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Book Review: Wisdom At Work: The Making of A Modern Elder by Chip Conley
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Book Review: Wisdom At Work: The Making of A Modern Elder by Chip Conley - Executive Leadership Articles

Book Review: Wisdom At Work: The Making of A Modern Elder by Chip Conley

Executive Leadership Articles

Book Review: Wisdom At Work: The Making of A Modern Elder by Chip Conley


“We workers of a certain age are in fact less like a carton of spoiled milk and more like a bottle of fine wine of an especially valuable vintage,” writes Chip Conley, who turned 57 while writing his latest book. We reviewed his book Emotional Equations: Simple Truths for Creating Happiness + Success two years ago. While we found some of the self-helpisms mildly annoying, we enjoyed the writer’s voice and appreciated what he was really drilling down toward.

The earlier book was also something of a reflection on age, and feeling okay with where we are at whatever age. In his latest book, Wisdom at Work: The Making of a Modern Elder (Currency, 2018), Conley takes the things that come with age—including wisdom, humility, emotional intelligence, experience, and even some digital incompetence—as a strength, not something to be only tolerated, but an asset to be leveraged, something to be valued by others.

He writes in his introduction, “Those of us with a little aging patina do have something to offer. Especially now … we’d be wise to learn how to store the wine so it doesn’t go bad. What makes wine good is not only its age, but the way you store it, the way you serve it, and the reason for raising a glass.”


He makes a pretty good case, first reclaiming the world “elder” to mean (rather than “elderly”) a person with wisdom others can learn from. The Modern Elder, he says, doesn’t have to be older than a specific age or in a senior position in the company. Older and wiser than those around him or her are pretty much all it takes. These elders tend to exhibit good judgment, “unvarnished insight,” emotional intelligence, holistic thinking, and stewardship. As this reviewer approaches 50 himself, he’s begun to notice these tendencies developing even against his will. One way to look at it is as a kind of jadedness, but another way is emotional maturity, the awareness of oneself and one’s reactions within larger frameworks, plus the ability to see how people’s decisions emerge from the contexts in which they are made—the holistic part of Conley’s observation.

It’s somewhat disappointing that nowhere does Conley mention the 2015 film The Intern, starring Anne Hathaway and Robert De Niro. In this movie, De Niro plays a widower who accepts a senior citizen intern position, and while he relies on the young go-getters to help him navigate email and other technologies, most of the employees and executives at the company (a webstore similar to Zappo’s) find themselves relying on his experience for advice on navigating heavy traffic, dealing with catty moms, and negotiating big business deals. Throughout Conley’s book, I found myself thinking of the film, which could almost serve as a dramatization of the text.


Once the author establishes his case, he outlines four lessons he’s learned in going from raw to cooked to burnt to raw again. The theme of becoming a beginner, or seeing things with apprentice eyes, comes up repeatedly, but the middle chapters are the here’s-how part. Evolve, learn, collaborate, and counsel are these four lessons and if you must skip any part of this book, we recommend not skipping these four chapters, as they are the heart of why you probably made the purchase. Conley built a successful boutique hotel business, and was brought on as an advisor to the young executives in Airbnb’s early days. The anecdotal support for the lessons he’s learned in this role are enormously valuable, pretty much proving the writer’s entire thesis, as he becomes a modern elder to the reader, however old the reader may be.

Especially convicting (at least for this reviewer) is the chapter on collaboration. We all have our different learning styles, and some of us favor working alone, but Conley’s anecdotes illustrate ways we collaborate and share our experience even in informal arrangements in the workplace. While the introverts among us may think that’s plenty, Conley does make a decent case for a more formalized (if not necessarily structured) approach.

If nothing else, Wisdom at Work is a rather encouraging pep talk for those of us who wonder how meaningful our presence is in companies where more and more of our colleagues and bosses are impossibly younger than us. It’s a book that can give us those apprentice eyes while appreciating the mileage we’ve put on the tires already, a message not merely of hope but of admonition. We worked hard for those miles; we would be doing our co-workers a disservice by not offering them in whatever way they may be of use.


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Book Review: Wisdom At Work: The Making of A Modern Elder by Chip Conley - Executive Leadership Articles

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