He died. He was giving a speech, sat down, and the next thing… he was dead. They called an ambulance. They got paramedics. They did that thing. They brought him back to life. But his body didn’t like living. He died again. Eight more times they used machines to convince the machine in his body that we call a heart, to come back to life.
Please come back to life, the machines said to his heart. And finally his heart decided to stay.
After that, things changed. Like they often do when we die at the age of 47.
“There are three things,” Chip Conley, now the Head of Hospitality for Airbnb, told me, “a job, a career, and a calling.”
“I had been building and running hotels for 20 years. It was my calling to be in the hospitality business. I built over 50 hotels. But it was starting to feel like a job. “When I died, I realised I couldn’t do it anymore. I had to go back to my calling.”
Within a few years he had sold his business. He had nothing left to do.
“I had faith in my calling, though,” Chip said. “Something would happen.”
When Your Calling Calls To You
And it did. It did.
Adam wrote me. He was my Airbnb host. I’ve been in 4 different Airbnbs that Adam owns over the past three years. So we knew each other. I only live in Airbnbs and I know many of the regular hosts in New York City.
“I’m having a special guest in the apartment right downstairs from you,” Adam wrote me. “He’s the Head of all Hospitality for Airbnb. Would you like to meet?’
Yes, very much so. I had spent 90% of my life in Airbnbs over the prior three years and just about 100% in the prior year. In 2014, I even wrote an article, “10 Ways to Improve Airbnb.”
Adam made the introduction. Chip Conley, the man who had died a few years earlier and sold his hotel business, responded.
“Should I bring a bottle of wine?” he said. He came upstairs and we started to talk.
“Brian Chesky, the founder of Airbnb, called me and asked me if I wanted to be the head of hospitality. Airbnb was a tech company, it wasn’t used to being a hospitality company.”
“When I ran 50 hotels, hospitality was my main focus.”
“For each hotel, I had the hotel managers come up with five adjectives for what that hotel would be.”
“Maybe the adjectives might be: funky, hip, modern, clean, rock & roll.”
“Every employee, even the housekeepers, would keep those adjectives in mind in whatever they did. And, if possible, we even made sure the five senses the customers would experience in the hotels would match the five adjectives.”
“This is a great idea,” I said, “You can even apply ideas like this to writing a book. Or even building a career for yourself. What five adjectives do you want your life, or the objects you create, or your relationships, be used to describe it.”
“Absolutely,” Chip said.
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So he went to Airbnb to start creating an atmosphere of hospitality among the hosts. He had found his way back to his life’s calling.
I had felt it. Since 2013, Now I live in them. Now they are home.
All because Chip died.
Finding Your Calling
“How do you find your life’s calling?” I asked him.
“What did you love doing when you were 6, 8, 10 years old,” he said.
“Like I had one friend who even at 6 was making mudpies as if they were real pies. Then she became a lawyer but was always unhappy.”
“So she quit being a lawyer and is now one of the biggest pastry chefs in the world.”
“For me, I was always pretending to run a restaurant in my house. I always wanted to be in the hospitality business.”
I thought back to when I was ten years old. I was writing short stories. And when I was 12 I even wrote an article in the newspaper interviewing politicians.
You find your interests from back then and see how they age into the current day.
“Find the thing you did where you lost all sense of time while you are doing it,” Chip told me.
“Remember the equation from Victor Frankl’s ‘Man’s Search for Meaning‘,” he said.
“Despair = Suffering – Meaning.”
“Find the things that bring you meaning. Suffering is always there in this world. But if you have meaning, you will have less despair.”
“You will find your calling.”
Sometimes even now I find myself doing things where I feel more ‘job’ than ‘calling’. I try to adjust where I can but it can be difficult. I guess a little bit at a time and eventually you can move your life into that calling.
I said to him. “This is too good. Do you mind if I record the conversation?”
He said, “Sure.” So I did. I’ve been recording conversations with people ever since I was ten years old.
When I was 26, he said, I wanted to be an entrepreneurs. I found my first little motel and called it The Phoenix.
“I knew that whatever I did, I wanted to be creative and to have freedom. I tell everyone to write down the two most important qualities about their calling and check back with it over the years.
“Eventually I felt like what I was doing was the opposite of creativity and freedom.”
“And that’s when I had that experience of flatlining. That was my body’s way of telling me I had to change. So I got rid of my hotels.”
“What if you are sitting in a cubicle and listening to this and wondering how you can find that creativity and freedom for yourself – it all sounds good BUT – kids, responsibilities, age, etc. you feel are blocking you?”
“Then get back to what you loved when you were younger. Start to brainstorm how you can bring that even a little bit into your life now. And a little bit more the next day. And so on.”
“Try many things,” he said, “One thing I realised is that quantity = quality. People think it’s one or the other but it’s not. When you have a lot of quantity of ideas and things you are trying, you will find quality.”
This reminded me of my approach to exercising my idea muscle. If you write down ten ideas a day, you have 3,650 ideas in a year. And maybe one or two will be good.
I got excited about my ideas to improve Airbnb. I said, “Can I show you the ideas?” I had written the list in 2014 but maybe they would still apply.
“Of course!” he said.
We went through each one. For some of them he said, “Hold on! Wait for the announcement coming soon.”
We lost track of time while doing the interview and eventually he had to go.
“You know,” he said, “I saw something about you a few weeks ago and thought you would be a great speaker for our event in November – the Airbnb Open.”
“And then Adam told me yesterday, by coincidence, you were staying in the apartment right above me.”
“That’s funny,” I said.
“I love it when serendipity happens,” he said, as he was getting ready to go. “You have to speak at the conference.”
After he left I thought about what I most wanted to do when I was a kid.
I wanted to be a spy.
On what? I don’t know. I just wanted to look at other people and follow them without them knowing. To observe and learn all of their secrets and then report back to “HQ”.
It would be a little dangerous, I always thought. But I would survive. And save the world.
Bit by bit I’m doing it. My calling.
[This post by James Altucher first appeared on LinkedIn and has been reproduced with permission.]