THE ART OF GATHERING [CHAPTER 1]

 


For my Anand, who shows me daily the true meaning of awing and honoring

Content


DEDICATION

One DECIDE WHY YOU’RE REALLY GATHERING

Two CLOSE DOORS

Three DON’T BE A CHILL HOST

Four CREATE A TEMPORARY ALTERNATIVE WORLD

Five NEVER START A FUNERAL WITH LOGISTICS

Six KEEP YOUR BEST SELF OUT OF MY GATHERING

Seven CAUSE GOOD CONTROVERSY

Eight ACCEPT THAT THERE IS AN END


ABOUT THE AUTHOR



One


Decide Why You’re Really Gathering

•   •   •

Why do we gather?

We gather to solve problems we can’t solve on our own. We gather to celebrate, to mourn, and to mark transitions. We gather to make decisions. We gather because we need one another. We gather to show strength. We gather to honor and acknowledge. We gather to build companies and schools and neighborhoods. We gather to welcome, and we gather to say goodbye.


But here is the great paradox of gathering: There are so many good reasons for coming together that often we don’t know precisely why we are doing so. You are not alone if you skip the first step in convening people meaningfully: committing to a bold, sharp purpose.


When we skip this step, we often let old or faulty assumptions about why we gather dictate the form of our gatherings. We end up gathering in ways that don’t serve us, or not connecting when we ought to.


In our offices, we spend our days in back-to-back meetings, many of which could be replaced with an email or a ten-minute stand-up meeting. In college, we stare at the floor in lecture halls, when the same facts would be better conveyed via video and the professor’s time would be better spent coaching students on specific difficulties with the material. In the nonprofit world, it is customary to throw galas for causes because that is what nonprofits do, even if they don’t raise much more than they cost.


And yet at moments when we could benefit from gathering—to determine how to make a neighborhood park safe again, to strategize with a friend and think through ways to help her struggling career, to rebuild focus after a particularly brutal sales cycle—we don’t think to gather, or are too busy to, or, in the modern way, we don’t want to ask people for their time. So widespread is this desire not to impose that a growing number of people report not wanting any funeral at all when they die.


In short, our thinking about gathering—when we gather and why—has become muddled. When we do gather, we too often use a template of gathering (what we assume a gathering should look like) to substitute for our thinking. The art of gathering begins with purpose: When should we gather? And why?

A CATEGORY IS NOT A PURPOSE

Think back to the last several gatherings you hosted or attended. A networking event. A book club. A volunteer training. If I were to ask you (or your host) the purpose behind each of those gatherings, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear what I often do in my work: what you were supposed to do at the gathering.


That networking night, you might tell me, was intended to help people in similar fields meet one another.


The book club was organized to get us to read a book together.


The volunteer training was arranged to train the volunteers.


The purpose of your church’s small group was to allow church members to meet in smaller groups.


This is the circular logic that guides the planning of many of our gatherings.


“What’s wrong with that?” you might say. Isn’t the purpose of a networking night to network? Yes, to a point. But if that’s all it is, it will likely proceed like so many other networking nights: people wandering around and awkwardly passing out their business cards, practicing their elevator pitches on anyone with a pulse who’ll listen. It will likely not dazzle anyone. It may even make some guests feel awkward or insecure—and swear off future networking nights.


When we don’t examine the deeper assumptions behind why we gather, we end up skipping too quickly to replicating old, staid formats of gathering. And we forgo the possibility of creating something memorable, even transformative.


For example, in planning that networking night, what if the organizers paused to ask questions like these: Is our purpose for this gathering to help people find business partners or clients? Is the purpose to help guests sell their wares or to get advice on the weaker parts of their product? Is the purpose of the night to help as many people from different fields make as many new connections as possible, or to build a tribe that would want to meet again? The answers to these questions should lead to very different formats of an evening.


When we gather, we often make the mistake of conflating category with purpose. We outsource our decisions and our assumptions about our gatherings to people, formats, and contexts that are not our own. We get lulled into the false belief that knowing the category of the gathering—the board meeting, workshop, birthday party, town hall—will be instructive to designing it. But we often choose the template—and the activities and structure that go along with it—before we’re clear on our purpose. And we do this just as much for gatherings that are as low stakes as a networking night as for gatherings that are as high stakes as a court trial.


The Red Hook Community Justice Center, located in Brooklyn, New York, set out to reimagine one of the more intimidating gatherings in public life: the court proceeding. Founded in 2000, in the wake of a crisis, in a neighborhood struggling with poverty and crime, the center wanted to change the relationship between the community and law enforcement. Its founders wondered if it was possible to invent a new kind of justice system that would cure the ailments that a crime revealed instead of just locking up criminals.


The judge who would come to preside over Red Hook’s experiment, Alex Calabrese, once described himself as having two options under the traditional justice system: “It was either prosecute or dismiss.” Even judges who recognized the problems with the system didn’t have much freedom to break out of this paradigm. And so a small group of organizers concluded that, in order to change how the justice system functioned in Red Hook, they would need to invent a new kind of gathering. To do so, they would have to ask themselves a basic question: What is the purpose of the justice system we want to see? And what would a court look like if it were built according to that purpose?


A traditional courtroom is adversarial. That is a design that derives from its own very worthy purpose: surfacing the truth by letting the parties haggle over it. But the organizers behind the Red Hook Community Justice Center were motivated by a different purpose. Would it be possible to use a courtroom to get everyone involved in a case—the accused, judges, lawyers, clerks, social workers, community members—to help improve behavior instead of merely punish it? “We take a problem-solving approach to the cases that come before us,” said Amanda Berman, the Justice Center’s project director and a former public defender in the Bronx. “When we’re presented with a case—whether it’s a housing-court case, a criminal-court case, or a family-court case—the question we are asking at the end of the day is, what is the problem, and how can we work together to come to a solution?”


This new purpose required the design of a new kind of courtroom. A traditional courtroom, built for surfacing the truth adversarially, was constructed to make the judge seem intimidating. It separated the prosecutors from the defense counsel. It featured grim-faced jailers and sympathetic social workers and psychologists. Everyone had their role. Even the décor reinforced the purpose. “Traditional courtrooms often utilize dark woods, conveying a message of gravity, judgment, and power,” Berman said.


The experimental courtroom in Red Hook was created along very different lines. Set up in an abandoned parochial school in the heart of the neighborhood, the court has windows to let the sun in, light-colored wood, and an unusual judge’s bench. “The planners chose to build the bench at eye level so that the judge could have these personal interactions with litigants coming before him, invite them up to the bench, which he loves to do, so that people could see that he is not looking down on them, both literally and figuratively,” Berman said.


Calabrese is the judge. His experimental courtroom has jurisdiction over three police precincts that used to send cases to three different courts—civil court, family court, and criminal court—and now sends many to Calabrese. He personally presides over every case that comes in, taking the time to get to know its history and players. In many cases, a defendant is assigned a social worker, who does a full clinical assessment of the accused to figure out the bigger picture of his or her life. This holistic assessment—which can take place even prior to the initial court appearance—includes looking for substance abuse, mental health issues, trauma, domestic violence, and other factors. This assessment is then shared with the judge, the district attorney, and the defense. At the proceeding itself, Calabrese behaves more like a strict, caring uncle than a traditional judge. He verifies the details of the case and checks errors in front of the defendants. He takes the time to address each individual personally, often shaking their hand as they approach the bench. He explains their situation to them carefully: “The fine print says if you don’t come through, they will come and evict you, and no one wants to see that happen, so I’ve written ‘12/30’ in big numbers on the top of the page.” You have the sense that the people here are rooting for defendants and litigants to get their lives in order. It’s not uncommon for Calabrese to praise a defendant who has shown progress. “Obviously, this is a good result for you. It’s also a great result for the community, and I’d like to give you a round of applause,” he might say. And then you see everyone, even the police officers, applauding.


Under the rules of this special court, Judge Calabrese has available to him a diverse toolkit of possible interventions. In addition to traditional prison time, which he metes out when need be, he has the ability to evaluate each individual defendant and, based on both the clinical assessment and his own judgment of the situation, assign community service, drug treatment, mental health services, trauma counseling, family mediation, and so on. Still, sometimes he concludes that jail is the only option. “We give them every reasonable chance, plus two. So when I do have to send them to jail, it tends to be for twice as long as they might ordinarily get,” Calabrese told The New York Times.


The Justice Center is starting to see some tangible results. According to independent evaluators, it reduced the recidivism rate of adult defendants by 10 percent and of juvenile defendants by 20 percent. Only 1 percent of the cases processed by the Justice Center result in jail at arraignment. “I have been in the justice system for twenty years,” Calabrese says in a documentary film about the center, “and I finally feel that I have a chance to really get to the problem that causes the person to come in front of me.” The Justice Center team has been able to do this because they figured out the larger purpose of why they wanted to gather: they wanted to solve the community’s problems—together. And they built a proceeding around that.


Like all repeated gatherings, the Justice Center is a work in progress. The participants, Berman said, are constantly “making sure that we are remaining true to our mission. This is supposed to be a laboratory and a model. It’s supposed to be a different way of doing things. And a better way of doing things.”


Thinking of the place as a laboratory frees the people at the Justice Center to be great gatherers. “There are no lines in our head about how we should gather or what it needs to look like,” Berman told me. “Every case and every client is looked at individually.” This attitude allows them to separate their assumptions of what a court proceeding should look like from what a proceeding could look like. We can use the same mindset to begin reexamining our own purposes for gathering.


And it’s not just in public gatherings like courtrooms where we follow traditional formats of gathering unquestioningly. A category can masquerade as a purpose just as easily, if not more so, in our personal gatherings, particularly those that have become ritualized over time. Thanks to ancient traditions and modern Pinterest boards, it’s easy to overlook the step of choosing a vivid purpose for your personal gathering. Just as many of us assume we know what a trial is for, so we think we know what a birthday party is for, or what a wedding is for, or even what a dinner party is for. And so our personal gatherings tend not to serve the purposes that they could. When you skip asking yourself what the purpose of your birthday party is in this specific year, for where you are at this present moment in your life, for example, you forsake an opportunity for your gathering to be a source of growth, support, guidance, and inspiration tailored to the time in which you and others find yourselves. You squander a chance for your gathering to help, and not just amuse, you and others. Looking back, that’s what I did when I barred my husband from my baby shower.


We were expecting our first child. My girlfriends offered to throw a shower for me. Like most people, we didn’t spend any time thinking about why we were having a baby shower. It wasn’t the first one we’d had in our circle of friends, and it wouldn’t be the last. It was almost becoming a routine—that great enemy of meaningful gathering.


And so, with a date agreed on, my girlfriends went straight into logistics.


I was excited. The problem was, my husband was, too. When I told him about the shower, he asked if he could come.


I thought he was pulling my leg. Then I realized he was serious. He really wanted to attend my baby shower.


At first I thought it made no sense. But in time I wondered if he had a point.


I always value a circle of women in my life, but that wasn’t my highest need in this case. If I had thought about my gathering need more deeply at that moment, it probably would have been something about preparing both my husband and me for our new roles and the new chapter of our marriage as we welcomed our first child. I was becoming a mother. Anand was becoming a father. But we were also, as our doctor pointed out, transforming from a couple to a family. If I had been more thoughtful about it, I would have sought out a gathering that helped us make that weighty transition. But the structure and ritual of most baby showers—women-only, playing games, opening presents, making something crafty for the baby—were based on a different purpose. Traditional baby showers, I realized, were rituals for expecting mothers and a collective way to help a couple defray the costs of tending to a new life. The assumed format of this ritual—women gathering around women—reflected an era when the only person who really needed to prepare for parenting and a new transformative identity was the mother. But what should a baby shower look like when the purpose it was designed around no longer reflects the assumptions or realities of the people it’s technically for? (Should it even be called a “baby shower”?)


Baby showers aren’t the only form of ritualized gathering that suffers from a purpose problem. Many of the ritualized gatherings in our more intimate spheres—weddings, bar mitzvahs, graduation ceremonies—have been repeated over time such that we become emotionally attached to the form long after it accurately reflects the values or belief systems of the people participating in it.


Today in India, for example, one such clash is arising over the structure and content of marriage rites within the gathering of the traditional Hindu wedding. In the traditional format, the rites end with a man and woman taking seven steps around a fire, at each step saying a vow to each other. These pheras, or rounds, are visually striking and, for many Hindu families, steeped in meaning and tradition. It’s often the photograph plastered on living room walls that children grow up staring at and imagining for their own weddings one day. But some younger couples are beginning to feel that the actual spoken words of the vows depict an outdated view of marriage: The man directs his wife in the first vow to “offer him food”; the bride agrees to be “responsible for the home and all household responsibilities”; only the bride vows to “remain chaste,” with no such requirement made of the man; four of the groom’s seven vows relate to children, but all of the bride’s vows relate to the groom; and so on. The underlying assumptions of the vows describe an ideal of marriage that many no longer want. But when they suggest changing the ritual, to better reflect their actual values, the parents are shocked, and often deeply hurt, seeing it as a rejection of their traditions. The form itself has come to carry power, because of the repetition through generations, even when it no longer serves the ostensible purpose of the wedding for this couple.


Ritualized gatherings are hardly confined to the intimate realms of baby showers and weddings. They affect our institutions equally. Of course, ritualized gatherings are never ritualized at the beginning. The initial idea emerges to solve a specific challenge. We need to find a way for the public to understand the differences between the candidates’ positions. We need to find a way to get our sales team excited about a new product. We need to find a way to raise money for a new community center in the neighborhood. A structure is designed to bring people together around that need. Then that gathering—say, a presidential debate or a sales conference or a gala fundraiser—gets repeated again and again, year after year, and often the elements of the gathering become ritualized. That is to say, people begin to attach meaning not just to the meeting’s purpose but also to the meeting’s form. A specific gavel is always used. A certain turtleneck is always worn. People come to expect these elements of form and even take comfort in them. Over time, the form itself plays a role in shaping people’s sense of belonging to the group and their identity within that group: This is who we areThis is the way we do things around here.


This attachment can be powerful when the form matches the purpose and need of the group. But as with the case of the courtroom, when the need begins to shift and the format is solving for an outdated purpose, we can hold on to the forms of our gatherings to the detriment of our needs. 


When Dean Baquet took over as the executive editor of The New York Times in May 2014, he inherited an almost seventy-year-old gathering that no longer fit the needs of the newsroom or of readers. The “Page One” meeting at the Times was one of the most consequential meetings on earth. First conceived in 1946, it had evolved into the gathering where editors decided which articles would make the next day’s front page. These choices helped to set the news agenda for the world.


In the meeting’s heyday, its purpose was clear, and its format and structure logically derived from that purpose. The meeting was actually in two parts: a 10 a.m. session and a 4 p.m. session, after which the leadership would reveal “the lineup” of articles for the next day. For years, it took place at the Times building in a third-floor conference room around a massive wooden King Arthur–style table, with twenty-five or thirty editors packed into the room. Editors pitched their lead articles, called “offers,” making their cases for pieces they thought belonged on A1.


“The desks would come with their best stories and offer them to the Olympic gods, and then would be grilled, and battle it out to see what would make it,” one editor recalled to me.


As the meeting was repeated decade after decade, it gained the quality of a ritual. It was a badge of honor to participate in it. It became a rite of passage for young editors. When new reporters joined the times, they would often be invited to sit in the meeting as part of their orientation. “The 4 p.m. meeting became the stuff of lore,” Kyle Massey, a Times editor, has written.


By the time Baquet arrived, however, it no longer necessarily made sense to organize the most important meeting at the Times around the print front page. The majority of readers accessed articles online rather than through the physical edition. The home page and the print front page were entirely different animals; the former might feature dozens of different stories throughout the day. And according to an internal 2014 report on innovation at the paper, the home page’s “impact is waning” as “only a third of our readers ever visit it.” More and more readers were accessing online articles through social networks, drastically reducing the curatorial power of the editors. Besides, by the time the front page of the physical newspaper reached subscribers’ doorsteps, the article would have spent hours or even days online.


The Times needed to adapt to the new realities of the digital age, and changing its anachronistic meeting was a way to reflect a commitment to change—and to help spur it. “It was no longer good for our readers to focus so much on print. But it was also bad for the journalists,” Sam Dolnick, an assistant editor on the newspaper’s masthead, told me. “We changed the meeting as a deliberate way to change the culture and values of the newsroom. We wanted people to think less about print, so we needed the meeting to be less about print. We used the meeting as a way to shift the values and the mindset” of the newsroom.


Changing how the editors gathered—what they talked about, how much time was devoted to what, who got airtime—offered a way to nudge the culture of the newsroom toward new digital realities. Baquet wanted the morning meeting to become a place for discussion about how Times reporters and editors should be covering the news that day, across all platforms. He hoped for practical discussion as well as time for larger philosophical debates.


“To my mind, in the ideal world, the meeting should be where we surface the stories we really have to focus on for the day, and sometimes that’s obvious, like when you have a terror attack downtown, and sometimes it’s less obvious,” Baquet told me. He also wanted to shift the newsroom’s focus toward the content of the stories and away from their placement. “It should be platform-free. It’s just, what are our best stories?” he said.


And so Baquet changed the structure of the meeting to match a new purpose. He changed the venue and physical environment of the meeting. The storied King Arthur–style table was removed, and plans were made to construct a new Page One meeting room with glass walls and red couches—a more relaxed environment to facilitate a broader discussion about the news. The day I attended a meeting, in the fall of 2017, it was still in transition. The new room was still under construction, and the meeting was held in a temporary conference room on the second floor with a large square table in the center and a dozen green swivel chairs around it. The top editors all sat in a row on one side, with editors from the various desks seated on the other three sides. The Washington bureau chief had dialed in on speakerphone. There was a second row of chairs lining the walls for other staff and their guests. A flat-screen TV was fixed to the wall opposite the leadership and set to the Times home page, which would refresh to show the changing interface every few minutes.


Baquet also shifted the timing of the meetings. In an ever more rapid news world, 10 a.m. had become too late for a morning meeting, so he moved the meeting time to 9:30 a.m. He split the afternoon meeting into two meetings: a 3:30 p.m. meeting with a much smaller group to decide what goes on the front page of the print paper and then a 4 p.m. meeting to look at the next day’s coverage.


As he transformed the hallowed meeting, he communicated his reasons for doing so to the entire newsroom. He understood he was changing things that people had grown accustomed to. In an email to his staff on May 5, 2015, he wrote, “The idea is for us to mobilize faster in the morning so we can get an earlier start on setting news and enterprise priorities, and to move the discussion of print Page One out of the afternoon meeting in order to focus on coverage regardless of where it appears, as well as to plan our digital report for the following morning.”


But changing the timing and setting would not have been enough to uproot the values inculcated by the old gathering format. The meeting would also have to be run differently. Whereas the meeting used to begin with pitches, on the morning I was there it began with an audience report on the number of views certain stories had attracted the night before and other audience statistics. To start with a focus on what readers rather than editors thought signaled a major change in New York Times culture. Editors of various desks were asked to share what they were working on. As they did, those on the masthead and a smattering of others would ask specific questions about a piece and what the focus would be.


These questions began to reveal a new New York Times in the making. A piece on a new tax proposal drew this question: “One of the things I think a lot of readers want to know is: What does this mean for the rich?” At one point, there was a debate about whether a certain article about a new health study merited a mobile news alert, which signals breaking news and goes out to all Times subscribers. Behind the specific query was one of those larger philosophical questions: What merits the “breaking news” label? At one point, the editor in charge of digital asked why a certain piece, if it was ready, couldn’t be published now rather than waiting for 3 p.m., when it was scheduled. In asking that question, he was pushing his editors to think differently about when a piece goes live.


“We want to get people focusing on what the experience of The New York Times is right now, or in the next two hours, on their phone,” Clifford Levy, the deputy managing editor who oversees all digital platforms, told me. “I think there’s still a bit of people planning things out, which is great, but the here and now is just so super-important, and changing that metabolism in the newsroom has been our long-term project.” While that metabolism doesn’t change overnight, daily gatherings are a powerful tool for adjusting it.


The meeting is still very much a work in progress, however. After all, people still informally call it the Page One meeting.


Perhaps you, too, have new needs and realities that don’t fit into the templates of gathering that you know. Perhaps you go with the flow of the old templates, hoping things will work themselves out. There is nothing terrible about going with that flow, about organizing a monthly staff meeting whose purpose is to go through the same motions as every monthly staff meeting before it. But when you do, you are borrowing from gatherings and formats that others came up with to help solve their problems. To come up with the formats they did, they must have reflected on their needs and purposes. If you don’t do the same and think of yourself as a laboratory, the way the Red Hook Community Justice Center and The New York Times have done, your gathering has less chance of being the most it can be.

COMMIT TO A GATHERING ABOUT SOMETHING

The television show Seinfeld was, famously, a “show about nothing.” When people come together without any thought to their purpose, they create gatherings about nothing. Yet many people sense this without being told, and they lay the foundation of a meaningful gathering by making the gathering about something. I want to challenge you to follow their example—but to go further and deeper.


Most purposes for gatherings feel worthy and respectable but are also basic and bland: “We’re hosting a welcome dinner so that our new colleague feels comfortable in our tight-knit group,” or “I’m throwing a birthday party to look back on the year.” These are purposes, but they fail at the test for a meaningful reason for coming together: Does it stick its neck out a little bit? Does it take a stand? Is it willing to unsettle some of the guests (or maybe the host)? Does it refuse to be everything to everyone?


These may seem like unreasonable criteria for a meeting or poker night or conference. You may well ask, Why does my gathering have to “take a stand”? It’s not the Battle of the Alamo. I have heard this question before. Virtually every time I push my clients to go deeper with their gathering’s purpose, there is a moment when they seem to wonder if I am preparing them for World War III. Yet forcing yourself to think about your gathering as stand-taking helps you get clear on its unique purpose. 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 do this? 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. I have discovered this anecdotally through my own work, but one of my clients has collected the data to back it up.


Meetup is an online platform for creating offline gatherings. People use Meetup to coordinate thousands of in-person meetings around the world for a range of purposes. Over the years, the company has helped millions of people gather. When its founders began to study what made for a successful group, a surprising observation came to light. It wasn’t always the big-tent groups, being everything to everyone, that most attracted people. It was often the groups that were narrower and more specific. “The more specific the Meetup, the more likelihood for success,” Scott Heiferman, its cofounder and CEO, told me.


To organize a group on the Meetup platform, one of the steps you have to take is to give your group a name and write a description about what the group is for. To increase the likelihood of success, Heiferman and his team started to encourage organizers to put more specificity in the title of the group, not just in the description. The tactic “makes it more visible and clear, and it’s exciting to find something that is specific that fits you,” he said. When an organizer in Istanbul or London or Toledo writes a group name, the more adjectives she uses to describe the group, the more likely the group will have what Meetup calls “tightness of fit.”


For example, “LGBT couples hiking with dogs” would have a tighter fit (and presumably be more successful over time) than “LGBT couples hiking” or “couples hiking with dogs” or even “LGBT hikers with dogs.” Because, as Heiferman explains, “the who is often tied to the what.” Specificity sharpens the gathering because people can see themselves in it.


However, “if you get really specific, then there won’t be enough people, so there’s that balance between being not too tight of a fit and not too loose of a fit to draw out a sense of togetherness and identity and welcomeness and belonging.”


Uniqueness is another ingredient. How is this meeting or dinner or conference unique among the other meetings, dinners, and conferences you will host this year? I once visited a teahouse in Kyoto, Japan, where I participated in a traditional Japanese tea ceremony to learn from their wisdom on gatherings. The tea master there told me of a phrase the sixteenth-century Japanese tea master Sen no Rikyū taught his students to keep in the front of their minds as they conduct the ceremony: Ichi-go ichi-e. The master told me it roughly translates to “one meeting, one moment in your life that will never happen again.” She explained further: “We could meet again, but you have to praise this moment because in one year, we’ll have a new experience, and we will be different people and will be bringing new experiences with us, because we are also changed.” Each gathering is ichi-go ichi-e. And it can help to keep that in the forefront of our minds as we gather.


I sometimes think of this as the Passover Principle, because of a question that is ritually asked at the traditional Jewish seder on that holy day: “Why is this night different from all other nights?” Before you gather, ask yourself: Why is this gathering different from all my other gatherings? Why is it different from other people’s gatherings of the same general type? What is this that other gatherings aren’t?


A good gathering purpose should also be disputable. If you say the purpose of your wedding is to celebrate love, you may bring a smile to people’s faces, but you aren’t really committing to anything, because who would dispute that purpose? Yes, a wedding should celebrate love. But an indisputable purpose like that doesn’t help you with the hard work of creating a meaningful gathering, because it won’t help you make decisions. When the inevitable tensions arise—guest list, venue, one night versus two—your purpose won’t be there to guide you. A disputable purpose, on the other hand, begins to be a decision filter. If you commit to a purpose of your wedding as a ceremonial repayment of your parents for all they have done for you as you set off to build your own family, that is disputable, and it will immediately help you make choices. That one remaining seat will go to your parents’ long-lost friend, not your estranged college buddy. If, on the other hand, you commit to the equally valid purpose of a wedding as a melding of a new couple with the tribe of people with whom they feel the most open, that, too, is disputable, and it implies clear and different answers. The parents’ friend may have to stand down for the college buddy.


If I had applied these criteria to my own baby shower, here’s how it might have gone. If I had sought out a more specific purpose than celebrating the coming of a baby, I might have settled on the idea that my husband and I were setting out to do something for which there was little precedent: to parent equally. Because of the rarity of the practice until recently, there isn’t much wisdom or folklore about how to make it work. Instead, there are articles warning of how hard it is to “have it all” and studies informing us about how treacherous equality can be for intimacy. A more specific purpose suited to our needs might have helped us navigate these relatively uncharted waters.


As for uniqueness, what might have made the shower different from many others’ showers was the equal participation of the father and other male guests in the ceremony.


And it is disputable that a baby shower should include a man, and, what is more, be reorganized around his and potentially other men’s presence. Disputable in a good way. We wished to be witnessed in our community as a couple parenting in full and actual equality, not as a mom raising a child with a dad who “helps.” This is a disputable way of life, and a shower designed to help us get there would have had a disputable purpose. Similarly, in the Red Hook community court, it is disputable that people involved in the justice system all want the same thing. In a Hindu wedding ceremony, it is disputable that you can change the words of the vows and still have it be a “Hindu wedding ceremony.” Again, disputable in a good way. There are certainly people who think that by changing the vows, you are cutting from tradition, not honoring it. Similarly, at The New York Times, there were certainly, at least for a time, journalists and editors who did not think that digital should be elevated above print. Each of these gatherings’ purposes were disputable—and that’s why, in part, they had energy behind them.

SOME PRACTICAL TIPS ON CRAFTING YOUR PURPOSE

When clients or friends are struggling to determine their gathering’s purpose, I tell them to move from the what to the why. Here are some strategies that help them do so.


Zoom out: If she doesn’t zoom out, a chemistry teacher might tell herself that her purpose is to teach chemistry. While teaching is a noble undertaking, this definition does not give her much guidance on how to actually design her classroom experience. If, instead, she decides that her purpose is to give the young a lifelong relationship to the organic world, new possibilities emerge. The first step to a more scintillating classroom begins with that zooming out.


Drill, baby, drill: Take the reasons you think you are gathering—because it’s our departmental Monday-morning meeting; because it’s a family tradition to barbecue at the lake—and keep drilling below them. Ask why you’re doing it. Every time you get to another, deeper reason, ask why again. Keep asking why until you hit a belief or value.


Let’s look at how we might move from the what to the why of something as simple as a neighborhood potluck:


Why are you having a neighborhood potluck?


Because we like potlucks, and we have one every year.


Why do you have one every year?


Because we like to get our neighbors together at the beginning of the summer.


Why do you like to get your neighbors together at the beginning of the summer?


I guess, if you really think about it, it’s a way of marking the time and reconnecting after the hectic school year.


Aha.


And why is that important?


Because when we have more time in the summer to be together, it’s when we remember what community is, and it helps us forge the bonds that make this a great place to live. Aha. And safer. Aha. And a place that embodies the values we want our children to grow up with, like that strangers aren’t scary. Aha. Now we’re getting somewhere.


Sometimes asking why means helping people drill until they find an insight that will help them design the gathering itself. I was once advising a publicist who was hosting a book event. I asked what the purpose of the event was for her—what she wanted out of it. And she said something to the effect of “To make it the best book of the fall.” If we had stopped there, it wouldn’t have given her any guidance on how to design the book event. Nor, frankly, was it an inspiring reason to people outside that publisher. So we kept digging. Why do you think this book deserves to be the best book of the fall? Why does this book matter so much to you? She thought about it for a second and lit up, and said something like “Because it’s a powerful rendering of how a story can completely change based on whose perspective it is.” Aha. That was both meaningful and an insight she could begin to design an event around.


Ask not what your country can do for your gathering, but what your gathering can do for your country: I often press my clients and friends to think about what larger needs in the world their gathering might address. What problem might it help solve? Again, this may sound like too much to ask for a chamber of commerce or a church group. But if you think the problem of your country is that people from disparate tribes no longer know one another or communicate honestly with one another, that kind of insight and theory of the case can translate very plainly into a purpose of using your gathering to collide different tribes.


Reverse engineer an outcome: Think of what you want to be different because you gathered, and work backward from that outcome. That is the formula of Mamie Kanfer Stewart and Tai Tsao, who set out some years ago to improve the work meeting. Stewart grew up working in her family enterprise—which is behind the hand sanitizer Purell. The meetings she attended, Stewart told me, were “the absolute best part of the day.” It was only when she set out into the world and discovered other companies’ meetings that she realized how awful most of them are. That inspired her to study meeting behavior and how to fix it, and led her to start a business called Meeteor to help companies meet better.


Stewart and Tsao’s big idea is that every meeting should be organized around a “desired outcome.” When a meeting is not designed in that way, they found, it ends up being defined by process. For example, a meeting to discuss the quarter’s results is a meeting organized around process.


What, they might ask, do you want to achieve from discussing the quarter’s results? To make a decision on new projects so that work on them can move forward? To align as a team? To clarify plans and next steps? To brainstorm a list of ideas? To produce something? Figuring out your desired outcome brings focus to a meeting, and it does one more useful thing: It allows people to make better choices about whether they need to be there. It may even help a host decide whether a meeting is necessary for that outcome or whether an email will do.


This focus on the outcome may sound obvious in a business context but strange when getting together with friends and family. Yet working backward from an outcome can be helpful in personal settings, too. Even outside of work, you are proposing to consume people’s most precious resource: time. Making the effort to consider how you want your guests, and yourself, to be altered by the experience is what you owe people as a good steward of that resource. You don’t have to make a big announcement about this desired outcome. It’s just something that might help you become clearer on why you are gathering. A Thanksgiving dinner animated by a purpose of getting difficult issues out in the open to break an impasse between family members is very different from a Thanksgiving dinner oriented toward levity after a grueling and stressful year. Knowing what you want to happen can help you make the choices to get there.


When there really is no purpose: If you go through these steps and find that you still cannot figure out any real purpose for your get-together, then you probably shouldn’t be planning the kind of meaningful gathering that I am exploring here. Do a simple, casual hangout. Or give people their time back. And plan your next gathering when you have a specific, unique, disputable purpose that helps you make decisions about how the event should unfold.

THIS CHART MAY HELP

Here is a chart showing how you might move from gatherings about nothing to gatherings about something.

Gathering type

Your purpose is a category (i.e., you don’t have a purpose)

Basic, boring purpose, but at least you’re trying

Your purpose is specific, unique, and disputable

(multiple alternatives)

Company offsite

To get out of the office together in a different context

To focus on the year ahead

  • To build and to practice a culture of candor with one another

  • To revisit why we’re doing what we’re doing and reach agreement about it

  • To focus on the fractured relationship between sales and marketing, which is hurting everything else

Back-to-school night

To help parents and kids prepare for the year

To help integrate new families into the school community

  • To inspire parents to sustain on evenings and weekends the values the school teaches during the days

  • To help connect the parents to one another so as to make them a tribe

Church small group

To make the megachurch a smaller place

To help everyone feel like they belong

  • To have a group that keeps us doing what we say we want to do

  • To have a trusted circle to share struggles without worrying about appearances

Birthday party

To celebrate my birthday

To mark the year

  • To surround myself with the people who bring out the best in me

  • To set some goals for the year ahead with people who will help me stay accountable

  • To take a personal risk/do something that scares me

  • To reconnect with my siblings

Family reunion

To get the family together

To have a time together where no one is allowed to use phones

  • To have a chance for the cousins to bond as adults, without spouses and children

  • To convene the next generation in the wake of Grandpa’s death and create a more tolerant family reunion in line with the younger relatives’ values

Book festival

To celebrate reading

To build community through books

  • To use books and a love of reading to build community across racial lines

THE MORASSES OF MULTITASKING AND MODESTY

In my experience, a lot of people don’t gather with real purpose because they’re not clear on what a purpose is or how you arrive at one. But many others, myself included, aspire to greater purpose in gathering yet often run up against two kinds of internal resistance. One comes from the desire to multitask; the other from modesty. Both reared their heads when a woman I know—we’ll call her S.—decided to have a dinner party.


She came to me because she was confused about the dinner. It clearly wasn’t an ordinary dinner; she seemed to have some unspoken need to make it special. But she wasn’t sure why she was having it, which left her unsure of how to put it together.


When I asked why she was hosting, her initial response was “Because this couple had us over, and we need to pay them back.”


This is, technically, a purpose, but it’s not much of one. So I asked more questions. The more S. and I talked, the more unarticulated half-purposes slipped out: to continue a rotation of hosting among a well-established circle of friends; to bring more meaningful conversation into her life; to help her husband create new business opportunities.


These were all worthy reasons to gather, but they were in tension with one another. The goal of comfort didn’t jibe with the goal of dining with people who might bring her husband business. The goal of entertaining her regular circle of friends ran up against the goal of great conversation, which can often be invigorated by new blood. S. was trying to jam several half-hearted mini-purposes into one dinner party. No gathering could possibly serve so many different purposes at once.


S. wasn’t unaware of the desirability of gathering with purpose. She had come to me precisely because she knew that she wanted a more purposeful gathering. Despite knowing this, she ran into the instinct to multitask—to make a gathering do many things, not just something.


Through further questioning, I tried to get S. to commit to one of those many possible somethings: If she could accomplish anything with this dinner, how would she want her guests to walk away at the end? The more we spoke, the more her ideas flowed, and the more excited she became.


She realized before long that what mattered most to her was creating a gathering that interrupted the patterns of hosting that she had fallen into. When they were younger, she and her husband had met new people through his work. But as they aged, her husband started his own small company, their kids left for college, and they had begun to gather less often. They found themselves having similar conversations with the same people over and over. While she loved her friends, having dinners only with them didn’t contribute to the sense of adventure and variety they valued in themselves. She decided what she wanted from the dinner—and from the dinners for which it might set a precedent—was novelty and freshness. She decided to put aside the demi-purposes of bringing her husband new business and reciprocating with her friends, and to zero in on connecting meaningfully with new people.


Making her gathering about one big something excited S., but it also scared her. She was scared because the dinner she was originally heading toward, however purposeless, was simple. It would likely have gone off without a hitch—uneventful, low-key, no pressure. To gather in the way I was guiding her toward was to commit to some big something.


“Who am I to gather in this way?” people often ask themselves. “Who am I to impose my ideas on other people? A big purpose may be fine for a state dinner or corporate retreat, but doesn’t it sound too arrogant, ambitious, or serious for my family reunion/dinner party/morning meeting?”


This modesty is related to a desire not to seem like you care too much—a desire to project the appearance of being chill, cool, and relaxed about your gathering. Gathering well isn’t a chill activity. If you want chill, visit the Arctic. But modesty can also derive from the idea that people don’t want to be imposed on. This hesitancy, which permeates many gatherings, doesn’t consider that you may be doing your guests a favor by having a focus.


So S. had grown clearer about her overriding purpose and hushed the voices telling her to do many things at once with her gathering. And now she overcame the pressures of modesty—the irksome questions that begin with the words Who am I to . . . With her new focus on novelty and freshness, she decided to invite three couples to dinner. One included a man whom her husband had recently met through a work project and had liked but hadn’t incorporated into their socializing routines. One was a younger couple, former students of her husband’s. And then the couple who had originally had them over for dinner.


My ears perked up at the mention of that third couple. I wondered whether this was one of those old, discarded half-purposes popping back out of the trash can. Why the last couple? I asked. Out of obligation?


S. replied that she actually did want them there, and that including one close friend at the dinner might seed a new notion among her existing group of friends that they don’t always have to socialize in the same old ways. That was consistent with the new purpose she had settled on.


S. knew she wanted to have a single conversation among the group. And in keeping with the idea of new blood, she wanted a question that would reveal something about each person and connect the guests to one another. She and her husband, both immigrants, decided to ask the table about their conception of “home.”


Her husband began: “When my mother recently passed away, I realized that visiting her was my last connection to my birth country. And that my orientation to home had changed. In this political climate, as the very notion of what it means to be American is being questioned, how do you think about what ‘home’ is for you?”


The group, a mix of immigrants and native-born Americans, explored the question together. The result was a beautiful, provocative conversation. The question fulfilled S.’s desired purpose, because it allowed both for hearing new people’s stories and for talking about larger current events. The group laughed and questioned and even teared up, because the topic struck a chord that was both universal and deeply personal.


Days later, S. received a grateful email from one guest. It read: “I am still thinking about your amazing question. My husband and I continued to talk about it all the way home. And now we’re even discussing it with our children! Thank you.”


A gathering’s purpose doesn’t have to be formal, stiff, or self-important. It doesn’t have to be philanthropic or achieve some social good. The Golden Retriever Festival in Scotland, which attracts hundreds of dogs and their owners, has an admirably clear, if cosmically inconsequential, purpose: to pay tribute to Lord Tweedmouth, the nineteenth-century nobleman responsible for developing that breed. The Coney Island Mermaid Parade, in all its naked glory, has a clear purpose: to celebrate the beginning of summer. Even sex parties have a purpose: to get laid in a judgment- and repercussion-free zone.


Having a purpose simply means knowing why you’re gathering and doing your participants the honor of being convened for a reason. And once you have that purpose in mind, you will suddenly find it easier to make all the decisions that a gathering requires.

PURPOSE IS YOUR BOUNCER

The purpose of your gathering is more than an inspiring concept. It is a tool, a filter that helps you determine all the details, grand and trivial. To gather is to make choice after choice: place, time, food, forks, agenda, topics, speakers. Virtually every choice will be easier to make when you know why you’re gathering, and especially when that why is particular, interesting, and even provocative.


Make purpose your bouncer. Let it decide what goes into your gathering and what stays out. When in doubt about any element, even the smallest detail, hark back to that purpose and decide in accordance with it. In the ensuing chapters, I will take you through some of the decisions you must make when you seek to gather better and more meaningfully, equipped with bold purpose. But I want to close this chapter with a story about a book festival I once advised—a story that suggests what happens when you come up with a purpose but are only semi-committed to it, and only semi-committed to using it to guide your decisions. When you don’t use it as a bouncer.


This book festival takes place every year in a major U.S. city. It had once been a dream for its founders, and their purpose in those early days was nothing more and nothing less than to make it exist. They succeeded. It grew to attract thousands of visitors every year. Now they felt like they needed a new purpose. The festival’s continuing existence felt assured. What was it for? What could it do? How could it make itself count?


The festival’s leadership reached out to me for advice on these questions. What kind of purpose could be their next great animating force? Someone had the idea that the festival’s purpose could be about stitching together the community. Books were, of course, the medium. But couldn’t an ambitious festival set itself the challenge of making the city more connected? Couldn’t it help turn strong readers into good citizens?


That seemed to me a promising direction—a specific, unique, disputable lodestar for a book festival that could guide its construction.


Now it was time to give this would-be purpose a trial run as a bouncer. If the purpose of this book festival was to weave the city more closely together, how would it change? What would we add to, and what would we subtract from, the gathering? We began to brainstorm.


I proposed an idea: Instead of starting each session with the books and authors themselves, why not kick things off with a two-minute exercise in which audience members can meaningfully, if briefly, connect with one another? The host could ask three city- or book-related questions, and then ask each member of the audience to turn to a stranger to discuss one of them. What brought you to this city—whether birth or circumstance? What is a book that really affected you as a child? What do you think would make us a better city? Starting a session with these questions would help the audience become aware of one another. It would also break the norm of not speaking to a stranger, and perhaps encourage this kind of behavior to continue as people left the session. And it would activate a group identity—the city’s book lovers—that, in the absence of such questions, tends to stay dormant.


As soon as this idea was mentioned, someone in the group sounded a worry. “But I wouldn’t want to take away time from the authors,” the person said. There it was—the real, if unspoken, purpose rousing from its slumber and insisting on its continued primacy. Everyone liked the idea of “book festival as community glue” in theory. But at the first sign of needing to compromise on another thing in order to honor this new something, alarm bells rang. The group wasn’t ready to make the purpose of the book festival the stitching of community if it meant changing the structure of the sessions, or taking time away from something else. Their purpose, whether or not they admitted it, was the promotion of books and reading and the honoring of authors. It bothered them to make an author wait two minutes for citizens to bond.


The book festival was doing what many of us do: shaping a gathering according to various unstated motivations, and making half-hearted gestures toward loftier goals. When you gather in the way that I propose in this book, first you set and genuinely commit to your purpose, and then the decisions will flow. Among the early choices will be whom you invite and where you convene them.












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