and to make a ‘mid-life’ edit to let go of and evolve out of old patterns.

Episode Summary

You also have another option: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

- Chip felt the whole world was conspiring against him 

- He was sitting in his car, ready to drive to the Golden Gate Bridge and press the ‘reset button’ on his life

- In that moment, the song Amazing Grace comes on and it softens him, a tearful moment

- Conley provides the back story on what was going on in his life during this period in time, his ‘dark, gooey stage of life’

- Several male friends had all committed suicide

- Conley felt a huge heavy blanket on top of him - he felt cursed in life

- He felt suffocated by his business, his relationship wasn’t working out

- Conley talks about wearing the ‘mask of the achiever’ 

- Conley gives advice on how to spot suicide among friends and family and how to provide unconditional love to support

- Chip talks about his work at the Modern Elder Academy helping folks 35 to 75 make the ‘midlife edit’ and find happiness

 

 Quotables

 “I just immediately had the full tearful reaction to the idea that I could have another choice. I didn't have to imagine committing suicide as a way of pressing the reset button on my life.”

“So what was happening inside of me is I felt just this heavy blanket on top of me. I felt very dark inside. I felt.... I think the word I felt when anything was cursed. I felt cursed. And to feel cursed is an awful feeling. I was running the second largest boutique hotel company in the US called JdV and I wasn't feeling much Joie de Vivre, which means joy of life in French. And I was really in a state of disbelief that I was supposed to somehow in a time where I felt completely ill equipped to even show up at work, to somehow be figuring out how to save a company of 3,500 employees while I was just like, frankly, on a an internal basis, just trying to figure out how to save myself.“

 “Men are much more likely to successfully-- I hate to use that word-- commit suicide than women. Women actually try it not as much as men. I think about half as much as men, but are less likely to have it work, partly because men use guns more and women tend to use pills more and a gun is more lethal in a lot of cases.”

 “Looking in the mirror at myself, I didn't see somebody I knew. I saw somebody who looked scared and defeated definitely. And more than anything, I think I saw someone who just wanted to press the reset button on my life, and yet I had been trying to.“

 “But my indicator of my emotional intelligence today is how am I cultivating and harvesting joy in my life, not just for myself, but for others as well.”

 

Learn more about Chip Conley

 

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Transcript

David All (host): For Belly of the Beast Life Stories, I'm David All.

 

Chip Conley: Looking in the mirror at myself, I didn't see somebody I knew. I saw somebody who looked scared and defeated, definitely. And more than anything, I think I saw someone who just wanted to press the reset button on my life, and yet I had been trying to.

 

David All (host): This podcast is about the time we all get knocked down in life and climb up a new person. Listen for free wherever you get your podcasts.

 

David All (host): Let me introduce you to Chip Conley. In business, the term disruptor is reserved for those individuals that completely change the rules in an industry so that every other person in that industry has to follow suit. Chip has done that twice. The first was at Joie de Vivre Hospitality (JdV), which he grew to become the second largest independent boutique hospitality group in the country. And then at AirBNB as the chief hospitality officer where he helped guide the rocket ship and provide all of the expertise around hospitality so that the company could become what it is today. Chip is a New York Times best selling author. His five books have made him a leading authority at the intersection of psychology and business. Conley picked up a nickname at AirBNB as their 'modern elder' and it stuck. In fact, he's running the Modern Elder Academy in Baja, Mexico, where folks ages 35 to 70 are finding out that being an elder is just as much about being curious as it is about being wise. Chip Conley, welcome to Belly of the Beast Life Stories.

 

Chip Conley: I'm nervous. (laughter) Thank you. It's an honor to be here.

 

David All (host): Chip, I'd love it if you could take us to the moment of hearing Aretha Franklin singing Amazing Grace in your car.

 

Yeah, so I was-- gosh, I'll give you the brief version and then we'll give back story to it. I was at the stage in my life where it felt like everything was conspiring against me. And I had the keys to the car and I was ready to go drive to the Golden Gate Bridge. I was a hotelier in San Francisco -- actually, the largest operator of hotels in San Francisco, boutique hotels and a... relationship going bad, going into the Great Recession, my foster son on his way to San Quentin wrongfully. My best- one of my best friends- who has the same name as me, Chip, had committed suicide, and I was really in a state of almost disbelief at how many things were going wrong at the same time. And I tried calling my friend Vanda, couldn't get a hold of her at first, and so I was there in the car with my keys ready to go drive. And then, you know, Amazing Grace comes on.

 

Chip Conley: And you know... I just immediately had the full tearful reaction to the idea that I could have another choice. I didn't have to imagine committing suicide as a way of pressing the reset button on my life. And in the prior few months, I had told friends of mine that I'd been having dreams or nightmares of cancer and car crashes. And so I guess there was a point at which I just said, listen, rather than just try to end it all, and I know how that will end. I know how the end of that story is. Instead, let me stick around and see how this movie plays out. And you know, and it actually got more interesting which I will talk about.

 

David All (host): So I want to go back to your several friends that committed suicide within a two year period, and in the book that you gave me about this period of your life between the ages of 45 and 50. You talk about the fact that you will you like respected suicide as a means of quieting the chaos of horror they felt inside. Can you just talk us through that?

 

David All (host): Yeah, I think what I've come to realize is that in many ways there are five guys, all between age 42 and 52. And they were on average amongst the five of them they were seeing their sense of self-esteem and self-worth as being a function of how their career or in three of the cases as entrepreneurs, how their business was going. So there was there was that. I think beyond that, there was also a sense that their whole sense of identity was wrapped up in success and in looking good. And you know, what we know about people today in their 40s is this is a very it's probably the hardest decade of adulthood. The U-curve of happiness, which has been studied by social scientists, shows that people between about age 45 and 50 hit the bottom of their happiness or satisfaction level in life. And things start to get better from that point forward. But it's a it's a long 20 year decline from mid 20s. So what I can say now with a little bit of objectivity is that this is a very rough period of time. It was a time where the Great Recession was in full swoon. And in many cases, there were external factors, especially around people's careers, that were conspiring to make people feel like they didn't have another option or, and what I was feeling, I just didn't want to wake up each morning. I didn't want to wake up to more bad news. You know, ultimately, on a personal level, I ended up having having a flatline experience. And I had an experience where I had a broken ankle and a bacterial infection in my leg. And I was on a strong antibiotic and I was giving a speech in St. Louis after the speech signing books. I was luckily sitting down and I went unconscious. And when the paramedics showed up, I actually went flatline. And I see the book here on the desk here; I ironically- I went flatline nine times over the course of 90 minutes on the way to the hospital and in the emergency room. And each time I'd go the flatline, I'd come back to life and talk to the nurse who's holding my hand. And tell her what I'd seen. It was the same thing over and over again. Maybe we'll come back to that. But what I can say is that that evening after emergency room ICU, in my own little hospital room, I had this book, Viktor Frankl's book, 'Man's Search for Meaning' in my backpack. Partly because I was trying to make sense of Chip's suicide. And now here I am. I didn't commit suicide, but I actually died. And what came out of that almost all night reading of the book was this equation, which is despair equals suffering minus meaning. And what I take from that equation that's not in his book, but it's the way I distilled down almost a mantra from that famous book, Man's Search for Meaning by Frankl. And the whole premise is that, you know, suffering sort of exists out there. If you're a Buddhist, you know, it's the first noble truth of Buddhism. It's sort of just ever present. And meaning and despair are inversely proportional to each other. So actually, if you're feeling a lot of despair, the thing to figure out is how do you find some meaning in your life? So that was my my solution from that day forward is on a daily basis I asked myself, what did I learn today? How do I have a sense of meaning or a sense of having created some wisdom in my life? And that's part of how I started, too emotionally and maybe psychologically recover.

 

What was going on inside you? If you can talk about depression because you pointed out a lot of maybe external factors and things that were happening in your life, but what was going on inside of you?

 

Chip Conley: You're tough, aren't you? (laughter) So what was happening inside of me is I felt just this heavy blanket on top of me. I felt very dark inside. I felt.... I think the word I felt when anything was cursed. I felt cursed. And to feel cursed is an awful feeling. And it's some of it was feeling like externally cursed and some of it was feeling internally cursed, like, OK, this is the suffering is part of my life. This is what I'm supposed to experience. But what I felt really awkward about it was I felt really ill equipped to deal with everything externally happening. So let's also give back story. I was running the second largest boutique hotel company in the US called JdV and I wasn't feeling much Joie de Vivre, which means joy of life in French. And I was really in a state of disbelief that I was supposed to somehow in a time where I felt completely ill equipped to even show up at work, to somehow be figuring out how to save a company of 3,500 employees while I was just like, frankly, on a an internal basis, just trying to figure out how to save myself. So there was a deep sense of responsibility which was weighing heavily on me. And yeah, I felt I didn't feel any sexual or romantic attraction -- I had a relationship that was in the later stages and just about to end. I was...

 

David All (host): And on that point, you wrote that you 'felt alone in a seven year relationship.'

 

Yeah. And it was seven years and it was a year later that we actually broke up; it was an eight year relationship ultimately. Yeah. I mean, one of the worst feelings --- many of us have had this experience when it to be single and to be alone in that way is one thing. To be in a relationship and to feel alone actually feels worse in my opinion. And it feels worse partly because there's also the element of trying to make it look good or feel good, look good to the outside world, feel good to us. And it just it wasn't working. So, and in this case, it was even worse. It was worse because I sort of wanted it to work. He was my life preserver, his nam is Donald. Donald was my life preserver. His doctor and I felt like both mental health wise as a doctor and as my partner, I was looking for someone to help me during what was a difficult time. And, you know, he's a great guy, so I don't want to beat him up here. But I what I will say is that he had moved on in all kinds of ways. And so, yeah, I felt. I also felt, you know, of course, rejected even before we broke up. I felt this is because what we're talking about right now is the summer before, a year later, we broke up. But all of this was happening. And yet, who was I talking to? I was talking to friends about it. Yeah. Let's just recognize one other thing. So five men committed suicide, friends of mine between 42 and 52. Men are much more likely to successfully-- I hate to use that word-- commit suicide than women. Women actually try it not as much as men. I think about half as much as men, but are less likely to have it work, partly because men use guns more and women tend to use pills more and a gun is more lethal in a lot of cases. So I guess for me at the end of the day, what I think was happening inside was the start of a rehabilitation. The start of me starting to see inside and realize that I'd been living my life way too externally for too long, and I felt this enormous gap between what I felt and what I was trying to show to the world.

 

And if it had been just purely my own life, that'd be one thing but trying to save this company and not have all my employees get fired because the company would go bankrupt was another element that was hard. But I ultimately sold the company. Two years later, at the bottom of the market, it was like from a financial perspective. And you know, my financial friends are like, what are you doing? You're an idiot. Is that a terrible time to sell the company? It's like, well, you know, it's either that or the Golden Gate Bridge. So it turned out to be an enormous relief because I actually... the interesting thing about Man's Search for Meaning (Frankl) is it's the story of being in a concentration camp. And I felt like I was in prison. And so the process of starting to strip away the things that made me feel like I was in prison helped me to free myself to a place where I was. I had more spaciousness to go inside and frankly, at the end of day the way I recovered from this was going inside.

 

David All (host): So you're staring in the mirror right before you went out to the garage to get into the car. And you said that you looked in the mirror for ten minutes and you saw a man defeated.

 

Chip Conley: Mm hmm. Yeah.

 

David All (host): And you grabbed some pills.

 

Chip Conley: Yeah.

 

David All (host): You grabbed something to write with.

 

Chip Conley: Mm hmm.

 

David All (host): And your car keys.

 

Chip Conley: Yeah. I figured I'd actually take the pills and I could take the pills like early enough so that when I actually jump it won't be as painful when I hit. So I didn't know if I was gonna overdose. I really hadn't thought it through. But I figured, okay, I'll take enough pills so by the time I get up and over the railing on the Golden Gate Bridge, that I'll be pretty numb. Yeah. So. Looking in the mirror at myself, I didn't see somebody I knew. I saw somebody who looked scared and defeated definitely. And more than anything, I think I saw someone who just wanted to press the reset button on my life, and yet I had been trying to. And yet I was being haunted at night by these cancer and car crash nightmares. So it's almost as if I was willfully bringing in on, and so that was not easy.

 

David All (host): Chip, we'll take a break, we'll come right back.

 

Chip Conley: OK.

 

David All (host): We're back with Chip Conley. Chip just told us the story of a difficult few years of his life where everything was going wrong and he felt, quote unquote, cursed. And where we are in this story is that he's in the garage in his car, considering driving to the Golden Gate Bridge to jump. And a song, Amazing Grace, comes on.

 

Chip Conley: Yeah. And then I called my friend Vanda. And I told her where I was and I didn't even have a garage so I was on the street. It was like I hadn't driven anywhere yet. I was right in front of my home and you know, I just told her that Amazing Grace just come on and I was like, OK, so here's what's going on. And we talked and she sort of talked me off the bridge, so to speak, in the sense that she helped me to see that... And while we were in this conversation, I was digging the car keys into my palm of my hand. So much so that the next morning I looked at it. And I had actually created a scab, so obviously there'd been blood. I didn't feel it at the time. I hadn't taken any of the pills yet. I was just like I was so numb that I didn't even realize that I was digging these keys into my my palm, the hand. So she she helped me to say, go inside. You know, put the pills away. Take, yes, take a couple of sleeping pills because, you know, you need something to just knock you out right now. And then we're going for a walk in the morning. And she said I'll come over right now if you want me to. She lives in Marine, I live in San Francisco. It was not going to be easy for her to get there - she's probably 35, 40 minutes away. I'm sort of in the southern part of the city and... So I went inside and then we went for a walk in Marine the next day. And it was just a really interesting thing, you know, when you can get out of your own way and the sort of the room that's closing in on you. Nature can be such a healing cathedral. And we were walking through on a sunny day, beautiful air quality and I was just smelling the trees. And I think there was an element for me that I realized how small of a life I'd created for myself because it was completely possessed my self-absorption of how do I get out of all this crap happening to me. And so, you know, I was not smelling roses. I wasn't smelling trees. I wasn't even realizing that there's a lot of beauty in the world. And so in some ways, what I started to do was a combination from that point forward, developed a weekly inventory of my my meaning inventory, my wisdom inventory. What did I learn this week, what what did I get through? How is this experience making me a better person? And where did I see beauty? So it was the combination of the internal resources feeling like they're starting to fuel me into being a better person and then me getting out of the internal space to see external beauty. And so a lot of time in nature and Vanda helped me with that.

 

David All (host): One of the things that you wrote about during this phase was that the mask that had been suffocating you was starting to loosen.

 

Chip Conley: I often talk about mask and masculinity. Some of it was a masculinity mask. Some of it was just my mask of the identity I'd given. I'd been portraying to the world. So what was that? Well, you know, I was a kid who grew up with... I was the only son. And Steven Conley...The chip off the old block. My dad was a Marine captain and I was a great athlete. I was an achiever because to achieve meant I got love. And so I guess I was sort of an achievement addict and an admiration addict. And so that's how I built a self-esteem. And I built quite, you know, a path of success. And, you know, I went through my internal world, so the good news is coming out as a gay man at age 22, it was really hard on my dad and with both my parents. And it was hard for my world around me because they weren't expecting it. But at the same time, there was an element for me that it relieved me a little of having to try to live someone else's life. But as much as I thought I was just living my own life in many ways, I was still on the treadmill of the admiration addict. And so I think the mask that was I was wearing was the mask of the achiever. The mask of somebody who knew it all. Not from a place of arrogance, but a place from having metabolised a lot. And then there's the masculinity piece of, you know, being the CEO of a company and being somebody who's out there, you know, advocating as a business leader for alternative ways to operate as a business. In many ways, I think there was a sense that I needed to put down the mask and instead of trying to portray success, what I wanted to portray was authenticity. And that's really been, I think, my way of being since then. Since 2008, some 11 years now. And it wasn't like I don't nobody would say pre that time that I wasn't authentic, but I was authentic. I was portraying authenticity as opposed to being authenticity. And there's a difference. And the difference is there's not a filter. Just like right now, being authentic means you're just really not actually scheming and packaging and you know, how do you know you're not, you know, you still might think you think you're not when you really are. And so I you know, there's a certain amount of caution I have to have on that. But I think more than anything, the idea of loosening the mask and just sort of being myself a little bit more and then and frankly, selling my company when having never thought I was going to selling it. It was not a failure. So I didn't like the good news is I didn't have to go bankrupt and have a very public failure and it was a private sale. And so but I know on a personal level, it did feel like a failure. I expected to run that company until I was 75 or 80, you know, selling at the bottom of the recession. But more than anything, the sense of freedom. The freedom from the mask, the freedom from the responsibilities. I started the company for creativity and freedom. And 22, 24 years into it, I didn't feel a lot of creativity or freedom.

 

David All (host): Your first hotel in San Francisco was called The Phoenix.

 

Chip Conley: Yes.

 

David All (host): And the Phoenix is an important animal to you?

 

Chip Conley: Yeah. You know, the Phoenix means it's a mythological bird that rises from its own ashes. I'm a Scorpio in terms of my sun sign which is also a Phoenix has an element to that because the Scorpio is well known for regenerating itself. So there's an element for me that, you know, the comeback kid, I guess, of how do I find myself in peril. Get through it. And then actually become stronger as a result of it. There's no doubt that this experience, which is really my worst experience in my life, helped me get to get to the other side.

 

David All (host): And I think that your story is so beautiful because it's you know, you can see like all of these different things contributing to this one moment where you're in the car. And then right after that, you know, you talk about feeling a shift inside of you.

 

Chip Conley: Yeah.

 

David All (host): Your company gets acquired. You do a TED talk....

 

Chip Conley: Yeah, Wow. Yeah, that was big. But yes, you know, there was a directional change. There's a trajectory in life. And sometimes the trajectory feels like it's just unrelentingly down. At some point it started to feel like it was coming back. And I think more than anything, what I felt along that way is as I reached out to a collection of family and friends beyond Vanda, I just felt this deep sense of love and support and absolutely that, OK, it's only in my head that if I don't accomplish, you won't love me. That's what I grew up with. But that's not what my sphere of people who love me think of me. In fact, they love me more for being less of an achiever, because when Chip's in his achievement mode, he's not even that available because he's so busy.

 

David All (host): Suicide rates continue to skyrocket, especially for young people. What advice do you have for families or for anyone that knows friends that are talking about it?

 

Chip Conley: So I think, you know. I know for young people for sure. I also know the suicide rate for women 45 to 64 has gone up 60 percent since the year 2000. Thirty seven percent for men. The only reason the percentage is higher for women is starting from a lower base. So what would I suggest? First of all, look for the signs. Look for someone who's withdrawing more, who feels like they have lost an appetite for life. Look for someone who talks in sometimes quite tragic terms about their life and help them to know that you love them no matter what. I think that's the key. I think conditional vs. unconditional love is a big piece of this. Also helping them to see that there are more options available to them. I think that's the really the biggest one is that I felt like I only had one option, it was either cancer or a car crash or jump off the Golden Gate Bridge. And those are not very great, very good options. I had a lot more options. Yes, I could sell my company. I didn't think I could. OK. Yeah. We'll figure that out. So I think, you know, helping people to see options, because when you're in it, no matter what, if you're in an argument with your spouse and it's terrible and you talk about it with a good friend, you're good friends going to be able to give some objectivity to help people, to see, help you to see that there are alternative ways for you to actually take your steps moving forward. And certainly when someone's actually thinking about taking their life, it's good for them to understand there are other options.

 

David All (host): So you wrote a book during this phase as well?

 

Chip Conley: So I sold the company and then I said, I'm going to write this book called Emotional Equation's because that equation 'despair equals suffering minus meaning' was a lifeline for me on a bad day. I would say that equation 30 or 40 times as just a reminder. And that's why at the end of the week, putting my list together of what's meaning, you know, what creates meaning what you know is creating a sense of wisdom in my life was important to me. And I started looking at other equations, an equation for happiness, an equation for disappointment and an equation for, you know, faith and wisdom. And what that led me to is thinking like, you know, I'm a man and men are logical about their emotions. And it made me realize how many people out there are never took an emotions 101 class. You know, you learn it from your parents, which is not exactly the best teacher. And they're not the best teachers. And so I realized that I wanted to offer sort of a logical means of being more fluent about our emotions.

 

David All (host): And so one of those was and you brought it up earlier, despair equals suffering minus meaning.

 

Chip Conley: Yeah.

 

David All (host): And you included that in the book. Yeah. And that was why you wrote the book? Pretty much.

 

Chip Conley: Yeah that one. There's another one called 'Anxiety equals uncertainty times powerlessness.' And so the key to that one, if you want to reduce your anxiety is how do you create a little bit more certainty or a little bit more more sense of influence to having some power.

 

David All (host): What's the equation to end loneliness?

 

Chip Conley: Love squared. (laughter) You know, and love you could say love's the equation for everything. But I think when it comes to loneliness, it's probably you know, interestingly enough, both words start with the letters 'l o.' And so I think loneliness in many cases has a lot to do with feeling not just the sense of isolation, but sometimes the sense of unworthiness. And so I think, you know, when love can help a person feel worthy and so loneliness is a very interesting subject because I'm spending more, more, more of my life right now focusing on people who are older. And it's interesting how people have sort of two trajectories as they get older. Either they tend to get a little bit more social and emotional and they create space in their life to have connections or they do the opposite. And when they do the opposite, the health consequences are so obvious. It's when someone gets lonelier, they feel more of a sense of despair. They they feel less reason to stay on the planet, etc.. And, you know, now in the U.K., they even have like a minister of loneliness whose job it is to actually look at how to reduce the sense of especially urban loneliness.

 

David All (host): Did you ever specifically state that you're choosing life? You were almost killed physically?

 

Chip Conley: I don't recall ever sort of saying to myself, I am choosing life. I did start- I had been doing- I didn't even start. I kept doing a series of three prayers and four mantras. The prayers, I would say once each the mantras I'd say three times each. Four. Four. Four of them. Some of those actually helped me. And some of them relate a little bit to feeling a sense of worthiness to be on the planet. But no, I don't. I didn't ever say anything specific to that.

 

David All (host): All right. Chip will come back with some closing thoughts.

 

Chip Conley: Beautiful.

 

David All (host): We're back with Chip Conley. Chip you wrote this quote, and I'd love for you to talk about it in the context of this story. You said 'The most important challenge in one's life might be showing the willingness to give up who you are in order to find out who you might become.'

 

Chip Conley: You know, that really is what I did here. And what's funny, what's beautiful, if I can be helpful to someone out there who's listening right now, who doesn't know if they can do that, let go. They can't let go of who they are in order to become who they need to become. Just recognize that the journey from the caterpillar to butterfly has a cocoon, a very dark cocoon, a gooey cocoon in the middle. And for me, this gooey cocoon was from age 45 to 49. And then on the other side of that. My 50s and I'm turning 59 later this month in my 50s have absolutely been a period of butterfly. Not all perfect. Yes. Lots of problems. Damian's sons became almost like my sons. One of the men committing suicide. There's some awful things that have happened in my 50s, but I think what has been fascinating is the identity that was like a straight jacket for me of being the founder and CEO of JdV. That's what I was going to be forever, and that's where my sense of self-worth came from when I let go of that and put that straight jacket away. I was able to get to a place of seeing what I had to offer the world in all kinds of new ways: philanthropically, my heart building even deeper relationships with family and friends. And ultimately, I got tapped on the shoulder by the three founders of AirBNB to help them basically steer their rocket ship for the last seven years when it was a small tech company, and so that would never have happened if I had still been, you know, struggling, running my company. They would never have come looking for me. Interestingly enough, they had read my book, Peak the Maslow book, and they said, we want this to be our company. And, you know, we've seen what you've done. Will you come help us? And so sometimes you have to actually open up space in your life to see what's going to emerge.

 

David All (host): So what are you doing now? I mean, what does this Modern Elder Academy?

 

Chip Conley: I'm hanging out with you. Well, my experience at AirBNB was fascinating. I thought I was the the mentor to Brian, the CEO. But I quickly realized I was as much an intern as I was a mentor because I'd never worked in a tech company before. I was 52 years old at the time and I was lost. And what I really learned, learned quickly is the best elders, you know, an elder is somebody, relatively speaking, older than the people around them are people who are as curious as they're wise. And so the elder of the past was regarded with reverence. But the elder of the modern day is appreciated for their relevance. It's not about reverence, but relevance and relevance requires that you are curious because you need to have some context in terms of how you deliver your wisdom. And so curiosity opens up possibility and wisdom distills down what's important. And that combination in one person, I guess me as the modern elder at AirBNB allowed me to be full of inquisitiveness and at times be like the the intern with lots of questions that were catalytic.

 

Chip Conley: And then other times when I was like, oh, I am, you know, the person who's sort of trying to make sense of all the mess we have here and the confusion and distill it down to what's essential and prioritize. And so I ultimately wrote this book called 'Wisdom at Work: The Making of a Modern Elder,' as a result of that. But while I was writing the book, I came to the conclusion that I have had a bunch of friends who committed suicide in midlife because they couldn't make sense of midlife, especially couldn't make sense of how to repurpose themselves, how to press the reset button. And so I decided to create the world's first midlife wisdom school called the Modern Elder Academy on a four acre campus an hour north of Cabo San Lucas in Mexico.

 

David All (host): What ages are you talking about here?

 

Chip Conley: It's interesting, so we thought it'd be mostly people 45 to 65, average age 52. It has been average age 52, but it's been from ages 30 to 78. Did not expect people in their 30s to be coming to a place called the Modern Elderly Academy. But there's a lot of people who are in transition and trying to navigate through midlife transitions. And so I think midlife is now really 35 to 75 because there are people, especially in certain industries, who are feeling irrelevant earlier because of the digital age. And then there's people who are going to be in the workplace by choice or necessity longer because they're going to live longer. So 35 to 75 is the bulk of the people coming. And it's been phenomenal. Five hundred alums, 17 countries. And what it's really helped me to see is that we have an enormous gulf between the societal narrative on aging and the personal one. The societal one basically says you stumble into midlife, you have a crisis. And on the other side of that, if you can get through it, is decrepitude and death. Whereas the personal narrative as defined by the U-curve of happiness, which is hugely prevalent all around the world and been studied, shows that people actually do get happier in their 50s, 60s and 70s, partly because they do the 'great midlife edit.' And that's what we help people with down at the Modern Elder Academy. We help them to see what it's time to shed, whether it's a mindset and identity, responsibilities, certain kinds of friends or family. What is it that you're ready to let go of and evolve out of? And then what can come into your life that's fresh and new? For me, it's learning how to surf. It's learning Spanish. It's a few other things. And these are things you don't usually think about doing in the, you know, in your late 50s.

 

David All (host): You know, about this period of time between 45 and 49 you said, you know, this book you wrote is an attempt to find some harmonic good amidst the rubble. And I wonder what is the good that came out of this situation in your life this time period, in your life?

 

I mean, I think the you know, I've spent my life being a for profit entrepreneur and now I'm a social entrepreneur. My history was finding a consumer need, especially in the hospitality business and filling it, whether it was with boutique hotels or home sharing. Now, I am trying to fill not a consumer need, but a society need, which is helping people to feel relevant and enthusiastic and engaged by life in their 40s, 50s and 60s.

 

Chip Conley: And so if there's something that's positive that's come out of this, it's the fact that I am, you know, as an ode to my friend Chip, who committed suicide. And for others, the fact that I almost did myself and the fact that this is a rampant epidemic in the U.S. today, I'm really trying to help people to see that they have more options and to see that, frankly, aging can be aspirational, which is sort of a funky thing to say in a world where, you know, you sort of imagine people getting older and it just gets worse. But in fact, it can get better. And yes, our body does start to deteriorate. And just as you get comfortable in your own skin, it starts to sag; that is true. Your heart, your soul and some of the qualities of your life and especially your sense of how you take care of yourself and how you're maybe more charitable to yourself. These are things that that on average get better as we age.

 

David All (host): I mean, you're an expert in emotional intelligence. So could you sort of rate yourself before this time period in your life and then after?

 

Chip Conley: Well, I would say.

 

David All (host): Definitely better. I don't even know. I don't want to rate because you don't... Rating is how I used to do things. So I'm gonna push back on you and say I've spent my life, you know, looking for the Olympic judges to put up the 10 sign. You know, I'm not doing that anymore. I'm not going to do that to myself. What I can say is my definition of success is not some internal or external judge with a rating card. It's how do I how do I cultivate Joie de Vivre in my life? So let's go back 33 years to the company name I chose very, you know, sort of a weird company name in the US where nobody knew what it meant or how to pronounce it or how to spell it. But my indicator of my emotional intelligence today is how am I cultivating and harvesting joy in my life, not just for myself, but for others as well.

 

David All (host): How do you keep yourself in alignment?

 

Chip Conley: Meditating helps. I meditate every morning. I try to do it. You know, I sometimes do it during the day as well. You know...

 

David All (host): People always say that they meditate.

 

Chip Conley: I truly do. I have been doing it for a long time. So one thing I'm not.... Yeah, there's a lot things I don't do. Yoga is so hard for me.

 

David All (host): Do you use an app or...? 

 

Chip Conley: I don't... I actually do to sleep now. I do use Insight Timer as my go to sleep meditation app. That is relatively new phenomena, phenomena the last three months. I really wanted to get myself off of I was taking Advil PM, you know, not just two but like four a night because I was on a book tour and I was like all over with time zones and I didn't really want to Ambien or anything really strong. But, you know, but taking four Advil p.m. a night, not good! Not good for your liver. And so I really got to a place where I started to say, you know what, I need to really take the meditation that I do in the morning that actually really helps me to sort of center myself for the day and take it to the evening and take it to bedtime. And it's actually been great. And usually - if I have a lot of time I'll do a 20 minute fifteen, 20- minute meditation, that is, you know, that she takes me through or he or she. Sometimes it will only be five minutes. But my morning meditation is a TM meditation with a mantra for 20 minutes, 10 to 20.

 

David All (host): TM?

 

Chip Conley: TM. Yeah, I know... 

 

David All (host): Transcendental Meditation?

 

Chip Conley: Transcendental Meditation, and funny enough, I tried a lot of other meditations and I've loved it. And I do. I've done, you know, Silent Vapasana meditation retreats, you know, canoeing for a week, silent and canoeing from Island to Island in the in the Loreto Bay and the Sea of Cortez in Baja. But at the end of the day, TM works for me.

 

David All (host): So where can people, like, get involved with the stuff that you're doing in the world today? Come down to Baja?

 

Chip Conley: Yeah, you do whatever. Read my books. The way you can be introduced to it is go to ChipConley.com, spelled CONLEY in terms of the last name. You can go to my LinkedIn page has a lot of articles I've written. So there's Facebook and what else...But you can go to modernelderaademy.org to learn more about that and the week long programs we do down there. And it is actually social enterprise, which means we offer over 60 percent of our people in our first year were on some form of scholarship that we gave them. So, you know, you shouldn't feel inhibited from coming and experiencing the academy just because of financial need, having a challenge.

 

David All (host): So you said that you're spending a lot of time with elders now.

 

Chip Conley: I am well elders are all ages.

 

David All (host): But do you find people talking about this period of their life? You called it the gooey, dark and gooey cocoon phase. And we do as well. But do you think it's something that everyone is has gone through that stage?

 

Chip Conley: I don't know if everybody has gone through it, but I do know that that people in their 40s are really struggling. I think there's an emotional equation to describe the 40s, which is disappointment because expectations minus reality. And your 40s are the decade where you actually come face to face with your expectations and you start to realize some of the ways you thought your life was going to be may not end up the way it's gonna be. And I think that, you know, one of the nice things about the 40s is realizing, OK, you can work harder to make reality better, better. The only way that that equation gets better is disappointment equals expectations minus reality, either reality gets better or expectations go lower. And ultimately, for most people, it's actually expectations go lower. Or they shift. And in that process of shifting and what Brené Brown calls the great midlife unraveling you sort of unravel the way you've spun your life and you start to try to live it differently. And it's a painful period because it means in many ways you have to break out of the mask, break out of the identity, the mindset, the way people have seen you. And for some of us, that's really quite hard, but there's a liberation on the other side of it.

 

David All (host): Chip Conley, thank you so much.

 

Chip Conley: Thank you, David. It's been just a pleasure to be here.