Accept That There Is an End



Accept That There Is an End

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By now it’s getting late. Some of your guests could go on all night while others are starting to look sleepy. The last of the graduating class has accepted his diploma onstage. It’s the closing session of the conference, and people are fumbling for their bell-desk tags, hoping to retrieve their luggage quickly. It’s the final breakfast of the family reunion before everyone takes off. How do you actually close this gathering? How do you end on a high? How do you graciously say goodbye?


Earlier we explored the widespread tendency to open without opening. Instead of drawing us in with a bang and catering, above all, to the human need to be welcomed and entranced, people start with logistics, announcements, housekeeping, and the settling of corporate sponsor debts. Now we turn to an equal and opposite problem: a widespread tendency to close without closing. When it comes to our gatherings, far too many of us are that horrible person who never really breaks up with anyone but just stops calling. That person may tell himself that he is being kind or low-key. But guests, like romantic partners, deserve a proper breakup.

Gatherers don’t skip the closing because they are bad people. They tend to skip it because they assume that, like other elements of gathering, it will happen on its own. They treat the closing like sunset. But as I learned when a gathering of mine wound down in Minneapolis, the closing isn’t like sunset at all. If it was, it would have arrived.

I was cofacilitating a two-day workshop in that city, hosted by a foundation. Our task was to help change the way its external evaluators measured the impact of the work the foundation funded. This might sound dry, but in the nonprofit world it is a vital and controversial subject. Changing what evaluators measure, and how they measure it, changes the results of their studies. It changes which kinds of help are found to be effective and which are not. Such adjustments could, in turn, alter what the foundation funded. They were ready to open up their assumptions of what actually works, which in the long run might mean ending relationships with certain NGOs or beginning new streams of giving. This tweak in evaluations would ultimately affect their identity and role as a funder in the larger ecosystem of American philanthropy.

Over the course of the two days, our job was to take what these evaluators had been trained to value and shift it. We had been hired less to teach them the new approach than to get them to buy into it and even believe in it.

We facilitators spent all our preparation time on the content of the sessions. We designed role plays. We staged complicated conversations. We figured out ways to host technical conversations on subjects we didn’t fully understand. Everything—every session, every transition, every break—was tightly designed, down to the minute. Everything except for the final ten minutes of the conference. Like sunset, we assumed it would come.

Before we knew it, the two days had whizzed by, and now we were in the final session. We had seven minutes left on the clock until the event was officially over. The three of us hadn’t explicitly talked about how we would close the workshop. The lead facilitator stepped up to the podium, looked at her watch, and made a few announcements about shared rides to the airport. The audience turned toward her, looking up attentively, waiting for more. There was a sense of expectation in the room. She looked out at them, presumably thinking it was obvious that we were done, but they kept staring at her, waiting for more. “OK, thank you!” she said. Everyone kept staring. She tried again: “We’re done here! It’s over!” Finally, after another awkward pause, realizing there really wasn’t anything more, the attendees broke into conversation, grabbed their bags, and left.

We closed without closing. We didn’t take stock of what they had absorbed over the two days. We didn’t gauge their buy-in. We didn’t talk about how they would carry what we had done together into their daily lives—for example, by retraining their researchers in the new approach. Most basically, though, we allowed the clock—and only the clock—to demarcate our ending. In one of the two most vital moments in any gathering, we offered only a gaping void. Even when our guests seemed to challenge this void, begging with their facial expressions for more, we refused to close meaningfully.

And the only consolation in telling you this story is that I know I am not alone. It’s the party that is hurriedly evacuated at 10 p.m., just because it said so on the invitation. It’s the conference that fizzles out after the last session ends at 3:30 p.m., because there is nothing else listed on the agenda. It’s the school homeroom that ends at 8:32 a.m., because of the bell. More often than not at our gatherings, hosts passively allow their events to flicker out instead of claiming a specific concluding moment—a real send-off. Too many of our gatherings don’t end. They simply stop.


I once had an improv teacher, Dave Sawyer, who told us that you can tell the difference between good actors and great ones not by how they enter a stage, which every actor thinks about and plans for, but how they exit. Good actors enter dramatically and in character, say their lines, and when they’re done, assuming their job has finished, scuttle off the stage. Great actors spend as much time thinking about the parting. Great hosts, too. Because great hosts, like great actors, understand that how you end things, like how you begin them, shapes people’s experience, sense of meaning, and memory.

Remember what Neo Muyanga, who could tell whether he was going to like an opera within the first sixteen bars, said about closings? The second-most-important part of the opera is the “final four pages of the score.” He explained: “This is where the composer must have, once and for all, justified the first notes sung and played by the ensemble and where the conductor needs to push the entire alternate universe—the one that has recently been magically conjured up—over the edge of the abyss, leaving the listener to fall back into their own skin.”

That sounds like a lot, right? But it’s not as unreasonable a standard as it may sound. As with the operas Muyanga listens to, you, too, have hopefully created a temporary alternative world in your gathering, and it is your job to help your guests close that world, decide what of the experience they want to carry with them, and reenter all that from which they came.

So, you might ask, how do you actually do that? It can be as simple as a professor’s surprise tequila party.

Michael J. Smith is a professor at the University of Virginia, and he knows how to close. He runs the Political and Social Thought program at the university, an intensive, two-year-long seminar that takes each class of twenty students through a rigorous study of political philosophy. The culminating moment of the program is the submission of a final thesis. Students work on the thesis for more than a year. The final weeks tend to be grueling, filled with all-nighters. It is generally the most intensively any of the students have ever worked thus far.

Every year, Professor Smith tells his flock to bring the final thesis, every “i” dotted and every “t” crossed, to his office at 5 p.m. on the second Friday of April. For most professors, that would mean leaving a box outside their office door for the students to place their bound theses and walk out. But at the appointed time, Professor Smith, to the surprise and delight of his students, stands inside his office, waiting for them with a platter of tequila shots. You walk down the hall toward his office, with two printed copies of your thesis ready to submit. And rather than slipping it through a mail slot, you are welcomed by Professor Smith to a surprise party and inducted into post-thesis life. With that simple act of turning an ending into a closing, he transforms the act of submitting a thesis and creates a moment that students never forget (including this one, from the Class of 2004).


The first step to closing a gathering well is less practical than it is spiritual or metaphysical: You must, before anything, accept that there is an end. You must accept your gathering’s mortality.

This may sound like a bizarre instruction, or utterly obvious. Who doesn’t accept that their gathering has an end? People come and they go; hosts say goodbye. Who’s not accepting the end?

Look a little closer. In so many gatherings, somewhere during the inevitable wind-down, there comes a moment when the host or the guests or some combination make a faint, usually futile bid to prolong it. We often take these bids to be charming, and sometimes indeed they are. But they are also symptoms of gatherings that lack a clear closing. We force wedding bands to play that One Last Song three different times, so that the third- or fourth-to-last song has the kaboom of a send-off and the remaining songs have the quality of a balloon slowly letting out its air. We keep dinner guests at our table for as long as the person who least wants to go home wishes to stay, even if one or two people have started to fall asleep. We create WhatsApp chat groups after conferences, promising to “keep the spirit alive.” We promise to sustain what is better surrendered.

Accepting the impermanence of a gathering is part of the art. When we vaguely try to extend our gatherings, we are not only living in denial, we are also depriving our gathering of the kind of closing that gives it the chance of enduring in people’s hearts.

I once went to see a couple of Zen Buddhist monks with a strange idea. I wondered if the two of them, who had made a specialty of helping people face their resistance and avoidance of endings, had something to teach the everyday gatherer.

Zen teachers Robert Chodo Campbell and Koshin Paley Ellison founded and are the guiding teachers of the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care, which has gained attention for its innovative and thoughtful approaches to helping people deal with death, direct case, and Zen training. I know what you’re thinking: Who said anything about death? I’m just trying to have a better picnic. But I have found, again and again, that the failure to close well is rooted in the avoidance of an end. And the people most thoughtful about why we avoid endings, and how we might accept them, are people who spend a lot of time thinking about death.

The Zen Center for Contemplative Care has a variety of offerings, from meditation courses to student training in contemplative care for those facing illness and grief and hospice care. But a thread that runs through its work is an effort to push back against a culture that the monks see as ducking the reality of death and endings in general. In the United States, for example, there has been an increase in the number of people wanting to treat funerals as celebrations rather than sad or mournful occasions. In a 2010 survey, 48 percent of people said they preferred a “celebration of life” compared with 11 percent who wanted a “traditional funeral.” One-third of all respondents said they wanted no funeral at all. This idea of celebration may seem evolved and selfless at first, but the monks believe it deprives people of the experience of processing a death for what it is. In their center, they pursue the opposite philosophy, doing everything they can to make people confront the end for what it is. For example, when a person dies in their community, the monks encourage, when appropriate, family members to wash and shroud the body themselves, and to carry it down the stairs rather than taking the elevator. They encourage people to turn toward the fact of the death rather than away from it. And they show people that they can, in fact, handle death.

Among the Zen Center’s offerings is a nine-month training called Foundations in Contemplative Care. It aims to teach each cohort of thirty to forty students how to provide a “compassionate approach to life transitions.” Which is why it’s funny that some of these students, signing up for this program and learning to grow more comfortable with the End, avoid the last class. Every year, the monks told me, there tends to be regular attendance throughout the program. And then, on the last day of class, a handful of students will routinely fail to show—year after year, and only ever for that last class. “People get sick. They have urgent knitting to do! It’s really amazing. Suddenly things will come up,” said Koshin, as he is known to his students. “There are always three or four people that have to be at their child’s ball game, and they’ve been otherwise present.”

Students often approach the teachers seeking a prolonging. “Almost every group, every time, during the last week, there has been a group discussion asking me if we can extend the group by two weeks. And I always say, ‘No, it’s done. You signed up for nine months; it’s nine months.’ But every group does it,” Koshin said. The monks never grant these requests “because life is not about extensions. It’s finite. There’s a beginning, a middle, and an end. And that’s the same in a group. Once you’ve gone through that process, what are we doing now? We’re rehashing. What is it in you that doesn’t want this group to end?” he asked.

Understanding this tendency in students, Koshin and Chodo try to prepare them for the end of their gathering as a class. Midway through their nine months together, they talk to the students about their “mid-life” as a group. “Look around again, see how it feels, how your relationships have changed,” they might say. “We’re at our mid-life, and in four and a half months this group will die. So what do you need to do in the next four months in these relationships? What are your patterns of leaving? What are your habits?” They use the group itself and the experience of being part of a group to help them look at their own “habits of how they end things.”

Why do they do this? “Because everything ends,” Chodo said. “There’s nothing that doesn’t end. On some level, what we do in our work is hold that truth. This is going to end, whether you like it or not. Whether it’s meeting your ninety-eight-year-old grandma in this hospice bed; whether it’s a week long or a day long, it’s going to end. No question. We don’t hold magical thinking for anyone,” he says. They will do sixty-minute lectures with a thousand doctors in the room and have them turn to the person next to them, try to connect briefly and deeply by looking into their eyes in silence, and then do a guided visualization imagining that other person getting old and frail and weak. And then the monks will ask, “What does that do to your awareness and your relationship to this person you have just met?” Koshin said. “People are weeping. It’s incredible.” The crux of what they teach health-care professionals and laypeople is, as one of the monks put it, “How do you allow them to welcome everything and push away nothing?”

It was interesting that the monks found in the banal sphere of class attendance the same resistance to the end that people feel about death itself. Listening to them, I realized that the task they have set themselves in closing their training programs is the task of every gatherer who must close any kind of event: to help people fight their urge to turn away from the finitude. It is your job as a gatherer to create an intentional closing that helps people face, rather than avoid, the end.


When done well, openings and closings often mirror one another. Just as before your opening there should be a period of ushering, so with closings there is a need to prepare people for the end. This is not ushering so much as last call.

In drinking establishments around the world, bartenders loudly announce last call. Why? To prepare you for the end of your time in that place. To allow you to resolve whatever unfinished business you may have at that bar—be that settling the tab or ordering a final drink or asking that man for his number. The announcement of last call unites the gathering of the bar around the knowledge of the night’s finitude. I believe many gatherings—in homes and workplaces and beyond—could benefit from adopting the idea behind issuing the last call.

If last calls would make our dinner parties and conferences and work meetings better, why don’t we issue them? One reason is that, in a bar, the closing time is an unavoidable legal reality that applies equally. In other gatherings, people are having different experiences side by side, and gatherers are often reluctant to impose a universal closing.

Perceptive hosts notice when an event is waning. Perhaps a few guests are rubbing their eyes, or they start shifting in their seats, or no one is asking questions of the panelists. The trouble for the host is that, for every person who is tired or checking out, there are presumably others who look as if they could keep going for hours. One of the most interesting—and divisive—dilemmas in hosting is what to do in this situation. Do you relieve the entire group at the first sign of a significant minority being done? Do you quit while the party is ahead? Or do you let the guests be your guide?

I live in a house divided, because my husband is staunchly in favor of letting people linger as long as they want, and I strongly favor ending an event preemptively so as to give guests an escape. To Anand’s horror, when we were first married, I would close many dinners by suddenly blurting out, “Thank you all so much for coming!” In my mind, I was emancipating my guests; in his, I was kicking them out. He comes from a family culture where you always wait for the guests to signal that they’re leaving, and I come from one where you don’t leave until your hosts, in effect, dismiss you.

So we came to our own version of a last call. Once I can see the conversation petering out after dessert, I pause, thank everyone for a beautiful evening, then suggest we move to the living room to have a nightcap. I give the guests who are tired the opportunity to leave, but both my husband and I emphasize that we’d rather everyone stay. That invitation to the living room is a soft close; in a sense, it’s the equivalent of the last call. You can ask for the check, so to speak, or you can order another round. Those who are tired can leave without appearing rude, and those who want to stay can stay. The party, relocated and trimmed, resumes.

A last call is not a closing; it’s the beginning of an outbound ushering. A last call can be verbal, as at our dinner parties. But it doesn’t have to be. Dario Cecchini, at the end of the long beefy dinners he presides over, rings a cowbell to signal the night is winding down. I know some managers who purposefully have their assistants knock on the conference room door five minutes before the end of the meeting to signal to them (and everyone else there) that the meeting is finite. This knock is not the closing but a signal to people to wind down.


Maybe you are like my husband and are hesitant to give people any kind of signal to leave. But if I have even slightly convinced you about issuing a last call, the question of timing arises. When the law doesn’t mandate a last call, when should it be declared?

This question of timing is particularly complicated in informal gatherings without an agenda. On the one hand, you don’t want to kill the vibe and seem like a party pooper. On the other hand, you shouldn’t wait until everyone is dead.

Lady Elizabeth Anson, Queen Elizabeth’s party planner for more than half a century, suggests ending a party while there are at least twenty people on the dance floor. She is speaking, of course, of one particular kind of gathering, but there is a principle behind the number. If you wait too long, it can seem that you are being led by events instead of leading them. “If you let it peter out, it’s death,” she once told The New York Times. Her greatest regret involved asking a band, at the behest of certain guests, to play a last song after their actual last song. “I made one mistake in the whole of my career, which was being persuaded to restart the band,” she said. “It was a flop.”

So ask yourself: What is your equivalent of the twenty-people-left-on-the-dance-floor moment? When, by transitioning into that last call, are you still in charge of events instead of being carried by them? When are you still quitting while you are ahead? When are you allowing things to go on long enough to feel satisfied with the event—but not so long as to feel the energy draining from the room?

And who should make this decision to issue the last call?

On the night before my wedding, we hosted an evening talent show in which many of our guests performed, borrowing from and adapting the Indian tradition of the sangeet, which usually features choreographed dances by friends and relatives. After all our friends’ performances, with the mood lively and festive, the whole thing turned into a dance party. Well into the dancing, a few friends requested that we show a video that a friend had made for us and that had been played at a smaller rehearsal dinner the night before. I looked out at the dance floor and people seemed to be having a great time dancing. But here were some guests who really wanted to have this video shown then. We hadn’t planned on showing it again, but I agreed, thinking, “If it’s what people want . . .” We turned down the music and watched the film. I had thought it would be fun, and a short break before resuming the dancing. But by the end of the fifteen-minute film, guests had cooled down and were ready to turn in. The night was over. I had ceded my own ending by giving someone else a chance to issue a kind of unintended last call.

On the other hand, sometimes the right decision may be to let the guests choose their own ending. I have facilitated many dinners with teams that go late into the night and take on a life of their own. I once facilitated a dinner in Singapore with a team that was trying to unearth some deeper conflict. Perhaps it was because of the late hour, or the wine, or the exhaustion, but at 11:30 p.m. the guests finally began to speak truth, just as I was preparing to close down the evening. I had started my last call, which in this case was a “checkout” process, asking each person to say just one word about how they were feeling. One of the participants interrupted me, saying: “I think we’re finally getting somewhere. If we go to sleep, and we wake up and are fresh and showered and back in that conference room, anything that is getting opened up here is going to disappear. I’d like to request that we continue this conversation and don’t close right now.” There were a number of nods around the table, so I intentionally ceded the closing to the group. We reopened and continued to share for ninety more minutes, ending the session at 1:30 a.m., exhausted, but having had an emotional breakthrough as a group.


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.

Looking inward: meaning-making and connecting one last time

Many, though not all, gatherings will benefit from a pause to reflect on what happened here. A gathering is a moment of time that has the potential to alter many other moments of time. And for it to have the best chance of doing so, engaging in some meaning-making at the end is crucial. What transpired here? And why does that matter?

Whether or not a gathering creates space for meaning-making, it is something that individual guests will do on their own. What did I think of that? How am I going to talk about it with others? A great gatherer doesn’t necessarily leave this process to unfold only within individuals. Rather, the gatherer might find a way of guiding guests toward some kind of collective exercise of stock-taking.

For example, the organizers of the TED conference often ask a comedian to close a days-long conference with a fifteen-minute wrap. (Our master opener Baratunde Thurston, being a great closer as well, has done the wrap in the past.) The comedian’s assignment is not easy. He or she must listen deeply throughout the week and then stand before hundreds of people who have been through the same experience and, with humor and insight, juice meaning from that multitude of moments. When a mother asks her children every night at dinner not just what happened today, but for their “rose” and “thorn” (the best and worst parts of their day), she is helping them make meaning. When a group comes back onstage at the end of a Battle of the Bands to play a mash-up of the songs the audience has already heard, the band members are helping us process the journey as a whole.

Looking back, though, is just one aspect of turning inward. Another is connecting the tribe one last time. To have an affirming moment of recalling not what we did here but who we were here.

A gathering that does this kind of final connecting well is Renaissance Weekend. The event’s origins trace back to 1981, when a couple named Philip and Linda Lader threw a house party to which they invited some of the most interesting thinkers they knew. The Laders felt more and more siloed in their work. They wanted to do something different for New Year’s Eve, so they invited sixty families, made up of friends and acquaintances from diverse fields across the country, down to Hilton Head, South Carolina, for a weekend together. They asked each friend to prepare something to share with the group. They continued doing the same year after year, though with considerably less obscurity once two of their longtime participants, Bill and Hillary Clinton, came into the national spotlight. Twenty-five years later, the weekend has grown into an organization and a series of events, with an executive director and five annual weekends that occur around the country. The number of attendees at their New Year’s gathering, which has since moved to Charleston, South Carolina, is now approaching one thousand.

The organizers’ declared purpose is to build bridges across the customary divides of race, religion, age, profession, and politics, to encourage people to come together to agree and disagree with respect. They are adamant about gathering people as equals, and they embed that value into the structure of their gathering by requiring that every participant over the age of six (yes, six!) participate in at least one panel and by doing away with keynote speeches. The entire agenda is built from scratch each time, based on participants’ interests that particular weekend. “If we see that three people raise llamas, we’ll have a conversation about that,” Alison Gelles, Renaissance’s executive director, told me.

Over the four and a half days of the festival, a certain intimacy forms. That is because people show up as families, and because every family member is treated as a contributor to the program, and because people are encouraged to show different sides of themselves. When you ask a national security expert not to talk about national security but rather what he’s learned from love, Gelles tells me, something interesting happens, both for those speaking and those listening.

So after going to these lengths to create that intimacy and exploration, what does Renaissance do to tie the collective experience together? How does it connect the tribe and affirm this new sense of belonging one last time?

The answer is a special closing session called “If These Were My Last Remarks.” The session features approximately twenty participants, each of whom is given two minutes to tell the group what they would say if this were the end of their life. People read poems, share stories about their faith, confess doubts, recall tragedies large and small. “It’s motivating, it’s touching, it’s tragic, and it kind of seals the bond,” Gelles said. Notably, by asking the participants to contemplate their actual, physical mortality, the group is subtly reminded to confront its metaphorical mortality. Most important, though, the group is being shown itself in dramatic fashion before it disperses. This is who we were here—open, vulnerable, thoughtful, funny, complicated. Tribe-making is vital to meaning-making.

Turning outward: separation and reentry

Once a group has been invited to take stock and connect one last time, it is ready for the second phase of the closing, which concerns itself with the transition back to the world from which the gathered came. This second phase is defined by the question: What of this world do I want to bring back to my other worlds?

The more different from the real world your gathering was, the more important it is to create a strong, clear ending to prepare your guests for reentry into the real world. The more tightly bonded your gathering is, the more it forms a tribe, the more important it is to prepare your guests for the dissolution of that tribe and for the opportunity to join and rejoin other tribes.

Consider the example of Seeds of Peace, a summer camp that tries to reduce conflict and suffering in the Middle East and beyond. Every July since 1993, several dozen teenagers from specific conflict regions, including Israel, Palestine, Egypt, and Jordan, as well as India and Pakistan, gather in Otisfield, Maine. They gather to see if, over the course of three weeks, under carefully designed rules of engagement, they can create an alternative world with the very people they are supposed to distrust, even hate.

At Seeds of Peace, the hosts are the camp counselors, many of whom are Seeds of Peace alumni themselves. As at many summer camps, there’s a lake and canoeing and arts and soccer. But every day also features 110 minutes of intense, facilitated small-group conversations in which teenagers from different sides of conflict come together to engage more deeply.

Over the course of the camp, these teenagers, many of whom are meeting “the Other” for the first time, begin to change their perceptions. By the end of the three weeks, when campers are boarding buses to return home, many have gone from theoretical enemies to flesh-and-blood friends. But the counselors also have a big responsibility to give the students the skills to reenter their very different realities back home.

Reentry, as the term is used in conflict resolution, refers to helping someone who has gone through an intense experience within the bubble of a dialogue return to their original context. The term is also used for circumstances such as soldiers returning from war or prisoners finishing their sentences. Yet even the most ordinary comings-together of people have an element of reentry. As a host, you can help your guests think about what they would like to take with them as they go back into the world, given what they have experienced with you. In the case of Seeds of Peace, now that they’re a “seed,” how will they plant themselves in the hostile, messy soil beyond?

At Seeds of Peace, they start reentry a full three nights before the last day of camp. At the end of their evening talent show, the director of the camp, Leslie Lewin, walks onto the stage in the Big Hall to make her closing remarks. Midway through, the lights suddenly go out. It seems like it’s just a technical glitch, but all of a sudden a Metallica song, “Enter Sandman,” starts to play. In the dark, dozens of counselors come running into the room with blue and green glow sticks wrapped around their heads and arms. They dance like crazy, and then they run out to the back of the Big Hall toward the lake. At that moment, two other lead directors jump onstage and explain to the disoriented campers what is about to happen. One of the camp directors will then say something like “Welcome to Color Games. The next few days are going to be a series of events that will push you. You will soon be divided into two teams, but you will still be upholding and building on the values that we have been holding onto as a community. As you join these two teams—Green and Blue—it’s an opportunity to try new things and to step outside of ourselves.” Unbeknownst to the campers, the process of reentry into the outside world has begun.

Over the next two days, the campers are involved in a series of competitive activities, from rock climbing to canoe racing, from a variety show to an activity race they call the Hajime. During the two days of the Color Games, a new (arbitrary) identity, Blue or Green, is purposefully forged within each Seed. “Years later, when you talk to alumni, they will often cite the Color Games as the most transformative experience. And they will absolutely know if they were Blue or Green and whether they lost or won,” Kyle Gibson, one of the camp directors, told me.

The Color Games culminate in an awards presentation. Everyone gathers on the lake to find out the winner. The winning team gets to run into the lake first, after which everyone joins them. Then, soaking wet, they will all run back to their bunks, take off their colors (and Color Game identities) for the last time, and change back into their original dark green Seeds of Peace T-shirts.

Each step of the Color Games is designed to help them with reentering their home lives. In addition to being fun and competitive, the games give them an experience in which they can put on and take off an identity as easily as switching T-shirts.

That evening, the campers gather again in those matching Seeds of Peace T-shirts and “equality descends again.” A counselor discusses for the first time explicitly the identity-formation that they just went through by partaking in the Color Games. They say something like this:

Look at how quickly your identity has formed, a group of people who maybe two days ago you didn’t talk to, but now they are forever in your memory of this team of yours. Look at how you were fighting till the end two days ago, and now there’s no more Green team. There’s this construction of a team and a cause that was valuable and supporting, but also look at how quickly we can coalesce around this constructed identity.

The counselor then relates it back to society: “People think in groups. It can be a force for good, in the case of the Blue and the Green, or it can also be a force of evil, and quickly coalesce around hatred or mistrust.” They use the Color Games to remind the campers of one of the core insights they learn at this summer camp: how identity is created.

The final session on the last night of camp is called “Life as Seeds.” The counselors talk about going home and how challenging it can be. Second-year campers, having gone through the reentry process before, guide the discussion in small groups, helping Seeds reflect on questions like these:

What does it mean to go home?

How are you feeling?

What is making you anxious?

What are you excited about?

What are some of the issues you think you might face?

During that session, the Seeds think back on the last few weeks of the gathering and begin to integrate what they experienced with the world they are returning to. The next morning, as the buses pull up, the campers get into their final “Line Up,” which they have been doing three times a day for three and a half weeks. The reality of the departure has set in. People speak, second-year students share poems, and then they finally close. For several years, the camp director read aloud a poem that is painted on the back of the shower house at the camp:

I met a stranger in the night whose light had ceased to shine. I paused and let him light his lamp from mine.

A tempest sprang up later on and shook the world about. When the storm was over, my lamp was out.

But back to me the stranger came his lamp was glowing fine.

He held to me his precious flame and thus rekindled mine.

At that point, the students are dismissed and begin to board the buses to head to the airport. Many are crying as they hug one another and say their goodbyes. They know that they will be meeting other Seeds again in about a month, which can help give them strength to hold on to this identity when they are back home. As the buses pull out of camp, the camp bell is rung one last time.


Seeds of Peace might sound beautiful but ultimately remote from your garden-variety gatherings. What if you’re gathering not Israelis and Arabs but just some of your friends?

The dynamics of extreme cases are not all that different from the dynamics of ordinary events. The advantage of the extreme is that the dynamics are easier to see. No matter how ordinary your gathering, if you have forged a group and created something of a temporary alternative world, then you should also think about helping those you gathered “take the set down” and walk back into their other worlds. Whether implicitly or explicitly, you should help them answer these questions: We’ve collectively experienced something here together, so how do we want to behave outside of this context? If we see people again, what are our agreements about what and how we’ll talk about what occurred here? What of this experience do I want to bring with me?

At a company retreat, when only one slice of an organization has been convened, how do you prepare employees to return to the company, where they will be back in the mix with VPs, assistants, research fellows, and interns?

After a family reunion, when you’ve bonded with your cousins in a way that is harder to do when your spouses are around, how do you interact the next time you are all together, spouses and all?

Part of preparing guests for reentry is helping them find a thread to connect the world of the gathering to the world outside. That thread could come in the form of a verbal or written pledge, as some conferences have begun to do in their closing sessions. They give guests an opportunity to make public pledges to the group of what they will do differently moving forward, and often have a physical wall that people can write the pledges on. A thread could be a letter that each guest can write to their future self on a self-addressed postcard, to be mailed out by the organizer a month later. A thread can also be a physical symbol that helps connect the two worlds in some way, as my own mother did with a gathering she called Circle of Friends.

When I was fifteen, she offered to host a weekly gathering in our basement, with me and eleven other girls from my high school, to help us think about our identity and transformation as women. She wanted to bring her own experience as an anthropologist to help us with the fraught transitions we found ourselves in.

My mother could have said what she wanted to say just to me, but she realized that there was something powerful about doing it in a group. She was aware that the group saw one another every day in school, a context very different from the twelve pillows she set up in her basement. Over those six weeks, the twelve of us had bonded, shared secrets and insecurities, and learned breathing techniques and other physical practices that could help us stand our ground in school. At the last meeting, my mother gave each of us little multicolored spiral bracelets. I didn’t think much of it at the time; we simply slipped them around our wrists.

The next morning, though, I wore my bracelet to school. As I ran into the other girls in the group, I saw that many of them were wearing theirs, too. It gave me an added confidence that I was not alone, and reminded me to practice some of the things we had learned together. That bracelet became a bridge from those special evenings into real life.

Two decades later, one of my friends from that group, Jenna Pirog, reflected on the impact the gathering had on her. While the gathering was made up of many elements, there was a component of meditation each time. For Pirog, that part stuck:

As a 35-year-old woman, I can make sense of the social dynamics that governed my Northern Virginia high school. Now, they seem tame compared to what I encountered in college or later at work.

But as a 15-year-old teenager lying on floor pillows in Deepa’s basement, this was all I knew, and my young mind was awash with anxiety about where I fit in. The meditation group spanned the social spectrum of our grade. One of the girls was perhaps one of the most popular and well-liked in our school. I remember how desperately I wanted to be friends with her. Another got such good grades that I was too shy to speak to her for fear she would be bored by me. Others seemed adept at the art of flirting with boys, or knew what they wanted to be when they grew up.

But lying on the floor, then eating crackers afterwards in Deepa’s kitchen, we were all the same, we were all calm, and we were all there for the same purpose: to learn how to meditate. It gave us something to talk about, something to share and something interesting that we had in common.

What happened in Circle of Friends didn’t stay in Circle of Friends. Doing these strange activities together in the temporary alternative world of my mother’s basement allowed for new connections back at school, because the two worlds were connected by a thread of reentry.

Party favors are a common, if mundane, version of the bridge, though because they have become part of “what you do,” they often don’t have the same effect. They represent, therefore, a ripe opportunity for rethinking and refreshing. The next time you have the chance to distribute party favors, whether for a child’s birthday or something more unusual, like a work event, ask yourself: How can I use this gift to turn an impermanent moment into a permanent memory? I once had a client give me a piece of a recycled shipping container after a particularly intense meeting I facilitated for her in Detroit. The meeting had been about her dream of starting a hotel in a deserted part of town to attract investment and reanimate the area, while highlighting the stories of the people who grew up in Detroit. The scrap sat on my desk for many years as a reminder of the hope for rebuilding a city.


So you have made your last call, and you’ve created a moment for a closing. You’ve helped your guests face inward, and you’ve prepared them to turn outward again. Your time together is almost over. You’re approaching the last few minutes of the gathering. What do you do? How do you close with a bang?

Let’s talk first about what you don’t do. I know how hard it was to quit the habit of opening with logistics, housekeeping, and thank-yous. But now the end is near, and all those thanks and logistics might be pent-up, and you might be tempted to stick them at the end instead.

Don’t even think about it.

Just as you don’t open a gathering with logistics, you should never end a gathering with logistics, and that includes thank-yous. I was once asked to officiate the wedding of two close friends. We were at the wedding rehearsal, standing in the living room of the bride’s home with her parents, her in-laws, and her husband-to-be, running through the ceremony we designed together. We came to the final few minutes, and I happened to notice in their notes the word “Announcement.” I asked them about it. The groom said something like, “Well, after all of this, we’d love to say, Now please come join us in the hall for food!”

I was horrified.

In the groom’s mind, he was ending on a tone both of graciousness (we will now feed you!) and of practicality (that’s where to find the food). Like openings, though, closings are a moment of power and memory formation. Ending well is a crucial way to cement the feelings and ideas you want your guests to take with them.

I tried to convince my friends that the guests would see where the food was once they exited the ceremony (it was in the next room). They saw the logic in what I said and we decided to end with a kiss, the presentation of the newlyweds to the community, and their dramatic exit to song, followed by their parents, and then the remaining guests. Years later, the husband said to me: “I now never end anything on logistics. I don’t even have a ‘thank you’ slide in my presentations!” I was, of course, thrilled.

I am not suggesting that you cannot thank people. I simply mean that you shouldn’t thank them as the last thing you do when gathering. Here’s a simple solution: do it as the secondto-last thing.

My son’s music teacher, Jesse Goldman, is an aficionado of second-to-last-thing logistics. He hosts half a dozen music classes every week for toddlers. Goldman is a much-beloved teacher and singer-songwriter. His classes are forty-five minutes long, and to close them he strums the first note of the final song, his version of the last call, triggering the expectation of a closing in the kids, and then he pauses and makes announcements while still holding the note: Please turn in your check to me if you haven’t already. No class next week. Someone left their jacket. He technically does these logistics between the first and second note of the final song. Once he’s finished with the logistics, he resumes the goodbye song. It’s subtle but quietly brilliant.

The last call, the logistics, and the dramatic close. We could all come up with our own adaptations of Goldman’s habit of striking that note, then exploiting the space between that note and the second one.

And one further point: Once you figure out an appropriate place to tuck any thank-yous, try to avoid making them actual, literal thank-yous. Try honoring instead.

In far too many of our gatherings, the cue to guests that we are closing comes through people standing up and spewing a stream of thank-yous. The problem with that is that people’s eyes glaze over, particularly when they follow a script. This doesn’t mean that you don’t publicly thank anyone at your gathering, just that you need to think about how to do so, in addition to when.

Don’t use your thanking time to describe people’s jobs and areas of responsibility. That is better confined to LinkedIn: “To our production team, led by Rachel, for keeping the trains running; to Scott in AV; to Sarah for logistics.” Nobody in the audience cares about the org chart of your gathering. Rather, find a way to honor that person instead of their job description. This will make your thank-yous meaningful—both to those thanked and to your guests.

When I attended a gathering called Daybreaker, a morning dance party that occurs in dozens of cities around the world, I witnessed a fantastic thank-you toward the end of the event. Hundreds of people meet at 6 a.m. and, completely sober, participate in a rave before going to work. Most Daybreaker gatherings happen in secret locations, and the one I attended was in the basement of the iconic Macy’s department store in Herald Square.

After the three-hour party, complete with a visit from Santa and Mrs. Claus, a New Orleans brass band, break-dancers, illuminated sweaters, and one person dressed up as a giant blue dreidel, one of the organizers, Radha Agrawal, grabbed a microphone and asked everyone to sit down. She thanked the members of the Macy’s team by name, and made us realize what a risk Macy’s took to do something so wild: Many of the organizers hadn’t slept the night before so that they could clear the floor. They took a huge leap of faith in admitting three hundred strangers and trusting them not to steal anything. Agrawal reminded us that people have to take chances to do something extraordinary, which was a lesson she wanted us to take back to our real lives.

So she made the thank-yous meaningful, honoring what was least rather than most obvious about what people did in the run-up to the event. And she massaged those thank-yous into a lesson for the rest of us, so that it didn’t feel like housekeeping. She didn’t let those thanks, elevated though they were, mark the ending. Instead, she closed by handing out copies of a poem that Daybreaker events routinely end on. She understood how vital it is to end freshly and well.


We are approaching the end of this book, and I would not want to end on thank-yous after telling you not to do so. And so I’d like to pause before we end and honor the people who have helped me create this gathering.

Zoë Pagnamenta, my agent, who believed in me and this book from the very beginning. Jake Morrissey, my indefatigable editor, who helped me through multiple rounds of this manuscript until it settled into its skin. Jane Fransson, my chief organizer, cheerleader, and first line of defense. My writing group—Ann Burack-Weiss, Mindy Fullilove, Maura Spiegel, Jack Saul, Kelli Harding, Jim Gilbert, and Simon Fortin—for reminding me on those Friday mornings to preserve the spirit of “the mess of groups.” My dear friends and family—Rukmini Giridharadas, Tom Ferguson, Mo Mullen, Kate Krontiris, and Luis Araújo—for your close reads of the manuscript. The good folks at Wet Dog Farm for helping me see what this book could be. The entire team at Riverhead—especially Katie Freeman, Jynne Dilling Martin, Lydia Hirt, and Kevin Murphy—whose enthusiasm, creativity, and championing of authors show in everything you do; I am so grateful to be in your orbit. My professional community, especially Amy Fox and Mobius Executive Leadership, for keeping me both sharp and open, and for embodying power and love. My six parents, for always cheering me on. My husband, Anand Giridharadas, for being by my side with this book from the time of the seed to the time of the harvest. I could not have done this without you. And the late Harold “Hal” Saunders, who taught me, and many others on many continents, that when you gather differently, everything can change.


As you close, there may be a brief moment to hark back to the place this book began—to your purpose for gathering. There is often a subtle way to remind people of why what is now ending was initiated in the first place.

My friend Emily told me a story about a trip she made to Jamaica to volunteer for an NGO. One day she was cohosting a pool party for kids from the countryside. The end approached, and there wasn’t necessarily a plan for a “closing.” This concerned Emily, because not long before her trip, I had lectured her about closings. And it concerned her, moreover, because it had been a powerful day, more powerful than your usual pool party. Many of the children there had never swum before, despite being from an island nation—a legacy that dates back to colonial laws in the Caribbean forbidding slaves from swimming, out of fear that they would escape. Emily and the other volunteers and the children themselves had been visibly moved by the day, and now it was over. But there was nothing to mark the end.

There was a school bus waiting outside. Emily knew that, within minutes, the kids would have to file out for a bumpy four-hour bus ride back home. So she grabbed as many volunteers as she could and lined them up in the front hallway to wait for the kids to file through. As the first kids started to come in, the volunteers started clapping and cheering and high-fiving and hugging the kids as they walked down the hall.

“The children looked overwhelmed and bewildered, but also utterly thrilled to be celebrated like that by these people they had only just met but already formed close bonds with,” Emily told me. It was a closing that embodied the gathering’s purpose: communicating to a group of kids that they matter.

My father-in-law, without any pressure from me, ends a course he teaches by recalling his purpose in his own compelling way. He is a professor at the George Washington University School of Business, in Washington, D.C. At the end of every semester, he has three slides ready for the students. One is titled “Work-life balance,” one is titled “Meaning,” and the third has a poem he reads aloud. He begins that final class not by reviewing lessons from the course (which is on management consulting), but by warning about the seductions of the consulting field and the dangers of not pursuing meaning and balance from the beginning.

“I advise them not to wait till it becomes a crisis before committing to living a balanced life,” he told me. “Recognizing that you cannot balance your life at every moment, I urge them to think of immediate priorities so that over an arc of eighteen to twenty-four months, their life seems to be balanced and under control,” he said. He then performs a card trick, and at the end of the trick he says to his students that while it looks like magic, it is just technique, and that he hopes for them to master the techniques in his course until they look like magic. Then he reads a poem by the Irish poet John O’Donohue, “For a New Beginning,” urging his students to “Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning.” Finally, he ends the way the class began, by asking the students to close in a minute of silence.

All this for a consulting class? I had heard from him that, year after year, the students are really moved, with the class often ending in tears. (He also regularly wins teaching awards.) I asked him why he spent his final class in this way. He said the send-off was not only to remind his students of their purpose together in the class, but to remind himself of his own purpose as a teacher as well. He teaches, he said, because he likes the idea of investing in “citizens of character that I am unleashing into the world.” The content of his course is incidental to that larger purpose. And so after a semester of delving into the specifics of consulting, he wants to remind his students why he is in the classroom and why they are, too.

Those closing moments can also be a time to connect your specific gathering to the universal. When Amy Cunningham, a funeral director in New York, ends a service, she purposefully tries to connect the grief of the family with that of mourners everywhere. She told me that she often ends her service by saying, “May the source of peace grant you peace, and grant peace to all who mourn.” She connects this individual suffering to the larger existence of suffering in the world, thereby making it both smaller and bigger.


You may remember the idea of the threshold from the chapter on openings. You draw a line and you help your guests walk over it. There is an analogous concept to employ when closing.

With your guests now leaving the world of your gathering, it is time to draw another line, the line of exit, and help them cross this, too. The last moments of a well-run gathering are, subtly or explicitly, a crossing of that line, a signal that it is over. The closing’s closing, so to speak, should represent a marking and an emotional release. It can take many forms.

The exit line can be physical and symbolic. On Commencement Day, Princeton University students walk through the FitzRandolph Gate at the end of the ceremony, a gate they have been warned never to pass through until that day for fear of not graduating. The sustaining of that myth of not graduating, and then the crossing of the line on the appointed day, makes it clear that this day is unlike the other days, and that this time is over.

In certain parts of Colombia, villagers still bid goodbye to the year gone by making an “Año Viejo,” or Old Year, a human-shaped effigy, sometimes stuffed with hay and fireworks, that represents a negative theme of the past year that they wish to burn. They dress it up, give it a funny name, and on New Year’s Eve burn it. With or without their effigy, the year would end. But the exit line underlines that ending and converts it into a proper closing.

The exit line can also, or instead, be drawn through language. In my own Labs, as the very last act, I often have everyone stand in a circle. Then I mirror my opening, in which I had read aloud excerpts from what people told me in interviews or workbooks ahead of time. The grist for the closing version of this exercise is not what people sent in beforehand but rather what occurred during the Lab. All day long, I have been taking notes on what people say and jotting down specific phrases, confessions, epiphanies, jokes, and one-liners that I think capture an important moment. Then, in my closing, after all the other participants have shared, I have them stand up, look at one another, and listen. I read aloud bits and phrases that people have said over the preceding day. In hearing their own voices, presented in the order of the day’s events, they are reminded of all we did together. I am also showing them how deeply they were listened to, and signaling to them that what they said was remembered. Finally, I come to my last quote. (Often it is something that was said by another participant in their closing comments just a few minutes prior to me speaking.) I close my iPad or the notebook from which I’m reading. I pause. I look up. I let the moment hang. And then I say some version of “I pronounce this Lab . . .”—then I clap: an exit line—“closed.” I mark it. I end it. And they are released. And usually everyone starts clapping. It’s over. (Don’t worry. I don’t do this at parties.)

Whatever your final moment is, it should be authentic and make sense in your context.

When Amy Cunningham first began work at a funeral home, she struggled with how to help people exit a funeral. It is a hard and awkward moment, and most people aren’t sure what to do. Do you just walk away? Do you wait? Do you say a round of goodbyes, or is that better for Super Bowl parties? What order should people exit?

Cunningham derived inspiration from studying the funeral rituals of various cultures. And she ended up adopting one from the Jewish tradition. In it, the person presiding over the funeral asks everyone except for the immediate family to form two lines facing each other, making a kind of human hallway from the gravesite to the cars. Then the rabbi asks the immediate family to turn away from the grave and walk down that makeshift aisle, and as they do so, to look into the eyes of their friends, who “are now like pillars of constancy and love.” Cunningham described it as “a way to usher them into the next part of their journey, and the next stage of their grieving.” As the family walks by, the people at the farthest-back part of the line fold in and follow them, and then the rest, slowly, join a kind of procession out of the cemetery. It is a simple structural process that helps organize a group and facilitate a graceful exit. Yet it does so in a purposeful way that supports the people who most need it, connects them to the people still present, and gives everyone a way to move forward together.

A good and meaningful closing doesn’t conform to any particular rules or form. It’s something you have to build yourself, in keeping with the spirit of your gathering, in proportion to how big a deal you want to make of it. Just because it’s a regular weekly sales meeting doesn’t mean that a closing is too fancy or strange. A huddle and group chant of “Front line matters!” before the meeting ends might quickly but meaningfully remind people why they choose to do what they do. Just because it’s a casual dinner with friends doesn’t mean it shouldn’t have a closing. A simple, subtle one, like a goodbye chocolate as they walk out the door, can make a difference. Even a minimalist closing can manage to acknowledge what transpired and offer a release.

There are masterful closers everywhere, finding small but powerful ways to metaphorically wrap their gatherings in a bow and thereby distinguish them. It’s the yoga classes that end in a collective “Om” versus those that don’t. It’s teachers who end class on a story versus those who end with an assignment. It’s walking your guests to the door to say goodbye versus having them let themselves out. Sometimes it can be just a pause, a moment, a tight squeeze, to acknowledge what has happened.

As with every rule, there are exceptions. I know of a wonderful gathering of friends who decided to do their partings in defiance of everything I have preached. They decided that they don’t much like goodbyes. And so when they gather and the night is approaching its end, without any coordination or warning or ceremony, each person just leaves whenever he or she feels like it. It is an evening that ends with a collective ghosting. This breaks many of my minor rules, but it aces one of my transcendent principles. The friends found a way to say, “This gathering was different from all the others.”





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