The Power of Moments
13 min read ⌚
Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact
Life is, essentially, a series of moments, some of them happier and more memorable than the others.
This – the fourth and the most recent book by the Heath brothers – is all about these moments: their essence, their impact, the way one can (re)create them.
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Who Should Read “The Power of Moments”? And Why?
“I’m recommending it to everyone I know!” wrote Angela Duckworth, the author of Grit after describing The Power of Moments as both “beautifully written” and “brilliantly researched.”
We are doing the same as well: whether you’re a business owner or an average Joe trying to improve the peaks in your own experience, whether you want to do it for monetary reasons or because you know that life is all about the moments that make it—The Power of Moments is the book you should read.
“This terrific book is bursting with practical insights and memorable stories on every page,” writes Eric Ries, bestselling author of The Lean Startup. “
It’s as relevant to product designers and meeting planners as it is to teachers and parents.
I’ve already put many of its novel suggestions to work. Don’t miss it.”
Really, you shouldn’t.
About Chip Heath & Dan Heath
Chip Heath is a professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business, and Dan Heath is a Senior Fellow at Duke University’s CASE center.
The Heath brothers have, together, co-authored four books. Their first book, Made to Stick, spent two years on the BusinessWeek bestseller list and was named “Best Business Book of the Year” by the magazine; it is also an Amazon Top 10 Business Book for both editors and readers.
In 2010, the Heath brothers published their second book, Switch, and three years later they followed its success with Decisive. The Power of Moments is their fourth collaborative effort. All four of the Heath brothers’ books are New York Times bestsellers.
Find out more at https://heathbrothers.com.
Why do we remember certain experiences and forget others? Moreover, why do some of the experiences we remember are so meaningful to us?
How is it possible that a single, somewhat unimportant event—such as noticing someone you love in a crowd two hours after getting the boot at work—can turn an unbearable day into one of the most outstanding days of our life?
Can moments most people regard as meaningless or simply ordinary, possess so much influence over how our days can be shaped and twisted?!
Is there really such a thing as unimportant event?
These are all questions the Heath brothers try to answer in their newest book, The Power of Moments. Contrary to popular belief, they don’t think that most of the defining moments of our lives just happen to us as in the example above.
True, many of them are “product of fate or luck or maybe a higher power’s interventions,” but the majority are controllable and “no less special for having been planned.”
“Defining moments shape our lives,” the Heath brothers write, “but we don’t have to wait for them to happen. We can be the authors of them.
What if a teacher could design a lesson that students were still reflecting on years later?
What if a manager knew exactly how to turn an employee’s moment of failure into a moment of growth?
What if you had a better sense of how to create lasting memories for your kids?”
What if you could better communicate to your spouse, husband, partner or whoever that you love them?
Is the power of ordinary moments really so impactful, and can we be the authors rather than spectators when it comes to them?
The Power of Moments tries to make this possible. Its objectives are twofold:
• It examines defining moments and “identifies the traits they have in common,” trying to answer the question “what, specifically, makes a particular experience memorable and meaningful?”; and
• It shows how you can create defining moments by making use of these traits so that you can make memories, enrich your life, connect with others or improve the experience of customers, employees or even patients.
So much for the intro. Now, onto our summary!
The Peak-End Rule of Defining Moments
Let’s start our discussion of memorable and defining moments in a rather unconventional manner: with a psychological experiment that asked participants to undergo three painful trials.
In the first, the somewhat sadistic researchers submerged their participants’ hands for 1 minute in buckets filled with frigid, 57-degree (13 Celsius) water.
The second trial was similar—but with a catch: after having their hands submerged for 60 seconds in the 57-degree water, the participants had to keep them for 30 seconds more; the only difference was that during these thirty seconds the water warmed up to 59 degrees (15 Celsius).
Now, for their third painful experience, the participants were given a choice: Would you rather repeat the first trial or the second?
To the reader of this summary, this might seem like an easy question. After all, both trials featured 1 minute of identical pain, and the second trial added another half a minute of slightly reduced pain.
So, write the Heaths, “this is kind of like asking: would you rather be slapped in the face for 60 seconds or 90?”
Even so, two-thirds of the participants chose the longer trial.
Well, for one, because when we assess an experience, we tend to forget its length, something psychologists refer to as “the duration neglect.”
Bear in mind that though the researchers in our experiment above measured the time carefully, the participants were never told how much time had elapsed at no point during the experiment.
The second reason, however, is much more interesting: almost without an expectation, we rate our experiences based on two key moments: 1) the best or worst moment, known as the “peak”; and 2) the ending.
Psychologists call this the “peak-end rule,” and it is the reason why you think that The Usual Suspects is a great movie and Roger Ebert doesn’t share this opinion with you.
The twist at the end of a movie, if well-written and structurally sound, makes you forget about all the plot holes or anything else you might have hated about the movie.
Instead, it makes you think about the peak-moment and packs it up the whole experience in a defining moment.
Let’s be honest for a second here: not much of the plot of The Usual Suspects you can actually recreate. And still, you rate that movie pretty highly.
The reason for that is this peak-end rule of how we remember things: instead of playing out like an opera filled with constantly changing minute-by-minute sensations, our experiences are usually assessed in our brains via their flagship moments: the peaks, the pits, and the transitions.
And we can use that to our benefit.
Thinking in Moments
You see, as the Heath brothers write, “every culture has its prescribed set of big moments: birthdays and weddings and graduations, of course, but also holiday celebrations and funeral rites and political traditions.”
Though they might seem “natural” to you, most of them are actually invented, “dreamed up by anonymous authors who wanted to give shape to time.”
This is what the Heaths mean by “thinking in moments,” process they define poetically as “recognizing where the prose of life needs punctuation.”
In their opinion—and according to their research—there are three situations that deserve such punctuation: transitions, milestones, and pits.
• Transitions. Transitions seem so natural that they are almost always marked with some sort of “coming of age” rituals (both across cultures and across time). These “coming of age” rituals—be they bar mitzvahs or weddings—are sort of boundary markers, in that they try to pin down the gradual evolution of a human being into a few defining and memorable moments. Promotions, the first day of school and the end of projects are all transitional moments that should be marked: create defining moments for your kids, your loved ones and your employees by shaping a “coming of age” ritual around them.
• Milestones. Birthdays are the most obvious milestones, and the most obvious milestone-birthdays (believe it or not, this holds true for many cultures) are the 18th, the 21st, the 30th, 40th, 50th, 60th and the 100th. Retirement and unheralded achievements (such as, say, a salesman’s 10 millionth dollar of revenue or the tenth promotion of the direct reports of a talented manager) are also milestones that should be marked.
• Pits. Pits are the opposite of peaks, i.e., negative defining moments, moments of hardship or pain or anxiety. It’s difficult to deal with negative feedback and almost impossible to overcome the loss of a loved one. Shouldn’t organizations be ready with a plan for these moments?
“Transitions should be marked, milestones commemorated, and pits filled,” write the Heaths. “That’s the essence of thinking in moments.”
However, to actually make these moments defining—i.e., memorable and meaningful—you need to know what memorable and meaningful moments are made of.
Apparently, we’re talking about no more than four elements: the more of them you include in a certain experience, the more guaranteed you are to turn it into a defining moment.
Without further ado, here are the four elements.
Trait #1: Elevation
“Defining moments rise above the everyday,” write the Heaths. “They provoke not just transient happiness, like laughing at a friend’s joke, but memorable delight.”
To construct elevated moments, we must do three things: boost sensory pleasures, raise the stakes, and break the script.
Boosting sensory appeal is all about “turning up the volume on reality.
Things look better or taste better or sound better or feel better than they usually do.”
This is why weddings have flowers and food and music and dancing, and why students remember extracurricular activities much more than they do lessons—even though they spend disproportionately more time in the classroom.
To raise the stakes means “to add an element of productive pressure: a competition, a game, a performance, a deadline, a public commitment.”
Finally, to break the script means to add an element of surprise: it’s not only that surprises warp our perceptions of time (the less expected the information to your brain the longer the experiences last—quite literally), but they also keep the elevation afloat.
Think about it this way: if you, as a CEO, decided to give away presents to your employees every Friday, you would have added only a few defining moments to their lives because, after the second or third repetition, they’ll start expecting it (it will become a part of the script).
It will no longer be memorable—on the contrary, it will be a disappointing experience if it stops.
“Moments of elevation transcend the normal course of events; they are literally extraordinary,” conclude the Heaths.
That’s why you have a bunch of them in your treasure chest in the form of love letters, ticket stubs, a well-worn T-shirt, or haphazardly colored cards from your kids that make you smile with delight.
Trait #2: Insight
“Defining moments rewire our understanding of ourselves or the world,” write the Heaths. “In a few seconds or minutes, we realize something that might influence our lives for decades.”
For example, you will never forget the day you first thought things such as “this is the person I’m going to marry” or “now is the time to start a business.”
Modern writers (such as Proust or Joyce) deem these events “epiphanies,” and though it is very difficult to schedule them, it is not impossible.
Two things help: making yourself (or others) trip over the truth or stretch for insight.
Tripping over the truth is a three-part recipe which turns explanations into experiences, and experiences into epiphanies.
It starts with “a clear insight” that is then “compressed in time” so that it can finally be “discovered by the audience itself.”
For example, in one “unforgettably disgusting story,” the Heaths explain how members of the WaterAid convinced some Bangladeshi villagers to use their new toilets (actually, latrines) instead of using the village’s outdoor spaces for defecation.
They made the problem clear and compressed it in time by producing a map of the village and making every villager sprinkle a little yellow chalk on every place where someone had defecated during the last year.
The “trip-over-the-truth” moment came when the CLTS (Community-Led Total Sanitation) facilitator asked the members of his audience to drink a glass of water, after swirling in it a hair from his head previously dipped in excrement.
Everyone refused, of course, but after being pointed out that flies pick up more excrement than a human hair, the community suddenly realized that for years, they have been eating each other’s excrement.
And that was the epiphany, the “ignition moment” for change.
There’s another way to induce epiphanies: it’s called stretching for insight. In essence, this encompasses placing yourself in new situations that expose you to the risk of failure.
It doesn’t matter whether you’ll succeed or not—the insight is guaranteed either way.
“The promise of stretching is not success,” write the Heaths, “it’s learning.”
By the way, you have numerous insight-moments in your treasure chest: quotes or articles that moved you, books that changed your view of the world, diaries that captured your thoughts, etc. etc.
Trait #3: Pride
Defining moments capture us at our best—moments of achievement, moments of courage, moments of pride.
There are three practical principles to create more moments such as this: 1) Recognize others; 2) Multiply meaningful milestones; 3) Practice courage.
As the Heaths say, “the first principle creates defining moments for others; the latter two allow us to create defining moments for ourselves.”
Recognizing others is self-explanatory, and yet, we dramatically underinvest in recognition. For example, even though 4 out of 5 supervisors say they frequently express appreciation for their workers, just 1 of 5 employees agrees.
It’s important to note that effective recognition is personal, not programmatic: “Employee of the Month” awards, for example, are part of the script that needs to be broken.
“Tailored rewards” make all the difference—as anyone who has ever gotten the birthday gift they wanted knows full well.
“Recognition is characterized by a disjunction,” say the Heaths.
“A small investment of effort yields a huge reward for the recipient.”
For example, the life of a middle-school student can be irretrievably changed by a caring music teacher who doesn’t shy away from telling her that her voice is beautiful.
(True story, by the way, one of the many that appear on the pages of The Power of Moments).
Turning to yourself, multiplying milestones is one of the best strategies to create more defining moments of pride in your life.
Reframing the marathon that is your life in a lane featuring many “finish lines” is what makes life worthwhile.
Imagine if your life consisted of Mondays only; now, imagine if it features three-day workweeks. Strive for the latter!
Finally, practicing courage also results in memorable and meaningful moments of pride.
Moreover, courage is contagious: your defining moment of courage can be a defining moment for someone else as well.
The fact that moments of pride are defining moments of life can be proven by the contents of your treasure chest: ribbons, report cards, notes of recognition, certificates, thank-yous, awards…
Why haven’t you thrown them out? “It just hurts, irrationally, to throw away a trophy,” write the Heaths.
Trait #4: Connection
“Defining moments are social: weddings, graduations, baptisms, vacations, work triumphs, bar and bat mitzvahs, speeches, sporting events. These moments are strengthened because we share them with others…
Moments of connection bond us with others. We feel warmth, unity, empathy, validation,” write the Heaths.
To spark moments of connection for groups, one must create shared meaning. That can be accomplished by three strategies: (1) creating a synchronized moment; (2) inviting shared struggle; and (3) connecting to meaning.
Think of church congregations or just-cause protests as two good examples.
Remember that scene from Les Miserables when Enjolras starts waving the flag?
Even we, as viewers, feel the need to join in.
“Groups bond when they struggle together,” write the Heaths.
“People will welcome a struggle when it’s their choice to participate, when they’re given autonomy to work, and when the mission is meaningful.”
Think of all the AA meetings: sharing experiences of pain and sadness is one of the best “social technologies to bind in-groups together.”
Connection is also about deepening ties. And according to a psychologist named Harry Reis, what deepens individual relationships is “responsiveness.” Responsiveness, in turn, consists of three things: mutual understanding, validation, and caring.
Check your treasure chest. All those wedding photos, vacation photos, family photos, “Christmas photos of hideous sweaters,” photos, photos, photos… are probably the first thing you’d grab if your house caught on fire, right?
Key Lessons from “The Power of Moments”
1. Defining Moments (and the Peak-End Rule)
2. The Secret of Thinking in Moments
3. The Four Elements Defining Moments Are Made Of
Defining Moments (and the Peak-End Rule)
Even though it might seem a bit counter-intuitive, most people tend to assess their experiences based on two key moments: 1) the best or the worst moment (the peak), and 2) the ending of the experience.
That’s why, even if a film is great for two hours, you’ll give it a 3-star rating if it doesn’t nail its ending.
In other words, as memorable and meaningful as they are (by definition), the defining moments of your life can be hacked: you just need to focus on their peak and their ending.
The Secret of Thinking in Moments
There are numerous defining moments in an average human’s life, but according to the Heath brothers, they can all be categorized into three classes:
• Transitions: coming-of-age moments, such as the first day of school or a promotion
• Milestones: birthdays or retirements
• Pits: negative defining moments, such as the loss of a loved one
If you want to make one’s experience better, focus on these three types of moments—“transitions should be marked, milestones commemorated, and pits filled”—and you will.
The Four Elements Defining Moments Are Made Of
All defining moments consist of one or more of these four elements:
• Elevation: they rise above the everyday
• Insight: they rewrite our understanding of the world
• Pride: they capture us at our best
• Connection: they are social
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“The Power of Moments Quotes”You can be the architect of moments that matter. Click To Tweet What would you do if you knew you would not live until 40? Click To Tweet Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear—not absence of fear. Click To Tweet If you want to be part of a group that bonds like cement, take on a really demanding task that’s deeply meaningful. All of you will remember it for the rest of your lives. Click To Tweet In life, we can work so hard to get the kinks out that we forget to put the peaks in. Click To Tweet
Our Critical Review
“The most interesting, immediately actionable book I’ve read in quite a while,” wrote Adam Grant in a review of The Power of Moments.
“I walked away with new ideas for motivating employees, delighting customers, engaging students, and even planning family vacations.
If life is a series of moments, the Heath brothers have transformed how I plan to spend mine.”Undoubtedly, they can do the same for you as well.
“Flat out amazing” (according to Jake Knapp), The Power of Moments “offers something for everyone—medical practitioners rethinking the patient experience, corporate leaders re-imagining staff engagement, small businesses looking to differentiate themselves, teachers crafting more memorable lessons…
All those desperate for blueprints for creating the extraordinary should read this book.” (Stanford Social Innovation Review)
Learn more and more, in the speed that the world demands.