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Interview with Chip Conley about Creating Joy

Chip Conley began his journey in creating “joy” by transforming a seedy motel in the Tenderloin District of San Francisco into the legendary Phoenix hotel. Under the umbrella Joie de Vivre (translated to mean: the exuberant enjoyment of life), the endeavor grew to 40 unique hotels spread across California. He has authored several books, including Emotional Equations, PEAK and The Rebel Rules. Currently Chip serves as the Head of Global Hospitality & Strategy at Airbnb and the Chief Strategy Officer of Everfest, a company that connects the festival community online.


1) Now that you have immersed yourself in the world of festivals, what are the commonalities that make these experiences so impactful and life changing? For instance, there are elements that distinguish the Rise Festival from say, an Outside Lands. What are the essential elements of exceptional festivals that set them apart from a run-of-the-mill collective experience?

There is a French sociologist named Émile Durkheim, and in 1912 he wrote about the nature of pilgrimages. He coined the expression “collective effervescence” that really describes what makes a festival different. He used this term in the context of religious pilgrimages, but I actually think a festival where you become part of the installation — in an environment where people are somewhat out of their customary social environment — that is where transformation tends to happen. When you go to a concert, generally you go there for the day and then you go somewhere else. Collective effervescence happens when your sense of ego almost evaporates and what it is replaced with is a sense of common mission, and a common connection, with other people — that’s the beauty of a festival. The more digital we get, the more ritual we need. In this context, ritual is the IRL experience vs. the URL experience. The URL experience is what we do online, IRL is “in real life,” and I think that the more we are possessed by our gadgets, the more we need to have opportunities for connection in real life. Furthermore, there is no doubt that habitat influences our behavior and what we are willing to accept. A particular festival may have a set of guiding principles (e.g. Burning Man’s 10 Principles). What is really great when a festival does have principles — and they are well-advertised and promoted — is as an attendee you know what you are getting yourself into and also what is expected of you to participate.

2) You are well known for creating physical space and visceral experiences that create joy. Like any good master, you have pulled elements from other disciplines ranging from positive psychology to physical art. What is one of the most profound lessons you have learned along the way? Perhaps one you found the most surprising about the craft of creating joy?

I have always loved throwing parties. I throw the grand opening parties for my hotels, and every five years I throw a party somewhere in the world for just my friends. I did this last year in Baja with 125 friends. It was great. I just threw a party for 20,000 people in Los Angeles for Airbnb. What would normally be considered a conference, we reimagined as a festival and broke conventional rules. This was the third event of this type for Airbnb, and this time we wanted the format to be a bit uncomfortable at first. Not uncomfortable physically, but more like the attendees did not know what they were getting themselves into. A level of curiosity like, “I do not feel like I am in a normal environment.” This level of stress can actually help people to find parts of themselves that they did not know exist. We had the event in a somewhat sketchy area of Los Angeles. There are historic, beautiful theaters that we used as part of the installation. We took over five historic theaters, we took over about seven different retail spaces, and at least three parking lots. We used this environment for workshop spaces, conversation spaces and creative spaces for people to connect. What I believe is that what is remarkable — what creates joy — is when something surprises you and then it delights you. There can be surprise and disappointment or there can be surprise and delight — when it is surprise and delight, it is unexpected. Unexpected delight is memorable. I think interesting juxtapositions do this very well. When juxtaposition is done well, our brain is literally going through a process of having to imagine two things together, for instance, art and spirituality. The blending of ideas can lead to illumination. You see something in a way you never thought of before. The best way to describe someone who is a great festival producer: they are a curator. So, you try to curate an experience, create a habitat for people to have peak experiences. When there is nice mix of unfamiliarity and you push through boundaries — joy comes with that feeling that some level of accomplishment, some level of progress, has taken place. This growth allows you to feel a sense of exhilaration.

3) In your book, The Rebel Rules, you talk about the benefit of sabbaticals to avoid burnout. For many, these opportunities will only manifest a handful of times in a lifetime. As such, in your experience examining both successful “rebels” and those with an affinity for wanderlust, have you identified any strategies for those who embark on soul-searching expeditions to help maximize their outcome?

Creating space (whatever space means in the context of some individual freedom) and seeing what emerges is pretty important. Now, you literally could do that on a weekend. You could say, “Okay, this weekend I am going to put an office message that just says: I’M NOT CHECKING EMAILS THIS WEEKEND.” You hide your phone. For two days you go digital free. You go through a digital detox and maybe you have nothing planned, you literally just allow spontaneity or serendipity to rule those two days. That process might actually start to bring some things up for you, including fear. A lot of us like structure, a lot of us like to have a calendar that is full because it lets us know, “Okay, this is what I accomplished today.” There are a lot of people that need to ‘accomplish’ things to feel alive. So, I think not everyone needs a six-month sabbatical — at least not as a first step. Even if you have the opportunity to take a sabbatical because your life has created a transition, it might be foolish to assume that you know what you are going to get out of a sabbatical. For me, my sabbatical was not really even a true sabbatical, but more along the lines of “what’s juicy for me right now?” For me it was festivals, and I started going on that path, and I went to five festivals in Asia in the winter of 2013 and came back starting Fest300. Then, all of a sudden, out of that emerged the founders of the Airbnb approaching me and saying, “we want to turn our little tech company into a hospitality company, will you help us do it?” I have been doing that for almost four years now. Sometimes you have to make space to grow; I might not have taken the call from Brian Chesky four years ago if I had not taken time for renewal. When you create space, you are in a better place to take the blinders off, which gives you the opportunity to see things you might not have seen otherwise. So making space is one strategy. A second strategy is meditation. I try to meditate twice a day if I can. That experience is my form of a daily sabbatical, because it allows me to decompress and disconnect. It does not have to be meditation — some people like taking afternoon naps, for others it is going for that four-mile run that they do every day. Whatever it is that helps you to break with the linear mind. However, there is not a prescription that is right for everybody. I think for me, knowing my tendencies, having a really open field is probably wise because if I am too prescriptive about what I want at the end of a six-month sabbatical, the end result will be a linear to-do list, which defeats the purpose. With that said, realize your sabbatical probably should be the opposite of what you normally have. For me, I need space to be open to new ideas. For someone else, they may need a sabbatical because they are so lost that the purpose of their sabbatical is more oriented around a mission or some level of achievement.

4) There can be a bit of an underbelly to festival culture, where it is purported that some that identify with this lifestyle and chase experience, do so with hedonistic self-interest. A recent example are some of the complaints coming from Standing Rock (http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/news/standing-rock-north-dakota-access-pipeline-burning-man-festival-a7443266.html). In consideration that this may exist, how does contribution, responsibility and ethics factor into organizing any collective experience?

I think hedonism in moderation is appropriate, self-interest is not necessarily a bad thing. However, festivals can become an addiction, just like so many other things in life. I think one of the things that Burning Man has done quite brilliantly is creating 10 principles that define this community. The main event and other events around the world that are sanctioned to be Burning Man affiliated help this community to hold ourselves accountable when we see people not living up to them. No one is perfect of course, and the Burning Man principles are not right for every festival. The problem with a lot of festivals is they lack principles. Often when you lack principles what you get is the lowest common denominator. Without an inherent culture, you get something that takes people to their basic instincts. Getting back to your first question, I think the part that is truly beautiful is when you see that collective effervescence happen. Collective effervescence means that people are losing their sense of ego and their sense of identity and, in the process, feeling connected to something bigger than themselves. I think that if principles are articulated well, and these principles are lived out in such a way that they help people move beyond their own selfish needs (in the process of experiencing the festival), then principles have the potential to create a better legacy for the event. If an event is something that is purely hedonistic — and it is important to note that there are festivals that survive and do quite well within that environment — you diminish the ability to somehow feel like there is something bigger than your own personal, hedonistic needs. Great festivals elevate people and help people to transcend their own petty grievances and desires. A great festival is a community of people experiencing something together. So, if it’s a collection of individuals as opposed to a community of like-minded people, the risk is, if you look at Maslow’s hierarchy, pretty low on the pyramid with regards to experience. At these type of events the moment that somebody else is attracting you as an individual to something over here, or a new shiny object there, whimsy just takes you over there because you don’t feel any connection to the purpose of the event. Festivals are at their best when they really do help people to feel connected to something bigger than themselves.

So the issue you have highlighted is not a festival problem — the definition of addiction is using something as a distraction, as a means of not feeling something. Festivals can play this role. If you just constantly go to festivals because you cannot live your normal life, or live in real life and/or you are searching for a utopian experience… festivals always come to an end. If you are going to festivals as a way to vacate in some manner, I think you need to ask yourself, “What could I do in my ‘normal’ life to make it better?”

5) If someone wanted to follow in your footsteps in the pursuit of creating joy, but was at the beginning of their journey and was looking for mentorship, what three pieces of advice would you impart on them to begin acquiring the mastery to be successful in this pursuit?

1) Understanding who you were as a little kid always helps, because weirdly there are clues in your childhood that help you understand what it is that gave you that sense of timeless wonder. Timeless wonder is usually a pretty healthy place to seek out in that Joseph Campbell “follow your bliss” approach to life. So, start by doing a personal archeology project about your childhood. Talk to your friends, talk to your brothers and sisters, your parents, whoever you spent time with as a child. Look at pictures of yourself at childhood and get a sense of what it was that gave you bliss. How can you manifest that in your adult life? I was always fascinated about Walt Disney and how he created Disneyland. I was fascinated by creating experiences for kids in the neighborhood, so… I would do just that. I would create a restaurant in my mom’s dining room for instance. There are clues there — find them.

2) Look at who you admire. Who are the people out there in the world as adults who are living their life in such a way that they could be a model for you? Who is actually having joy in how they experience their life? Who is doing it in a way that gives them a sense that they are living their calling? This does not have to be just in the work world; you could live your calling as a political activist, you could live your calling as an Ironman athlete, you could live your calling as a grandmother. Figuring out what it is that gives you that sense of passion in life and seeing it in other people — this helps you develop a better picture of what life might look like for you.

3) The way to bring joy to people is helping them to feel like they are a kid again. The Celebrity Pool Toss has been going on for 25 years now — a fundraiser we do at my first hotel, The Phoenix. It is a fundraiser for TNDC’s afterschool program for kids. We have created a fundraiser based upon the high bidder getting to toss a celebrity in the swimming pool of the hotel. The reason that it has lived for 25 years now — raising over $7 million for afterschool programs — is because it allows people to act like a kid. Auctions are a bit fun too, but the process of actually throwing someone in the pool is very childlike. I think providing people that sense of being able to break out of their normal formality — helping people feel less contained. Burning Man is a somewhat extreme example. Getting the chance to toss people in the pool is a very simple example, but still effective of reconnecting with a sense of freedom that might have gotten lost in adulthood.

A word of caution for those looking to create an event. Some people find joy in being spectators, others in being participants. Some events are better suited for everybody to be a participant, some are suited for some people to be participants and some to spectate. I think a key to success is to make sure people know what they are opting in for. So, if you are creating an event with the aim of creating joy — if your idea centers around everybody participating, you better make sure the attendees know that in advance.