Motley Fool co-founder David Gardner is a big fan of "better." He has built his own career out of helping people invest better, of course, but he's also always on the lookout for people offering us ways to improve our lives in areas beyond the financial. And when a person has ideas in that vein, they frequently choose to share them with the world in the form of a book. Hence his decision to inaugurate an "Authors in August" theme for the Rule Breaker Investing podcast.
For this episode, he's interviewing Priya Parker, founder of Thrive Labs, which specializes in teaching leaders how to transform the way they gather people together. Her book is The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters. Together, they discuss a number of ways we sap the power from meetings of all types, from failing to recognize their real purpose to bringing our "best selves" rather than our real ones. More importantly, Parker offers a number of insights that will help you turn your gatherings into something more powerful and meaningful.
A full transcript follows the video.
This video was recorded on Aug. 8, 2018.
David Gardner: A lot of parents, as their kids grow up, begin to wonder what the eventual empty nest will look like. Will feel like. Well, as I previously conveyed on this podcast, I now have direct experience with that with our youngest having spent last year away as a college freshman.
The empty nest, it turns out, has many pleasures alongside, of course, a little more quiet. Alongside the inevitable little sadness of not having offspring prancing or prattling around the house. And one of those pleasures -- well, I've discovered anyways -- is more time. So as it turns out, in the past year I've channeled some of the time I once spent actively parenting doing something I used to do a lot more before parenting, and that is reading.
Yup, reading. Books. I think I've read something like 15 books in the past 15 months and that's probably about triple what I used to do. In the past year I've greatly enjoyed books like The Inevitable by Kevin Kelly and Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker. Microtrends Squared by Mark Penn and the novel A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles.
And indeed each of those authors has already been on this podcast or will be on this podcast this month; so it's a wide array of books aimed both at the future as well as the past. I have to say more the future since that so well suits Rule Breaker Investing; but, books about culture, history, technology, and now, yes, gathering. How we gather as human beings.
Priya Parker, our author this week on Rule Breaker Investing, has made a career of helping humans gather better. Gatherings like your next business meeting. Your wedding. Your next networking conference. Your child's fifth birthday. Wherever three or more are gathered, it can be done better, Priya tells us. It can be more awesome. It really does, along with [This is Spinal Tap] go to "eleven."
And I have to say of all the books I've read in the past year, I think I like this one the most. Priya's advice about finding true purpose in meetings, pop-up rules for parties, never starting funerals with logistics; the list goes on. This book is deeply relevant to all of us of every age and background.
And the reason she's written what is probably my book of the year, so far anyway, is because in the true Rule Breaker spirit, she challenges conventional wisdom, she makes disruptive suggestions, she provokes us to better, more imaginative, sometimes more daring, [and] always more thoughtful ways to do the work of gathering. And that's as hosts, as leaders, as guests, too. As fellow human beings looking to gather better in our homes, our unions, our businesses, in conferences, our rituals.
So, yup, it's Authors in August month for Rule Breaker Investing. Last week was Seth Godin. This week is an author Seth actually came out and praised recently. My guest today is Priya Parker. I'm so glad you're with us this week. Priya is the founder of Thrive Labs, at which she helps activists, elected officials, corporate executives, educators, and philanthropists create transformative gatherings. She works with teams and leaders across technology, business, the arts, fashion, and politics to clarify their vision for the future and build meaningful, purpose-driven communities. She's also the author of the subject of our conversation this week -- her brilliant book, The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters. I know you're going to enjoy this week's guest, Priya Parker. Priya, welcome!
Priya Parker: Thank you for having me!
Gardner: I wanted to start with your background, because I loved how you laid it out early in The Art of Gathering, and it's just a good question for us to ask anybody. Where are you from? How did it begin? And if you don't mind, I'm just going to read a few sentences that you put up front in the book and then I'd love for you to riff or give us a little bit more. This is how you present who Priya Parker is.
"In my work," you say, "I strive to help people experience a sense of belonging. This probably has something to do with the fact that I've spent my own life trying to figure out where and to whom I belong. I come, on my mother's side, from Indian cow worshipers in Varanasi, an ancient city known as the spiritual center of India, and on my father's side from American cow slaughterers in South Dakota.
"To cut a very long story short, my parents met in Iowa, fell in love, married, had me in Zimbabwe, worked in fishing villages across Africa and Asia, fell out of love, divorced in Virginia, and went their separate ways. Both of them went on to remarry, finding spouses more of their own world and worldview."
You go on. "After the divorce, I moved every two weeks between my mother's and father's households. Toggling back and forth between a vegetarian, liberal, incense-filled Buddhist Hindu New Age universe and a meat-eating, conservative, twice-a-week church-going, evangelical Christian realm. So it was perhaps inevitable," you conclude this line with, "that I ended up in the field of conflict resolution."
Well, that was a spectacular way to introduce yourself to me and your readers. Do you want to add anything to that? I want to make sure that's up front for everybody listening, because it's just fascinating.
Parker: I grew up in a way where truths were given to me very strongly but from two different sources and they often conflicted with each other. And so my entire life I've learned to both honor what I've inherited and question it. And to me the core of all gatherings is doing those two things.
Gardner: Let's go right there, because the word "gathering" is such an important one, obviously. It's in the title of your book. It runs throughout the book. I wanted to make sure for those new to you that you define for us what you mean when you use a word like "gathering"?
Parker: I use it to describe anytime three or more people come together for a purpose. The book, The Art of Gathering, is really a book about group dynamics. How you create meaningful, connective, transformative experiences from groups. Not one-on-ones, though I think the principles of the book can apply to a time when you're meeting with one other person. I really am interested in what happens when three or more people decide to come together.
Gardner: And it spans everything from giving advice to a friend of yours for her next New York dinner party, to world leaders, and corporate, and funerals, and weddings, and anytime across all of these widely, vastly disparate purposes and experiences that we come together, you're looking to make it more awesome.
Parker: And it doesn't have to be fancy and it doesn't have to be formal. Back-to-school nights. PTA meetings. Block parties. Funerals. Anytime people come together, my hope is that they're left differently because of it.
Gardner: In fact, as you structure the book [we're just going to go right through it, because it's so well-structured and it's fun], you have eight principles and there are eight chapters in the book. I'm going to be the lazy idiot, maybe foolish host, who just structures it around the way you've written the book, and Chapter I is entitled, Decide Why You're Really Gathering.
Parker: Most books that deal with the topic of gathering deal with the things of gathering. The food. The recipes. The lighting. The flowers. The table setting. And for decades we've probably outsourced our wisdom about gatherings to chefs and etiquette experts and event planners. And what I wanted to do was write a book from the perspective of a group conflict resolution facilitator -- from the perspective of group dynamics -- that puts people back at the center of the gathering.
And so the first chapter is really about "purpose." Decide why you're really gathering. And one of the things that I've come to see is that we tend to conflate category with purpose. What I mean by that is we're having a wedding [or somebody's having a wedding]. We think that the purpose of a wedding is to get married. Or we think the purpose of a birthday is to celebrate a birthday. Or we think the purpose of a board meeting is to get the board together. And the danger of just stopping there is we end up basically replicating what we think a wedding, or a board meeting, or a dinner party should look like without actually stopping to say, "Why is it that I want people to come together?"
As an example of a wedding, when I work with people who are friends, even in my own life, I'd say, "Why are you getting married? Why are you bringing people together? Why not just go to City Hall?" And most people say some version of, "This is what my family does." Or, "I've always imagined a wedding and so now it's time to come together and do it." And they skip quickly to the accoutrements of the wedding. The dress. The bridesmaids. The church. The venue. The logistics. The cake.
And in many weddings, the conversations that end up happening between the couple and between the parents end up happening over proxy wars. Guest size. Or colors. And what those proxy wars end up fighting over is actually what is the underlying purpose of this wedding? Who is this for? Is it to unite the disparate tribes of this young, new couple? Is it to honor the parents? Is it to repeat a ritual that six generations before had done? Or is it for a moment where these two people are coming together and in front of their joint community say, "This is who we are now. This is how we are different from you and this is how we are the same. But this is who we want to be regardless of what we have inherited."
Gardner: And Priya, you used the phrase "the Passover principle" as a way to help organize our thoughts as we think about why this next gathering would be special. What is "the Passover principle?"
Parker: I'm not Jewish and for this book I interviewed over a hundred gatherers in all walks of life: rabbis, a dominatrix, a photographer that gets seven minutes of a head of state to capture the right shot and then all of a sudden, all the security rushes in. A variety of different people.
And one of the things I kept coming back to, over and over again, was in particularly Jewish tradition and culture, gathering is deeply, deeply, and beautifully developed. And the Passover principle [in my language not theirs] is this idea that [and I attended various religious gatherings as part of this research], the idea of Passover and part of the cadence of the night of the person leading it [whether it's a rabbi or the head of the family] says, "How is the night different from all other nights?"
And then the ritual, basically, goes through on this night we eat this, or on this night we drink this. To remember the tears of this. There's obviously different forms depending on which tradition you come from within the Jewish faith, but the idea of the Passover principle is to ask for every gathering, no matter how small, "How is this night different from all other nights?" How is this birthday? How is this 37th birthday different from all of my other birthdays? How is this anniversary and this moment in our marriage different from all other anniversaries? How is this pool party at the beginning of summer different from all other pool parties? And to be radical about the idea that every gathering you host can be unique to the moment that you're in.
Gardner: And in addition to you using the word "unique," and helping us think really intentionally about our upcoming gathering; again, whether we're talking about something that's a family anniversary, or we're talking about our next business meeting, you also use an important and interesting word to describe "good purpose" and you use the word "disputable." So a good purpose, you say, should be specific. It should be unique, which you just talked about. What do you mean by disputable?
Parker: I mean that people can dispute it. They can disagree with it. They can think that you are wrong. And when I work with companies and help them figure out their purpose or their vision, what I found over time is that companies that have a vision that people can disagree with start to become companies that have a voice. That have something to say in the world.
I'll give an example. I had a friend of mine whose grandmother was turning 80. She lives in Germany. And her grandchildren [who are now all adults themselves] live in a number of different countries and she wanted to have a birthday party. So she sent an invitation to her adult grandchildren and she said, "Come to my birthday party. Your spouses and your children are not invited."
Now this, as you can imagine, was a very disputable purpose but, in her mind, she'd never done this before. It was not clear she was going to do it again. She basically wanted to use her birthday that year to reconnect with her adult grandchildren. Disputable. Controversial. You could argue for all of the reasons why it's a bad idea and exclude the people that are furthest away from her already, but that's what she wanted. And the cousins debated. The spouses. Some men, some women were thinking, "Great. Not only do I not get to go, I get to play babysitter." But at the end of the day they thought, "OK, you know what? Granny wants it. Let's go."
So I was very curious about this whole invitation, as you can imagine, and as soon as my friend got back I called him and I said, "How was it?"
And he laughed and he said, "It was one of the most magical experiences I've had in a long time at any family gathering."
And I said, "Why?"
And he said, "Granny's incredible insight was that we had not played together or spent open time together as adults, and it gave us a chance to reconnect and negotiate our relationship as adult cousins, not just replicating models of how we played when we were 13 years old."
Gardner: One more question on purpose. There are the other chapters to get to, but really purpose; you lead with it. It's such an important thing. For us here at The Motley Fool, as a stock picker I'm often asking what the purpose is of this company before I recommend that you or I put our money in it. That's really important to me, so purpose is key. Let's just go a little bit deeper.
I love the story you told about the baby shower that you had and this might be a story of when form can take over a purpose. Traditional forms -- sometimes we allow them to overwhelm a more creative sense of purpose. Could you briefly tell the story of your husband wanting to attend your baby shower?
Parker: I was pregnant with our first child and my girlfriends wanted to throw me a baby shower. I said yes without thinking about it. I didn't follow my own rule. They jumped to planning the logistics: date, time, how would they thoughtfully make this a meaningful gathering. For me they knew that I would want storytelling. It was still thoughtful, but the assumption was it was for women by women.
My husband wanted to come and, at first, I thought, "You would be an interloper." And he kept pushing saying, "Why can't I come?" And basically what I began to realize was that a baby shower and the rituals around it [I study this, so I looked into it] were based on an older time period where women and mothers were the primary and often the only caretaker and so the identity of new mother was a big one; whereas the identity of father was not as relevant.
Esther Perel, the relationship expert and sex therapist, says one of the most interesting modern inventions is the invention of modern fatherhood, and we don't yet have rituals to actually incorporate that reality. And this is what we were bumping against.
And so long story short, I thought of a baby shower in the same way as I thought of a bachelorette party, which is this is for women by women. You wouldn't want your men here. A bachelorette party is the idea of you're preparing a bride for a groom and then the bachelor has a groom party. But a baby shower reflects a reality when  giving birth was much more dangerous  the women was the primary caretaker and  labor, itself, was dangerous. Fortunately in the US [not among all populations] that's changing.
So we began to realize maybe a baby shower is the wrong name for what it is that we wanted. Maybe we have a parent potluck. I'm kind of making this up, but what does it mean to have a ritual for new parents that embodies the ideas that we are going to have a child and both parents are going to work and both parents are going to raise them? And by the way, the mother has a nine-month experience where her identity gets transformed through her shape. Her physical body changes when she gives birth. The father doesn't have that. How do we actually invent modern ritual that is not hokey, but that deeply embeds the principles of the society that we're actually trying to create and live in?
I want to make sure people don't think that the purpose is just for personal gatherings. One of my favorite examples in the book was I got to sit in at The New York Times' Page One meeting and I just want to talk about that for a quick second. The Page One meeting is a 70-year-old meeting. It was founded when the front page of The New York Times basically shaped the conversation of the world the next day.
It was what policymakers looked at. It was read. And it developed over time -- this kind of ritualistic meeting. It was literally they'd sit around a King Arthur style table, round table. The journalists and editors would come with what they'd call their offers and pitch it to the decision makers at the time.
And about six years ago or four years ago the new executive editor of the Times, Dean Baquet, basically realized that the Page One meeting no longer made any sense because page one of The New York Times no longer was what set the news of the day. The Home Page did. The Home Page has hundreds of articles all day long, but yet they had this gathering that was the most important gathering that had outlived its purpose.
You can read the book to find out what they did, but part of this is we actually fall into ritualistic gatherings at our companies and our organizations even more than we do in our personal lives. And so the idea of asking why we are really gathering and what is this meeting for can transform your work.
Gardner: All right, Priya. So from thinking hard about purpose, in the very next chapter you tell us to "close doors." To start thinking about who or what we want to exclude from our gatherings. Give us some more intel.
Parker: The age-old adage "the more the merrier" has actually diluted our gatherings. It comes from a spirit of generosity and what I'm arguing is keep, keep, keep the spirit of generosity in your gatherings; but be generous to the people that you want there.
One of the things that I've seen at a lot of gatherings is that we're afraid to exclude people because we're afraid of offending them, and by including them [in part because you want to be polite to the people in the room], the focus of a gathering can get diluted.
My father recently retired. He was a civil servant for 25 years. He retired from a government agency two weeks ago. He called me up to talk about his retirement party that some of his colleagues were planning for him and he said, "You know, there are three other people this month that were also retired. I was thinking maybe I'd invite them to join the retirement party."
Gardner: Very generous.
Parker: And I thought it was a great thought. I said, "Do not do that." I said, "Please do not do that."
He said, "Why? It would be so generous of me. I feel kind of bad. They're planning this for me. What about those people?"
And I said, "Those people should have their own retirement party..."
And I just played it out for him. I said, "Who, then, are you going to invite? What if they invite colleagues that don't know you but know them? Are you going to have a toast for all of you together? Are you going to broadly not do anything that would offend either one of you? You have muddled purposes." And so in that case I was saying exclude well, meaning don't try to honor multiple people at the same retirement party.
But for your guests, the same thing. That closing doors means to choose a radical, disputable purpose and then to ask who will allow this purpose to come true. Another example from the book is a man in the fifties. He's an Egyptian. A graduate student who moved to a small town in Germany. Realized there was no student-run bar -- his name is Osmand Abousteit -- and started a student-run bar. It was kind of cool because the rules were different, then. They served beers out of bottles, which at the time was considered kind of rude. They didn't pour it into a glass. But it was also student-only.
And one day the vice mayor of the town came to the bar. He was not a student and the bodyguard wouldn't let him in. He made a big fuss and then the owner came out [Osmand]. And it was this moment of truth whether he closed the door physically and said to the vice mayor, "You can't come in," or "you can come in." And he held the line and he didn't let the vice mayor come in. And that day that gathering basically put its teeth into its purpose, which is to say this is not just for students. It's also not for not students. And he was willing to destroy value [a local celebrity coming into his establishment] in order to preserve its purpose.
Gardner: That exclusionary mentality, just to broaden it [thinking about the world of business]. How about Southwest Airlines deciding not to charge us for our bags? In a sense that's the same thing going on. They're excluding the opportunity to make money, but they're differentiating themselves and making themselves one of the most valuable airlines of the last 30 years partly through those kinds of radical decisions.
Parker: And it's a radical decision [of] Southwest Airlines in part because it's not a shtick. It's not a marketing play. They know the purpose of their company, they know who they want to fly their company, they know who they want to hire to be on their planes, and they made a decision that charging for bags didn't match that.
Similarly, maybe the competitors then try to compete by also not charging for bags [though Delta and United have not followed suit, unfortunately] and then they wonder why they're not getting the same...
Parker: ... revenue bump as Southwest, and it's because they need to figure out their own purpose and they need to figure out their decision of what they cut or what they charge more for to align with their purpose. If you only copy somebody else's solution it becomes a shtick.
Gardner: And so part of gathering well and really part of good purpose and identity is what you aren't about and what you're not standing for or, in this case, as we move now to Chapter III, we're going to go from closing doors, which is important. Now Chapter III, this chapter is about "hosting," and the power that you or I exert or seed as the host or leader of a gathering, and you entitle the chapter "Don't Be a Chill Host."
Parker: Chill and the idea of relaxing. Showing that you don't care. And I'm using "chill" in a very specific way. In the kind of millennial jargon that's come to mean "I don't give a damn." Or for your viewers "I don't give a darn." And the idea is that we spend so much time and energy getting people together, whether it's for a birthday party, or a meeting, and then there becomes this kind of cultural cachet in looking like we don't care. And it's terrible for gathering.
What I'm arguing is that if you go through the entire rigmarole of deciding to get people together, hold them once they're actually there. And what I mean by that is you protect them -- to protect them from each other. That you are the host and that there should be norms and ground rules, implicit or explicit. That if people are being rude, or over talking, or not listening; that you need to correct them in some way that is natural to you or organic.
You want to equalize your guests and somehow figure out, in this room, whatever the hierarchy... They may be VP and intern out in the hallway but, in your room, they're equals. Maybe what they actually share is a love for soccer.
And then the third is to connect them. Don't assume that they're going to connect on their own. My favorite example of this in a company is the Alamo Drafthouse. Have you been to one?
Gardner: I haven't, but I loved your rendition of it. Do tell that story.
Parker: So the Alamo Drafthouse was started in Austin, Texas and the founders wanted to create a space where they were bringing the magic of the movies back to people. And they had a couple of innovations. First, they served food and drink in the venue. And the second is like their competitors, they also have a rule that you can't talk on your phone or text. But unlike their competitors, unlike AMC and Loews, if somebody talks or texts, they get one warning and the second is if they do it again, they get kicked out.
Now most movie theaters also say that, but once they say no talking or texting and play the funny commercial that makes everyone laugh; when there's a texter behind you they put it on you, implicitly, to figure out what to do. Do you give them an evil look? Do you hush them? Do you escalate it? And the only time an AMC or Loews person will come in is literally if a fight breaks out. The enforcer is a security guard.
At the Alamo, they understand social dynamics and they first realized that the viewer, the crowd, is much more likely to see a texter than anyone else; but rather than ratting them out, they allow them to write on a small card. It's the same card that you order food from, so you're not seen to be ratting them out. They understand social pressure.
Parker: "This person's texting." Then a waiter comes over and gives the person one warning. If they do it again, the waiter who's also serving food and drink escorts them out. And they actually do this. And why I love what they do is because they have a purpose and they are willing to protect their purpose, and that's what makes them great gatherers.
Gardner: And then we reach Chapter IV which is such a lovely phrase and something that I'll take with me along with many other dictums and bits of advice from your book, Priya. But Chapter IV -- "Create a Temporary Alternative World." So whether it's a gathering that you're hosting [like somebody retiring from a company, or a birthday party for a child, or a mega worldwide world leader political global conference], in each case great hosts and great event planners are creating what you're calling a "temporary alternative world." Why is that important?
Parker: The amazing thing about gatherings is that for a limited, temporary moment in time, you get to create a moment where you get to set the rules. And everybody implicitly understands this. We just don't think about it explicitly. You get to say meet at this time at this place. Wear a costume or don't wear a costume. I'm calling it this. I'm going to serve this. I want you to behave this way.
And the idea that we are creating temporary moments where people can behave a thousand different ways is a way to think about creating an experience for people that they remember differently because of what they showed of themselves at the gathering.
So in the world of game design, there's this idea of a magic circle. The idea is basically that when you play a game [just say it's tag] and it can even be a pick-up game. The rules are the two trees are the outer posts. You can say time out. The street is where the other side stands behind. Ready, set, go.
You set up a number of rules. People agree to them and then you step into the magic circle and the idea of gameplay and the rules temporarily shift, and then you can say, "Time out," and you ask a question and then you end it. And a game, and a game theory in general, is this idea that for a temporary amount of time you can shift the rules everyone agrees on and then you begin, you have a middle, and you have an end.
Gatherings work the exact same way, and the best gatherers understand this. So we think about costume parties or Burning Man. You sort of create this temporary alternative world. But every time you're bringing people together, you also have an opportunity to help them decide which part of themselves they want to show.
And I think this comes from my own background. I'm biracial. I'm half-Indian, half-White American. I'm half kind of Christian, half the opposite. I'm all of these various things. And I know depending on the context that I'm inviting to, I will show a different side of myself. I might make different jokes. My husband often teases me that when I'm with my father's family and somebody sneezes I say God Bless you! When I'm with my mother's family and somebody sneezes I say, Bless you! I don't even realize I'm doing this.
So we all have different versions of that, and as a host, when you're creating a gathering, one of the things you're helping people understand is which part of themselves it is OK to show here.
Gardner: And in particular I found compelling the notion [of] "pop-up rules." Pop-up rules [are] a new form, I would say, of social gatherings. Maybe not done as much 30 years ago. Maybe this is more the gamer crowd and people who like to play Werewolf, and I'm one of those, too. But the concept of receiving an invitation that is telling you, for example, that you're not allowed to mention anything other than your first name for the first hour of the gathering. People who are setting up little rules to create unique gatherings -- I find it very compelling.
Parker: Pop-up rules are, I would say, a very helpful tool in an age of modern multicultural diverse living. Etiquette worked at a time where we all were raised with the same etiquette. We were all WASPS, or we were all Tamilian Brahmins, or we were all Sicilian. We all kind of know how things go.
But for most people in the US, and in the workplace, and globally around the world more and more we're gathering together with people who have different etiquettes, and pop-up rules is a temporary solution to basically say, "Hey, here are the rules of the road for the next two hours."
Again, they should match your purpose. For example, Anthony Rocco, an amazing experience designer based out of San Francisco, used to create social evenings for an underground secret society. He'd have a pop-up rule that when people would walk in he'd say, "Welcome. Bar's in the back. The only rule is you can't serve yourself a drink." And there was no bartender. By this simple rule he enforced the fact that everyone had to pour each other a drink, which is this lovely, simple way of getting them to engage in understanding what it was they wanted.
A different one could be the House of Genius, which are these sort of brainstorming nights that exist all over the world for entrepreneurs. They have a set of rules. One is you can't talk about work. You can't say what you actually do. And the second is you can't reveal, I think, your last name. You can't say who you are until the very end.
And they do it in part, again, because it serves their purpose. They bring together like eight to 12 people to help a stranger entrepreneur with a business problem; but part of what they realized is that if you know that Jony Ive is in the room, or an investment banker, or whatever you assume has authority, that you will disproportionately listen to that person and might undervalue the person in the room that has great advice that you're not valuing because of what you think their profession is.
And so they've designed these interesting temporary rules that shift people's behavior to get a better outcome. Again, a networking night where you're not allowed to talk about what you do for a living. That's interesting.
A 40th birthday party. This was forwarded to me as an email. A guy set rules for his birthday party in New Orleans that was part of the invitation and one of them was strike up a local conversation with a stranger, take photos but post nothing, don't miss the flight on the way home, and no hurricanes because he wanted people to have fun, but not get so drunk that they made a fool of themselves. Make up more rules along the way. And so it's this idea that rules can actually be deeply playful.
And the last thing I'll just say is rules around technology can also deeply help improve the presence of a night. The phone stack rule, which was started by a blogger, ended up being called the Tumblr Rule where you stack your phones in the middle of a table at a dinner party and the first person to look at their phone foots the bill.
Gardner: That's great. So let me briefly see where we've been and then where we're going. We started with decide why you're really gathering, and then close doors. Don't be a chill host. Create a temporary alternative world. And now we next get to logistics and you've entitled this chapter "Never Start a Funeral with Logistics."
Now this chapter, having fully read your book, I know it's not actually about logistics. It's about beginnings and the power, the potential power of doing beginnings right every time. And I have to say that in my own experience [both personally], I now reflect that I've been blowing this. I think maybe our company has been blowing this one. But I now see this blown all the time with your lens -- that the power of beginning is always being destroyed when we start with logistics.
Parker: You're at a conference and people step onto the stage and say, "Now before we begin, I just wanted to let you know that there's two cars illegally parked." Before we start, I just want to let you know the bathroom is in the back. Before we start, I just want to let you know that we will be recording live.
I mean, maybe you need to communicate that information, but the first opening moment of any experience are the moments where you have people's highest attention, and you want to grip them, in part because those are the moments they remember. And to start with purpose. And to start with stories. You can start in a thousand different ways, but to not start with logistics.
And part of the problem is you think of this as time that doesn't count, and you do need to convey information, but do logistics second, or do them visually, or find a creative way to convey the information, but don't outsource your opening to the most boring part of your gathering. Hold it, because it's the moment where people are wondering what is this? Do I want to be here? Is this cool? Do I want to belong? How do you captivate them to understand that this is why we're here and what side do I want to show of myself?
I interviewed a number of teachers in the book because I think the classroom is such a simple example of a daily gathering over and over again. One of the examples I used is a professor I had. I went to MIT Sloan's business school. He was an accounting professor. He was starting attendance. It was as banal as it can get.
And the way he did the attendance the first moment -- the first day we'd ever met him -- was he looked up. 90 students in a U [the way the classroom was set up] and he took attendance by memory. He's never met any of us and he had no scroll in front of him and he'd clearly spent time memorizing all of us. Staring at our photos and memorizing our names. And in that moment, it was very moving. Many of us were almost in tears because he honored us, he showed that he cared, and he also showed us that he was brilliant and that we better pay attention because we could learn something from this guy.
Gardner: And in the book you say a colleague in the conflict-resolution field taught me a principle that you say I've never forgotten. You say, "90% of what makes a gathering successful is put in place beforehand." That 90% rule that you're talking about. There's a professor who was putting in a lot of effort beforehand -- before things even started -- and then used the beginning brilliantly.
Parker: Yes. And the 90% rule means every gathering is a social contract, and I mean that in the political theory sense of that word. That you are for a temporary moment of time saying, "This is what I'm offering you. This is what I'm asking of you. These are the rules of the road." But a huge amount of that should happen ahead of time.
So an invitation shouldn't just be a conveyor or purveyor of logistics. It shouldn't just be date, time, and place. You should give your gathering a name. Like rather than a dinner party, we used Jancee Dunn as the writer. She hosted a dinner party called "The Worn-out Moms Hootenanny." That's a very different thing than like "A Dinner Party for Mom." Think about what you are asking people to do. If you're asking them to show up on time. Whatever it is to get them to understand what this is ahead of time.
Or having them bring something. So Michel Laprise in the book is the choreographer of Cirque du Soleil. He hosted a holiday party and he asked all of his friends in an email [a simple invitation] to send two moments of happiness from their life over the previous year before they arrived. Michel took them. He printed them out. He made those his ornaments on the tree. He hung them on the tree and the 12 guests who didn't know each other walked in and saw each other's moments of happiness and their own moments of happiness on the tree and the rest of the night took off because of it.
Gardner: Spectacular. What a brilliant, creative idea. Not surprising coming from Cirque du Soleil. So Priya, from Chapter V we hit Chapter VI. "Keep Your Best Self Out of My Gathering." Obviously, I want you to explain what you mean by that, but I certainly would love for you just to spend a couple of minutes and explain how you invented the "15 Toasts" format which I know you've used many times. I'm sure others are copying it and using it. It's a brilliant idea, but it comes out of the idea of being authentic with each other and not just being the fake, perfect person who's happy at every gathering. Especially business gatherings can fall into this networking and these kinds of things. Give us a little bit more wisdom, here.
Parker: At the core of why we gather is because we need each other. The irony is that we behave like we don't. All I'm saying is to begin to show a little leg, collectively, that we actually do need each other. Brene Brown talks about the power of vulnerability beautifully and has research to back it, and a lot of that conversation is about individual, one-on-one intimacy and vulnerability. What I'm interested in is how does that actually work at the level of a collective group?
I was a member of the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Values. It's a mouthful.
Gardner: It is. [laughs]
Parker: I have to pause every time I say it. And we were coming together for a meeting with all of these different councils. One of the things that I'd noticed was that even when the content was values -- and I was also on a council called The New Models of Leadership -- even when these were human topics, the way we would behave, and act, and talk in meetings was we were basically acting like press secretaries. Spinning stories and making sure that we looked strong and that our businesses were strong. That we deserved to belong there.
So a colleague of mine and I, Tim Leberecht, decided that the night before this gathering we wanted to see if we could hack the gathering by hosting a small, radically different dinner party where we invited 15 people across councils whom we didn't know to come together and have a dinner together that felt more like weddings than board meetings.
We invited them to come. We chose a theme. We chose "A Good Life," which is different then The Good Life, but basically what makes a good life. And the night before I was very nervous, and I thought, "How are we going to have a conversation about a good life with 15 people? What does this actually look like?"
And long story short, through conversation my husband was there. We kind of played around with this format and we decided to try a format out. We later called it 15 Toasts. The people came, they gathered. We gathered around a table. I stood up and we shared these rules. And they are at some point in the night we invite you to stand up old-school style, ding your glass, and give a toast.
What we want to hear from you is an experience or a story from you that relates to a good life. What we don't want to hear from you are all of the amazing accomplishments. You wouldn't be here if you weren't accomplished. We know that you are amazing, but what we really want to hear is a rumour that you've been in that none of us know or an experience that you've had that relates to this in some way. And the only other rule is that the last person has to sing their toast.
Now what that does is it seeds the night along. And the second thing was I realized as a host I needed to be vulnerable, so to ask people to share a story; a group is only going to go as deep as the host will allow and show themselves. It's rare to go deeper, because the group is mirroring you. Gathering is a form of power and it's also a form of love, and whatever your discomforts are will likely extend to the group because they're watching you.
And so one of the things that ended up happening is as we went into the night [and you can read about this in the book] it's very difficult to talk about what a good life is without also talking about death. And very quickly people started sharing amazing, vulnerable, beautiful, personal, rich, complicated stories that we remembered for the rest of our lives.
But we also saw that we all had many sides, and we were complicated, and that actually these are people who not only could help me but I want to spend time with. And what could that actually mean and look like if we were to bring that lens and that part of ourselves to a question about what does values look like for the world, or what do new models of leadership look like? How do we embody the values that we're trying to bring about in the world?
Gardner: And this was all for a pre-event supper and I know that's part of your bag of tricks, is the professional. Priya, if we were to hire you to run something for like a Motley Fool off-site, that kind of a thing, you almost insist, don't you, that there's a supper the night before?
Parker: People are primed by whatever you give them. So one of the things that I do is the night before any gathering [if I have my way], is to do a dinner the night before where we show each other our fuller selves.
I was facilitating a gathering of political leaders a couple of years ago around the issue of religious liberty, religion, and a lot of the different, various political elements of this very heated issue. And we chose a theme of faith, defined broadly, which in that context is a very loaded word, and the night before hosted a 15 Toasts to faith and people shared the most beautiful stories of faith defined for them and it did not mean religion.
The rules of the 15 Toasts are that you can share each other's stories but you can't attribute them to anything, so I'm not breaking any rules, here, by talking about it. But one woman shared a story about how she was raised Catholic. It was a very strong part of her identity and when her grandfather passed away they went into the attic to go through his stuff and they found a box with a yarmulke and a Torah in it, and they realized that he was Jewish and he had converted, and he had hidden it. And so were they.
And I will always remember that story, but so will everybody else in the group. And when they started to get into the very complicated elements of the content that was at hand the next day, they were looking at each other with their very complicated, paradoxical selves. And for me as a conflict-resolution facilitator, the core element of what I work with is identity, and there are certain elements that are broadly fixed [you can't change over time], but there are many parts of us that are still changing and growing. And that can be added, and that can be taken away, and can be transformed. And when you can create a gathering where people realize that and start to understand that their identity is still a work in process, you can really create anything.
Gardner: And it is that authenticity, and that vulnerability, and bringing your full self that is so important at gatherings. And I think it's brilliant that you set people up for human moments before asking them to go through more professional emotions the day, or two, or three after. Awesome.
There are two last chapters to talk about, and let's just take them at the same time. The first is Chapter VII, "Cause Good Controversy." Obviously, I would like you to define what "good controversy" is and then Chapter VIII [and this will also be true of this interview except that there is an end], and so thinking in the same way that you get us to be better about beginnings, you also want us to think hard about endings and maybe not exiting with logistics.
Parker: "Good controversy" is the idea that transformative gatherings have some element of risk. I'm a conflict resolution facilitator, so a lot of the things I work with tend to be "heat." And what I mean by heat is it could be conflict. It can be taboo. It can be about power. It can be about basically the things, to put in the words of Ida Benedetto, an experience designer I interviewed, the things a group is avoiding.
And she asks this question. You can read about her in The Art of Gathering in more detail. She's a fascinating experience designer. She calls herself a transgression consultant. She helps groups transgress boundaries. Navigate boundaries -- physical, psychological boundaries -- with safety.
And before she designs any experience, she asks four questions and this can help you and me, and your listeners.  What is this group avoiding?  What is the gift in facing it?
 What is the risk in facing it?  Is the gift worth the risk?
Gardner: As you've pointed out, what's underneath so many gatherings is a lot of additional subtext and things happening deep under the ocean. That the more that we can get those things out -- especially, obviously in the field of conflict resolution, your professional calling. But at events, at conferences often we're talking around the things that we really are feeling inside and the more that we can cause that good controversy [maybe have a professional facilitator; somebody who knowingly puts us in those places], so much good can come from that.
Parker: And it might not be through conversation. Conversation is a very elevated form of generous controversy. It could be through design choices. I knew of a group that was an immigrant group in India. The context is if you're a vegetarian or not a vegetarian is a very controversial issue. Riots are started because of it. It often divides along caste lines, religious lines. It's a minefield.
And this is an Indian-American, a kind of second-generation group that was doing a large gathering and it was a very big decision. The conference and the gathering have always been vegetarian. And the young 'uns -- the next generation -- was taking over and they had to make a decision of whether or not they wanted to introduce meat. And for them, that alone [forget what you talked about over three days] that alone, if they decided to do that, would signal that "we are changing." It doesn't mean that we are no longer Indian or whatever the context is.
But heat exists in a lot of different ways. In an interracial or inter-religious couple, you're getting together at Thanksgiving. One side is Jewish and one side is Christian. The Christian side always begins with prayer. Do you begin with prayer or not?
Gardner: And since we probably do need to draw this to an end, although Priya has been gracious enough to accept my invitation to do an extra, so we're going to have some fun. Coming up this weekend I'm going to ask her advice for panels, because a lot of us have to do panels or have experience with panels. I'm also going to ask her take on Martha Stewart, how to do a family reunion, and a few other things, Priya. We're going to cover that there.
But for now, I think we should probably start to pull toward an end. Chapter VIII is "Accept That There is an End." And I have to admit. I'm one of those people who doesn't really want things to end, so sometimes I overstay my welcome at your party, and other times I don't want you to leave my party and I can't really sometimes accept that there's an end. And maybe it's that I can't accept that mortality is mortality but help us end well. Not just this podcast but our gathering.
Parker: Most gatherings stop. They don't end. And in the same way that you're bringing people in -- you're ushering them into a world -- you also need to help them leave it. That can be as simple as giving a closing toast. That can mean walking them to the door rather than letting themselves out. That can be inviting them to join you in the living room for after-dinner drinks, signaling that the night is winding down.
But again, conferences that I've been to where the end is a five-minute set of thank you-s, thank you-s when not done well are also a form of logistics. You can do thank you-s in a beautiful, meaningful, honoring-specific way.
First of all, don't end on a thank you. Do it second to last and do it in a way that is specific and gives people information about how and what that person did to help your gathering.
But the final is end on purpose. End with the things you want people to remember. Give them something to walk out the door with. I have a three-year-old son and he's part of a music class. His teacher is called Jesse Goldman. He's a singer/ songwriter. And at the end of every class, he strums the final note of the first song. He then pauses and makes announcements [bring me your check, no class next week, wear Halloween costumes the third week of October] and then he continues the song, so the logistics are literally within the song. He sings a goodbye song where everyone says their name, and then he says, "Who wants a stamp?"
And all of the kids run toward him and he gives them a Moozika! stamp. It's branded. They walk back out into the light of day. All of these other kids say, "Whoa! What was that temporary alternative world they were a part of?" My language, not theirs. But he knows how to exit them. And so similarly, accept that there is an end first. Don't ghost sit as a host. And then think about what you want this group to remember.
Gardner: Priya, to close well, then, what do you want my Rule Breaker Investing listeners most of all to remember from this gathering together?
Parker: That gathering is a form of power and that gathering is a form of love. And that in this day and age, when so many things are changing, what is not changing is that our gatherings can be powerful and that we need them. What is changing is that you can make up the rules on how you want to do it and do it in a way that reflects you organically and that it takes courage to do so. But that courage and that risk-taking is the deepest form of generosity.
Gardner: Her book is The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters. And, of course, if you'd like to reach out to Priya Parker, you can find her in social media. For example, you'll see her @priyaparker on Instagram. She also has her website. Priya [that's priyaparker.com]. Priyaparker.com. You can reach her that way, as well. Priya Parker, thank you for joining us on Rule Breaker Investing!
Parker: Thank you for having me!
Gardner: Well, if I were really a good disciple of Priya's, I probably would have left it right there, because that was a pretty perfect ending but, unfortunately, I do have a little bit of housekeeping to close with. But I think it's still of interest. I hope it will be, because Priya is back this weekend for a short extra, so join us via iTunes, or Google Play, or Spotify [whatever your podcast venue of choice is] and download my extra.
I'm going to ask her things like, "What does she think of Martha Stewart's advice?" And, "How can I improve my next family reunion?" Or, since she's called panels, like being on one of those panels at a conference. She's called them the "most lamentable" of gatherings. How can we do those better? We're going to have fun this weekend with Priya. Please join in.
And then next week, I'll be interviewing Amor Towles, the celebrated author of the novel, A Gentleman in Moscow.
In the meantime, I just want to thank you for gathering with me this week. Fool on!
As always, people on this program may have interest in the stocks they talk about, and The Motley Fool may have formal recommendations for or against, so don't buy or sell stocks based solely on what you hear. Learn more about Rule Breaker Investing at RBI.Fool.com.