Courtesy of Modern Elder Academy
A shaman performs a ceremony near the Modern Elder Academy in Pescadero, Mexico.

The broad, blank canvas of Baja, Mexico, helps an entrepreneur find new meaning later in life

Chip Conley  – May 7, 2019 | Updated June 6, 2019

“Alfredo,” a tall, centuries-old cactus, stood watch over the shaman performing his blessings and cleansings amid the sound of yelping sea lions in the distance. I was out of my natural habitat, but I felt strangely at home in this wild and beautiful landscape along Mexico’s Baja California Sur coast. If you had told me two decades ago that I’d be hanging out with a shaman on the beach, I would have said you were nuts. But at age 50, I was feeling burned out and a bit lost in my career. I was searching for a new purpose and, more importantly, a sense of freedom. This region’s untamed nature and laid-back pace turned out to be what I needed to help me find my way.

Over the years, I’d been visiting Todos Santos, a surf town about an hour north of Cabo San Lucas that has long attracted artists and musicians—a town full of starlight but without a stoplight. Yet it was the surrounding area, with its rugged terrain and gracious spirit, that captured my imagination. One word described it all: fresh. The organic farmland and beaches. The adventure sports. The migrating whales and the hatching sea turtles that arrived during the peak winter season. All of that natural freshness inspired fresh ideas. It was a place where I could think big, creative thoughts.

So, after more than a half-dozen return trips from my home in San Francisco, I decided to buy my first “second home” in Pescadero, a quiet beach and farming town south of Todos. Having previously proclaimed that the world was my second home, I fell under the spell of southern Baja. And soon, my best friend was a shaman. The first time I met him, I felt an immediate intimacy, as if he could see into my soul. I felt rather naked having spent a few decades building a scaffolding of personality and achievement only to have this man see me for who I was: a slightly anxious guy in midlife who realized the game plan that got him here probably no longer served him as he approached the Indian summer of his life.

For the past half-century—since the phrase “midlife crisis” emerged into the popular lexicon in the mid-1960s—midlife was defined as 45 to 65 years of age. But today, in many industries, geographies, and cultures, people start feeling old in their mid-thirties. On the other end of the spectrum, if an increasing percentage of us will live to 100, it’s plausible that midlife and our career might extend into our mid-seventies. This new middle-age time span from 35 to 75 feels like a marathon that leaves many of us exhausted from the sheer volume of identities we inhabit. And, yet, most of us don’t take the time to consider new possibilities. Baja was like an empty canvas for me to imagine what was next.

One afternoon, my friend Christine and I were balancing rocks on the beach. This simple, playful act was my first insight into my next meaningful act: mentoring. The rock on top relies on the presence and balance of the one below it, just as a mentee relies on the presence and experience of their mentor. Unexpectedly, nature had given me an epiphany. I could develop a campus dedicated to mentoring people as they navigate their midlife transitions.

Courtesy of Modern Elder Academy

The Modern Elder Academy retreat offers week-long education programs starting at $5,000.

I’m now 58, and online longevity websites tell me that based upon my genes and health regimen, I’m likely to live to 98, which means that I’m at halftime of my adult life (counting from age 18). When you realize that you have that many years ahead of you, you’re open to developing a beginner’s mind toward new things. For me, that means taking up Spanish and surfing, and launching a new business. The Modern Elder Academy, my midlife-wisdom school, opened last year in Pescadero. Friends have bought homes around the campus, as one of them calls it an exercise in “we-tirement,” choosing to live around people who are growing whole, not old. 

Society’s outdated model of a three-stage life (learn, earn, retire) taught us that this was a “one-tank journey,” where we fuel up on curiosity and counsel in our learn period (mostly our teens and twenties), and burn most of our old-school fuel in the earn period. But today, with increased longevity and accelerated changes in the modern workplace, many of us are running on fumes and in need of a midlife pit stop. Mine was in a rural part of Mexico, where I learned to slow down and let sunsets and surf sessions dictate my days. It’s the place I now call home; the place where I get to help other midlifers reframe their mind-set and imagine how they can repurpose their mastery.

Chip Conley is the founder of Joie de Vivre Hospitality. His new book, [email protected] (Penguin Random House; $27), chronicles his time working for Airbnb. The Modern Elder Academy offers weeklong education programs starting at $5,000.

Keep Reading: