Sunbathing in Baja
Am a bit embarrassed to admit I’ve been playing hooky. It’s only the second week of classes and I’ve jumped ship for a week of sun and sea in Mexico. The contrast between last Saturday’s record-breaking snowstorm in Boston and the tranquil breeze in Baja couldn’t be more absolute. But, despite appearances, I’m not here for a holiday from the intellectual heft (and homework) of Harvard. I’m here exploring a different approach to a similar challenge: helping humans transition into purposeful Third Quarters.
I’ve been studying different programs or ‘transition mechanisms’ as I call them. They differ in length and client segmentation and age/ stage focus and purpose. My year at Harvard’s ALI is a whole-year leap into pivoting elders into purpose. So I was curious to see what the Modern Elder Academy (MEA) could do in a week. I enjoyed, and often recommend, their Covid-inspired 8-week online program that I followed last summer. How could I resist an invitation to the mothership from Founder Chip Conley? He proposed a Master Class with Carl Honoré, another London-based Canadian and the author of two books I’ve hugely appreciated: In Praise of Slow, and BOlder. Both books, and both men, have had a profound impact on me.
Not many could resist the combined charms of Chip and Carl. Their wisdom, humour, writing and reframing of the Third Quarter as a time of powerful generativity and joy have been globally influential. I watched 16 participants agreeably succumb over the course of the week. From age 39 to 71, we were a group of people in broadly defined ‘midlife,’ looking for space, time and community with which to answer a common question: ‘what’s next?’ Whether it was a needed nudge out of stuckness, a post-divorce moving-on, or the identity redefinitions required of the end of the career-first phase of life.
The accessibility of the Chip/ Carl combo was a big factor. It ain’t so common to find well-known names humble and generous enough to teach and learn (and dance and sing) with a group in an open-hearted sharing of their own journeys and transitions. Their intellectual frameworks and research made sharing more private sides of journeys more credible and comfortable for the high-powered group of professionals the session attracted (very much like Brigadier General Dana Born’s personal story with my ALI group last week. The sharing of the struggles behind every accomplished life is like a safety raft offered to all who are swimming through life’s inevitable riptides). Chip models a confident comfort with vulnerability that gives permission to everyone to unload their own burdens or shift the loud monkey-minded critical voice off a weary shoulder. There were tears, tissues and generous doses of Tequila. Transitions can be tough – and too many think they need to navigate them alone. Almost every man present admitted to being challenged with emotional openness. They yearned to crack out of their man-boxes to better nurture relationships - and themselves.
The approach offers colourful contrasts to Harvard. Colour first. The MEA ‘Academy’ sits on a white beach overlooking a blue sea where I watched, entranced, as a mother whale frolicked with her babe. The sky was unremittingly blue, the temperature constantly perfect. There is a hugely developed attention to beauty all around, (Conley’s first career was running boutique hotels called Joie de Vivre. You can tell.) Hummingbirds flit among floral abundance, morning yoga is accompanied by Chewy the dog and graduation diplomas are silk-screened commissions from local (female) artists. Loving attention to detail and humans is as constant as the sound of the waves. Context plays a huge, slowing role in the whole.
This is about as loud an argument as anyone can make with a purely rational, intellectual, action-oriented-focus to ageing. It’s a reminder that healthy ageing will require holistic, multi-dimensional and integrative approaches. The food, the fun, the poetry, are as intrinsic a part of the program as the models and metrics. Whether people will leave transformed depends very much on what they came for and how near they were to the edge of change. This kind of program usually attracts thoughtful humans who know they could use a loving nudge to step into their next, better, (b)older self. Most moved visibly.
What am I personally leaving with? A confirmation that I am on the right path, doing my right work and energised by the people I am delightfully meeting along the way. I feel a bit like the hummingbirds who flit as I write. A tiny bundle of energy in a vast, emerging expanse of elderberries, gathering nourishment from their blossoming, and inspiring others with their colourful joy.
Time to go back to Boston.