Saturday, September 8, 2018

Off the Shelf:
The Art of Gathering

No sooner have I returned home on the high of a scintillating conference experience than I am contemplating launching myself into another such event. Conferences always introduce a high note into the lonely researcher's lifewell, at least for people who thrive on connecting with like-minded othersbut they come with a down side, as well.

I always like learning about trends, new techniques, promising possibilitiesand all that can come at you from a well-planned conference. The flip side is the wearisome travel to and from, the discomfort of hotel rooms and the constant diet of restaurant food.

Worseand this is from a veteran of conference-going in several different disciplinesis the creeping sense that the next conference is just a rehash of the same old material despite the new faces in a new venue.

I sometimes wonder if conferences are best suited for the beginner's niche: a wonderful smorgasbord for the hungry learner. I've thought about this long and hard for the past twenty yearswell, for as long as I've been a repeat-attendee at any given subject's annual gatherings.

The conclusion I've come toother than the suspicion that conferences are best suited to those who've never attended previouslyis that such a conclusion might not be the result of subject fatigue, but rather owing to methodology fatigue. So many events repeat the same format: an audience of eager recipients, all seated facing in one direction, listening in silence to the one expert on the stage ahead. There is no other learning modality.

I've yearned for another way to achieve fuller mastery in the areas I'm studying.

As much as I have, over the years, bashed the book, Bowling Alone, for its doom-saying diagnosis of the decline of "social capital" and civic involvement, I've always wanted to cheer for the other sidethe side of increased involvement, more effective coming-together for can-do collaboration. Bowling Alone was one expert's way of taunting me in that dream.

But now, I've found a new champion of my hopes: an improbable facilitator of conflict resolution turned meeting midwife, Priya Parker, author of The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters.

She's got the drill down. You know: all those meetings we hate to attend, all the wasted time getting together which detracts from work done alone. True, people should come together not only to exchange information but to inspire each other through some sort of synergistic alchemy that can't happen when we're stuffed in our solitary cubicles.

Offering ways to escape what she calls "uninspiring, underwhelming moments that fail to capture us, change us in any way, or connect us to one another," Priya Parker emphasizes drilling down to the bedrock of the reason why we wish to gather. What is the purpose we hope to achieve by meeting together?

As the author put it,
When you skip asking yourself what the purpose of your [event] is in this specific year, for where you are at this present moment in your life, for example, you forsake an opportunity for your gathering to be a source of growth, support, guidance, and inspiration tailored to the time in which you and others find yourselves. You squander a chance for your gathering to help, and not just amuse.

When I attend conferences, for instance, I often come away from the week wondering why we can't break the moldinstead of everyone facing the same direction, hearing from one expert at a time, for instance, why not also offer experiences such as round table sessions, or small collaborative meetings focused on the same challenge? I know these have been tried as experimental attempts, but why not fine-tune the results and try, try again? Why not include other learning models to allow people of all ranges of experience to provide input as well as to gain handy take-home ideas?

These thoughts on meetings don't just apply to the super-sized. Not only in conferences but in the smallest bane of business lifethe office meetingdo we need fresh inspiration. No matter how much we may believe in the power of crowdsourcing, we seem to lack the finesse to bring such magic to life between those four mundane walls back home at the office.

I see the need for ideas like those in The Art of Gathering in the very civic associations Robert Putnam once bemoaned in his seminal Bowling Alone. Particularly for myselfand you and others like us, concerned about reviving the pertinence of genealogical societiesI hope to apply some of the inspiration from Parker's book in strengthening our local genealogical organization. Groups like ours have so much potential, but we need to understand the craft of drawing out that potential and converting it into the kinetic energy needed to actually get things done.


  1. A round table discussion group would be the ticket for me...just an exchange of ideas and thoughts:)

    1. So true, Far Side. There is so much we can learn from each other. We just need the right venue to be able to share those resources.


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