How I Learned to Let Go and Live Better

Wellness is the latest buzzword in travel, but hospitality expert and Airbnb’s strategic adviser, Chip Conley, learned firsthand that finding yourself is the healthiest trip.

Words by Chip Conley
Illustrations by Felix Talkin

FROM THE AGE OF 26, I lived my dream as a gypsy globetrotter, designing the coolest boutique hotels, partying with rock stars, and drinking a lot of cocktails. As you can imagine, the 24/7/365 nature of being a hotelier in pursuit of this sort of hipster happiness took a toll after a while.

As I entered my 30s, I started seeking out a more transformative kind of travel, from an onsen “hot springs” tour in Japan to a glamping retreat in Indonesia. These trips inspired new concepts for my company, Joie de Vivre Hospitality, such as the Japanese communal baths near one of our San Francisco hotels and a boutique campground on California’s Highway 1.

But I was still in “pursuit” mode. Instead of pursuing drinks at a chic bar, I was chasing success, trying to mix this idea of wellness with my hotel business. And I was still driving way too hard.

At 47, I flatlined onstage after giving a speech in St. Louis. I was rushed to the hospital and recuperated. It was terrifying, but it turned out to be divine intervention. I was burned out by attaining — so much so that I sold my company at the bottom of the Great Recession.

It was the start of my journey to reconnect with my inner self. I wrote a book about attuning to my emotions and dove deeper into meditation. I had named my company Joie de Vivre, but ironically, I wasn’t able to attune to the emotion of joy until I had the time to truly experience it. The past couple of years as Airbnb’s strategic adviser has granted me the ability to move to Mexico, where I’ve taken up surfing, written a book about my Airbnb experience (Wisdom@Work: The Making of a Modern Elder, which launched in September), and created the Modern Elder Academy, where people in midlife can learn to grow whole, not just old. I even take the occasional siesta.

WHAT I’VE DISCOVERED is that healthy living is more important now than ever. The more digital we get, the more physical we need to be. Nonstop, tech-enabled work cycles lead to heightened stress and cortisol levels. Shifting from our devices to our hearts isn’t just relaxing, it may add years to our lives. It can also improve relationships, heighten creativity, and give us space to determine whether we’re on the right path. The key is staying present. Vacations are often treated as a way for us to “vacate” our lives. As a society, we’ve been ritualized into taking trips that lack discovery because we think the antidote to burnout is passing out by the pool. Instead we should look at our breaks from daily routines as an opportunity to explore and be inspired.

Incorporating health into your travel doesn’t require a stay at a glamorous spa resort or hiking Mount Everest. You enhance your well-being most by connecting genuinely with other humans. This is what Airbnb is all about, whether it’s the lovely breakfast you’re served, the running routes your host shows you on a map, or the recommendation of a restaurant that a typical tourist would never discover. I’ll never forget Paulo in Rome, who knew that I missed having hotel room service. Upon my arrival, he announced, “I can’t offer you room service, but here is a little ‘Rumi service,’” as he placed in my hands an exquisite Italian book of Rumi poetry. Paulo had done his homework and knew I loved the Sufi writer from 750 years ago.

It’s been over 30 years since I got into the hospitality biz, and more than a decade since my near-death experience. One thread in my life has been the quest to become the consummate host, but I had previously defined a host as one who designs the sexiest rooms, crafts top-shelf cocktails, and connects the right people. Today, I realize my role as the consummate host is to create the conditions for people to find themselves. Isn’t it funny how we go searching the world only to become more acquainted with ourselves? Philosopher Martin Buber wrote, “All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.” For me, it took a crisis to see my purpose is to help others discover a truly healthy approach to joie de vivre.

About the author: Chip Conley served as Airbnb’s Head of Global Hospitality and Strategy for four years and today acts as the company’s Strategic Advisor for Hospitality and Leadership. His five books include Peak and Emotional Equations and are inspired by the theories of transformation and meaning by famed psychologists Abraham Maslow and Viktor Frankl.