Why we suck at events? — The Art of gathering
This last weekend, I had the opportunity to spend some time with my beloved ones in my birth country, Tunisia. It was also an opportunity to visit the neighborhood I grew up in — a (disadvantaged) area in the northernmost point of Africa, Bizerte. The picture shows me in front of my grandparent’s house, where I spent most of my childhood. And boy, this time was such an emotionally charged visit, walking through the narrow streets of where I learned most of the human skills I have today. However, the reason I am sharing this picture with you is to talk about how growing up in an impoverished area made me fall in love with hosting events and gatherings.
I was raised by a relatively modest family, and my grandparents took me in. For as long as I remember, lunch was a very sacred ritual. As soon as the school bell rang at noon, my two brothers and I would run to my grandparent’s house to join them and my mom for a delicious meal. The six of us would gather around the small table, and all that mattered at this moment was the tasty food and the beloved people. Our lunch gathering left such an imprint in our hearts that today they represent some of our best childhood memories. However, this wasn’t a specific ritual to only my family. All of my neighbors did the same, and the magic of it would make unannounced guests joining us from time to time, making the gathering even more fun.
The older I got, the more gatherings I discovered. For instance, for each important graduation (primary school, high school, college), a party would be organized to celebrate the success but, more importantly, to help the graduates prepare for the next step of her/his life. And in that case, it was by offering her/him money so they can invest it in e.g., furniture and clothes, or use it as a stipend for the festive summer. You could experience the same at various gatherings, whether it was a wedding, a birthday party, or even a funeral. People would come to celebrate the occasion or share your loss, and financially support you. I remember a regrettable event, the funeral of my grandfather (may he rest in peace) when people were giving money to my mother. I wondered how giving money to someone still grieving was a good thing. I asked my mom, and her short answer finally gave sense to all the gatherings I witnessed growing up: “Honey, every time we gather, the only goal is to help the person in question prepare for the next step of their life. Because life ain’t easy and we need moral and financial support to face whatever is coming our way,”
And suddenly it made sense, all the gatherings, especially in an area where sometimes it can get tough, people come together to help each other. A high school graduate will need more resources to start university. A newlywed will have more expenses related to their wedding and establishing a new family. A funeral means the potential decrease in the family’s resources. Everyone made it an unspoken rule to bring their support, knowing that other people will do the same for them.
Over the next years, I moved into my mom’s house and started organizing my gatherings. A dance party almost every month, stay-overs at our place sometimes gathering 15 people, football games, video game competitions. My mom’s house became the arena of social interactions (most of the time around the delicious meals of my grandmother)
When I started university, I joined the students’ organization AIESEC. I had my first professional experience with organizing a conference, also a form of gathering. And right then, I knew what I wanted to keep doing, whether as a job or a hobby: To bring people together and help them find ways to help each other and lift each other. In 2013, I arrived in France and started creating conferences in business as well as in a voluntary context, for example, local TEDx events. Although I loved it, I felt that something was missing. At some point, in the busy day-to-day tasks organizing such gatherings, I lost the purpose of putting it together in the first place. The clear vision of why I am bringing people together moved to the background. It became a job like any other; you get paid to deliver what you are asked to do. Finally, I lost the meaning of it all. So I took a break from organizing the TEDx conferences, I quit my job as a producer of Spark the Change conference, and I started questioning my personal and professional decisions.
I was fortunate enough to come across a powerful TED Talk by Priya Parker about the “Art of gathering.” I swallowed the video and the corresponding book, every page being some magical answer to my question. Priya created a “manifesto of gathering” by studying and analyzing all types of events. She concluded that we think we know why we are organizing an event, but in fact, we don’t. We forget why and how we hold them. Whether it is a business meeting, a baby shower, or a trial in court, Priya shows how you can make meaningless gatherings meaningful again. And I tried to apply this to my own life: To rethink the purpose of every event I am involved in, stopping some of them, starting new ones, and, most importantly, thinking of a specific goal for a particular community in each one of them.
Asking people to join an event you organize holds a lot of responsibility. You ask people to give you their most precious resources: Time. I think it is essential to give them something back for their time and money. In Sophia Bush’s podcast ”In progress,” she started the episode starring Priya Parker by saying: “We go to events because we are craving in-person experiences, learning, and thought-provoking chatter.” These words resonated with me so badly that it made me understand why audiences are demanding more and more from a specific event in thousands each day. Their expectations are increasing, and it should make us feel more responsible when it comes to putting together a gathering.
It is easier said (written) than done, but every single gathering should be designed by and for the people we want to have in the room.
We should define the real purpose of the event and communicate it clearly to the audience, just like Priya Parker explains it. We should find our specific, unique, and disputable purpose. And only then can we strive to create meaningful and life-changing moments.
Reflecting on my childhood and the gatherings I attended then, I understand why in cultures similar to mine, people rush to weddings, funerals, and graduations in such huge numbers. It is not only to celebrate love or share the pain because that is only the consequence of having the people together. The main reason for those gatherings is to lend a helping hand because we know that sometime in the future we will need one. And the fact that this purpose was as transparent as possible transformed those gatherings into a lifetime memory.
My passion has always been to bring people together. Whether it is for a drink with my friends, a public speaking training or a TEDx Conference, I have always enjoyed putting together a gathering. However, sometimes my passion and love for organizing events made me oversee the most important parts; the purpose and its specific audience.
And that became my commitment. I devoted the last weeks to rethink why I am bringing people together. I realize more than ever that what I need to do is to bring together specific people around a specific reason for a very specific outcome. When going to events, everyone should enjoy a unique in-person experience, learn, and have thought-provoking chatter.
My ultimate goal changed from: I want to organize a gathering to "This gathering was different from all the others".
So what now?
It's time to ask you for help to make my gatherings better.