Priya Parker discusses the art of gatherings—and how we can truly take the events that punctuate our lives to the next level.
From the beginning, it was about gatherings. And it was Priya Parker’s mother who helped her realize the true power of them.
“When I was 15, she offered to host a weekly gathering in our basement, with me and 12 other girls from my high school, to help us think about our identity and transformation as women,” she writes near the end of her new book, The Art of Gathering. “She wanted to bring her own experience as an anthropologist to help us with the fraught transitions we found ourselves in.”
Parker notes that her mother, Deepa, could have imparted her wisdoms to her alone—but Deepa understood the benefits of a communal dynamic. An intense bonding experience followed, and Parker’s mother taught the group a host of lessons and life skills, including meditation—strategies that helped the individual members of the group navigate the tumultuous, seemingly all-consuming world that is being a teenager in America.
As this season of Design Matters has shown, uncommonly brilliant minds tend to have uncommon roots. Born in Zimbabwe to parents who originally met in Iowa and worked for such organizations as the Peace Corps, United Nations and World Bank, after a medley of travels Parker’s family eventually returned to the United States. Her parents divorced, and Parker began to simultaneously occupy two distinct worlds: that of her mother, who, as Parker has joked, comes from “Indian cow worshippers” in Varanasi, and that of her evangelical caucasian father, who comes from “American cow slaughterers” in the Midwest. Perhaps this duality granted her perspective at a young age—something that would be vital to the career in conflict resolution that she subsequently pursued.
After graduating from the University of Virginia, Parker worked for the Dalai Lama Foundation in India, and also worked in the Middle East—and naturally, in her job she often focused on fostering dialogue in group settings.
Eventually, her interests returned stateside and evolved. Taking her expertise and applying it in a new format, she launched Thrive Labs, an advisory firm whose stated mission is to work with artists, leaders, NGOs and corporations to help them discover their purpose and thus transform their lives and output. As the firm’s official copy goes, “We design unique, disruptive spaces in which individuals and teams can step back from their daily routine; explore their own deepest motivations; investigate the world’s needs and opportunities; and revise their strategies or develop wholly new ones as a result.”
As for what that looks like in execution, maybe the best way to understand it—and snag a glimpse into the mind of Priya Parker in the process—is to take a look at some of her exercises for individuals looking to reexamine and reboot their lives, which she discussed in a TED talk.
Consider “The Dwindling Cash Experiment.” As Parker notes, one core thing that keeps people in gigs they dislike is the eternal bonds of the dollar. We’re averse to financial uncertainty, and thus tend to stay in unfulfilling roles for the green security blanket they offer. So Parker recommends calculating how much you spend in a given month, and performing a four-week test. In Week 1, live off of 40% of that total amount. In Week 2, live off of 30% of it. Week 3, 20%. Week 4, 10%. Existing on four different incomes in the span of a month (and doing so within the framework of what you already spend, which means it doesn’t cost you any extra) gives excellent insight into how much money you really need to subsist and be happy—and after the experiment, you can create a plan for a new life around that number, without the haunting burden of needing to make as much money as you currently do.
Another exercise: “The Obituary Test.” The task, simple in form yet daunting in execution, is to write your own 600-word obituary. As Parker says in her talk, “If you want to figure out what to do with your life, work back from your death.” Would you rather be known for sitting in an office 40 hours a week sending press releases while killing time on Facebook, or doing something truly meaningful to you, and perhaps the world at large?
Still another: “Get Comfortable With Discomfort.” In order to survive the process of doing a hard reset on your life, she recommends breaking out of, and maybe even annihilating, your comfort zone. How? As you’re going about your day and doing something like waiting in a grocery or bank line with others, sing. Audibly—and continue to do so as the stares around you accumulate. If you’re feeling especially bold after, go to a restaurant and have dinner alone (and truly “alone” means no phone or book). Of the power of discomfort, Parker says, “The people who are able to actually quit their life and reboot, it’s not that they don’t feel fear, they’ve just simply found ways to manage it to feel and notice the anxiety and keep going.”
One wonders if, perhaps, she has completed any of these exercises herself—and if they might have been key to how she found her own true path in life.
As for what Parker might advise a company, as she ponders in her new book, instead of a basic sales training meeting, why not send your employees to shadow a busker in the subway for insight into the ultimate act of hustling? For someone tasked with planning a school reunion, why not hold it in a cemetery to remind classmates that there’s no time like the present for executing on their dreams and goals?
Unsurprisingly, Parker’s experiments are not limited to her day job. After Parker and her husband, the writer and political commentator Anand Giridharadas, moved to New York City, they wanted to get to know their new community more intimately. So they began doing what they dubbed “I Am Here” days, in which they gather a small group, stow their tech and go out and explore—for 12 hours straight. In doing so, they come away with a much better understanding of not just their sense of place, but their comrades, seeing the world and their friends in real time without the million digital disruptions that define our days.
Finally, consider the 15 Toasts series, which Parker hosts with Tim Leberecht. Prior to a conference, Parker and Leberecht wanted to see if they could get a small cadre of chosen guests to ditch the basic networking that tends to haunt such events, and really connect as people. They decided on a dinner-party format. They invited 15 people, and selected a theme: “A Good Life.” They came up with a set of simple rules: At some point in the evening during the dinner, each participant must give a toast to the theme and how they interpret it … and to keep things productive and
moving, the last person to do so has to sing their toast. What followed was an incredible night Parker has written consisted of both smiles and tears, and moreover, real human connection. Parker and Leberecht have since held 15 Toasts dinners around the world on a medley of themes, from America to Fear to Romance.
Though Kirkus dubbed Parker “a sort of Martha Stewart of the conference table,” she recently told The New York Times that “Martha Stewart’s greatest crime wasn’t insider trading, it was telling a generation of hosts that gathering is about fish knives, flowers and canapés; that if you get the things right, magic will happen.”
Rather, it’s everything but said things.
As she goes about redefining our notions of the gathering, Parker brings meaning to the throngs of events that punctuate and define our lives—be they weddings, birthday celebrations, dinner parties, industry conferences—happenings that can often feel like lobotomized formalities, the true purpose and heart of which might seem close, nigh achievable, but fleeting. A missed opportunity Parker seeks to rectify.
All told, she brings humanity back to the fore. And in the process, tradition and routine wither, and suddenly, everything means something again.
—Zachary Petit, Design Matters Media Editor-in-Chief
By Priya Parker: