When I started my boutique hotel company, Joie de Vivre, at age 26, a local newspaper called me “boy wonder.” When I joined Airbnb at twice that age, 52 (and twice the age of the average employee), I suddenly became a “modern elder.” And in the past few years my inner child has been wrestling with my outer elder. But what I’ve really enjoyed is becoming an expert on longevity and the value of wisdom in the workplace while deep in the midst of writing my next book — working title “Modern Elder” — which comes out next year.
I like to think of myself as a bottle of fine wine, versus a carton of spoiled milk, and have started asking people, “What’s your vintage?” When I turned 55 last year, I knew this was more than just a speed limit. It’s a cautionary age. Lenin said to Trotsky, “Do you know the worst of all vices? It is being over 55.” And, after a close friend committed suicide at 55, Einstein at the same age commented on this inner conflict, “There is ever-increasing difficulty of adapting oneself to new ways of thought, a difficulty that always confronts any man who has passed fifty.”
But Hippocrates, the father of medicine who was born 2,500 years ago, believed the high point of one’s developmental life (when longevity was much shorter) was age 56. He was the first to compare old age to four seasons with old age being winter. Author G. Stanley Hall, who called our fifties and sixties the “Indian Summer” of life, gives this poignant, seasonal assessment of the value of age, “We rarely come to anything like a masterly grip till the shadows begin to slant eastward, and for a season, which varies greatly with individuals, our powers increase as the shadows lengthen.” It’s encouraging to know our best years may be ahead of us.
One of the benefits of writing a book is doing the research. I’ve read more than 100 books and academic reports on the subject of longevity and aging, from Betty Friedan’s “The Fountain of Age” to my favorite read of 2017, “The 100-Year Life” by Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott. Here are 10 fascinating facts about longevity from Andrew.
A study by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman that appeared in the Harvard Business Review is one of the most illuminating. They studied 7,000 businesspeople and found that older people were more open to self-improvement and less defensive to criticism because they’d evolved over time to be able to focus on improving themselves rather than just proving themselves. And, the more self confidence a person has, the more willing they are to change. Zenger and Folkman found a direct correlation between age and self confidence. But this was particularly marked for women who continue growing in their willingness to change well into their 60s, while men start to decline at that age. Highly recommend you watch this short video that summarizes their findings.
There’s also quite a bit of growing data that intergenerational teams are more effective because older people on the team often have better collaboration skills after years of building emotional intelligence. Why is this important? There’s another HBR study that shows the average age of founders of “unicorn” companies (private start-ups valued above $1 billion) is 31, the average age of their CEOs is 41, and the average age at the most valuable tech companies in the world hovers around 30. Compare this with the average age of the American employee, 42, and the average age of the S&P 500 CEOs, 52, and you can see that the companies driving our digital economy are shifting power to the young. We are likely to live ten years longer than our parents, and may work twenty years longer, but power is moving ten years younger, which is a trend with some troubling implications.
Robert De Niro and young cast in “The Intern”
As my friend and futurist Nancy Giordano suggests, “With little training, we expect young digital leaders to miraculously embody the relationship wisdoms we elders had twice as long to learn.” If there’s any evidence of the need for modern elders, Uber’s Travis Kalanick is a prime case study. I won’t pile on with my own analysis of Travis’ bravado and “live by the sword, die by the sword” approach to leadership, but I will say that I’m proud Airbnb’s CEO Brian Chesky recognized many years ago that he needed lots of mentors in a variety of areas to become the very successful leader he’s matured into. I’m still humbled by this Fast Company article on my role as Brian’s mentor from more than three years ago when Airbnb was a much smaller company. Recently, the New York Times offered a front page Sunday Business article on how, in tandem with Brian and a great cast of characters, I helped to shape Airbnb into a hospitality company that now has 50% higher guest satisfaction than the hotel industry (based upon Net Promoter Score, NPS).
Age can bring wisdom — when coupled with healthy introspection and the willingness to seek support during the difficult times. Or, aging can blindside with devastating consequences. When we think of Switzerland, we think of chocolates, watches, bank accounts, and ski slopes. Not suicides. Four high-profile executive suicides (CEO of Swisscom, CEO and CFO of Zurich Insurance, and the top-rated Michelin chef in Switzerland) remind us how emotions can be a slippery slope for, in particular, middle-aged men. It took the suicide of my close friend and insurance broker Chip Hankins in 2008 for me to explore my own tenuous relationship with emotions, which led me to develop the equation Despair = Suffering – Meaning, animated in this video for my book Emotional Equations.
Let’s end on a positive note. Another form of longevity is loyalty, a quality often lamented as being in short supply in our transactional 21st century. I am so fortunate to have a couple of employees who’ve worked with me for more thirty years now. I profiled housekeeper Vivian Quach in my TED talk a few years ago. The other person who has been with me since the start of my first hotel, The Phoenix, is Martin Cabello, a maintenance supervisor. I taught Martin to drive a stick shift on the hills of San Francisco when he was 21 years old, celebrated the birth of his first baby, and toasted him when he got his citizenship. We’ve grown up together. To thank and acknowledge Martin, I invited him, his wife, and four kids to join me in my home in El Pescadero, Baja California Sur in Martin’s native Mexico. This was the first time the family had ever taken a vacation on a plane together and it was heartwarming to spend time deepening my connection to Martin’s family. (And, it really upped my Spanish game, speaking only Español with them for four days.)
I’m feeling mighty grateful to have this beach home. Over the past five weeks here, I’ve written 100 first draft pages of Modern Elder, run 100 miles on the beach, swum 25 miles in the pool, and taken 25 yoga classes. I only wish I could say I’d caught 25 waves as an amateur surfer, but I’m getting better. And, as just one more example of how life imitates art, eighteen years ago I rented a writing cottage near Pescadero, California while we were building the boutique campground, Costanoa (“glamping” years ahead of its time). I pounded out my first book, The Rebel Rules, coastside, and ended it with the parable of the Mexican fisherman and the MBA as a reminder of how the simple things in life sometimes give us the greatest pleasure. Now, my life — taking up guitar again while living on a beach in Mexico named for a fishmonger — imitates my art. I leave you with the story…
An American investment banker was at the pier of a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. Inside the small boat were several large yellowfin tuna.
The American complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them.
The Mexican replied, “only a little while. The American then asked why didn’t he stay out longer and catch more fish? The Mexican said he had enough to support his family’s immediate needs. The American then asked, “but what do you do with the rest of your time?”
The Mexican fisherman said, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siestas with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine, and play guitar with my amigos. I have a full and busy life.”
The American scoffed, “I am a Harvard MBA and could help you. You should spend more time fishing and with the proceeds, buy a bigger boat. With the proceeds from the bigger boat, you could buy several boats, eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman you would sell directly to the processor, eventually opening your own cannery. You would control the product, processing, and distribution. You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then LA and eventually New York City, where you will run your expanding enterprise.”
The Mexican fisherman asked, “But, how long will this all take?”
To which the American replied, “15 – 20 years.”
“But what then?” Asked the Mexican.
The American laughed and said, “That’s the best part. When the time is right you would announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich, you would make millions!”
“Millions – then what?”
The American said, “Then you would retire. Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siestas with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos.”
Here’s to a long, healthy and happy life,