The Art of Gathering by Priya Parker

Big Idea: 

Design choices that place people and purpose at center of gatherings make them transformative.

Context:

Trained in the field of conflict resolution, Priya Parker is a professional facilitator. She helps activists, politicians, businessmen, educators, and philanthropists create transformative gatherings. She has worked on race relations on American colleges and on peace processes in the Arab world. She studied organizational design at MIT and public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.

My Personal Story:

I have a theory: you can know more about someone from 5 minutes on a basketball court than 5 months in an office. Whether it’s basketball or board games, shared, non-work activities show people’s true colors. This book helped me understand the fundamentals of transformative gatherings. 

Exercise 1

Commit to a gathering about something. Don’t conflate category with purpose. For example, don’t celebrate turning 40. Instead ask yourself the purpose of your birthday party this specific year. 

“Gatherings that please everyone occur, but they rarely thrill. Gatherings that are willing to be alienating— which is different from being alienating— have a better chance to dazzle. How do you arrive at a something worth gathering about? What are the ingredients for a sharp, bold, meaningful gathering purpose? Specificity is a crucial ingredient. The more focused and particular a gathering is, the more narrowly it frames itself and the more passion it arouses.”

For your next gathering, make purpose your bouncer. Let it decide what goes into your gathering and what stays out. Specifically, pay special attention to who you invite and who you don’t. Yes, this means excluding people – even good friends or important people – if their presence distracts from the gathering’s purpose.

Exercise 2

Rules-based gatherings bring freedom and openness to gatherings. Use rules to create a temporary alternative world.

“There is a certain kind of fun in trying something for a bounded moment. The kind of restriction that might feel oppressive if permanent can seem compelling and intriguing when it applies sometimes, as part of a conscious effort to create that temporary alternative world.”

For example:

The Influencer Salon gathers 12 strangers every month to cook and eat together. The invitation contained these rules:

  • Conversation: we ask that guests do not discuss their careers or give their last names until after the presentation portion of the evening
  • Photography: photos are only allowed during the presentation portion
  • Attendance: People who confirm and do not attend are unlikely to be invited again

Some other rules I liked while reading this book:

  • You are not allowed to buy your own drink
  • One conversation at meals
  • Turn off technology
  • No talking about kids
  • Wear white, including socks, shoes and headpieces
  • If you’re going, be there from start to finish
  • If you don’t respond to the RSVP you won’t be invited again
  • Share challenging moments that seldom come up in ordinary conversations

Implement at least 1 rule that enforces the gathering’s purpose.

Exercise 3

Like all good stories, memorable gatherings start and end with a bang.

Start your gathering off by priming, ushering and launching.

Your gathering begins at the moment your guests first learn of it, not at the actual event. Take advantage of this pre-game window to sow any special behaviors you want to blossom at the event. 

“Every gathering benefits or suffers from the expectations and spirit with which guests show up… priming can be as simple as a slightly interesting invitation, as straightforward as asking your guests to do something instead of bring something… it could be the way you name your gathering.”

Then help usher your guests across the threshold of your gathering. How can you great a physical or psychological passageway that tunes out the prior reality and captures people’s attention and imagination? This could be a door, passage, trip, or even greeting guests as they arrive.

Then launch the event by awe-ing guests and honoring them.

“The opening is, therefore, an important opportunity to establish the legitimacy of your gathering… your opening needs to be a kind of pleasant shock therapy. It should grab people. And in grabbing them, it should both awe the guests and honor them. It must plant in them the paradoxical feeling of being totally welcomed and deeply grateful to be there.”

Endings should mirror your openings. When you feel energy waning or conversations dying, announce a last call to signal the outbound ushering process.

“So you’ve issued your last call, people have been primed to think about the end, and the event is winding down. How do you actually close? A strong closing has two phases, corresponding to two distinct needs among your guests: looking inward and turning outward. Looking inward is about taking a moment to understand, remember, acknowledge, and reflect on what just transpired— and to bond as a group one last time. Turning outward is about preparing to part from one another and retake your place in the world.”

For example, the organizers of TED ask a comedian to close a days-long conference with a 15 minute wrap.

You can also reaffirm not just what the group did but who they were during the gathering.

Then connect the world of the gathering to the world outside. That could be a verbal or written pledge, a physical symbol, a letter written to their future self, a gift to turn an impermanent moment into a permanent memory.

Think through how your gathering’s opening and ending. For the opening focus on 1 action you’ll take to prime, usher, and launch the gathering. For the ending, make sure to have a last call, and  closing session that looks inwards and turns outwards before re-entry into the real world. DO NOT start or end your gathering with logistics. 

Quote:

“Gatherings crackle and flourish when real thought goes into them, when (often invisible) structure is baked into them, and when a host has the curiosity, willingness, and generosity of spirit to try.”

“Before every gathering she creates, she asks herself two questions: What is the gift? And what is the risk? She thinks of each of her gatherings as fulfilling a specific need for a specific group of people. But for that gift to be given, she has learned, there needs to be some amount of risk. ‘No true gift is free of risk,’ Benedetto told me. She defines risk as ‘a threat to one’s current state that could destabilize the way things are.’ The risk is what allows for the possibility of the gift.”

Dope Footnotes

Priya believes in a certain magic of numbers and density in creating transformative gatherings. I will refer to these often! From her book:

Numbers of people

In my experience, there are certain magic numbers in groups. Every facilitator has his or her own list, and these are obviously approximations, but here are mine: 6, 12 to 15, 30, and 150.

Groups of 6: Groups of this rough size are wonderfully conducive to intimacy, high levels of sharing, and discussion through storytelling.

Groups of 12 to 15: The next interesting number is around 12. Twelve is small enough to build trust and intimacy, and small enough for a single moderator, if there is one, formal or informal, to handle. (When multiple facilitators are required at a large meeting, it is customary to divide the number of participants by 12 to figure out how many facilitators are needed.) At the same time, 12 is large enough to offer a diversity of opinion and large enough that it allows for a certain quotient of mystery and intrigue, of constructive unfamiliarity. 

Groups of 30: Thirty starts to feel like a party, whether or not your gathering is one. If smaller gatherings scale greater heights of intimacy, the group of 30 or so has its own distinctive quality: that buzz, that crackle of energy, that sense of possibility that attaches to parties.

Groups of 150: The next interesting number lies somewhere between 100 and 200. When I speak to conference organizers who think about group dynamics, the ideal range I hear again and again is somewhere between 100 and 150 people. While they disagree on the precise number, they all agree that it’s the tier at which, as one organizer told me, “intimacy and trust is still palpable at the level of the whole group, and before it becomes an audience.”

Tides of humanity: Well beyond these gathering sizes is the sea of humanity. Think Bonnaroo, the World Cup, Tahrir Square, the Million Man March, the hajj in Mecca, the Olympics. These are gatherings where the goal is not so much intimacy or connection as tapping into the convulsive energy of a massive crowd.

Density: 

Billy Mac, an event planner, swears by the following parameters for the number of square feet required per guest for different vibes: 

  • Square Feet Per Guest   |   Sophisticated   |   Lively   |   Hot 
  • Dinner party   |   20 sq. ft.   |   15 sq. ft.   |   N/ A 
  • Cocktail party   |   12 sq. ft.   |   10 sq. ft.   |   8 sq. ft. 
  • Into the night/ dance party   |   8 sq. ft.   |    6 sq. ft.   |   5 sq. ft. 

He suggests dividing the “square feet of your party space by the number to get your target number of guests.” If your entertaining space is 400 square feet and you want a sophisticated dinner party, invite 20 people. If, instead, you want a “hot” dance party, invite 80 for that same space. Mac says one of the reasons party guests often end up gravitating to the kitchen is that people instinctively seek out smaller spaces as the group dwindles in order to sustain the level of the density.

Deep Work by Cal Newport

Big Idea: 

Deep Work – activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit – is economically valuable, rare in today’s knowledge economy and leads to a meaningful life.

Context:

Cal Newport is a young computer science professor at Georgetown University who has published more than 60 peer reviewed papers and 5 best selling books, all while raising a family and not working past 5:30pm and weekends. He doesn’t use social media.

My Personal Story:

Last year my MacBook was stolen so I had to work at a nearby internet cafe. I hated going there because it was full of obnoxious teens playing video games. So I would do all my thinking on pen and paper and only go there if I had to. I discovered that I only needed 1 hour online/day to complete my job. Without a computer I was more productive.

When feeling overwhelmed with distraction I usually ditch my phone and work at a riverside cafe. This matches a study Cal cites about attention restoration theory – that sending time in nature can improve your ability to concentrate.

Deep Work gives me a persuasive argument (backed by academic studies) to disconnect from the internet and routinize deep work.

Exercise 1:

Feel the power of deep work. 

Schedule two 60 minute sessions to complete an activity that supports your most important professional goal. This activity should be challenging but achievable so you lose track of time. No internet or phones allowed! A countdown timer helps, whether its a stop watch or Focus Timer app. How much progress did you make? How do you feel once you’re done?

Exercise 2

Integrate deep work into your schedule and support it with routines and rituals. 

Cal writes: “The key to developing a deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to your working life designed to minimize the amount of your limited willpower necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration.”

The most useful tactic I took from this book was the idea of fixed schedule productivity: fixing a firm goal of not working past a certain time OR certain number of hours, and then working backwards to schedule deep work.

Employ fixed schedule productivity to your working week. Pick a daily shutdown time and stick to it. For Cal, that’s 5:30pm on weekdays, and no work on weekends. Then schedule your deep work within your time constraints. This habit also gives your conscious brain time to rest and your unconscious mind time to sort through your most professional challenges. Most athletes, authors and scientists cannot do more than 4 hours of deep work/day. As Nietzsche said: “It is only ideas gained from walking that have any worth.”

Exercise 3

Now further train your attention muscle by working out 1) your ability to concentrate and 2) your desire for distraction. 

Cal suggests a 1-month social media fast and scheduling every minute of your day but this is probably too much for most people. 

Instead I recommend scheduling your daily “connected time” for one week. This connected time includes texting apps, social media and internet. I went with 11:30am-12pm so I could respond to text messages and 5-7pm so I could respond to work emails. I also allowed myself 8pm+ to be connected online. 

Online research related to your deep work is allowable – but you should open and close your browser after finishing the task.

This is more about adhering to your connected times rather than the amount of time itself. So if your work requires you to be online every few hours than schedule those blocks in but stick to them.

Cal also recommends committing to a shallow work budget of 25% or less of total work time.

Shallow work is “non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted, that tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.” 

To identify shallow work ask “how long would it take (in months) to train a part recent college graduate with no specialized training in my field to complete this task?”  You should focus on the tasks that would take longer.

For 5 working days schedule your daily connected time. Take note of how much time you’re spending doing deep work vs. shallow work. What routines would help you tilt the balance more towards deep work?

Quote:

“To leave the distracted masses to join the focused few, I’m arguing, is a transformative experience. The deep life, of course, is not for everybody. It requires hard work and drastic changes to your habits.

For many, there’s a comfort in the artificial busyness of rapid e-mail messaging and social media posturing, while the deep life demands that you leave much of that behind. There’s also an uneasiness that surrounds any effort to produce the best things you’re capable of producing, as this forces you to confront the possibility that your best is not (yet) that good. It’s safer to comment on our culture than to step into the Rooseveltian ring and attempt to wrestle it into something better.

But if you’re willing to sidestep these comforts and fears, and instead struggle to deploy your mind to its fullest capacity to create things that matter, then you’ll discover, as others have before you, that depth generates a life rich with productivity and meaning.”

The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp

Big Idea: 

In order to be creative you need habits that prepare you to be creative.

Context:

Twyla Tharp is one of America’s greatest choreographers who since 1965 has created more than 130 dances for her company, the New York City Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet, London’s Royal Ballet and American Ballet Theatre.  She has created pieces to the music of everyone from Mozart, Bach and Beethoven to Frank Sinatra, Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel.

Exercise 1

Every artist has a ritual that impels them to get started on their creative task.  This automatic sequence replaces doubt and fear with comfort and routine. For Tharp, it’s getting into a cab each morning for stretching and weight training.  For a chef, it could be tending his garden. For a composer, it might be playing a Bach fugue. For a basketball player, it’s bouncing the ball 3 times before a free throw.

Identify one trigger – whether an action, surrounding, or feeling – that warms you up for your best creative work, and stick with it for one week.  Create your own mini-routine of self-reliance, and Pavlovian dog response to start creating.

Exercise 2

Tharp also believes that distractions are just as much an obstacle to creativity as fear.  She suggests subtracting dependence on creative crutches to increase creative independence, creating a protective bubble that forces you to rely on your own ability.

Take one week off distractions such as mirrors, clocks, newspapers, speaking, the internet.  That’s right. Don’t look at a mirror, a watch, a newspaper, for one week.  Subtract this clutter for one week to add more creative room.

Exercise 3

To find an idea, scratch. Dig through everything to find something.  Tharp advocates scratching for ideas through: one’s memory, environment, reading, conversation, nature, culture, mentors and heroes.  Ideas are everywhere; we just need to find them. Remember the unshakeable rule that you don’t have a really good idea until you combine two little ideas.

To get started, find the tiniest microcell of an idea that gets you going.   Scratch smaller when stuck; don’t write about the town, but rather the upper left-hand brick on the Opera house.

All good ideas open up possibilities, turn you on and keep you moving forward. A bad idea closes doors and confines.

Remember Freud’s quote: “when inspiration does not come to me, I go halfway to meet it.”

If you run out of ideas, break routine.  Travel to a different city. Read a magazine you never looked at before. Scratch in a different place. Look for new combination of ideas: metaphors.  

When presenting an idea to others, ask yourself if your idea generates forward or backward momentum.  Does the idea move people to action and create more possibilities?  Or the opposite?  Present your idea in its most generative form.

Exercise 4:

Creativity is an at of defiance.  You’re challenging the status quo and questioning accepted truths and principles.  You’re asking 3 universal questions that mock conventional wisdom: 1) why do I have to obey the rules? 2) why can’t I be different? 3) why can’t I do it my way?

Pick a fight with the 1 routine or ritual of the world.  

Quote:

“The one thing that creative souls around the world have in common is that they all have to practice to maintain their skills. Art is a vast democracy of habit.”

The Soul of Money by Lynne Twist

Big Idea:

Prosperity flows from sufficiency – the recognition of enough. When you engage from a sense of your wholeness – rather than a desperate longing to be complete – you feel naturally called to share the resources that flow through your life to serve your highest commitments.

Context:

Lynne Twist has spent five decades working in philanthropy, raising hundreds of millions of dollars to end world hunger. In The Soul of Money, she shares her experiences working with the world’s wealthiest and poorest people, and how to live fulfilling lives, both rich and poor must overcome the 3 myths of today’s toxic money culture: “there is not enough, “more is better,” and “that’s just the way it is.”

My Personal Story:

As a Princeton graduate, I have never made more than 6 figures, a source of deep insecurity.  Most of my classmates make 10 times my income. I’ve always chased money as I’ve felt like I’ve never “made it.” I read this book to overcome this scarcity mindset. As Lynn says, “When we buy into the premise that more is better, we can never arrive.”

Exercise 1

A core message of the book is you are enough.

Lynn repeatedly stresses: what you appreciate appreciates.

“When we let go of trying to get more of what we don’t really need, we free up an enormous amount of energy that has been tied up in the chase. We can refocus and reallocate that energy and attention toward appreciating what we already have, what’s already there, and making a difference with that. Not just noticing it, but making a difference with what we already have. When you make a difference with what you have, it expands.”

Pick one of your highest commitments. What can you do right now, with what you have, to serve that commitment? 

“In that new way of seeing, the flow of resources in our lives, rather than being something that is constantly escaping our grasp or diminishing, instead becomes a flood of nourishment and something we have the privilege of being trustees of for the moment. Our relationship with money ceases to be an expression of fear and becomes an expression of exciting possibility.”

Exercise 2

“If you want a clear picture of your priorities in life, who you are and what you care about, look at your checkbook, your credit-card bills, and bank statement.”

What values does your monthly budget express? Does your money flow to your highest values and commitments?  If not, what 1 expenditure can you subtract, add to, or replace?

“Once we began to align our money decisions with these deeper core values and our highest commitments, we experienced a dramatic shift, not only in what we did with our money but also in how we felt about money, about our life, and about ourselves. Eventually, we came to know ourselves not for what we had or owned, but for what we gave; not for what we accumulated, but for what we allocated.”

Quote:

“I suggest that if you are willing to let go, let go of the chase to acquire or accumulate always more and let go of that way of perceiving the world, then you can take all that energy and attention and invest it in what you have. When you do that you will find unimagined treasures, and heath of surprising and even stunning depth and diversity.”