At this Baja school, post-50-year-olds learn to grow whole, not old
I am supposed to be meditating. In front of me is a serene man, an empty beach, a Swarovski sea and two breaching whales.
I have never been good at seated meditation, so I give thanks instead. I recently learned that noting three gratitudes a day makes you a happier person. Here goes: 1. I’m in Mexico in the middle of a work week. 2. I’m surrounded by beauty. 3. I’m not feeling like the oldest person present for once.
This is the point of this week and this place. I am at the Modern Elder Academy in El Pescadero on Mexico’s Baja Peninsula for a weeklong retreat. We’re staying in one of the academy’s casas, learning about wisdom, skills and ways in which the mostly over-50 set can get along in today’s millennial-centric world. The tagline of this place is “Grow Whole, Not Old.”
I am here because, at 52, I co-founded a company and need a reminder to trust my instincts. My husband is attending because he recently left his tech job and is at that terrifying “what’s next?” phase.
Most of us who are over 50 — and you probably are if you are holding this newspaper — are often made to feel like dolts in the digital era. Our skills are deemed antiquated, obsolete.
But, said Chip Conley, author, speaker, entrepreneur, Esalen and Burning Man board member, founder of the academy, what about emotional intelligence? What about decades of hard knocks and successes? What about all that mastery and wisdom from experience? Society should not ignore that at 50 and older, we have a lot to contribute.
We ought to be leading what Conley calls a “two-tank life,” with longevity accelerating as rapidly as ageism. After beginning a book on the topic, he realized there was a need to refuel, especially for those facing a midlife challenge: a change of job, an upheaval in life circumstance, a loss of motivation or a need to escape, reflect and learn. And so, in 2018 the Modern Elder Academy opened to receive guests.
Conley, who founded and sold the boutique hotel company Joie de Vivre, was brought into Airbnb by its youthful founders, who realized they needed a mentor.
After four years at Airbnb, Conley wrote his fifth book, “Wisdom @ Work: The Making of a Modern Elder.” He bought two acres in El Pescadero and created a campus that can help middle-agers —or perennials, as we should insist on being called — navigate the shoals of aging.
There are some advantages to being 50 or older, including affording to stay in luxury on the beachfront in two large, traditionally tiled casas with hotel-like rooms, modern Mexican art on the walls, two swimming pools, a sauna, daily massages and an in-house chef.
There are 20 workshops a year, with names such as the Consciously Curated Life and the Psychology of Presence, each with Conley and a teacher. The one- and two-week workshops can host 12 guests, growing to 16 as facilities expand.
We had Mark Coleman, author and mindfulness instructor, as our morning teacher. Others include Barbara Waxman, executive, personal coach and author of “The Middlescence Manifesto,” and Jeff Hamaoui, a collaboration and innovation specialist.
Mornings start at the civilized hour of 8 with optional yoga or meditation accompanied by the crashing Pescadero Beach waves. This is followed by the Wisdom Circle, where everybody can speak about whatever is on their mind, followed by bread making Then the morning’s 1½-hour educational session; a healthful gourmet lunch; the afternoon two-hour session, followed by cocktails, dinner and sometimes an after-dinner activity such as storytelling, beach walks or a movie. It’s hardly boot camp.
One of my favorite classes was How to Work With Millennials. I am considered the class idiot among my co-workers when it comes to technology, most of whom are younger.
It was an “aha” moment when Conley suggested we offer to trade our life acumen and decision-making abilities for their tech know-how, the kind of “intergenerational mentoring” he fostered at Airbnb.
Conley also debunked the myth that we age out because we are no longer topic experts. As people age, they typically are better at asking questions (oh so true), and this is often a shortcut to impact and change.
Exploring the area
The week was not all about midlife morale-boosting. Time also was allotted for exploration. El Pescadero is a fishing town and one of Mexico’s finest agricultural areas.
Nearby are beach walks, coffee at the community-gathering Baja Beans and alfresco dinners at Hierbabuena, a restaurant that grows and serves organic produce in dishes such as chard enchiladas.
Todos Santos is a 20-minute drive (MEA has vehicles). Its cobblestone streets are lined with pastel colonial buildings that contain modern-art galleries, hipster bars, global-chic boutiques, nuevo-Latin epicurean restaurants, taquerias and churches. On Saturdays, a band may play in the plaza with locals dressed up and dancing.
What were my MEA takeaways other than a restful week in a pristine setting with like-minded people? A timeline for desired outcomes, a commitment to hire more over 50s, the determination to eschew embarrassment over my tech blunderings, and to take pride in my problem-solving abilities. These were among other mini-breakthroughs.
Conley has struck a chord with his determination to celebrate the intelligence of aging. And why not do that surrounded by peace, beauty, wisdom and an añejo tequila in hand.
If you go
Modern Elder Academy. Cost is $5,000 per week, which includes tuition, accommodations, meals, beverages, workshops and a massage. Full and half scholarships available upon application.
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