News and Views

Lessons learned from a week with Paul Hawken

Jonathan Hanwit
February 4, 2020
News and Views

Lessons learned from a week with Paul Hawken

I’m usually the kind of person who always knows what to say. But I recently had an experience with Paul Hawken, Chip Conley and more than a dozen other business leaders at the Modern Elder Academy in Baja California that has left me speechless — and in all the good ways.

In 2018, Chip Conley built The Modern Elder Academy as a place for “elders” in the workforce, where people ranging from their mid-thirties to mid-seventies gather to redefine their purpose personally and professionally. As a sustainable business entrepreneur who has been working with purpose-driven companies for decades, I was thrilled to be invited by my friend, the biodynamic farming thought leader Farmer D, to join the famous environmentalist, author, and entrepreneur as Hawken and others for a week of self-reflection and growth.

Modern Elder Academy in Baja.

While I expected that a week with a world-renowned sustainability shaman such as Hawken would offer a deep dive into environmentalism and a refresher of interpersonal skills, the experience ended being a deep dive into myself.  Throughout the week, Hawken helped me and others align our purpose with how we can make an impact on the planet. I came away with invaluable lessons I will apply to thinkPARALLAX, my broader professional life, and personal relationships.

Flow state, growth mindset, and appreciative inquiry

Changing the way you think isn’t easy. That’s why our variegated days focused on evolving, learning, collaborating, counseling, and rewiring ourselves. Each day began with a Wisdom Circle, in which everyone could speak about what was on their mind followed by educational sessions focused mainly on personal development.

One of these was around the concept of achieving a “flow state” when staying four percent outside of your comfort zone pushes you to move and stay in a growth mindset for continuous self-improvement.

I also learned that in the bell curve of life, at 45 I’m at darn near the lowest point in terms of the happiness scale. So, I think that is a relief, it’s all up from here. We discussed and practiced other theories like the levels of listening or appreciative inquiry. We sometimes worked in dyads or in groups debating and understanding how these new ways of thinking would come to life in each of us.

While developing new ways of thinking, we shed the burdens of the past that served no purpose in our lives. Being in an environment with zero judgment, only acceptance, made me realize how empowering this can be and how much it is lacking in our broader society.

Mindfulness exercises, meaningful conversations, and scheduled introspection made this trip so fulfilling. But, Paul’s anecdotes about his lived experience put the week over the top. He was fully immersed in the retreat — joining an end-of-day hot tub sesh or chatting over fresh yellowtail sashimi — and also guided our group through his life of social ventures, business opportunities, and globetrotting adventures. These stories exemplified how to be steadfast in your ethical convictions while combining deep care for the environment with entrepreneurship. I sat there captivated and nodding in agreement with the insights he shared. Immersed in a session about climate change this takeaway struck a chord with me: “The Earth is fine, we’re the problem. So, how do we fix us?”

Sunset in Baja.

Knowledge nuggets from Paul Hawken

Throughout the week, I found myself transfixed by Hawken’s ideas. Here are a few nuggets of knowledge from the Dalai Lama of purpose and profit:

  • From his book Growing a Business, if you’re looking to begin your next venture, start small, local, and cheap.
  • One of the biggest drivers to reverse global warming is women’s empowerment and gender equality.
  • If someone’s laughing at your idea, it may be worth exploring.
  • We are trained to look for change from the top, but it rises from the bottom – our perspective is upside down.
  • If you’re headed towards a cliff, slowing down doesn’t help, you need to go in reverse.

What struck me the most about Hawken and Conley’s lessons was that they always spoke from the heart, lived and made their decisions based on what they believed to be the right thing to do for the greater good — not just to make a profit.

While I had priceless learnings from Hawken, a man who had done everything from walking the streets with Martin Luther King Jr, to being in back rooms with esteemed dignitaries, and trekking to the ice caps, I also learned from every person I connected with.

Group of smiling people at Modern Elder Academy.

Hallmarks of the modern elder

I’m grateful for Conley and his team for creating this safe space for people looking to reset their story. Weeks later, I remain encouraged and inspired to apply these thinking techniques and spend more time in introspection to bring a better version of myself to every facet of life. After this illuminating experience, I have started to embrace the next chapter in my life, to quote Chip: “learning to marry wisdom and experience with curiosity, a beginner’s mind, and a willingness to evolve are all hallmarks of a the Modern elder” as my guide.

As an entrepreneur hell-bent on building a better world, I often grapple with the tall order of the challenges we all face. But as the week came to an end, I learned to let go of the weight of my concerns and find a fresh perspective to solve problems in my life and bigger ones with the planet.

The planet, as Paul so gracefully put it, will be fine. We’re facing a people problem. You are either generating or regenerating. Challenges such as climate change might even be seen as a gift to humanity — an invitation to reconnect with nature. As a species, we need to focus on regeneration. This means re-connecting people with people and people back with the planet.

We’re all in this together, and if we can focus on regenerating our relationships with each other we might just change the future for the better.

Sunset on the beach in Baja.

Lessons learned from a week with Paul Hawken
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