My Modern Elder Academy Experience

I am someone who LOVES having something on the calendar to look forward to — usually a trip.
One of the trips I’ve been most looking forward to, for several years in fact, was a visit to Modern Elder Academy (MEA) to spend time with Chip Conley and learn more on the topic of “Wise Leadership.”

MEA is dedicated to “helping midlifers live a life as deep as it is long.” They offer workshops and sabbatical spaces in Baja, Mexico and will soon be opening a site in Santa Fe, New Mexico, alongside multi-faceted online courses.
I wrote about some early parts of the trip here — but it’s taken me awhile to sort out what else I want to say about it. Skilled event planners and facilitators understand the importance of articulating objectives related to the content you need to cover and to the experience you wish to create. Since several of you have asked to hear more about it, here’s where it’s sitting with me right now, on both of those fronts.


The MEA core curriculum on midlife transitions is interwoven with the theme of the week and the expertise of guest facilitators — in my case Soren Gordhamer, founder of Wisdom 2.0.
The group conversations and experiences were wide ranging. They are continuing to soak in. Here are some of the paths I’m meandering, in case you’d ever like to join me:

  • We talked about how the Hero’s Journey, an ancient story structure popularized by the work of Joseph Campbell, applies to our own stories. This led me to explore how the Heroine’s Journey might fit my narrative more comfortably. Specifically, have you ever finished a quest and felt disappointed rather than victorious? In the Heroine’s Journey, this feeling is attributed to a yearning to reconnect with the [feminine] traits and relationships women often needed to leave behind in order to embark on a [more masculine] adventure.
  • We discussed the extent to which wisdom can be taught without the direct experience that often forges it. What does it take for the process of becoming wise to be expedited?
  • In a workforce where knowledge work is increasing, what might it mean to be a “wisdom worker?” (I want that to be my job!)
  • The image of the “sage-femme” — a wise woman, which also means midwife — has long been important to me. (So much so that I named my business Sage Solutions). I’ve always been vaguely surprised that I didn’t become a midwife. Folks in Baja drew my attention to the ways in which I am a midwife — in my roles as coach, facilitator, parent, friend and grandmother. Our conversations about times when we might be a midwife helping others birth something, versus a mother doing the birthing, versus the new life being born have continued to resonate.
  • And I am very curious about all of this. Is this exploration of liminal spaces and midlife transitions just for my own benefit, or is it for me to share with others as part of my practice? I have some ideas. Time will tell.


Once a facilitator…

Chip’s background is in the boutique hotel industry, so my expectations for the experience of MEA Baja were high. I was not disappointed. It validated my conviction that the venue itself affects what happens there. Inspiring spaces lead to inspired conversations.

The MEA campus in Baja is ridiculously beautiful. A series of meandering villas, with gorgeous landscaping and water features everywhere you look. My favourite parts? The yoga platform overlooking the beach. More well-stocked kitchens than you can imagine. Delicious, healthy food served family style. A regenerative farm. The best curated library I have ever seen, organized by provocative question. And so. many. whales.

The other people (MEA “compadres and comadres”) contributed to making the week remarkable. There were 30 of us, from four countries, ranging in age from 37 to 72, representing a broad spectrum of interests and experiences, including my friend Judy Riege. Everyone arrived in a season of transition, open to being stretched. Their curiosity and wisdom fuelled mine, and it’s already been nourishing to stay in touch with them, and with other Canadian MEA alumni since.
Three things stood out from a facilitation design point of view:

  1. There was spaciousness in the agenda, but when we were doing things as a group, the timing was strictly adhered to. I loved this combination of breathing space and flexibility alongside honouring one another’s time.
  2. Ritual was used masterfully. Midlife is a time of significant transitions that are generally unmarked (unlike when you graduate or get married or have a baby…). MEA incorporated moments that felt like rites of passage that I didn’t know I needed. I’m not usually a big fan of such things, but in that context, they really worked.
  3. The design allowed the group to go deep quickly. These relational connections were strengthened in a short time by:      

    • Participants’ willingness to be open with each other. My sense is that the venue and facilitation helped, but so too did the self-selection to be there. When you’ve chosen to be somewhere and invested in it, you arrive all-in! I suspect being largely unknown to each other also helped. I was curious if the experience would have been as deep for an intact team — it would have required greater bravery. (It felt like making camp friends!)
    • Facilitated activities that invited depth. Chip invited the group to take risks with each other very early, including sitting in the discomfort vulnerability can generate — for the greater good. For me, it really worked. But I was aware of how it required stretch on the facilitator’s part too, and I wondered if I would have had the nerve.

One final thought:

The specifics of what happened at MEA are less important to me than having done it at all. There is something very motivating about setting a gutsy intention, investing in what it requires, and seeing it through. I hope that each of us has something like that on our radar. What are you looking forward to making happen?

As an alumna I have access to an affiliate link that gives both of us discounts to upcoming programs. When I checked these today, I happened to notice that the next cohort of online classes starts later this week! Writing this piece was not intended as an advertisement (although in rereading it, it does sound like I’m quite a fangirl!) but if you want to experience MEA, here’s how you can do so online. In-person experiences in Baja are also ongoing.

And if you are interested in tugging on any of these idea threads one-on-one with me as a coach or thinking partner, I’d welcome hearing from you.

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Sandra Austin

Sandra Austin is the Director of Strategic Initiatives for The Regional Municipality of Durham, Ontario Canada.

The Strategic Initiatives portfolio includesdistinct, high-priority and high-profile portfolios that are constantly changing, often addressing messy problems with uncertain outcomes. The key for Sandra is to approach this work with curiosity, but not simply curiosity for its own sake. She works hard at understanding the issues and considering possibilities without being too committed to a solution, while being anchored by a strategic plan and pursuing a “coalition of the willing.” She brings curiosity to those who resist change, recognizing their value in widening the lens on an issue. Sandra says, “We need to be comfortable with things being uncertain and moving into untried things, asking ‘What if…we did it this way?’”

Dr. Dorothy Nyambi

Dr. Dorothy Nyambi is the President and CEO at Mennonite Economic Development Associates.

From a background as a Black female medical doctor in Cameroon, Dorothy is now working on a North-South shift in a development subsector characterized by explicit and implicit racism, white ‘saviourism,’ and sexism. “People say they are curious, but they also don’t know how to give up power to do so.” Dorothy brings a sense of genuine curiosity to these challenges and to leading her team. She likens them to an Olympic team, where everyone has their strengths in service of the same goal, and her role is to help them work together to do so. “I really believe in working with people to unpack their own minds—that people have the solutions to their own problems.”

Jennifer Hutton

Jennifer Hutton is the CEO at Women's Crisis Services of Waterloo Region.

Whether in seasons where staff and leaders are exhausted from the complex needs of their work or in instances where new and exciting possibilities are envisioned and made a reality, Jennifer leads her team with imagination as a core value.  Jennifer says, “Time is well spent in conversation. Sometimes a pivotal conversation can send you down an important path forward.” This value also means letting her team know it’s okay to take risks and even make mistakes. Many of those risks have paid off, too, with innovative and effective awareness campaigns, discovering ways to eliminate job stressors for staff, and pivoting to new ways of delivering services to their clients in times of crisis.

Julia Grady

Julia Grady is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of 10C, as well as a working encaustic artist and community finance innovator. 

“People talk strategy, but they don’t realize that imagination, passion and creativity are actually the underlying ideas and principles in the top companies in the world,” says Julia whose work as a placemaker is rooted in her identity as an artist. Her organization’s imaginative vision always addresses the question: what do changemakers need? The answers to that question have been varied and are constantly evolving, and are often found in the design constraints of a problem itself. She activates conversation between partners, including funders, who work and imagine collaboratively. The result is social impact work that earns revenue and makes communities better.

The Counselling Collaborative of Waterloo Region

The Counselling Collaborative of Waterloo Region is a group of six not-for-profit community counselling agencies working in an integrated way to serve their community. 

While the agencies worked together for years, in 2018 they began working more collaboratively, developing a strategic plan and securing funding as a group. They use a “no wrong door” approach and a centralized intake to help the community connect more easily. Along the way, the leadership team addressed power differentials and built credibility so today their biweekly meetings are characterized by vulnerability and mutual support, with each member considering the group a vital resource and a place to discuss practical concerns. The agencies have found a way to be better together, with greater access to resources and influence.

Heather Froome and Dr. Sidney Kennedy

Heather Froome is the Director of Operations of the Homewood Research Institute, where Dr. Sidney Kennedy is the Executive Director.

As affordable housing has become increasingly scarce, Eden says it’s vital to be clear about her organization’s mission and values as they discover new ways of achieving them in the face of market constraints. It’s easy to drift from mission, especially when appealing opportunities come with significant revenue, but Eden is committed to strategic planning as a guide: “You need to deeply understand your organization’s mission and stay true to it. These give purpose and clarity. We also consider the return on investment and whether an opportunity is in our wheelhouse. You have to be okay in being narrow in what you do.” As a leader, she also seeks those who share the vision, saying, “You can’t be strategic alone.” 

Eden Grodzinski

Eden Grodzinski is the CEO of Habitat for Humanity Halton-Mississauga-Dufferin.

As affordable housing has become increasingly scarce, Eden says it’s vital to be clear about her organization’s mission and values as they discover new ways of achieving them in the face of market constraints. It’s easy to drift from mission, especially when appealing opportunities come with significant revenue, but Eden is committed to strategic planning as a guide: “You need to deeply understand your organization’s mission and stay true to it. These give purpose and clarity. We also consider the return on investment and whether an opportunity is in our wheelhouse. You have to be okay in being narrow in what you do.” As a leader, she also seeks those who share the vision, saying, “You can’t be strategic alone.”

Devon Page

Devon Page is a lawyer and the outgoing Executive Director of Ecojustice.

Protecting the planet is a daunting task requiring those doing so to be highly strategic and mission-aligned. When Devon considers organizational effectiveness over the last few years, he asks, “Why aren’t we thinking about the ways we are better and stronger than we were before?” Thinking strategically for him is simply a question of operationalizing vision, although he acknowledges translating vision into action is not always straightforward. A big challenge within strategy is innovation, where an organization is directed by its mission and also called to respond to new challenges and pursue audacious goals. Devon also points to clear impact—rather than funder appetite—as the bottom line for strategy, and what makes an organization stand out.

Catherine Wassmansdorf

Catherine Wassmansdorf is the Education Program Manager at The Riverwood Conservancy.

Pivoting work in experiential outdoor education during the pandemic was a lesson in adaptability for Catherine, who adjusted her personal practices, relied on the support and confidence of her organization’s leadership and colleagues, and leaned on their shared mission. She discovered new ways of delivering dynamic and effective programs digitally—including unexpectedly popular online Turtle Time—some of which allowed new participants to join in the fun. She also learned about the limits of adaptability, when constraints did not allow programs to translate well to online environments. “We now have a new capacity,” Catherine says. “We have a sense that we have forged multiple pathways that will help us if and when we have to adapt again.”

Jay Reid and Hayley Kellett

Jay Reid and Hayley Kellett are co-founders of the improv-based corporate training organization The Making-Box.

From roots in theatre, Hayley and Jay use improv principles and skills to help their clients experience change as energizing rather than depleting. The principle of letting go equips teams for uncertainty, while the skill of noticing distinguishes between faux adaptability and factors needed for real change. “’Yes-and’ helps us work together in polarized situations,” says Hayley while Jay says, “There are deeper outcomes in the notion of practicing playfulness together,” pointing to studies demonstrating the practical value of humour in creating psychological safety for teams. The Making-Box itself draws on these principles and over the last few years has itself been a case study in adaptability as it shifted its model and service delivery methods.

Terry Cooke and Annette Aquin

Terry Cooke is the President and CEO, and Annette Aquin is Executive Vice President Finance and Operations of the Hamilton Community Foundation

Rather than likeability being a goal, Annette says it’s an outcome of the work they do—and how they do it. Because community foundations engage in potentially divisive issues, Terry and Annette say decisions must be firmly rooted in research and their organization’s values. Relationships past, present and future drive their work as they acknowledge their debt to those before them. They work hard at building trust, inclusivity, and true collaboration with their community and look to a solid future by hiring well, mentoring, responding to emerging opportunities, and, as Terry says, “creating space for the next person to do what is best.”

John Neufeld 

John Neufeld is the Executive Director of the House of Friendship. 

Building strong rapport is important to John because of his personal story as an immigrant. “I just didn’t fit in. That’s why I’m passionate about House of Friendship—because we make sure everyone belongs.” Investing in relationships and culture, connecting at a human level and tapping into the strengths of his team are key elements of likeability. But John recognizes that rather than seeking to be liked, leaders need to harness courage and passion to make tough decisions, work hard and deliver on their promises. Likeability is a proxy for that kind of integrity. He says, “One of the best pieces of leadership advice I was ever given was to look for ways to add value to other people’s lives.”

Jim Moss and Dave Whiteside

Jim Moss and Dave Whiteside are longtime colleagues, first at Plasticity Labs and now at YMCA of Three Rivers's YMCA WorkWell where Jim is the Leader of Community Development and Dave is the Director of Insights. 

YMCA WorkWell has a mandate to build healthier, thriving organizations and their work offers relevant, evidence-based, recent Canadian data on how organizations can help their people find the right stretch. In their work, Jim and Dave engage in practical and fresh thinking on depletion, burnout, managing your own and your employees' energy. "An elastic needs to be engaged to be useful," says Jim while Dave adds that the last few years have been "a natural experiment that's allowed us to know where we could stretch and where it's not optimal." 

Emma Rogers 

Emma Rogers is the CEO of the Children's Foundation of Guelph and Wellington and the co-founder of the community philanthropy charity Guelph Gives. 

In a social good sector devoted to making every dollar have impact and where everyone is working harder than ever, Emma has a new appreciation of the currency of energy. "It's the most valuable thing I can give someone, and vice versa." Her own energy is admirable and is fueled by her passion for innovation and by the stories of impact from her work, but she leads her team with more than inspiring stories. Instead, Emma implements innovative practices and knows that enabling team members to show up as their best selves is an excellent investment in accomplishing their mission.