Visiting the Modern Elder Academy

Alisha and I took part in a special session of Chip Conley’s Modern Elder Academy for the members of the Silicon Guild and their spouses.  Due to some unfortunate complications, several of the Silicon Guild members had to drop out in the weeks leading up to the session, which left us with 12 participants (plus Chip); three couples and six individuals.

This meant that the session differed from the typical MEA session in several ways.  First, most of the participants already knew each other.  Second, the cohort was smaller than would be typical; the MEA sessions generally range from 16-28 participants.  Third, our session featured a hybrid curriculum, where we went through part of the standard MEA curriculum, but also held sessions on the future of publishing, the impact of artificial intelligence on writers, and workshop sessions to help authors think through upcoming books or initiatives.

Regardless of any such differences, the session was a resounding success on multiple levels.  First, all of the participants enjoyed the trip, with 100% of participants wanting to make it an annual gathering.  Second, most of the participants left with new insights into their lives and work.  This was a combination of new knowledge and connections, as well as the satisfaction of being able to share authentically and vulnerably about their challenges and opportunities.  Third, the participants deepened their relationships with each other.  Because I am one of the leaders of the Silicon Guild, I generally knew more about the participants than most other people.  In some cases, I had known the participants for many years.  Yet I learned many new things that caused me to look at the differently than before, with greater understanding and admiration.

Every Modern Elder Academy workshop is private and confidential, so I can’t share too much more about the identities of the participants or what we spoke about, but I do want to reflect on the different elements of experience design which helped make the week such a magical experience.  Chip Conley is likely the greatest hospitality thinker in the world, as the creator of the Joie de Vivre hotel company, and later, head of global hospitality and strategy at Airbnb.  The MEA may be his greatest creation; it certainly is the creation that most reflects his exact vision.  He even lives there about eight months a year, and facilitates about 25 cohorts per year, which is both remarkable and a stupendous investment of time and energy.  I viewed my week at the MEA as a chance to learn from a singular master’s magnum opus (you can learn more about Chip at his website or daily blog Wisdom Well)

Every element of the experience works together, but the nature of writing is that I can only detail one element at a time.  Hopefully reading this entire list will allow you to form a useful mental vision of the experience, just know that to truly learn more, you should go there yourself.

1. The experience begins before you arrive.  Participants are assigned homework that asks them to self-reflect about what they might want to let go and what their core qualities are (both positive and challenging).  Interestingly enough, the homework is not actually used directly; it is designed to prime the participant for the upcoming experience.  In addition, the MEA coordinates your transportation to and from the airport, so you do not have to think about any logistics or carry any money.  This reminded me a bit of Walt Disney World; when we stayed at Disney resorts with our family, the vacation would begin with a ride on the Magical Express bus, which would pick us up at the airport and take us to our hotel.  As with the MEA, this extended the experience and avoided disrupting the “magical spell” of the experience with worrying about details or costs.  When Alisha and I arrived at SJD airport, we made our way through customs, quickly found our fellow participants, and within 15 minutes, were on our way to the MEA, ice-cold bottles of water in our hands.

2. Food is a critical part of the experience.  All of the participants eat together for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and almost always in the same location.  The setting is amazing; there are two wooden dining tables on a covered patio, looking out over the beach.  Every dinner was timed so that we could watch the sunset during dinner.

The food is excellent, made with local ingredients, and in many cases hyperlocal fruits and vegetables from the MEA’s own garden.  Chip proudly explained that this small region of Baja California is a cooking hotbed that many famous chefs visit for inspiration. One of my favorite things was that nearly every meal included the option of fresh avocados (that were truly perfect; ripe and unblemished quarters ready to eat) and fresh guacamole.  The staff gradually got used to my asking for two quarters at every meal.  I also enjoyed the various fresh Mexican sauces, and the salads.  When I travel, I don’t often get the chance to eat as many vegetables as I do at home; this wasn’t an issue at the MEA.  All the staff members, nearly all of whom are Mexican, are introduced by name, and take enormous pride in their hospitality.  They also exude an obvious joy in their work, joking and laughing with each other as they work.  At the graduation ceremony (more on that later), the available staff members lined up to hug the various participants.  One of the staff members, Gio, helped serve the meals, acted as bartender and barista (several times, he made Alisha and I an afternoon iced coffee by pouring ice, half-and-half, agave syrup, and fresh coffee in a cocktail shaker, for a perfect “cocktail”), and then gave a poolside performance one evening in which played the guitar and sang some of his favorite Mexican songs.

3. The physical accommodations are carefully designed to balance comfort, beauty, and nature.  One of the trademarks of Joie de Vivre was the fact that each hotel was designed with its own personality.  Hotels like the Four Seasons and the Intercontinental offer perfectly manicured opulence, and I enjoy them, but when I stay there, I can’t tell just from the environment whether I am in Bangkok, Riyadh, or Seoul.  The MEA wasn’t luxurious in the traditional sense, but every physical element fit together.  For example, all of the sinks were made from colorful traditional mosaics, and the same colorful design elements appeared at every pool, every fountain, and even on some of the stair risers.  There were plants and colorful flowers everywhere, and I couldn’t find any place on the grounds that did not feature the sound of moving water, whether the ocean waves or fountains and other water features.

I was never more than 30 feet from a pool or hot tub (though ironically, I never went in one).  This is not to say that I found every element of the experience delightful.  There are certain physical realities that even Chip’s careful curation couldn’t ignore.  The climate is hot in July, which meant choosing between fresh air (and uncomfortably warm temperatures) and closed doors and windows (and air conditioning).  Given the choice, I generally prefer the latter.  And whenever meals were served, the scent of the food magically attracted flies (which we held at bay with fans and spinning fly repellers).  My legs were also covered with insect bites which are more prevalent during the summer.  The first dinner, I didn’t bother putting on insect repellent, and I ended up being bitten about ten times.  Then a mosquito tormented me that first night by biting me another half-dozen times on my hands, face, and feet.  Fortunately, the mosquito went away, but any time I neglected my insect repellent, I was bitten again.

4. The MEA experience incorporates a number of rituals to help participants step and stay outside their ordinary world.  Each day begins with a one-hour Wisdom Circle.  Whoever feels so moved picks up the talking stick and shares something “from their essence.”  They start by saying their name, and end by saying, “I am complete.”  After the first speaker, the talking stick moves clockwise until every participant has spoken.  No one else is allowed to speak, but participants can “polish the pearl” by rubbing their hands together to indicate their support or that they appreciated hearing a “pearl” of wisdom.  As the week progresses, the sharing often becomes more intimate and vulnerable as the bonds between the participants grow stronger and stronger.

5. One of the most interesting elements of experience design is the collaborative bread baking.  Each cohort is divided into three groups, each of which is put in charge of baking bread that will be shared at 11 AM that day.  Each baking group gathers at 6:45 AM to prepare three loaves for final proofing.  They take dough that was started the previous day from the previous group, and add in any extra ingredients (sweet or savory, including a bevy of fresh herbs).  They then return at 8:45 AM to turn on the oven, heat up three Dutch Ovens, and then put the loaves to bake for 30 minutes.  After the baking, they return to remove the loaves from the oven so that they are ready to serve at 11 AM.  The bakers then present the bread to their fellow participants.  This accomplishes a number of important things.

First, it provides the cohort with a mid-morning snack and natural decompression opportunity after the Wisdom Circle.

Second, it gives each baking group the opportunity to get to know each other better through an activity.  In our case, we prepared a number of ingredients (including repurposing some of the personal snacks we had brought to the MEA, as well as asking the kitchen staff for some special requests), made four loaves of bread (all the better to have two different kinds of sweet loaf), and used ChatGPT to compose special limericks about each loaf for the group members to recite.  As the first group, we wanted to set a high bar.  The second group (with the help of some advice from me) also got some special ingredients like chocolate mole from the kitchen team, and also sang a song (it helps to have an accomplished professional singer-songwriter on your team).  The third group cleverly zagged, by preparing plain loaves of bread, but also cooking a wide range of spreads, from chocolate and bananas foster, to pub cheese.  It made for fun competition, delicious eating, and fond memories.

Third, there is something very primal about sharing food that you prepared.  Cooking for others is an amazing relationship builder, but it carries real risks.  It might take a long time, especially if the groups are competitive, and there is a real risk that some of the dishes will turn out badly.  By keeping the exercise tightly constrained to baking three loaves, using dough prepared the day before, the MEA is able to reap the benefits of cooking and sharing in a tightly constrained amount of time, without the same risks.  I found this element of experience design especially clever!

The next section lists out some of the particularly interesting and impactful exercises.

6. One the first day of the program, Chip led us through one of the most interesting exercises.  We looked over hundreds of 2.5″ diameter stickers, on which were printed various identity and mindset statements.  For example, one was “I worry that my enthusiasm sometimes bowls other people over.”  Another was, “I am a closet narcissist.”  We were also allowed to write our own.  The goal was to pick 3-6 statements and stick them to our chests.  I modified “I am a closet narcissist” by crossing out the “closet”.  We then gathered into two lines facing each other.  At the ringing of a bell, we were to stare into each other’s eyes for 10 seconds, then read and take in the other person’s stickers, stare into each other’s eyes for another 10 seconds, and then recognize the other person (generally with a heartfelt hug).  We then rotated around until each person had paired up with every member of the other line, then formed smaller circles and paired off again until each person had seen and acknowledged every other person’s stickers.

Once again, I was struck by the careful experience design.  Unlike group activities like “Crossing the Line,” which is designed to allow people to be vulnerable, but also cause people to realize how common certain experiences actually are, this was a concentrated individual activity.  And the focus on individual pairings creates a much greater sense of sharing and honesty than forming a vague sense of the group.  Offering both pre-printed and blank stickers lets people who would rather choose, choose, and lets people who prefer to be individuals create their own identity statements.

The exercise was interesting for me because, as someone commented later, I am unusually WYSIWYG.  What you see is what you get, and I didn’t really have any identity elements to hide.  I’m quite open about being a narcissist (albeit an empathetic one who cares about others and tries to help them).  But even though I already felt seen, it felt good to see others and feel like I understood them better.  It feels good to see how a person’s identity lines up with how you see them, and it feels insightful to see something you didn’t know before.

7. After the identity exercise, we then went through “The Great Midlife Edit.”  We each wrote on a piece of paper the things we wanted to let go, and held a firepit ceremony overlooking the ocean.  Each person stepped up, said what they wanted to let go, and what they wanted to replace it with, then tossed their paper into the firepit and received a bracelet to commemorate the ceremony.  It was a great way to bookend the identity exercise, though I have to confess that because I am an extremely happy person who does not feel the need to change (other than losing a few more pounds) I can’t actually remember what I wrote or said! (UPDATE: Alisha reminded me of what I wrote, which is that I would restrain myself and let things play out on their own, rather than leaping in to defuse any conflict that arose in front of me.)

8. A fun and light exercise was a mini-improv workshop.  As an extremely experienced improviser, I didn’t expect to learn that much, but I was quite taken with our final improv game, which I had never played before.  I’m not sure what the name of the game is, but I mentally dubbed it Anachronic Storytelling.  The way the game works is that the players go up one at a time, choose a place along a line, and speak a sentence, which they have to remember (this is important!).  The twist is that the line represents the sequence of the story, and that each player chooses where along the line to stand before adding their contribution to the story.  After each player goes, all the players then re-speak their sentences in order.  This creates the interesting dynamic of the later players having to figure out how to add connectors from one seemingly disparate story point to another.  This is in contrast to a traditional chronological storytelling exercise, where each player would pick up where the last player left off.  The anachronic storytelling greatly heightens both dramatic tension and the perceived degree of difficulty (though I would argue that the increased difficulty is largely a matter of player perception, and that it is not actually that much harder).  Entertainingly enough, this also places a greater amount of pressure on the later players to make sense of the story.  Once I heard the rules, I anticipated this, and with hidden glee, went relatively early so others could feel/enjoy the squirming tension.  The two sentences I went between were, “So she grabbed the rice-maker and the sake” and “And that’s why clouds are fluffy.”  My sentence, which I composed to have multiple potential meanings, but also to serve as a singular bridge if necessary, was “The Japanese spirits lifted them into the sky.”

9. A pair of extremely impactful exercises closes out the week.  The first is “Poetry and Lyrics.”  Each participant chooses either a poem (or prose passage) or song that is meaningful to them, explains when it was important to them and why, and either reads the poem, plays the song, or performs the song, after which there is a brief group discussion.  The participant gets to choose whether to explain first or play first; most people chose to explain first.  Chip and our other facilitator, Caitlin, explained how the exercise had evolved over time.  Originally, they tried just poetry or prose, but found that the idea of reciting literature intimidated some people and often didn’t produce the desired effect.  On the other hand, music is nearly universal, and the chances that someone doesn’t have a song that is particularly meaningful to them in some way is extremely low.  We were a particularly literary group, so some of the participants chose poems that they had written themselves.  Others chose well-known poems that had a particular meaning to them, and others chose songs.  I chose a particular song and sang it acapella, though I saved my performance for the end since it was a simple and happy song with a simple and happy explanation (simple and happy is a good description for how I try to live my life!).  We had another rousing (and surprising) musical performance, and also discovered to our astonishment and delight that two of the participants had chosen the same song: “Closer to Fine” by the Indigo Girls.  After the session ended, we played the song a second time and everyone danced around to the music while singing along.

The design of this exercise is particularly clever.  It comes at the end of the week, which means that the participants are emotionally bonded.  It involves people talking about something they love, which is almost always a great way to produce interesting content that uplifts emotions.  By focusing on literature and songs, the exercise tends to result in people sharing content on universal human themes, which combines well with their extremely personal explanation of why the content was important to them.  Asking people to explain the time in their life when the poem/song was important to them is a natural trigger to storytelling.  And finally, verse, whether in poetry or song, tends to elicit strong emotions from the listeners, and takes them from the world of logic to the world of feelings.  It was very moving.

After Poetry and Lyrics came the final official element of the program: the graduation ceremony.  We gathered in a circle in a different space from where the rest of the week had taken place (this is important; it makes the ceremony distinct and memorable, and signals to the participants that they need to elevate their attention and emotional levels to an even higher level).  The process was simple:

A. Chip would say something about a participant and their week before finally naming them and calling them to the front of the room (the dramatic tension draws people in even further, and provides the satisfying sensation of things “clicking” into place when the person is finally named).  Chip would stand in front of them, looking them in the eye (in a bit of a callback to the identity exercise), speak from the heart about their journey that week, and then give them an MEA diploma (a handmade certificate made by a local artist) while pronouncing, “You are now a modern elder.”

B. One person would then volunteer to speak about the graduate.  This was first-come, first-served, but with the proviso that as many voices as possible would have a chance to speak (otherwise someone like me who always has something they want to say would speak far too much).  If the person’s spouse was a part of the cohort, that spouse would also speak about the person.

C. After the speaker or speakers, we would go around the room counterclockwise (I’m not sure if this was an intentional choice to subtly contrast with the rest of the week or just coincidence; I hope it was the former!) and each person, including the speaker or speakers, would say a single word about the participant (some people cheated and used a few extra words).  This is also fascinating to me because it forces participants to distill so much down to a single word, which makes that word extremely meaningful and forces people to say so much more with body language, eye contact, and other non-verbal communication.

D. Finally, the participant themself speaks about their experience.  This is both a final chance for the other cohort members to look deeply into the soul of the participant, and a final chance for the participant to crystallize the most important learnings of their experience and feel seen and supported by the others.

After the ceremony, the cohort follows Chip to a new outdoor dining area where they are greeted with hugs from the MEA staff, food and drinks, live music, and the chance to relax and watch the impending sunset (the end of the graduation ceremony is timed to occur a few minutes before sunset).

Overall, it was an incredible experience that had been designed by a master, executed with incredible care and love by an entire team.  I have participated in many peak experiences in my life, including carefully designed experiences from Stanford, Harvard Business School, the Unreasonable Group, and of course the Disney Galactic Starcruiser.  The Modern Elder Academy equalled or exceeded all of them in design and execution (though of course each peak experience had different objectives).  

That is not to say that I wouldn’t try adding a few things.  For example, I might add in more explicit 1:1 time (perhaps pre-dinner) where participants would pair up and talk, perhaps while walking, perhaps with some kind of conversation prompt.  I found my 1:1 discussions among the most interesting highlights of my Unreasonable Group experiences.  I might also try adding an element of Jeffersonian Dinners to the evening meals, though I wonder if that might be too much and that the current unstructured design offers necessary decompression time.  Finally, I really like the Unreasonable Group structure of having fireside chats to end the evening, which more naturally leads to extended discussions into the night.  There weren’t any air-conditioned spaces where a small group of people could sit around a table, which produces a different dynamic than sitting around couches.  Then again, I probably needed the sleep which late night discussions would not allow!

10. As I mentioned, we pursued a hybrid curriculum where we spend a lot of our time on Silicon Guild content, like discussing the future of the publishing industry, and the impact of artificial intelligence.  These “nuts and bolts” sessions were helpful, but I think the best Silicon Guild sessions were the “Appreciative Inquiry” sessions.  These reminded me a bit of Pixar Braintrust sessions (boy, I wish Ed Catmull had been able to attend so we could hear his thoughts) in the sense that an individual member facing a challenge or looking for advice and help explains the situation.  Then the group members have to ask clarifying questions, but cannot provide advice or offer help.  Only after it feels like people truly understand the situation does the group shift into problem-solving mode.

This Appreciative Inquiry worked incredibly well for what I believe are the following reasons.

A. Focusing on a single person’s situation, rather than an abstract topic, maintained the focus on being human and considering feelings, not just facts.  This focus also allowed us to get to know the person more deeply.

B. The advice and help periods were incredibly fruitful, as the various group members built on each others’ ideas and came up with specific introductions that they could make.  It was an interesting contrast to the Unreasonable Groups “Commitments” approach, which are more formalized and thus don’t feel as organic, but do result in written commitments which likely increases the chances of that help being ultimately provided.

C. As someone pointed out, given the collective billing rate of the participants in the room, people were literally getting the benefit of a $10-20,000 per hour consulting collective–that’s a pretty remarkable value!

We are planning on making the Silicon Guild visits to the MEA an annual event.  Not only is it remarkably fun, insightful, and useful, but I think it would build the kind of deep bonds between members that will elevate the Silicon Guild even further.

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