It Always Starts With Why

“Did you find the event inspiring?”

Last year, I left a non-profit event with a friend who asked me this question. As a founder of a non-profit that regularly hosts educational and fundraising events, she was thinking about the experience as an attendee.

I didn’t have an immediate answer to her question. I had always found the organization’s work and people inspiring. But she was asking about the event. She and I were looking at the same experience through a different lens.

That made me really curious. I wanted her to tell me more. She couldn’t really explain what was off, only that something was.

I kept thinking about it. I thought about the collection of people in the room. About the speakers and their connection to the organization’s work. About the food, music, entertainment, and fundraising.

But then it hit me. I didn’t know the why.

Why did they host a gathering? What was its purpose? Why did they invite me?

It was the missing piece. It always starts with why.

Years ago, I became a disciple of Simon Sinek and the thesis of his book Start With Why. Simon’s premise is that most people and companies focus on what they do. Yet humans buy into why they do it.

My friends with Samsung phones don’t cite price and technical features when I ask them about their device. They tell me how they don’t want to be beholden to Apple technology. They pride themselves on independence; I see it in all parts of their life.

Start With Why is core to my individual coaching and advisory work with investment organizations and non-profits.

A team might focus on investing in Africa (what), but their true mission is changing how the world views and invests in the region (why). Another might focus on the noble cause of furthering girls education and leadership (what) because they’re convinced it’s the key to the social and economic issues that impact us all (why).

To grow their business and increase fundraising, their challenge is to broaden the tribe of people aligned with their why. Humans connect to humans. We want to know each others’ stories; why people do what they do.

Yet we intrinsically fall back to the what— statistical results, technical features, descriptions of processes–likely housed in a fancy Powerpoint presentation.

We do the same as individuals. LinkedIn profiles and resumes list titles and accomplishments; we define ourselves by where we live, what we do, our family roles. It’s the rare individual that boldly introduces himself with a personal belief or purpose. But when we meet such a person, they are unforgettable.

When I read Priya Parker‘s book The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters, I realized a defined why isn’t just a challenge for individuals and organizations. It impacts how we spend our most precious resource–our time.

Each of us host and attend gatherings–a client conference or a fundraiser; a quarterly board meeting or an annual work offsite. You might have an upcoming book club or birthday party; a one-time event like a wedding, or family Thanksgiving.

Priya argues that our gatherings rely too much on routine and conventions. We focus on logistics–the food, venue and entertainment–rather than why this collection of people is gathering, at this point in time.

By defining a distinctive, purposeful why for any gathering and thinking through the expectations and experiences of the attendees, we can use our time in more productive and meaningful ways.

Priya got me thinking about the gatherings I’ve hosted and attended–whether lackluster or life-changing.

I challenge you to do the same. Here are four thought-provoking ideas, and a personal story each evoked.

1. Decide on why you are really gathering. Commit to a bold, sharp purpose. Don’t confuse category with purpose.

Amanda was turning 30 and moving to Nairobi, Kenya. She wanted to host a farewell gathering (category) with a select group of friends. I volunteered my home as venue. She chose foods from her favorite San Francisco haunts, and wines which donate 100% of profits to environmental and social justice non-profits.

Pre-event, Amanda shared with guests that the evening’s theme would be life transitions; to best celebrate her transition, she wanted to celebrate everyone’s (purpose).

Fifteen of us gathered in the backyard at twilight before moving into my cozy living room. Amanda chose a friend to moderate, and we spent almost two hours sharing our most poignant life transitions. We laughed, we cried, we learned. Then we wrote our main themes on Post-It notes and made a collage, a visual of the cohesive group and advice she had assembled.

Amanda’s email thank you the next morning connected each of the attendees, and provided links to her favorite non-profits, the winery, and this book. Though she left the U.S., our group’s connection lives on.

2. Close doors. Practice generous exclusion. Exclusion is the most generous gift you can give to your guests.

Bob and I had a very clear vision for our wedding day. I wanted to celebrate him; he wanted to celebrate me. We wanted to celebrate our partnership and values. The location would be the most multi-cultural place we could find. We wanted simple–barefoot on a beach, a dress ordered online. We would begin the day playing outside, and end it enjoying the ocean, setting sun, lobster and wine.

We decided on the beautiful island of Mauritius. When family members asked if they could join, we said no. My mom was not happy.

We were both guests and hosts. To be generous to each other, we needed to exclude. That said, we went out of our way to include our parents in very creative ways. And three months later, we hosted an intimate celebration with our most influential family and friends.

Exclusion made our gathering. We can’t imagine it any other way.

3. Martha Stewart always claims that if you get the things right, magic happens. Event details are important. But magic happens when you spend disproportionate time on thinking about people versus things.

Last weekend, my husband and I attended an event hosted by Don, who leads two investment businesses. The invite didn’t specify what we were celebrating or who would be invited. But we know Don. One of his gifts is fostering connections across quality people. It was key to our deciding to attend.

The event space was fun and hip– an unexpected treat when you drive into a suburban office park. The food stations were tasty and interesting; the beverages were generous. A band and dance floor were set up.

When people settled, Don shared why he gathered us. He’s excited by the vibrant entrepreneurs in his world, and wanted to connect the people behind the businesses. In his opening remarks, Don admitted that many invitees had questions upon receiving his invite. What is this celebration for? Who is invited?

Given that connecting people was his event purpose, he created a single slide for his opening remarks–a Venn diagram showing how we were all connected. He asked us to introduce ourselves to others, asking where they fit. I did exactly that.

He then introduced a musician-turned-entrepreneur, Jack Conte. Jack shared his story of creating artist crowdfunding platform Patreon–and we all learned a thing or two about the music business. He then joined his wife Nataly and their band Pomplamoose. They played innovative renditions of our favorite songs, and Don’s network danced away.

Don’s gathering created some definite magic. And I’ve referred several people to Patreon.

4. Honor and awe your guests. They will feel lucky to be there. Your next task is then to fuse your motley collection of attendees into a group. A good host doesn’t just hope this happens, she makes it happen.

Charlotte gathered about 20 of us on a Saturday night to welcome two out-of-town friends. The text invite signaled the gathering’s casual vibe; Charlotte’s personal greeting of each guest as they entered her apartment signaled its warmth.

Mid-party, Charlotte quieted our chatter. She warmly toasted her out-of-town guests. As she signaled for two friends to exit a bedroom carrying full trays of champagne, she made a surprise toast to another couple celebrating their 17 year wedding anniversary. Finally, to appreciate a friend’s secret gift for songwriting, she asked her to bring her guitar and perform two songs. There were tears shed; there were more stories told. And the party entered a whole second phase.

Charlotte’s also an incredible chef. But as good as the food was, it wasn’t what made the gathering special. Charlotte makes her guests feel honored, connected, and simply lucky to be there.

And isn’t that why we gather?


In addition to The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters (2018), enjoy Priya Parker’s April 2019 TED Talk “3  Steps to Turn Everyday Get-Togethers into Transformative Gatherings”


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Jodi Morris Written by:

Venture Guide to High-Achieving Seekers. Success Coach. Venture Travel Curator. Impact Investor. Traveler. Writer. Global Connector. When we connect to others' stories it changes our own. Let's Venture!