1: The World Economic Forum (WEF) brings together the rich and powerful several times a year, most notably in Davos, Switzerland.
Priya Parker and a colleague were charged with creating an event at the annual WEF conclave in the United Arab Emirates, several months before the major event in Davos. One of the objectives of this earlier conference is to surface ideas and agendas for Davos.
Conferences can be a challenge, Priya observes in her book The Art of Gathering: “Everyone is presenting the best self they think others expect to meet,” she writes. “The conversations I was part of often remained superficially intellectual, with little realness or emotional risk. It was like many conferences I have attended: you go, try to impress people with how smart you are, perhaps come away with a few new work opportunities. But it was difficult to have any authentic engagement.”
To remedy this reality, “we suggested throwing a small dinner the night before the conference began,” she writes. “Our goal was both simple and very complicated: to get people to turn off their networking engines and elevator pitches and get them to connect—humanly, authentically.”
Their challenge? How do we “allow for weakness and doubt in people who normally exude certainty and confidence?”
For the dinner, Priya and her colleague decided to invite fifteen WEF members, whom they did not know, but who intrigued them. The attendees would be “senior advisers to presidents, CEO types, journalists, entrepreneurs, and activists,” writes Priya. “We were split relatively equally by gender. The ages ranged from early twenties to eighties. People hailed from half a dozen different countries.”
2: Next, they selected a theme to focus the evening: “a good life”—as in, what makes for a good life? Each guest would be asked to share a personal story or experience about “a good life,” whatever that phrase meant to them, and then conclude with a toast to the lesson or takeaway.
“This was a lot to ask of people,” Priya notes. “What if no one wanted to toast? What if everyone waited in long silences between toasts?”
The answer: the last person to go would have to sing their toast. “It would set a brisk pace for the evening and add some nice risk,” she predicted.
The night of the event arrived. The evening began with the hosts standing at the doorway, greeting the guests and warmly introducing them to one another. After cocktails, everyone sat down for dinner. Priya thanked everyone for coming and described the “a good life” theme for the evening.
She explained that there is “a typical dynamic of showiness and puffery” at conferences. “You’re all here because you’re remarkable,” she shared. “That said, we don’t want to hear about your resume or how great you are. We already know that.” Instead: “Tell us something that would surprise us.”
“At last, we began,” she recalls.
“The first three toasts went quickly: The first toaster drew from the well of her own story to talk about a good life as a life with choices. (“To choice!”) The second toaster spoke of her work in disaster-relief efforts and, as she did, became emotional. Her toast showed the group that it was acceptable to be human when you care deeply about something.
“In the third toast, a man talked about three elements he thought made a good life: to work for oneself, to work for others, and to have fun. He ended with a toast to “Two out of three ain’t bad.” Someone then burst into song, singing: “Two out of three ain’t bad!” Everyone started laughing. The group was starting to relax,” Priya writes.
As the wine flowed and the toasts continued, the topic of death was introduced. “One woman shared her mother’s words on her deathbed: ‘I spent 90 percent of my time worrying about things that didn’t matter. Don’t do that.'”
Another person said she would tell the group something “weird.” Something she had never told anyone. She begins each morning with a “death meditation,” in which she imagines she has died, sees all the people she loves and all she’s left behind in this world, and just hovers over the scene, watching. She then wiggles her fingers and toes and comes back, deeply grateful to be alive another day, perhaps a little more aware of what she values. She then raised her glass and toasted, “To death!”
“To death!” the rest of the table replied, glasses in the air.
“As the night went on, tears welled more and more in the eyes of people speaking and the eyes of people listening. Not because they were sad, but because they were moved,” writes Priya.
The group was becoming more and more authentic. People often began their story by saying, “I’ve never said this out loud before,” or “I hadn’t planned on saying this.”
So, did the final person sing? Yes! “He closed his toast with a Leonard Cohen song,” Priya writes. “A line about cracks allowing for light shimmered over the room. . . It was a moving, beautiful night. All these people whose titles usually enter the room before they do left their egos at the door. They showed us fresh, raw, honest sides of themselves. The dinner pointed to what was possible at gatherings like this.”
3: Since that night, Priya has hosted “15 Toasts” dinners (named for number of people at the inaugural gathering) all around the world.
She has experimented with many themes: 15 Toasts to the stranger, to faith, to happiness, to collateral damage, to escapes, to borders, to Them, to fear, to risk, to rebellion, to romance, to dignity, to the self, to education, to the story that changed my life, to the end of work, to beauty, to conflict, to tinkering, to the truth, to America, to local, to the fellow traveler, to origins, to the right problem, to the disrupted, to the fourth industrial revolution, to courage, to borders, to risk, and, yes, to vulnerability.
“What we came to find over time was that the best themes were not the sweet ones, like happiness or romance, but rather the ones that had darker sides to them: fear, Them, borders, strangers,” she writes. “The ones that allowed for many interpretations. The ones that let people show sides of themselves that were weak, that were confused and unprocessed, that were morally complicated.”
Reflection: Why are gatherings like the one Priya describes above so meaningful?
Action: Experiment with asking everyone at an event or dinner to share a story around a topic.