I shared this at Burning Man, TEDx Black Rock City, last week…
750 years ago, the Sufi poet and philosopher Rumi said, “My life may be summed up in three phrases. I was raw. I became cooked. Then I burned.” Digital life has accelerated our cooking time. There’s a growing number of people feeling like a carton of milk with an expiration date stamped on their wrinkled foreheads. And modern technocrats often think that our knowledge doesn’t accumulate over time, but actually grows out of date.
In 2015, all Baby Boomers hit the over-50 mark. Back in 1900, U.S. life expectancy was 47. In 2000 it was 77. Who knows, maybe it’ll be 107 by the year 2100? So, at age 55, I may be just barely halfway through my life. One of the paradoxes of our time is this: Boomers enjoy better health than ever, remain young and stay in the workplace longer. BUT they feel less and less relevant. Are WE a carton of milk or a bottle of fine wine? Can elders offer insight or is it time for US to get the hell out of the way? If the latter, I guess I should just leave the stage now.
Let me first tell you why I think elders have something to offer – ESPECIALLY in the digital era. While wisdom has historically flowed downhill, today we can create an intergenerational transfer of wisdom that flows in both directions, allowing Boomers and Millennials, and, frankly, all generations, to learn from each other. In the past few years, I’ve experienced my own recipe of feeling cooked and burned at the same time. I started a boutique hotel company when I was 26 and sold it 24 years later. In the 2015 film, “The Intern,” Robert DeNiro said, “Musicians don’t retire. They stop when there’s no more music left inside of them.” I knew I still had music inside of me, but I wasn’t sure where to share it.
That’s when the Airbnb founders came calling. Cofounder and CEO Brian Chesky approached me in early 2013. These Millennial founders wanted me to help take their growing tech start-up and turn it into a global hospitality giant. Sounded good, but I was such an “old school” hotel guy, I had never used Airbnb. For that matter, I didn’t even have an Uber or Lyft app on my phone three and a half years ago. Initially, I was a little intimidated. I was 52 years old and had never worked in a tech company where one’s value can be defined by the maxim, “I code, therefore I am.” Let’s face it, I don’t read or write code.
I was twice the age of the average Airbnb employee and, after two dozen years running my own company, I’d be reporting to a smart guy 21 years younger than me. What would it feel like getting my first performance review from a boss who could be the age of my son? On my first day, I heard an existential tech question in a meeting and I didn’t know how to answer it, “If you shipped a feature and no one used it, did it really ship?” Bewildered, I realized I was in deep “ship” as I didn’t even know what it meant to “ship product.” After my first week, I was dazed and confused. Brian asked me to be his mentor, but I also felt like an intern. Could I simultaneously be both a mentor and an intern? Being part of such a success story is a privilege. I have been blessed to work with some of the most inspiring people in Silicon Valley. I’ve learned a lot. And I’m going to offer three things that helped me to share wisdom with and learn from those younger than me.
My first lesson: “I’ll trade you some emotional intelligence for your digital intelligence.” Many young people can read the face of their iPhone better than they can read the face of the person sitting next to them Staring into screens instead of eyes, they may understand the inner workings of gadgets better than the internal workings of their fellow humans. I’m not saying young people don’t understand emotions. In fact, our digital world is full of emojis and the term being an “emo” didn’t exist back in my schoolyard days. But, emojis don’t create interpersonal, face-to-face fluency.
I was surrounded by digitally savvy folks who might not realize that being “emo-savvy”…might be just the thing to help them grow into great leaders. As my futurist friend Nancy Giordano reminded me, “With little training, we expect young digital era leaders to miraculously embody the relationship wisdoms we elders had twice as long (and often lots of guidance) to learn.” I helped set up the first Learning & Development function in the company, which taught 28 year olds how to lead 24 year olds. At the heart of this were themes like, “How do you design an alliance?” or “How do you read the emotions in a meeting room when you’re addressing a group?”
Early in “The Intern,” young CEO Anne Hathaway doesn’t want Robert DeNiro as her personal intern because this senior citizen is a little “too observant.” Being “observant” is part of what helped me succeed at Airbnb. It allowed me to create an “emotional bank account” with those I worked with. I don’t care if you’re in the B2B, B2C, C2C, or A2Z world, all business is fundamentally H2H (Human to Human) and EQ (emotional intelligence) becomes more important the more responsibility you have in an organization. Emotional intelligence author Daniel Goleman has shown that ⅔ of leaders’ success is due to EQ and only ⅓ is due to IQ or level of experience in the job.
My second observation: “Learning never ends.” William Yeats once wrote, “Education is not filling a pail. It’s lighting a fire.” I was able to light a fire in the company by being catalytically curious. I didn’t know any better. Being in a tech company was new for this old fart. My beginner’s mind helped us to see our blind spots a little better, as my mind was free of the habits of being the expert. Like a little kid, I asked a lot of “Why” and “What If” questions whereas most senior leaders are stuck in the “What” and How” of business. Over time, I learned that being an intern publicly and a mentor privately was essential as no one wants to be criticized in a meeting by someone as old as her Dad.
Peter Drucker, maybe the greatest management theorist of all time, said 20 years ago: “The leaders of the past knew how to tell; the leaders of the future will know how to ask.” In a constantly changing world, questions may upstage answers. Traditional elders had the clever answers. Modern elders have the catalytic questions. Incidentally, Drucker lived to age 95 and one of the ways he thrived later in life was by translating his curiosity into diving deeply into a subject that intrigued him. He’d do this every couple years about everything from Japanese flower arranging to medieval war strategies. Let me invite you to ask yourself: “How can I become more curious? What’s a subject – unrelated to my work – in which I could become one of the world’s leading experts?”
My third revelation: “It’s not just know-how. It’s also know-who.” Google is the best search engine in the world but it doesn’t understand nuance like a finely-attuned human heart and mind. Sometimes your best option isn’t to search out the “how,” but instead focus on the “who.” It helped that I’ve spent a lifetime being curious about people and things. I’ve met a lot of folks and read a lot of books and academic reports, which, I guess, means I’m well-read and well-connected. My network – both in people and knowledge – unwittingly turned me into the “ask me” guy at Airbnb instead of Mr. “Know-it-all.” I’m not sure there’s anyone in the company who has been asked to chat by a more diverse collection of employees seeking my advice or contacts and I did my best to always say an enthusiastic “yes” to these invitations.
If you were to plot all of those conversations across the various islands (or departments) of the company, you’d realize that I’ve become a web of relationships and knowledge. This served me even more as a strategic advisor to the founders, since I had a real sense of the pulse of the company and its various teams. Modern organizations operate at such a speed and transactional nature that young leaders are increasingly thrown into the fire with little support and time to cultivate emotional intelligence, curiosity, and relationship building. It’s been quite a humbling and exhilarating journey. Sometimes you have to make space in your life to see what will emerge. I thought I would run my company, Joie de Vivre, for the rest of my life, but at age 50, I was burned out. I had no idea what would come next after I sold the company. And, then Airbnb’s CEO came calling and I’ve been fortunate to help the founders and leaders steer this rocket ship of the sharing economy.
Boomers and Millennials have a lot to learn from each other and, of course, all generations can learn something from each other. The older half of the population feels increasingly less relevant, while the younger half is increasingly more powerful – yet often without formal modes of support and guidance. Many of us had decades to learn about leadership, but Millennials have had to learn faster as power moves to them more quickly in the 21st century. Enter the concept of what I call the “Modern Elder” who serves and learns, is both mentor and intern, and relishes being both student and sage. And in doing so addresses the growing gaps in job satisfaction and meaning as the business world becomes increasingly obsessed with shipping the next feature faster.
This opportunity for intergenerational learning is especially important to Boomers. We’re likely to live 10 years longer than our parents, yet power in a digital society has moved 10 years younger. So, that means Boomers can experience 20 years of additional irrelevancy and obsolescence. There will be a lot of “Boomerangst” if we don’t become “Modern Elders.” This is so important because there are nearly 3 times as many workers over 70 today compared to 25 years ago. Research shows that people with a positive perspective of their own aging live, on average, 7.5 years longer – a bigger increase in lifespan than associated with either exercising or not smoking. If you enjoy the prospect of growing older, you live longer. This isn’t just a problem to be solved…it’s an opportunity to tap into the potential of people who we thought were past their expiration date. Like this inspiration from China…
There’s an old African proverb I love, “When an elder dies, it’s like a library has burned down.” Yet, in the digital era, libraries – and elders – aren’t quite as popular as they used to be. But, wisdom never grows old. Wisdom is about pattern recognition. And, the older you are, the more patterns you’ve likely seen. Elders have always been there to support the growth of the young. But, now it’s time to see the symbiotic sharing of wisdom that the old and young can gift to each other. It’s time for Modern Elders to rethink Rumi’s phases of life. Maybe it should be…
- I was raw.
- I became cooked.
- I burned.
- And, then, I became raw again.”