At 59, I’ve realized that not only was guacamole my friend but that my life had begun in ways I could have never imagined.
It all happened at the Modern Elder Academy (MEA), the visionary work of Chip Conley, and his brilliant team of mind-shifters, door-openers, and free-spirits. It is billed as the world’s first midlife wisdom school, a beautiful dream of a place that sits on a beachfront campus in Baja California Sur, one hour north of Cabo San Lucas in Mexico. Sandwiched between the stirring Pacific Ocean and the humble desert—it is a place filled with gardens, swimming pools, and rooms with ocean breezes. Go ahead and imagine a cold beer in your hand, a cozy deck chair beneath you, and a green flash at sunset, and you might believe you’ve arrived in paradise. And you’d be right.
But, like all good things, you must earn it. And here, the currency is curiosity, vulnerability, and the courage to live differently.
The Modern Elder Academy is more than just a breathtaking destination or the latest trend in the longevity market. It’s an experiential journey into what is possible if we allow ourselves to step out of the comfort of who we think we are, and allow ourselves to be who we could be. That might sound like a bumper sticker, but down in El Pescadero, off a quiet dirt road, it’s real and practical. Even life-changing.
From the moment you step off the van and are greeted at the front door by Karla, you know you’re on special ground—a place where people put vision and theory into artful living. Spectacularly imagined by Chip, with interior design by the brilliant Oren Bronstein, the Academy is an explosion of color and style, with attention to detail, and a love of surprise and delight (recipes for a good life). The Academy even has its own electronic-free contemplation area that sits on a preserved sand dune. Maybe my favorite place. Full-disclosure, I cheated on the first day, but only because I had to take a photo. And send a text. And answer an email.
After that, I was all in.
Sessions at the Academy are broken up into seven-day programs, although they do have a two-week immersion program. Each week has a common thread, along with a different theme run by a guest facilitator. Our week, which happened to be the first session open to the public, was on designing your life and rewiring your perception of time. It was conducted by John K. Coyle, who is not only an Olympic medalist, but one of the world's leading experts in Design Thinking and “Chronoception.”
Joining Chip in the training was Jeff Hamaoui, the Director of Education, and Christine Sperber, the Modern Elder Academy Director. I would have gone to Baja just to meet the two of them. I will always be grateful to Jeff for his generous and compassionate spirit, and even more, for a memorable beer we shared on the veranda one evening. And while Christine may be the Academy’s Director, she is also the fiery conscience of the place—an inspired voice on caring for the Earth and a heartfelt advocate for presence as a pathway to self-discovery.
Together, they all effortlessly break down the teacher-student wall by including themselves in the learning process, which is why everyone at MEA is a “compadre” on a common journey. It might be easy to overlook this small philosophy, but it’s at the core of how the Academy designs their curriculum. There is no preaching or getting on soapboxes. Traditional learning has been thrown out the window. The Academy simply offers the tools, roadmap, and, most importantly, the nurturing environment to explore truths on your own.
Of course, many other collaborators are a part of this journey—Karla, Saul, Tony, housekeepers, landscapers, architects, and construction workers, all who tend to the same mission with the same unspoken love and enthusiasm.
And just what is the Modern Elder Academy’s mission?
If you asked ten people who went through the program, you’d probably get ten different answers. I believe the MEA is the kind of place that brings out what you need, with no one experience being the same. Of course, there is clearly a defined mission, which I have shamelessly borrowed from their website:
“The Modern Elder Academy was created to help people in midlife to repurpose their knowledge and embrace their mastery while appreciating the roles of both a wisdom keeper and seeker. Their programs, based on founder Chip Conley’s book, Wisdom@Work: The Making of a Modern Elder, are designed to encourage a mind-shift toward greater relevance and empower mid-lifers to consider what’s next on their career roadmap.”
And then there is this:
“The Modern Elder Academy provides the place and the tools to start reframing your lifetime of experience in order to grow whole, not just old.”
More than powerful statements, they are accurate definitions of what they do daily. But if you ask me, they have many missions, and I’d be hard pressed to choose just one. Since I left, I’ve been asked many times what the MEA is all about, what I learned, and how it will change me moving forward. Each time, I answer the question differently.
But, one way or another, my answer always comes back to guacamole.
I don’t how many times in a week one person can say “this isn’t me” or “I’ve never done that” or “I don’t think I could,” but it’s safe to say that I probably broke the record. Of course, I know I wasn’t alone. In one way or another, everyone in our group was learning how to lean into their fears, change mindsets, and do things they’ve never done before. It’s a job that comes with the sunrises.
But here is what I learned at this midlife wisdom school: magic happens when you do something you’ve never done before, and especially if you’re uncomfortable doing it, and even more when you’re supported by nurturing friends. You learn to be vulnerable and, more importantly, to see that vulnerability as a footpath to a new way of living.
Do this enough times, and before you know it, “this isn’t me” becomes “this could be me” which in time becomes “this is me.” You start to realize that seeing yourself in a different way is the beginning of accepting and embracing the real you.
In short, you surprise yourself. And surprising yourself is what I think makes the second half of life exciting and full of purpose.
We must surprise ourselves.
And it was in this spirit that I found myself holding a naked tortilla chip in my hand, staring at a bowl of freshly made guacamole. I have spent a lifetime as an unadventurous eater. A boring eater. The truth was, I didn’t like trying new things, and green on my plate wasn’t something I was interested in exploring. And then suddenly there was this beautiful bowl of guacamole before me. Of course, in Baja, and especially at the Academy, metaphors run joyfully amok, so it was painfully evident that I was looking at much more than avocado, lime, and salt.
I was staring at a part of my life that I was not living, and perhaps my future.
And so I took a deep breath and went for it—enjoying the most delicious bite of food in my life, all while secretly wondering what else I’ve been missing.
At which point I tried the salsa.
And for me, that was the greatest gift of the Modern Elder Academy. I left ready to try anything, and with a genuine belief that anything was possible.
For that, I will be forever grateful.
To find out more about the Modern Elder Academy, visit their website at www.modernelderacademy.com. And make sure you read Chip’s inspiring and must-read book, Wisdom@Work: The Making of a Modern Elder.
And while you’re at it, grab some guacamole and make it a beautiful second half of life.