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. In this segment, they dig into the first principle of that book -- "Decide Why You're Really Gathering" -- and talk about purpose, the Passover principle, and questioning old assumptions.
A full transcript follows the video.
This video was recorded on Aug. 8, 2018.
David Gardner: Chapter I is entitled, Decide Why You're Really Gathering.
Priya 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.