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, she covers one vital don't and one complementary vital do: Don't be "the chill host," and do recognize that when you initiate a gathering, what you're really doing is creating a temporary alternative world. And that world? It has its own rules.
A full transcript follows the video.
This video was recorded on Aug. 8, 2018.
David Gardner: 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."
Priya 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.