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Speed Review: Wisdom at Work

Speed Review: Wisdom at Work

Speed Review: Wisdom at Work

The Making of a Modern Elder

by Chip Conley

Wisdom at Work ignites an urgent conversation about ageism in the workplace, calling on us to treat age as we would other types of diversity. At a time when power is shifting younger, companies are waking up to the value of the human skills that mid-career workers possess – like good judgment, specialized knowledge, and the ability to collaborate and coach. Chip Conley inspires us to embrace wisdom as a path to growing whole, not old.


If you’re a midlife worker, struggling to balance your hard-earned human skills against the persistent demand for digital skills on the latest software platform or application, the term ageism can threaten dark clouds in your future.

Your proven track record of specialized industry knowledge, leadership and collaboration skills can seem to be of little value when you feel the “digital natives” breathing down your neck for their next promotion.

In his new book, Wisdom at Work: The Making of a Modern Elder, boutique hotelier Chip Conley presents a “part manifesto, part playbook” that stands defiantly against the perceived loss of marketable value of older workers. Valuing digital intelligence (DQ) over emotional intelligence (EQ) is, he argues, short-sighted. Constantly chasing the newest, brightest, shiniest solution in search of larger market share or higher margins is leading corporations to a broad devaluation of the wisdom and experience they already have in house.

When Conley sold his chain of Joie de Vivre boutique hotels in 2010, he anticipated spending time exploring interests and hobbies he had put aside in favor of growing his “baby” for 24 years. However, when the founders of Airbnb reached out for his guidance and input on the true meaning of hospitality, he found himself as a mentor in a company run by millennials less than half his age.

For a guy who couldn’t write code and had yet to load a ride-sharing app on his phone, the culture shock was dramatic, to say the least. His promised wisdom as an experienced hotelier was suddenly overshadowed by his lack of digital competency. As a result, the venerated teacher found himself acting more like a student and intern as he struggled to come to grips with this new work environment.

The Rise of the Modern Elder

Conley shares several stories of businesses that have seen the value of marrying wisdom with digital competence. An entrepreneur may have the passion and technical know-how to leverage a perceived opportunity in the marketplace, but they will need to recognize their lack of hard-won lessons in that market –– the very skills that an experienced partner or senior executive can bring.

Your success as a modern elder will depend on the degree to which your identity is married to your past achievements as a business executive. If you maintain a “fixed mindset” that is tied to what has worked for you in the past, your skills and attributes will remain equally fixed.

If, on the other hand, you embrace a “growth mindset,” you will be open to change and willing to embrace the risk of making mistakes as you manage that change.

Conley summarizes that “growth mindset” approach in four lessons:

  1. Evolve: You are not your résumé. Reframe the value of your skills and experience, and reinvent yourself.
  2. Learn: Learning doesn’t stop when you hit your midlife career – adopt a beginner’s mind.
  3. Collaborate: Your seniority should never equate to rank. Acknowledge your lack of experience in this new environment, and reach out to work with others.
  4. Counsel: Balance your collaborative role with a one-on-one advisory role.

Liberating the ‘Elder’ from ‘Elderly’

Conley makes an important distinction between the term elderly –– years lived on the planet –– and the term elder –– “what one has done with those years.” The former is a classification that is often imposed by external societal values. The latter is your responsibility.

Your willingness to embrace your years of experience as an asset rather than a liability will determine your value as a modern elder. If that platform is so critical to your field, learn how to use it. If you think it’s just a flash in the plan, focus on the timeless core business values that you bring to the table.

Wisdom at Work presents a compelling case for the treatment of age as an equal component to any other diversity commitment. Instead of chasing the bright, shiny and new, companies should turn, instead, to the depth of experience they already have in house.

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