From the beginning, it was about gatherings. And it was Priya Parker’s mother who helped her realize the true power of them.
“When I was 15, she offered to host a weekly gathering in our basement, with me and 12 other girls from my high school, to help us think about our identity and transformation as women,” she writes near the end of her new book, The Art of Gathering. “She wanted to bring her own experience as an anthropologist to help us with the fraught transitions we found ourselves in.”
Parker notes that her mother, Deepa, could have imparted her wisdoms to her alone—but Deepa understood the benefits of a communal dynamic. An intense bonding experience followed, and Parker’s mother taught the group a host of lessons and life skills, including meditation—strategies that helped the individual members of the group navigate the tumultuous, seemingly all-consuming world that is being a teenager in America.
As this season of Design Matters has shown, uncommonly brilliant minds tend to have uncommon roots. Born in Zimbabwe to parents who originally met in Iowa and worked for such organizations as the Peace Corps, United Nations and World Bank, after a medley of travels Parker’s family eventually returned to the United States. Her parents divorced, and Parker began to simultaneously occupy two distinct worlds: that of her mother, who, as Parker has joked, comes from “Indian cow worshippers” in Varanasi, and that of her evangelical caucasian father, who comes from “American cow slaughterers” in the Midwest. Perhaps this duality granted her perspective at a young age—something that would be vital to the career in conflict resolution that she subsequently pursued.
After graduating from the University of Virginia, Parker worked for the Dalai Lama Foundation in India, and also worked in the Middle East—and naturally, in her job she often focused on fostering dialogue in group settings.
Eventually, her interests returned stateside and evolved. Taking her expertise and applying it in a new format, she launched Thrive Labs, an advisory firm whose stated mission is to work with artists, leaders, NGOs and corporations to help them discover their purpose and thus transform their lives and output. As the firm’s official copy goes, “We design unique, disruptive spaces in which individuals and teams can step back from their daily routine; explore their own deepest motivations; investigate the world’s needs and opportunities; and revise their strategies or develop wholly new ones as a result.”
As for what that looks like in execution, maybe the best way to understand it—and snag a glimpse into the mind of Priya Parker in the process—is to take a look at some of her exercises for individuals looking to reexamine and reboot their lives, which she discussed in a TED talk.
Consider “The Dwindling Cash Experiment.” As Parker notes, one core thing that keeps people in gigs they dislike is the eternal bonds of the dollar. We’re averse to financial uncertainty, and thus tend to stay in unfulfilling roles for the green security blanket they offer. So Parker recommends calculating how much you spend in a given month, and performing a four-week test. In Week 1, live off of 40% of that total amount. In Week 2, live off of 30% of it. Week 3, 20%. Week 4, 10%. Existing on four different incomes in the span of a month (and doing so within the framework of what you already spend, which means it doesn’t cost you any extra) gives excellent insight into how much money you really need to subsist and be happy—and after the experiment, you can create a plan for a new life around that number, without the haunting burden of needing to make as much money as you currently do.
Another exercise: “The Obituary Test.” The task, simple in form yet daunting in execution, is to write your own 600-word obituary. As Parker says in her talk, “If you want to figure out what to do with your life, work back from your death.” Would you rather be known for sitting in an office 40 hours a week sending press releases while killing time on Facebook, or doing something truly meaningful to you, and perhaps the world at large?
Still another: “Get Comfortable With Discomfort.” In order to survive the process of doing a hard reset on your life, she recommends breaking out of, and maybe even annihilating, your comfort zone. How? As you’re going about your day and doing something like waiting in a grocery or bank line with others, sing. Audibly—and continue to do so as the stares around you accumulate. If you’re feeling especially bold after, go to a restaurant and have dinner alone (and truly “alone” means no phone or book). Of the power of discomfort, Parker says, “The people who are able to actually quit their life and reboot, it’s not that they don’t feel fear, they’ve just simply found ways to manage it to feel and notice the anxiety and keep going.”
One wonders if, perhaps, she has completed any of these exercises herself—and if they might have been key to how she found her own true path in life.
As for what Parker might advise a company, as she ponders in her new book, instead of a basic sales training meeting, why not send your employees to shadow a busker in the subway for insight into the ultimate act of hustling? For someone tasked with planning a school reunion, why not hold it in a cemetery to remind classmates that there’s no time like the present for executing on their dreams and goals?
Unsurprisingly, Parker’s experiments are not limited to her day job. After Parker and her husband, the writer and political commentator Anand Giridharadas, moved to New York City, they wanted to get to know their new community more intimately. So they began doing what they dubbed “I Am Here” days, in which they gather a small group, stow their tech and go out and explore—for 12 hours straight. In doing so, they come away with a much better understanding of not just their sense of place, but their comrades, seeing the world and their friends in real time without the million digital disruptions that define our days.
Finally, consider the 15 Toasts series, which Parker hosts with Tim Leberecht. Prior to a conference, Parker and Leberecht wanted to see if they could get a small cadre of chosen guests to ditch the basic networking that tends to haunt such events, and really connect as people. They decided on a dinner-party format. They invited 15 people, and selected a theme: “A Good Life.” They came up with a set of simple rules: At some point in the evening during the dinner, each participant must give a toast to the theme and how they interpret it … and to keep things productive and moving, the last person to do so has to sing their toast. What followed was an incredible night Parker has written consisted of both smiles and tears, and moreover, real human connection. Parker and Leberecht have since held 15 Toasts dinners around the world on a medley of themes, from America to Fear to Romance.
Though Kirkus dubbed Parker “a sort of Martha Stewart of the conference table,” she recently told The New York Times that “Martha Stewart’s greatest crime wasn’t insider trading, it was telling a generation of hosts that gathering is about fish knives, flowers and canapés; that if you get the things right, magic will happen.”
Rather, it’s everything but said things.
As she goes about redefining our notions of the gathering, Parker brings meaning to the throngs of events that punctuate and define our lives—be they weddings, birthday celebrations, dinner parties, industry conferences—happenings that can often feel like lobotomized formalities, the true purpose and heart of which might seem close, nigh achievable, but fleeting. A missed opportunity Parker seeks to rectify.
All told, she brings humanity back to the fore. And in the process, tradition and routine wither, and suddenly, everything means something again.
—Zachary Petit, Design Matters Media Editor-in-Chief
Debbie: We're more connected than ever, but it doesn't really feel that way. We talk on the phone less than we use to, but we spend more hours in front of screens or plugged into earbuds. We're constantly interacting, but not always communicating on a meaningful level. We're busy, but we're not often getting a lot done. Priya Parker aims to change that. In her new book, "The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters." Parker sets out to make our lives more productive and our interactions more meaningful. With life's distractions, Parker reminds us that human contact is what really matters. Trained as a conflict resolution mediator, Priya has worked all over the world with NGOs, companies, and universities. She's the founder of Thrive Labs, where she helps organizations embrace and cultivate their sense of purpose.
Debbie: Today, we're going to talk about her new book and her passion for purpose. Priya Parker, welcome to Design Matters.
Priya: Thank you for having me.
Debbie: Priya, you've described yourself as the daughter of a mother who hails from Indian cow worshipers in the ancient city of Varanasi, while your father's family is from American cow slaughters in South Dakota. That's a lot of cows in your lineage.
Priya: It sure is. It's funny. It's no wonder that I ended up in the field of conflict resolution. My mother comes from India. She comes from a family that is Hindu and theosophist, which is not Hinduism, and they're vegetarian, and they have traveled all around India, because of my grandfather's job, but basically come from a tradition where in Hinduism, the cow is a sacred animal. If my family was listening, they would make sure to correct me that they're not technically cow worshipers, it is a sacred animal, because it is the vehicle for one of the gods. My father comes from South Dakota by way of Iowa. To this day, my grandmother who's no longer living to [Aida Millers 00:02:11], are farmers in Wagner, South Dakota.
Debbie: Your parents met in Iowa. They fell in love, married, had you in Zimbabwe, and worked in fishing villages across Africa and Asia. What was it like growing up in such an international setting?
Priya: I think when you grow up in any type of context, you don't realize that it's special, because it's just what you know. It wasn't really anything different for me until we actually moved to the United States. I remember being at a summer camp and kids started making fun of me and saying that I spoke English with an accent. It never occurred to me that I had an accent. I ran home and cried, not because I was upset that I had an accent, but because it was clearly a bad thing to have based on how they were treating me. My father looked at me and he said, "Priya, everybody has an accent."
Debbie: That's wonderful. You don't have an accent though.
Priya: When we moved here, I had come from Indonesia and then The Hague for six months. My accent at least as I was told was a jumble of a lot of different things. I think like anything that you do over time, I came young enough where it got stemmed out of me and I now speak as an American. My father is American born and raised and so it's also the lilts that I heard at home, but I came at a young enough age where because I stayed through college, it became an Americanized twang.
Debbie: Your dad got a doctorate in philosophy with a major in watershed management from the University of Arizona with a 296-page thesis without whopping name, which I'm going to try to share. It's toiled-
Priya: I don't even know this.
Debbie: It's toiled the effective spatial variability on output from the water erosion prediction project, soil erosion computer model.
Priya: He is not a brander.
Debbie: He also worked for the Peace Corps and the United Nations World Health. Your mother is an advisor and writer with decades of experience at the World Bank, the UN, and other organizations. How did your incredibly prolific parents influence you?
Priya: They influence me very deeply, most specifically my mother influence me in the way that she gathered. My father describes himself as a hydrologist and my mother described herself as a cultural anthropologist. The reason they lived in fishing villages was because it was the Venn diagram of poverty and water. My father studied and built sanitation systems. My mother basically began to work in villages to understand and help them grow in the ways that they wanted to. What's now called participatory development and even human centered design didn't have a language back then, and she would work in villages to develop very simple games and techniques that would bring villagers together often when a large amount of aid was likely to come in or they're experiencing great change, and trying to figure out how do you actually "do development."
Priya: I say that in quotes, in a way that puts the people affected by that development at the center of the conversation. From a very early age, the conversations around my dinner table were almost always about how do you gather in a way that puts the people involved at the center of their decisions.
Debbie: Your parents eventually divorced in Virginia and both remarried, and with joint custody, you pinged between their households, which you've described as toggling back and forth between a vegetarian incense field, Buddhist, Hindu, new age universe, and a meat eating conservative, twice a week church going Evangelical Christian realm. What was that like for you?
Priya: A little bit schizophrenic. My parents divorced and very quickly they remarried. I guess in the course of my life very quickly between two or three years. I toggled back and forth every Friday afternoon, I would pack up my stuff at one house. When I was younger, the other parent would pick me up and we'd drive just a mile to the other house, but it was another universe. I was fully part of both families. I'm an only child, and so I didn't have any siblings to co-witness the experience with me. There is no one who was part of both worlds with me. I became a bit of a chameleon.
Priya: Years later, my husband would joke that when I'm with my mother's family and somebody sneezes I would say, "Bless you." When I'm with my father's family and someone sneezes I would say, "God bless you."
Priya: These were things I didn't even realize until I had a common witness in my life to point it out. For most of my teenage years, I've tried to figure out how I could fit in to both places.
Debbie: As you were going back and forth between households, you've written about how you remember learning about republicans and democrats at school, and you asked your father which one your family was. He said, "We are so glad you asked, we are republicans. We believe in the values of this country." When you asked your mother the same question, she and your stepfather said, "We're democrats." You've since said, "That is the story of the essence of how you grew up." They lived a mile apart, but they lived a world apart.
Debbie: You mentioned it before, but do you think this is what set you on an early path toward conflict, mediation, and seeing all sides of a story or an argument, or a debate?
Priya: Absolutely. I remember the republican/democrat comment, I remember it because both of them, even more than what they said, they were relieved that I was asking and relieved that they could almost, and this wasn't explicitly said, but protect me from the other side. When my mother said, "Oh, we're democrats," I remember thinking, "I think my dad said the other one."
Debbie: How old were you when you did this?
Priya: I was probably 12 or 13. I remember thinking, "Here are two different people who both feel very passionate about this specific identity as well as passionate about not being the other one. Both are my parents." From that day on, I realized that I needed to figure out why they felt so passionately about things that they believe that the other side was frankly completely wrong about. I remember, one week I'd be reading Thich Nhat Hanh with my mother. He's a Vietnamese monk about presence and mindfulness. Then next week, I would literally be reading Ann Coulter, because that was the book my stepmother would give me.
Debbie: Wow, that is schizophrenic, but that's amazing to have that kind of range. You did not grow up in an echo chamber that's for sure.
Priya: I did not grow up in an echo chamber. I think for, before college in particular, my modus operandi was to survive to blend in, and survive is a strong word, but I'm using it that way, and to figure out how I could belong to both places. The way I could belong broadly was to listen and to speak up when I felt that it was hearable, and also to often not say anything. It was really when I was in college and I had some time away I think like so many of us that I began to ask the question not just what is my inheritance and where do I belong, but who do I want to be?
Debbie: It was first at UVA where you went to college where you started being asked, "Where you from?"
Priya: Mm-hmm (affirmative)
Debbie: That was something that you had never really heard a lot before.
Priya: They actually would ask, "What are you?"
Debbie: What are you?
Debbie: As if you're not a person?
Priya: That's how it sounds, but it was at least then, this is 2000, 2001, it wasn't as offensive as it sounds today I think in part, because of the way our language has changed and political correctness, but basically people would want to know what race I was. I didn't understand the question at first. I thought they were asking what year am I or at UVA you say, "First year, are you first year?" I quickly realized that they were asking, "No, what is my racial and ethnic background," and that it mattered because it helped them place me.
Priya: I remember speaking of gatherings, freshman orientation at UVA, one of the first things that happens at least then is a massive pool party. I walked in into the pool, limbic sized pool. At the front of the pool on the right side was broadly white students, and at the back of the pool was basically black students. I walked in and I realized that I had to physically choose a side. Otherwise, I'd fall into the water. For me, particularly growing up all over the world, it was a very stark visual, that I don't even know if other people realized as explicitly.
Priya: I learned very quickly that the correct answer to that question was I'm biracial, I'm half white, half Indian, and even that was a complicated answer, because people would say, "Are you American? Are you Indian?" I'd say, "I'm Indian. My mother's half Indian and so I'm half Indian. My father's white from Iowa and so I'm white American. Very quickly, I realized that to have a conversation about race, you had to have the right language before we could even understand each other, because we are using different phrases and language, we're offending each other.
Debbie: This led you to founding the Sustained Dialog Program at UVA, and then after in New Delhi India, where you conducted sustained dialogs in the country on behalf of the Dalai Lama Foundation. Can you tell us a little bit about what sustained dialog is for our listeners and what motivated you to do that at that point in your life?
Priya: Yeah, absolutely. Just one correction, it is the Dalai Lama's Peace Foundation, but it's technically called, "The Foundation For Universal Responsibility." Sustained dialog is a group process. You could even call it a communication technology that helps people who are on different sides of some conflicts come together and see if they can transform their underlying relationships. It was a process that was designed by a diplomat, a man named Harold Saunders. He goes by Hal Saunders. He actually passed away last year at the ripe old age of 85.
Priya: He was assistant secretary to Kissinger, to Henry Kissinger. He was part of the team that drafted the Camp David Accords. One of the things that he found after serving in government for multiple administrations was that while there are certain things that governments can do like forge peace or make peace treaties, that if you don't actually change hearts and minds on the ground, nothing actually changes between the perception of the citizens. He left government and started to run some of the longest running backroom dialogs between citizens of influence during the cold war between the Soviet Union and the United States.
Priya: These groups of 20 influential citizens that had the ear of the government, but were free to speak their own mind would gather often three days at a time, three times a year over 13 years, to see if they could fundamentally change their relationship as soviets and Americans. As they did and built trust, began to see if that could have ripple effects through each of their administrations. He basically realized that when a group is committed to coming together for a specific purpose over time, you can begin to transform the underlying relationships, which has a potential to transform the conflict.
Priya: In 2001, he was a trustee at Princeton and Princeton had its own race problems, which have been well-documented. Two students at Princeton David Tukey and Teddy Nemeroff were interested in starting sustained dialog at Princeton and they did that. As a freshman at University of Virginia, I learned about Hal Saunders work and they agreed to basically train us to figure out how do we actually launch sustained dialog at UVA. We actually launched it, we sent the letter to the students and administrators to launch the same dialog on September 10th 2001.
Debbie: Oh my goodness.
Priya: Yeah, so September 11th happened obviously the next day. While it was just the letter, part of the power I believe of an invitation is that it creates a container in people's minds. When September 11th happened, and there was this deep desire to gather sustained dialog became one vehicle to do that with.
Debbie: Does UVA still have that program in place?
Priya: It still has that program in place, 15 years later.
Debbie: It's incredible.
Priya: It's amazing. It's amazing, and it's spread now to more than a dozen schools across, college campuses across the country as well as in Zimbabwe and South Africa. One of the things that really connected with me at the time was that it made me realize that conversation and group conversation was something that you can get better at, that conversation and that the way you gather is not just something that is inherited, or happens, or you trust the chemistry in the room, but that there are actual specific things you can do to create a gathering that's transformative for people.
Debbie: You went on to get a dual master's of business administration and a master's of public administration at Harvard Kennedy School and MIT Sloan. At that point in your lie, what were you hoping to do professionally?
Priya: It's a good question. Like most things in my life, I'm almost all split identity, so to choose one program one of event to end that trend, but I spoke with a mentor at the time, and she said, I was debating between actually getting a PhD in P studies in conflict resolution, or going to public policy school. She said to me, she's actually in the book, [Rhonda Slame 00:16:22]. She said, "Go to public policy school, because you've already done many of the things you've spent your, the last eight years learning what you would learn in peace building. What you need to understand in these rooms is how power works and how systems work," and to be in the room where it happens.
Priya: That is going to happen much more at a public policy school so that you understand how governments think and how decisions are made. I actually first just went to the Kennedy School and then the financial crisis happened. At the time the financial crisis happened, you could say it was a failure of policy and regulation, but all of the panels in the financial crisis happened on the other side of the river, at the business school. Kennedy students who study policy for a living were literally go walking across the river that's in Cambridge to go understand why are we in the biggest crisis of our generation. I applied to business school impart, because I understood that in this day and age you need to understand how business works.
Debbie: You mentioned that you wanted to understand how power works. Is there an easy answer to the question, "How does power work?"
Debbie: Okay, I figured. I figured we'll get to that in the conversation today, but just in case there was an easy answer, I wanted to ask it.
Priya: I will say one thing that I learned is that power is not a bad thing. It's something that happens anytime too when more people come together. One of the best definitions I've heard of power in a group context is from the Christian Theologian Paul Tillich, and he describes power as an individual's ability to self-actualize. It's a controversial definition, because Hitler was practicing power. It can be evil, but he talks about the two twin forces and all group dynamics, and all group life as being power and love. He defines power as the ability to self-actualize, and love as the desire for the separated to become whole.
Priya: He says that, "Power without love is abusive, but love without power is anemic." In all group life, whether a marriage or a friendship, or a group of friends, or a nation, you need to actually have both of these things in balance.
Debbie: It sounds like that's also something that requires empathy to know the difference.
Debbie: Your thesis, when you were finishing school, your thesis was titled, "The souls of 1% to report on the emerging leaders of the millennial generation," in which you discuss the phenomenon known as "FoMo" fear of missing out. Around that time, you predicted that FoMo would ripple through out culture, which indeed it has. Attaining such visibility in the cultural lexicon that it was added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary.
Debbie: Yeah, in 2016. How are you so ahead of the curve on that kind of cultural conversation?
Priya: I saw it around me and I experienced it myself. I realized that in my specific dual degree program. So these were people who are both obtaining a business degree and a policy degree, who came into this program, wanting to learn the tools of business and policy to go back out and create social movements and cultural movements. Over the course of three years, a majority of them ended up going into banking and consulting. I almost fell into that trap myself. I started interviewing with McKinsey's and the BCG's. The more skills I got in these programs, frankly, the more insecure I became.
Priya: Because you enter this subculture that is telling you that you need to keep learning, and that and this is part of the success of the companies, that the way to keep learning is to go into consulting, because you are exposed to all of these different fields and learn how to think and learn how to solve problems, and that this degree is not enough. It becomes a recruiting mechanism that we all start to believe. The second thing I saw was when I was, you know, this is around dinner table conversations with my friends, with my peers, and we were all debating what to do. A huge reason a number of us were going into, we're going consulting or banking was because it was the choice that would be safe while preventing us from making a true choice.
Priya: It would keep doors open for longer. It would keep us from making potentially the wrong decision of going into healthcare or going into farming, or agriculture, or something specific that we may then want to back out later from. I saw this as FoMo. Another term that someone told me in one of the interviews, FoBo, the fear of better opportunities. The fear of better options.
Debbie: Oh, God.
Priya: This thing that we'd learn in our accounting classes or our financing classes, which is the best option is to always preserve options begin to infiltrate our moral choices.
Debbie: How did you decide at that point what you wanted to do next? You do so much work today advising people on how to find their purpose. How did you then find your own?
Priya: I fainted on the plane.
Priya: Yeah. I was just coming back from a summer internship, where I was pretty miserable. I was going back to graduate school for my third year, and I collapsed on a plane, and I had to be taken off in a stretcher. My heart rate fell, and my fiance at the time now husband got off the plane with me. We went to the hospital. When I finally came back to school, and got checked up on my doctor, he said, "There's nothing wrong with you. Your vitamin D levels are a little low, but just get a little sun." He said, "Can I say something?" I said, "Yeah." He said something like, it's at least my memory of it, he said, "You've been running through your 20s and you've been on war footing. Your army has simply run out of supplies. I strongly suggest that you take some time off."
Priya: As I talked to him and shared some of my experiences, I said, "I was doing conflict resolution and facilitation for my early years and through my 20s and I loved it, and I've now over the last two or three years become extremely stressed out forcing myself into these business models." He said, "Take some time off." I did, and I was very fortunate I was able to, but I took a semester off, and cleared everything for my life. I also felt very physically weak. I needed physical rest.
Priya: During that time, I began to be able to clear away a lot of the noise. I worked with coaches and with therapists, but also just very, very simply cleared out a lot of the cultural norms and voices, and realized that the thing that I most love to do is facilitate. I remember making an agreement to myself with some help with some advisors that I would facilitate a hundred visioning labs in my living room before the end of the year. I began to impart, because I was going through this. I just started with one on one with my friends. I would do these three-hour sessions with friends on two pillows in a living room, where I'd guide them through a series of different practices.
Priya: Some of them I learned from sustained dialogs, some of them I learned through my own creative process to help them get clear on their purpose, because I was suffering so deeply with getting clear on mine. As I started to do this, I would literally do three-hour sessions three days a week from 3:00 to 6:00 in my living room every day for free. It would build my craft. One of the things that the 10,000 hour rule through creating these experiences with my friends and seeing them, at least telling me they were having breakthroughs, they'd start sharing with their friends. Many people in those programs ran start-ups. So they'd bring me into their start-ups and start facilitating conversations with their start-ups.
Priya: I started realizing that this is what I love to do and it's my gift. If I actually honored that gift, and didn't think that it wasn't enough or embarrassed by it, that this could actually be a very powerful tool.
Debbie: You started Thrive Labs.
Priya: So I started Thrive Labs.
Debbie: Before we get to that ...
Priya: It was awesome. It was heady. It was the jazz years, if you will. It was the summer, I believe in 2009, and I was interning in the office of Social Innovation, which was a new office so every president has a tradition that started with Johnson I believe where they create a new office. This one was the office of social innovation and civic participation. I was actually part of the office launch. It was an exciting moment, because we were able to have a coming out party. There was a lot of conversation about what should this coming out party look like. They invited us at the White House can with convening power, a hundred leaders in the field of social innovation, and so the heads of foundations and the heads of NGOs, Teach for America, and Meetup, and all sorts of different Wikipedia.
Priya: I was thinking, "My goodness, what an amazing opportunity to have these people together in a room and not just witness and mark a moment, but what could we do with them?" I'm a facilitator, so I designed something dynamic, and I suggested doing a goldfish bowl where President Obama could be in the center, and we'd bring in 12 leaders at a time with the other hundred sitting in a big circle around and having a live dynamic conversation about the future of the field. I was getting very excited and everybody around just looked more and more nervous.
Priya: They just said, "We have to have something scripted. We don't know what might happen if it's unscripted." It was an incredible moment, because of the fact that the White House was honoring and acknowledging that this matters. From the structure of the gathering, to me, it was a missed opportunity.
Debbie: You talk about this in your new book. It's a wonderful story, a little bit heartbreaking, but a really vivid story. Your new book is called, "The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters." What made you decide to write this particular book?
Priya: I wrote this book after going to gathering after gathering. Sometimes my own included, but dinner parties, conferences, birthday parties, anytime people would come together. I almost always have wonderful people in the room, and leaving feeling like frankly it was a missed opportunity that there was not the level or depth of connection that could have been given who was actually there. One of the reasons I believe this happens is because so much of our gathering wisdom particularly in the US has somehow been associated with the realm of etiquette, and flowers, and even if you look at Instagram, impart because it's a visual medium, so much of gathering, the gathering industrial complex is around literally what does a table look like.
Priya: We've centered gathering around things rather than people. I wanted to write a book that's centered gatherings around people. We have not thought about what actually creates magic between live, breathing people in a room. I set out to change that.
Debbie: What does create magic in a live breathing room?
Priya: Purpose. Gatherings that work for the most part, in my mind, tend to have some specific purpose. They know why they're gathering. Everything falls from there. For example, a very simple example is a wedding. I've been to dozens of weddings, I imagine, you have as well. Even when you think about a wedding, there's very few that stick out. Many of them blend into the rest, and the ones that stick out are the ones where the couple made a specific disputable decision that perhaps upset some people about what this gathering was for, what this wedding was for, and who it was for.
Priya: What I mean by that is in a wedding often, you laugh at how many fights they can cause and the lead up to the wedding and planning, but one thing is often there's a question about size like how big should this wedding be, and should we invite my mother's colleague or my year old college buddy. This argument is actually a proxy war as to what is this wedding actually for. Is it to honor the parents or is this to celebrate the coming together of new communities and to build a tribe? Those are two very different weddings.
Debbie: That's a conflict resolution you have to manage.
Priya: It is. I would say by managing it, to have the conversation ahead of time first within the couple and then usually within among the parents of what is this wedding for? One of the examples and this is an Indian example in the context of a wedding is even when you think about the ritual or the rights in a wedding, in a Christian context it's the bride walking down the aisle with her father. The father literally gives her over to the husband in a heterosexual marriage. In India and in Hindu weddings, there's a tradition of walking around a fire, it's called, the Pheras.
Priya: If you actually read the script in the Pheras, many of them basically have assumptions where the woman's role is to take care of their child and there's very specific assumed roles that many modern couples in India don't actually want, but yet the ritual of the wedding that their parents, and their grandparents, and their great grandparents all took a part of has meaning in it. That image, walking around the fire is often image that is the photograph plastered on walls for generations at a time.
Priya: Part of thinking about a purposeful wedding is to think about how do you create a ritual that both honors your past, but also reflects your values? It's a very complicated question.
Debbie: How do you get at what the intrinsic purpose of an event or a gathering is?
Priya: You start by just asking, why do I want to have this gathering? Many gatherings suffer from a purpose confusion, because we assume that a category is a purpose. A birthday party is to celebrate my birthday or a wedding is to get married, or a team offsite is to bond the team. The first thing I always say and I try to do this myself is to actually pause and say, "Why do you want to have a birthday party? What is it that you need in your life right now? How might a gathering serve that?" One of the things that happens when we skip a purpose is that we assume a specific form for a gathering without thinking about what we actually need.
Priya: To start if you're for example wanting to do a pool party or neighborhood potluck, I would say, "Why do you want to have a pool party?" Someone might say, "Well, because it's the beginning of summer." I'll say, "Why do you want to invite your neighbors?" They may say, "It's nice to get together." So keep asking why. Why is it nice to get together? We don't see each other that often. Why does it matter for you to still see each other? Kind of get to knowing that, you really keep asking why. Then someone might say, "Because I want my children to be in a community where they know their neighbors and where they believe that strangers aren't scary." Then you have an animating purpose.
Debbie: That then helps determine the energy of the gathering.
Priya: The energy of the gathering and even more so who should be there. If I say, I want to have a neighborhood where strangers aren't scary, all of a sudden, it may make sense to invite neighbors that I never met before of my pool party versus the ones that I've known for a decade.
Priya: Both. Part of the reason purpose helps is because I joke in the book that you should use purpose as your bouncer, that purpose should be this animating force that helps you decide who should be there. One of the thing and another element of powerful transformative gatherings are those that are willing to exclude well.
Debbie: What does that mean?
Priya: One of the things that gatherings I think sometimes suffer from ironically is over inclusion, and it comes from a spirit of generosity. Now again, I do this myself. Sometimes it's embarrassing or awkward to not invite so and so, because they'll know about it. One of the things that gives gatherings animating life is when people are there, because they serve the purpose of the gathering. One of the examples that I recently heard from a friend, that he was invited by his 80-year old grandmother to come for her birthday party. All of his adult cousins realized that they got this invitation, but there was one catch, which was the adult spouses and the children were not invited.
Priya: This caused mild uproar among the cousins. They're all spread across geographically. They don't all see each other. The spouses were like, "Why aren't we invited?" It was great so we're now on babysitting duty, whether they're the male spouse or the female spouse, but it was their grandmother and she's getting old, so she had some clout and they went. I spoke with my friend when he came back, and he was thrilled with this gathering. He was so moved by it. He said, "My grandmother and her wisdom gave us a gift. That was the ability to spend time with my cousins as an adult for the first time without playing the role also of spouse, without also playing the role of parent, with just being able to play the role of a cousin to say, what does this look like to have an adult relationship? Because the last time we did this was as children."
Priya: It was the most beautiful experience, because there is a specific purpose and there was space given to it.
Debbie: I have two questions about this. The first, I can already see the questions in the social etiquette column in the New York Times on Sunday. I just read Priya Parker's book and I'd like to have a party and I only want to invite so and so. What do I tell the other people that aren't invited so that their feelings aren't hurt?
Priya: Yeah, you tell them the purpose of the party. In some cases, that might be a difficult conversation. So if the purpose of your party is to have a party where the people who bring out the best in you are there, you don't always have to make your purpose explicit by the way. This is just for yourself as a design principle. I can give us the example of my own life that my parents and my in-laws were going to meet for tea and an aunt was visiting. It happened to be that she happen to be in town that weekend. It was also her birthday, and she was visiting for the very complicated situation.
Priya: She had just assumed that she would join this tea. My fiance and I at the time love the aunt, but didn't want her there, because this was this very unique opportunity for these two families to meet and spend time together. A part of being a generous host is if people are on the room, you pay attention to them. If people are in the room, you pull in the person who least belongs. Part of the problem of having an aunt there is that not that she's going to be quiet and not take up space, but if you're gathering, well, you're including her intimately in the conversation.
Priya: Frankly, it became a conflict, because it actually meant her staying at home or not. We had to say the purpose of this very unusual time together, we don't live in the same cities for our parents to get together and you're not a parent. That wasn't apparent. I think part of gathering with intention means having difficult conversations. I got an email the other day from a friend who has read the book. She was hosting a gathering in her context of work. Some people knew about it and asked if they could come. She had this moment and she read the book, and she took a deep breath. She wrote back and said to the person why they were having a gathering and why that person wasn't invited. She talked about the purpose.
Priya: She did it with care, and she did it with transparency. One of the things that happened was that next time that she has a gathering and that person's invited, they actually then know if we're gathering over time that the invitation is purposeful, intentional, and you want them to be there.
Debbie: With all the conflict resolution that you've done both internationally as well as between individuals, are there any universal elements that tend to be at the core of all conflicts? Is there a common solution, if so?
Priya: It's a million dollar question. You know, many conflicts come down to a disagreement or a threat around needs, values, interests, and identity. The conflict that I'm most interested in and have always been attracted to are conflicts over identity. I'm running these experiences called, "masterclasses in the art of gathering," where I gather together 50, or 100, or 250 people who are all part of some community and create this live experience where for an hour, I build community among them. Then for an hour I reverse engineer the process. I did this a couple of days ago at a company in New York.
Priya: One woman share this example that in college, she was part of a feminist group. There were republicans and democrats in this feminist group. At some point, the women democrats decided and basically said, "You can't be a republican and a feminist. It's a paradox. It's an anomaly." There is this huge conflict. The group basically eventually fell apart. The republican women left, and it was a core conflict about identity, which is what does it mean to be a feminist and what are your core values?
Priya: You see this at the macro level as well in the American conversation. Last year, when we had the women's march, one of the core I remember, organizer is writing about and parts that they were nervous about was whether or not there'd be conflict between pro life women and the marchers. Even now, there's a roaring debate about whether or not you can be pro life and a feminist. These are the conversations to me that are juicy, and fascinating, and in so much depth, because it's extremely complicated. It comes down to a core difference of values.
Debbie: How do you bridge those differences without people necessarily feeling that they have to change their mind about the way they think?
Priya: Yeah. I think one thing is you start building ways of being together that unite people across other types of identity. What I mean by that is they may disagree on this specific issue, but they may bond as hockey players, or they may bond as parents, or they may bond as ... Sometimes it's the more unique identities that they wouldn't think they would have. That have some vulnerability in them. They may bond as people who have experienced estrangement in their life. They may bond as people who have had a near death experience. To me, one of the most powerful elements of transformative gatherings are when you can have conversations that get people out of their fixed identities.
Priya: One of the things that Hal Saunders, my mentor, spoke about in terms of transforming relationships is he identified identity as all of the experiences over the course of your life up until this very moment that shapes who you are. What I loved about that definition was that there are yes some, perhaps, fixed elements over your identity, but even those are changing. Gender, or race, and some of the most interesting conversations today around what is fixed identity.
Priya: Within the definition that he had, there's also a lot of space that says, "There's a possibility that in this moment, I'm willing to expand, or change, or question, or reimagine some element of my identity." To me, gathering has become profound when you can start getting to that point in the conversation.
Debbie: How do you encourage people in those situations to be more vulnerable to open their hearts a little bit?
Priya: First of all, you have to want to. Whenever I do any type of gathering, particularly professional and I'm invited in to a company, or to an organization, or to a political movement, first of all I always go when I'm invited. I'd never force myself in, because you can't force people to be vulnerable. It's actually close to abusive to force people to be vulnerable. When people have gotten to a point where they realize that the way they're doing things aren't working, and they're curious about another way, that's when you can have a crack.
Priya: For example, one of the things I always say before a meeting where people are coming together to talk about a topic that may be difficult or taboo or contentious is to have a dinner the night before. That has nothing to do with the topic. One of the things that I do is this dinner format that I write about 15 toasts.
Debbie: I was going to ask you about that. It's magnificent.
Priya: It's a fun model that a colleague and I, a friend of mine, Tim Leberecht and I designed and on the fly with input from my husband, where we were at the world economic forum meetings. This is the Global Agenda Council Meetings in Abu Dhabi, and realized that during the day, when people actually meet, there's a lot of meeting but not a lot of connections, sort of what you said at the beginning of our conversation. We thought, "What if we can design a dinner the night before that would prime people to show up differently the next day?"
Priya: We invited 15 people from all of these different councils. The age spread was I think 21 to somebody in their 80s, half men, half women, people from all over the world. We had a theme that we wanted to ask people was what did they believe a good life is? The night before I got very nervous. The night before the dinner I got very nervous, because I thought, "How are we going to actually have a conversation with 15 people about this topic? Are they going to talk? Is it going to be interesting or strange?" I realized I needed some structure. I needed to design for meaning.
Priya: My husband and I were actually sitting in a dimly lit mall having lunch and started riffing a bit, and came up with this idea that was we'd ask everybody in the room at some point in the night to stand up, old school style, ding their glass, and give a toast to the theme. The only catch was that the final person has to sing their toast. That allows people to realize that it's less scary to give a toast than to sing their toast. It moves the night along.
Priya: It was an experiment. We did it and what was so beautiful about the night was that when people start sharing other parts of their life and bond around identities that are surprising and unexpected, they think about you differently the next day when you're getting to the "meat of things" and it completely primes them to show up differently the next day.
Debbie: You have a number of really extraordinary exercises in the Art of Gathering. I also was wondering if you would talk about the exercise, "I am here."
Priya: Yes. When my husband and I first moved to New York, we didn't really know anybody here and we didn't know the city. We started this experiment. We didn't even really think of it as a gathering at the beginning, but we just said, one day a weekend we'll go to some neighborhood, we'll turn off our phones and we'll walk around and explore it. We told a friend about this and she said, "Okay, I'm going to come." The first time we did it, she invited a friend, and we chose Harlem as a neighborhood, and first went to church. Abyssinian Church and started to basically roam around Harlem and the upper side of New York and talked, and talked, and talked.
Priya: At the end of the day, 7:00 PM, we all left and we felt completely exhausted and completely rejuvenated, and had a conversation, the four of us that was pretty spectacular. We just started doing it again and again and the idea started spreading. We've done it over 20 times and all types of different neighborhoods and themes.
Debbie: You do this how often?
Priya: We would do them usually, it ended up being about once a month. Actually, we have not done them since I've had children.
Debbie: That makes sense, especially since you have a 16-week old.
Priya: Yes. We are saying that we want to start them again, yeah.
Debbie: One notion that I loved in the book is something you picked up at a Japanese tea ceremony in Kyoto, the phrase, and I hope I get this right, "Ichigo ichie." It roughly translates to one meaning, one moment in your life that will never happen again. How has that influenced the way that you create gatherings?
Priya: To me, when I heard this phrase, it gave me goosebumps. It was so beautiful. The tea master who I was speaking with that was a woman, she said, "One of the things that I've learned from my masters is that even though the Japanese tea ceremony is a very structured ceremony. There's an order, it's a ritual, there's a way to do it. One of the things that the master believed is this is one of the founders of the ceremony a hundreds of years ago was that even when you have the same identical form of a ritual or of a structure, it will never be the same two different times, because the people who are in it are different."
Priya: If you have a tea ceremony on Tuesday at 10:00 AM and then you have the same people involved in the tea ceremony the next week at 10:00 AM, they are different people because of the last week of their life. What happens or how they're moved, or what they think, or how they believe may have changed, and the dynamic between those people have changed. By the way, it may have also changed, because they now have a memory of having a tea ceremony the week before.
Priya: The meaning and the depth of the tea ceremony changes, because they now have a relational memory to it. Similarly, with gatherings the reason this inspires me so much is because I think one of the reasons that our gatherings suffer is they seem boring. A birthday party has candles and a cake, or a board meeting has a square table and a whiteboard behind it that we start attributing forum. One of the things that this "ichigo ichie" phrase reminded me of and always reminds me of is that you have this unique crazy moment and time where people are coming together and you can create the future of this group live in realtime based on what happens between these people.
Debbie: It's incredible. You said that routine is the great enemy of a meaningful gathering, and I love that idea that to constantly be trying to abandon norms that we expect.
Priya: Absolutely. One of the core ingredients is surprise and unexpectedness. It can even be a small tweak. It can be the way you start a meeting differently, or it can be the idea that you would have your birthday party and have everybody meet at a fishing docket 5:00 AM to watch the fisherman come in, and that that could be a birthday party. The idea that you can do something different is really the core of the book.
Debbie: You talk about hosting in the book and recount the amazing way in which Ronald Heifetz starts his adaptive leadership class at the Harvard Kennedy School. I'm wondering if you could share a little bit about what that is like.
Priya: Sure. This was a class shopping day the Kennedy School, where you can actually go and sit in classes for 20 minutes at a time or 45 minutes at a time, so just test the class. It's not even the actual class. It's pretty high risk to hold a bold experiment with people who are trying to forget if they want to take your class. Class starts, the bell rings, and most teachers stand up and explain what the class would be. The more innovative ones give a lecture and actually model a class rather than talking about a class, but Ron Heifetz blows the whole thing out of the water.
Priya: He sits on a chair, at least when I was there. He sat on a chair in front of the class, and there's 90 students in a room staring at him, and he doesn't say anything. You sit there and watch him, and he's just staring at a space. A few seconds go by, and everyone just sits there and continues to stare at him. You're trying to figure out what's going on.
Debbie: It sounds like a John Cage composition.
Priya: Yeah, exactly. People start mumbling and this nervous laughter. The teacher basically is not playing his role. All of a sudden, this entire group is on edge and not really sure what they should do. This popcorn like conversation starts. As far as I remember, people say things like, "Is this the class? Is he going to say something? Maybe this is what we're supposed to do. Are we supposed to talk to each other? Ssh. Don't ssh me. He's about to talk. How do you know he's about to talk?"
Priya: Basically, this group of strangers starts trying to navigate what the hell are they supposed to do if there isn't a guardrail and the person whose supposed to be an authority, the host, the teacher is abdicating his role. I love this example and three or four minutes into it, thank God. Everyone's deeply relieved when Professor Heifetz finally steps up and he says, "Welcome to adaptive leadership."
Priya: I didn't take the class. I just dropped the class, but what he does as I understand it over the course of the year is he creates all of these different dynamics and experiences where all of the scripts that we tend to follow, he pauses. He makes the implicit explicit, which is that in so many group context, we tend to follow scripts, whether or not we want to. The reason I started the chapter with this anecdote is because it's a beautiful extreme example that shows how much we just assume and go into autopilot in our gatherings, because we assume that there's a way to be. When you actually pause and invite people to be another way, conflict can happen, but the most beautiful things can happen as well.
Debbie: You've said that all of the people who are taking risks is what inspires you in life. Why do you find that inspiring? I do too, but I think for different reasons than you do, mostly because I have a real hard time with risk.
Priya: I am deeply inspired whenever I see people taking risks period, whether it's taking a job that "makes no sense" to anybody else, or whether it's speaking up in a room when your voice is shaking and continue to speak anyway. I feel very moved when I see people demonstrate encourage. To me, I love it when I go to a gathering. I actually much prefer being a participant than a host, much, much prefer it.
Debbie: Why is that?
Priya: In part, because you actually have a lot of power as a guest, but is unexpected power. I think one of the things that I implicit in this book, I don't say it explicitly is the art of gathering is not just for host. It also how to be a better guest. So often, there's gatherings that in the moment can actually be improved much improved not by the host, but by the guest offering something. Some of my favorite dinners are when at conferences when a group of people get together and everyone's chitchatting and then somebody just says, "Hey, we don't really know each other. Would you guys be up for answering a question? What if we all ask a question that would take us to different level?
Priya: I love those moments, because you're putting your neck out on the line. When anybody in a group or in a room tries to take a risk that helps people meaningfully connect despite the awkwardness, I'm always very moved and very grateful.
Debbie: Priya, I have one last question for you. You dedicated the Art of Gathering to your husband, the writer, and commentator, and resident genius Anand Giridharadas. He dedicated his book, "The True American" to you and wrote on Facebook, "This won't be the last book I dedicate to Priya Parker, but it is the first. A book is a lot of wild rambling before it is actually a book. From the earliest days, Priya selflessly put aside whatever she was doing to listen to every word of this book out loud as I was writing it. Finish a page or two, read it to Priya. That was the ritual. It's impossible to imagine writing without her." I talked to your husband about this as well. What is the dynamic like when you're the one writing the book?
Priya: One of the things that's been so beautiful writing this book is that I don't consider myself as a professional writer. I think of myself as a professional facilitator that is trying to get my thoughts down. When I wrote this book, Anand was with me every step of the way, and continued to basically say, "Write how you talk. Don't write how you think you should write." He helped me structure the book, he has edited the book many times. To me, marriage is, we joke that our marriage is a lifelong dialog that is this one long conversation.
Priya: This period of writing this book to me was very humbling, because of how much he gave of himself, because it is his craft and it is his genius of how to string words together, and to deeply learn what it actually takes to be interesting on a page. You can judge for yourself whether I accomplished that. It was a very beautiful process to be witnessed and to be helped by him. The other thing that was fun was he was also writing a book during this time. He also had two children during this time. One of our daily rituals when we were both writing was to write on a library in our neighborhood and then meet for lunch, and eat, and read or talk about what we were writing about, refill, and then dive back into the books.
Priya: It was really beautiful to actually have a similar rhythm at a time where life has been very intense.
Debbie: That beauty is reflected in every page of your book. It's a book not just about the art of gathering, but the art of living fully about purpose, about meaning, and about love.
Priya: Thank you.
Debbie: Priya, thank you so much for such an enlightening conversation. Thank you for joining me today on Design Matters.
Priya: Thank you for having me. It's such a pleasure.
Debbie: Priya Parker's new book is "The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters." You can see more of her work at priyaparker.com. This is the 14th year I've been doing Design Matters, and I'd like to thank you for listening. Remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference or we can do both. I'm Debbie Millman, and I look forward to talking with you again soon.