The Art of Gathering by Priya Parker

Episode 9: Book Summary

Episode 9. Disclaimer: "gathering" here references the gathering of humans in groups. If you are looking for tactics on how to improve your resource stockpiling abilities to better complement your "hunter" compadre, then you have come to the wrong piece of art.

A special thank you to my friend, Sydney, who recommended this book. She recruited it as a co-pilot for the journey that is planning one's wedding (along with her actual co-pilot, John).

I'm grateful to have shared in this wedding last weekend. As a guest, it felt "untraditional" in many ways:

  • ~40 guests, all staying at a cozy inn on a lake in the Pacific Northwest (so far north & west that I saw Canada from the coastline)

  • The nature-infused setting reminiscent of Boy Scout summer camp (daily polar plunges also contributing to that positive association for me)

  • The modest group size making it feel like a family reunion (absent the family drama)

Despite seeming "untraditional" at the outset, it was perfect. "Perfect" simply because it was an authentic expression of who Sydney and John are as a couple. And it's hard to beat authentic. It felt like partaking in their relationship for a weekend, sharing in the love that they shared. I'm also grateful to be the benefactor of the "guest-guest connections" that they intentionally enabled over the course of the weekend.

Sydney & John's wedding was a testament to the author's idea that there is no "right" way to celebrate a wedding, host a dinner party, or conduct a board meeting. The only criteria for evaluation: are choices made in alignment with the event's purpose?

As the host, I am responsible for defining the purpose. The host is the only one with the power to impose. When the guests choose to attend, they are opting into being followers for the duration of the event. They are signing up to enter into my world for as long as the event lasts. It's my responsibility to lead them, to take them on a journey for the day / night / weekend.

"With great power comes great responsibility.” - Uncle Ben coaching Spider-Man before he saves a city or Priya Parker coaching hosts before they throw a kickass dinner party

As a host, I've felt the anxiety of "I just want everyone to have a good time..." However, Ms. Parker makes the case that enjoyment stems from setting a clear purpose, then making intentional choices that service that purpose, while actively neglecting anything (or anyone) that doesn't. There is no "should" in hosting. My gathering can't be everything to everyone.

Upon reflection, I realized that the lessons in this book about “gathering design” translate well to “life design.” As the host of my own life, there is no "should" in my life decisions. It's my responsibility to set the purpose of my life. Then, my enjoyment is the result of making choices that align with this purpose.

By abdicating my leadership in "hosting" my own life, I leave a vacuum that will be unintentionally filled by the expectations of others (my guests).

It's on me to craft the experience... will my life be a boring meeting or an unforgettable party?


  • Gathering: conscious bringing together of people for a reason

  • First Amendment right: freedom to assemble

  • Too much focus on “what to do about things?" rather than “what to do with people?”

    • Focus on logistics since we feel like that's all we can control

    • We follow the same stale templates that lead to discontent with gatherings - conferences suck, meetings suck - but we still follow the same templates

  • Author trained in group dynamics and conflict resolution

Chapter 1: Decide why you’re really gathering

  • Commit to a bold, sharp purpose

    • Too much concern about imposing

  • Purpose is your Bouncer

    • Let it decide what goes into your gathering and what stays out

  • A "category" is not a purpose

    • Example of categories: book club, bible study, birthday party, court case

  • Treat recurring gatherings as a lab experiment

    • There is no “should” template, especially "we should do this because it's what we've always done"

    • The only “should” is that the practices should be changed / updated

  • For meetings, start with desired outcome then work backward. Otherwise the meeting will be organized around process

  • Choosing a purpose:

    • Does it take a stand?

      • Making it disputable helps you make decisions:

        • Is the wedding's purpose to show gratitude for the couple's parents or a celebration of the couple’s tribe that they will progress forward with in their life?

    • Does it refuse to be everything to everyone?

      • Being narrow & specific leads to tightness of fit, as people can better visualize themselves in it

    • Honor the event's uniqueness

      • Ichi-go ichi-e: Japanese idea meaning "one time, one meeting", which is meant to honor that this meeting is "once in a lifetime" and can never be repeated, since we will be different people the next time we meet

Chapter 2: Closed Doors

Part 1: Who

  • Make it a purpose-driven list

    • It’s not the more the merrier

    • If everyone is invited then nobody is invited

    • To close the door, creates the room

  • Exclusions can inform or reinforce the purpose

    • Who is the gathering for first?

    • Who is detracting from the purpose? Who is indifferent to the purpose?

    • “Don’t invite Bobs”: people who are pleasant to have around but are just there, taking up space

  • Rebuttal: "What about inclusion?"

    • Dilution inhibits activation

    • If diversity is the purpose, then make it the purpose. Design the gathering around the purpose of activating diverse thought

  • College musicians living with elderly in nursing home

    • To open up to any creative craft and any age would dilute the purpose

  • How to tell people? How to exclude well?

    • Clearly explain the purpose and explain how that person doesn’t fit

    • Point to size. Each purpose has an ideal size. Exceeding that size dilutes the purpose

  • Size:

    • 6 people: "conducive to intimacy, high levels of sharing and discussions through storytelling"

    • 12 people: "small enough to build trust & intimacy, and small enough for a single moderator... yet large enough to offer a diversity of opinion"

      • More than 12, it's hard to fit around 1 table

    • 30 people: starts to feel like a party (even if the gathering is not one)

      • Shared buzz & energy

    • 150 people: size of a tribe

      • "Everyone can still meet everybody, if the intention is there and the effort is made"

      • Dunbar's number (150): number of stable friendships a human can maintain

    • Tides of humanity: gatherings beyond 150 where the intention is to "tap into the convulsive energy of a massive crowd"

      • Olympics, World Cup, Coachella, the hajj in Mecca

Part 2: Where

  • Venue is a nudge

    • If venue is chosen for logistical or cost reasons, then host is communicating that the purpose is secondary to convenience

    • Board room vs retreat by the ocean

    • Seinfeld won't do private parties in living rooms because "the room does 80% of the comic's work"

  • The Château Principle

    • Mega-merger of two telcos blew up when French giant hosted meeting at beautiful company chateau, rather than non-descript New Jersey hotel as it was originally planned

    • The location blew up the narrative that it was "a merger of equals"

  • Displacement

    • Break routine of the guests

    • Famous photographer, Platon, would photograph celebrities or government leaders on a white crate

      • Broke down the public-facing, curated persona. Encouraged them to show their true self

  • Setting a perimeter creates a feeling of inclusion

    • Picnic blanket isn’t special but you’ll gather around it b/c it’s your space

  • Moving rooms during dinner party creates different phases of the night

    • Take guests on a journey making each stage more memorable

  • Area

    • There’s such thing as too big. It can feel like a high school gym dance

  • Density

    • People have an instinct for density. Explains why partygoers often gravitate towards the kitchen when party starts to dwindle

    • Different densities for 1) sophisticated, 2) lively, and 3) hot

Chapter 3: Don’t be a chill host

  • "Chill is selfishness, disguised as kindness"

    • The group will want a captain of the ship. They’ll be looking to the host to direct the evening’s events. To be chill, and to fail to set intention is to let your guests down.

  • Create a moment of focus to activate the group’s purpose.

    • Example: when gathered for a reunion, ask the question of "what has this group meant to you over the years?" Letting the party progress without asking this question is a missed opportunity

  • People are afraid to use their power as host for fear of being imposing or domineering

  • Abdicating leadership leaves a vacuum. Someone else will step up and be the leader in your place, but they might take the group in a completely different direction

    • Example of professor starting class without saying anything. Leads to confusion and anxiety. Students ultimately start taking over and leaders arise

    • Guest taking up too much air time during a game night

    • "I have no agenda for this meeting” is lazy

  • Generous authority

    • If you’re going to set up a kingdom for an hour or a day, then step up and rule it generously

  • Being the leader means exercising the courage to put the group's purpose ahead of a positive perception of oneself

    • Comedian disrupting heckler

    • TED organizer enforcing the rules on no ties

  • Protect your guests

    • Movie theater staff enforces "no texting" rule, rather than putting burden on other moviegoers to enforce

    • 1 selfish guest can ruin for everyone

  • Equalize your guests

    • Set protocols to dispel the hierarchy that guests arrive with

    • Truman Capote hosted a masked ball that obfuscated famous & middle class guests

  • Connect your guests

    • Don’t sacrifice connection on the altar of the agenda

    • Guest-guest connections can serve as a criteria for the success of the event

    • Always do placement at the dinner table

      • Fine to tell people what they have in common with their neighbors

      • Good to have a mid-event seating switch

  • Avoid ruling with an iron fist

    • That comes from a desire to flex one’s power at the expense of the group’s purpose

Chapter 4: Create a Temporary Alternative World

  • Rules aren’t meant to be forced, they’re meant to provide an experimental alternative to traditional etiquette

  • Etiquette: “random knowledge of how old rich people want you to behave”

    • Etiquette is useful for gatherings of like-minded, similarly raised people in a closed gathering

  • Pop-up rules are useful for gatherings of different people

    • More suited to the diversity of modern reality, as different etiquettes can clash across groups

  • Pop-up rules make it welcoming by leveling the hierarchy that etiquette can create

  • "I am here days" pop-up rules:

    • No technology

    • Strict start time and you have to stay the whole time

    • One curator responsible for the day's agenda

    • Choose a neighborhood to be explored (small enough to be covered on foot)

    • Group size is small enough to sit at one table

Chapter 5: Never Start a Funeral with Logistics

  • Priming: your event starts the moment your guests hear of the event

    • The way that guests arrive (enthusiasm, mood) is critical to setting the tone of the whole event. Hard to change after arrival

    • Pre-event comms could be as simple as an email but prime in some way

    • Too much emphasis on logistics, food, etc

  • Social contract for every gathering: "what are you asking your guests to give in exchange for attending?"

    • Rarely to we ask guests to contribute to the event beyond bringing a bottle of wine

    • Example: host had bare Christmas tree but asked guests to send 2 pictures from their year that were happy memories, then he printed as ornaments

    • Author sends out 6-10 question workbook to ponder before her events

  • Invitation

    • The name of the gathering is critical

    • What is it signaling to your guests?

    • What does it ask of them?

  • Ushering

    • Create a passageway into the event (metaphorical or literal)

      • Front door is often best option

      • Ex: concert that put noise-cancelling headphones and stickers on everyone’s mouth upon arrival, so when music started it was the first sound heard in the last 30 minutes

  • Launching

    • People remember the first 5%, the last 5%, and a climactic moment of events / speeches

    • The attention of your guests is highest right at the beginning, so don't start with logistics or "a thank you to our sponsors"

    • Honor & awe your guests

    • Tough Mudder opener: "the reward today is finishing this race together" (compared to marathon which is individual race)

    • Give your guests a chance to see each other

      • Easter Mass: "introduce yourself to your neighbor"

      • Encourage guests to connect beyond

      • "We're building a spiderweb together. We can only go as deep as the weakest thread between [you two] will allow."

    • When in doubt, explain "why are we here?"

Chapter 6: Keep your Best Self out of my Gathering

  • Chatham House rule: "participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed"

  • Realness can be designed

    • Stump speech (strong part of tree): tried-and-true / go-to speech that's been delivered multiple times

    • Sprout speech (budding, weak part of tree): untested but fresh & new

  • Elite schools have encouraged facade of intelligence, even though their purpose is to be a place of learning

    • Intentionally break the facade by encouraging honesty & vulnerability

  • Crucible moments: challenging moments in our life that shape us in some deep way and shift our lens on the world

    • From Bill George (HBS, author of True North)

  • When sharing, value concrete experiences over abstract ideas

    • Emphasis on stories

      • Ex: "The Moth" organization

    • The poet can put up walls between poet & audience by using lofty language and "being the mouthpiece of the muse"

      • Elevated on a pedestal that the audience can’t relate to

      • Most engaging part is the unscripted preamble before the poem

  • Cult of positivity can be constraining

    • Let the darkness in - death, fear, imperfection

    • Ex: Dominatrix - the dark sides left unexplored will show themselves in other ways, compensating in some way

      • Safer to explore the darkness “inside the tent” rather than out in society

  • Value of inviting in strangers

    • Useful tactic to shake things up since the person sharing is less attached to perceptions of their Past Self (which often resurfaces around old friends / family)

    • Ex: "what’s an event that changed the course of your life that nobody else here knows?"

Chapter 7: Cause Good Controversy

  • Don’t avoid sex, politics, and religion

    • “I believe there are few things as responsible for the mediocrity & dullness of so many gatherings as this epically bad advice”

  • Good controversy, when done right, is generative (new ideas) rather than preservative (protecting current ideas / status quo)

    • "We suffer from a well-meaning desire not to offend, which devolves into a habit of saying nothing that matters”

    • Ex: architecture firm that had to decide future direction of the firm

      • Created sides for simulated “boxing match"

      • Rule: nobody can stay neutral

  • Heat map:

    • Heat often hits fears, needs, sense of self

    • Where is there heat in the group?

    • What are the sacred beliefs that people won’t touch?

    • What topics are being avoided?

    • To uncover it, survey the group anonymously:

      • What is something you believe that would be a politically incorrect take in this group?

      • What’s the conversation that this group most needs to have at this moment?

  • Let participants create rules with you:

    • What do you need to feel safe here?

    • What do you need from this group to be willing to take a risk in this conversation today?

    • Co-creating rules lends to their legitimacy

Chapter 8: Accept that there is an end

  • Acknowledge the finitude

  • Resolve unfinished business

    • Ex: last call in a bar

  • Can rob the impact of the closing song if you keep doing a encores

  • Cultural differences of emancipation vs getting kicked out:

    • As guest, do you only feel excused to leave when the host ends the party?

    • As host, do you only shut down the party when the guests are ready to leave?

  • Don’t close with logistics and thank you’s

    • Fine to make it the 2nd to last thing, but then go out with a bang

    • Yoga class ending with "namaste"

    • Teacher ending class with story rather than assignment

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