Κύρια The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact

The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact

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The New York Times bestselling authors of Switch and Made to Stick explore why certain brief experiences can jolt us and elevate us and change us—and how we can learn to create such extraordinary moments in our life and work.

While human lives are endlessly variable, our most memorable positive moments are dominated by four elements: elevation, insight, pride, and connection. If we embrace these elements, we can conjure more moments that matter. What if a teacher could design a lesson that he knew his students would remember twenty years later? What if a manager knew how to create an experience that would delight customers? What if you had a better sense of how to create memories that matter for your children?

This book delves into some fascinating mysteries of experience: Why we tend to remember the best or worst moment of an experience, as well as the last moment, and forget the rest. Why “we feel most comfortable when things are certain, but we feel most alive when they’re not.” And why our most cherished memories are clustered into a brief period during our youth.

Readers discover how brief experiences can change lives, such as the experiment in which two strangers meet in a room, and forty-five minutes later, they leave as best friends. (What happens in that time?) Or the tale of the world’s youngest female billionaire, who credits her resilience to something her father asked the family at the dinner table. (What was that simple question?)

Many of the defining moments in our lives are the result of accident or luck—but why would we leave our most meaningful, memorable moments to chance when we can create them? The Power of Moments shows us how to be the author of richer experiences.
Χρόνος: 2017
Εκδότης: Simon & Schuster
Γλώσσα: english
Σελίδες: 320
ISBN 10: 1501147765
ISBN 13: 9781501147760
File: EPUB, 5.18 MB
Κατεβάστε (epub, 5.18 MB)

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4

Break the Script

1.

Chris Hurn’s son would not go to sleep. It was the boy’s first night home from a vacation in Amelia Island, Florida, and he had accidentally left behind Joshie, his beloved stuffed giraffe. There was no sleeping without Joshie. Yet Joshie was in Florida. So Hurn was left with a predicament.

In the long tradition of parents desperate to get their kids to sleep, Hurn assessed his options and concluded that he’d better start lying. “Joshie is fine,” he told his son. “He’s just taking an extra-long vacation at the resort.” His son seemed to buy it, eventually drifting off to sleep.

Later that night, to Hurn’s great relief, a Ritz-Carlton staffer called to report that Joshie had been found. Hurn asked the staffer a favor. He explained what he’d told his son and asked if someone at the Ritz could take a picture of Joshie on a lounge chair by the pool, to show he’d been vacationing.

A few days later, Joshie arrived—along with a binder full of pictures. One showed Joshie lounging by the pool, another showed Joshie driving a golf cart. Others captured him hanging with the hotel parrot, getting a massage in the spa (with cucumber slices covering his eyes), and even monitoring the security cameras in the control room.

Hurn and his wife were delighted, and their son was ecstatic. Hurn wrote a blog post about the experience, which went viral.

Why did everyone love the story of Joshie? Because it shattered our expectations. What do we expect to happen when a boy loses a stuffed animal on vacation? For it to be returned, maybe. If he’s lucky. (And if so, it would probably be crumpled inside a box to reduce postage.)

Instead, someone at the Ritz spent a few hours zipping around the resort with a stuffed giraffe, snapping absurd pics—“somebody get some cucumber slices for his eyes!”—so they could please some guests who had already checked out and gone home. It was a strange and magical thing to do.

The staff at the Ritz broke the script. The term script, used this way, dates back to some research from the 1970s; it refers to our expectations of a stereotypical experience. As an example, the “restaurant script” runs something like this: We walk in the door. Someone greets us, shows us to a table, and hands us menus. Then someone else brings over glasses of water. Our waiter stops by to take drink orders. And so on. That’s the way restaurants work.

The psychologists Roger Schank and Robert Abelson used the concept of a script to explain how our brains store and access knowledge. For instance, consider this simple scenario:

JOHN ORDERED A HAMBURGER.

IT CAME OUT COLD.

HE LEFT A SMALL TIP.

The scenario is easy to visualize, which is odd, because it never mentions a waiter or a plate or a table or even a restaurant. Our underlying restaurant script supplies all the missing details. Now consider a different scenario:

HARRIET WENT TO JACK’S BIRTHDAY PARTY.

THE CAKE TASTED AWFUL.

HARRIET LEFT JACK’S MOTHER A VERY SMALL TIP.

Wait, what? We have a clear “birthday party script”: parents giving gifts, friends eating cake, kids learning to bludgeon animals until candy comes out. But we never tip Jack’s mother—ever. The story breaks a script.

In the last chapter, we saw that creating moments of elevation involves boosting sensory pleasures and raising the stakes. Breaking the script—defying people’s expectations of how an experience will unfold—is the third method.

Isn’t “breaking the script” just surprise by a different name? Yes, surprise is what makes the moment memorable. But the takeaway isn’t quite as simple as “Surprise people!” Surprise is cheap and easy. If your local power company promoted “Blackout Tuesdays!” that would be surprising (especially if that event was meant to store up energy for “Bug Zapper Saturdays!”). But that surprise accomplishes nothing.

Breaking the script isn’t just surprise, it’s strategic surprise. The Ritz-Carlton created the Joshie photo album because it wants to be known for its extraordinary service. It wasn’t simply a random act of kindness.

The other difference between “breaking the script” and generic surprise is that the former forces us to think about the script. Our lives are filled with scripts: The script for how your family spends Sundays. The script for your team’s staff meetings. The script for a hotel check-in. To break the script, we’ve first got to understand the script.

The script of eating at McDonald’s is so familiar that it’s a source of comfort. It’s nice to know that, anywhere in the world, you’ll understand exactly what to expect. But here’s the problem: Familiarity and memorability are often at odds. Who cherishes the memory of the last time they ate at McDonald’s? If you’re looking to create memorable moments for your customers, you’ve got to break the script.

A study of hotel reviews on TripAdvisor found that, when guests reported experiencing a “delightful surprise,” an astonishing 94% of them expressed an unconditional willingness to recommend the hotel, compared with only 60% of guests who were “very satisfied.” And “very satisfied” is a high bar! Surprise matters. (Think of the Popsicle Hotline.) But how can you possibly replicate “delightful surprises”?

In some ways, the Magic Castle Hotel has it easy, because its guests might only stay there once or twice in a lifetime. The Popsicle Hotline never gets old. What if your customers come weekly or even daily? That’s trickier.

Imagine, for instance, that a coffee shop owner decided to give away free biscotti every Friday. On the first Friday of the giveaway, it would be a delightful surprise. But by the fourth Friday, the free biscotti would be an expectation. If the offer were ever discontinued, it’s easy to imagine customers (ungrateful wretches!) actually complaining about it.

So how do you break the script consistently enough that it matters—but not so consistently that customers adapt to it? One solution is to introduce a bit of randomness. At the café chain Pret A Manger, for example, regular customers noticed that, every now and then, they’d be given something for free with their order. One service expert wrote, of getting free coffee, “It has happened a few times over the last few years, too often for it to be a coincidence, yet so infrequent that it is unexpected. This makes me feel valued as a customer, puts a smile on my face and encourages me to visit again.”

These “spontaneous” gifts are only half-spontaneous, as it turns out. Pret A Manger employees are allowed to give away a certain number of hot drinks and food items every week. Pret CEO Clive Schlee said of his staffers, “They will decide ‘I like the person on the bicycle’ or ‘I like the guy in the tie’ or ‘I fancy that girl or that boy.’ It means 28% of people have had something free.”

Think on that. Almost a third of customers have gotten something free at least once. (Probably more than once, if they have dimples.)

Other retail chains provide discounts or freebies to customers who use loyalty cards, of course, but Schlee told the Standard newspaper he rejected that approach: “We looked at loyalty cards but we didn’t want to spend all that money building up some complicated Clubcard-style analysis.”

This is ingenious. Pret A Manger has restored the surprise and humanity to perks that, in a loyalty card scheme, would have been systematized. Note that the giveaways are satisfying for the staff as well as the customers. In an industry where rules tend to govern every employee behavior, it’s a relief for employees to be given some discretion: Hey, every week, give away some stuff to whomever you like. It broke the script for them, too. In the service business, a good surprise is one that delights employees as well as customers.

Another example of good surprise comes from Southwest Airlines, which has thrived by offering passengers the combination of low fares and friendly service. Southwest’s flight attendants try to have fun with even the boring parts of the job, like making the flight safety announcements. Many of their cheeky safety announcements have gone viral over the years; in fact, there’s a “wall of fame” at Southwest headquarters that commemorates some of the best jokes:

• Ladies and gentlemen, if you wish to smoke, the smoking section on this airplane is on the wing and if you can light ’em, you can smoke ’em.

• To activate the flow of oxygen, pull down on the mask, place it over your nose and mouth, then insert one quarter for the first five minutes of oxygen and an additional dime every five minutes after. Exact change only, please!

• If you should get to use the life vest in a real-life situation, the vest is yours to keep.

• Put the oxygen mask on yourself first, then on your child. If you’re traveling with more than one child, start with the one who has more potential or who is less likely to put you in the home.

These wisecracks create peaks—they break the script of the usual monotonous announcements. But what are they worth? Do they have any economic value? In a workshop with the Southwest analytics team—the people who analyze customer data looking for helpful insights—Chip asked them, “How many extra flights does a customer take when they hear a funny flight safety announcement?”

There was silence in the room. They had never asked that question before. But they also knew that they could answer it—they had the right data. Southwest, like many companies, has obsessive amounts of customer data. Unlike most companies, though, they had the data in a form that could be used to make critical decisions. The analytics team had previously figured out, for instance, that passengers are forgiving of short flight delays, but past 25 or 30 minutes, they become less likely to take future flights with Southwest. As a result, Southwest’s executives evaluated purchasing two additional Boeing 737s as reserve aircraft, providing a backup option when other planes had to be taken out of service. The investment would not eliminate delays but it would mitigate them. Total cost? Roughly $50–70 million per plane, for a total of around $120 million.

Intrigued by the safety announcement question, the insights team, including Frank Tooley, Katie Boynton, and Michael Overly, dug into the customer data. In the company’s surveys, about 1 in every 70 customers will mention, unprompted, that they heard a funny flight safety announcement. The insights team used those surveys to identify all the passengers on that same flight, since they all would have heard the same announcement.

The team was particularly interested to analyze the habits of customers who travel more than once per year on Southwest; let’s call them “loyal customers.” (Other passengers fly so infrequently, it’s hard to detect changes in their behavior.) Here’s what the analysis showed: When loyal customers were on a flight with a funny flight safety announcement, they flew one half-flight more over the next year than did similar customers who hadn’t heard one. (These are averages, of course, since it’s difficult to fly a half-flight without a parachute.)

What’s the value of those extra half-flights? The analytics group calculated that if Southwest could double the number of customers hearing a funny flight safety announcement, the result would be more than $140 million in revenue! That’s more than the cost of two 737s. But the revenue figure is an annual number—in other words, every single year that you could maintain the comedic performance, you’d earn extra revenue equal to the price tags of two jets. Just because your crew told some more jokes. That’s an astonishing return on investment, given that there is no real financial investment at all. (You don’t even need to train the attendants, really—just circulate recordings or transcripts of the funny bits.) As we saw with Pret A Manger, there’s great value in good surprise.

The serial entrepreneur Scott Beck believes that good surprise is a fundamental principle of retail businesses. Beck, who had top leadership positions in three enormous retail chains—Blockbuster Video, Boston Chicken, and Einstein Bros—said that the secret to growing a business is to “reduce negative variance and increase positive variance.” To reduce negative variance is to prevent stores from operating differently in a way that harms the customer experience. If one Einstein Bros store toasts a bagel perfectly and another burns it half the time, that’s negative variance. To manage the problem, store owners need systems that ensure the bagels are toasted right every time.

But Beck believes it’s a mistake to squeeze the “variance” out of the way customers are treated. Certainly there should be a baseline level of service: Employees should be polite and make eye contact. What customers want and need, though, will vary a great deal. Some customers want small talk, others want speed. Some are in a bubbly mood, others have dried tears under their eyes. To increase positive variance is to welcome humanity and spontaneity into the system. And that means giving employees license to break the script.

This insight applies not just to employees, but also to parents. In families, so often we are hustling to “minimize negative variance”—getting kids to school on time, managing household chaos, keeping sibling spats under control. But are we focusing as much energy on increasing positive variance from week to week?

As an example, in researching this book, we periodically tried out exercises with groups of people to see whether they were finding the book’s ideas practical. One of our most popular exercises was what we called “Saturday Surprise.” The instructions were incredibly simple: Break the script on your Saturday routines.

People seemed to have a blast doing this. Two broke roommates pooled their gas money to check out Red Rocks, a famous amphitheater in Colorado surrounded by rock outcroppings. A romantic husband prepared a Saturday evening picnic for his wife on the San Antonio Riverwalk. A woman asked her daughter to plan the day’s activities and was astonished when she (the daughter) came back with an hour-by-hour logistical plan. (The woman said, “I’m an engineer, so my heart just sang!”)

The Saturday Surprise yielded bite-sized defining moments. Just by disrupting routines, we can create more peaks.

2.

Peaks spice up our experience. They can enrich high school education (the Trial) and garnish flights (Southwest) and delight children (Joshie’s vacation). In that sense, they are evergreen—they can happen at any time and retain their power of elevation. But don’t forget that peaks can also be used to mark transitions. (Think weddings and graduations.) Executives who are leading change should be deliberate about creating peaks that demarcate the shift from the “old way” to the “new way.” The heart of change, after all, is the need to break the script.

In 2008, the CEO of VF Corporation asked Stephen Dull, the vice president of strategy, to head up an effort to make the company more innovative. Dull and a colleague he had recently hired, Soon Yu, led the innovation project, and the two of them prepared an insightful, data-rich presentation describing their plan. The duo, both former consultants, kept adding clever refinements to the plan, until their final PowerPoint presentation weighed in at 120 slides.

Then, two months before they were due to present the plan company-wide, Dull lost faith in the approach and scrapped it. He realized that if they were going to succeed, they had to break the script.

The situation at VF was complicated. You may not recognize the company’s name, but it owns a portfolio of famous fashion brands, including Wrangler and Lee Jeans, Vans, Nautica, JanSport, Timberland, and The North Face. Traditionally, the brands had been run autonomously, with the holding company VF Corporation staying in the background providing financial and logistical support. But when the economy crashed in 2008, the company hit a wall, and the top executives began to reconsider the strategy of running VF like a loose confederacy.

The brands North Face and JanSport, for instance, had a lot in common: Both were outdoors focused, and they even marketed similar products, such as backpacks. In San Leandro, California, the teams shared a facility, separated by a wall that was cubicle-height. Yet, according to Yu, “that wall was treated as the equivalent of the Korean DMZ. They would not talk to each other. They would not share information with each other, yet they were talking to the same vendors, creating pretty much the same thing. But they weren’t sharing any ideas.”

The brands were not just independent, they were insular. They’d become too dependent on the whims of their “merchants,” who are the people in fashion businesses responsible for anticipating consumer tastes. “There’s a temptation to say, ‘Well, consumers don’t know what they want three years from now,’ ” said Yu, “ ‘so I’m going to tell them what they want.’ ”

Putting so much trust in the merchants dulled the brands’ instinct to learn. They stopped getting closer to the customer, stopped obsessing about competitors, and stopped looking for new partnerships. And that, in essence, was the cultural stagnation that Dull and Yu were trying to reverse. They wanted the brands to learn from each other and, more than that, to learn from the giant world outside their doors.

When Dull decided to scrap the 120 PowerPoint slides, he and Yu had to restart from scratch. What they realized was that they didn’t need their colleagues to understand something, they needed them to feel something. And it had to happen at the leadership meeting scheduled for September 2010 in Los Angeles.

“We decided we had to change absolutely everything about the meeting that was to take place,” said Dull. “What’s the standard? Well, you go to a place and you have the same universal metal chair that’s uncomfortable, around round tables, in some low-ceiling conference room. And you have speaker after mind-numbing speaker, mostly internal . . . and that’s your leadership meeting.”

Dull devised a plan to break the script at that meeting. Culture change is difficult and slow. To have any chance to succeed, the meeting needed to deliver a jolt.

When their 150 colleagues arrived in the ballroom in Los Angeles, there were no tables and chairs. Just sofas, with enough room for all of them. VF Corporation CEO Eric Wiseman stood up to kick off the meeting. “Everyone sort of prepared to nestle in for a 30-minute opening,” said Dull. But instead something else happened. Wiseman announced that the group would spend its two-day meeting “going outside for new ideas.”

Within five minutes, everyone was walking outside to board buses headed to a variety of different locations. One group participated in a beauty science workshop, where professionals did the makeup for each person in the group, helped them select an outfit, and then posed them for a photo shoot. Another group “tagged” a building (legally) with graffiti artists in inner-city L.A. Other groups took surfing lessons in Malibu, practiced improv comedy, or cooked a meal with Wolfgang Puck.

“Most organizations have people think about a PowerPoint pitch with the hope that they will feel something and then do something different,” said Yu. “Let’s face it: Most PowerPoints aren’t creating a lot of emotion. We decided to flip this on its head. Let’s have people do something active and immersive. That’s going to generate more of an emotional response so they will feel something. And then they can think about what they’ve learned.”

At the two-day leadership conference, Dull and Yu accomplished something vital: In essence, they had dramatized the company’s new strategy. Being innovative starts with getting outside the office, and it doesn’t “hurt,” it feels good! It stimulates you and stretches you and reinvigorates you.

The retreat generated enthusiasm for the new approach to innovation, and when their colleagues returned home, they started embracing the “go outside” message. At JanSport, a leading maker of backpacks, “We had always thought of ourselves as the ‘carry stuff’ brand, for people who were carrying things from Point A to Point B,” said President Steve Munn. But as they began to observe the way people were using their bags—from commuters and students to more “extreme” users such as mountain climbers and homeless people—they realized that people weren’t just carrying the bags, they were unpacking them and using them in “third spaces” like coffee shops or buses or libraries. What if the backpack of the future could serve as a kind of portable desk, with built-in outlets for your devices and a master extension cord ready to be jacked into the wall at Starbucks?

A group at Wrangler met with some structural engineers, and the conversation turned to cantilevers, or structures that are anchored on only one side. Think of a diving board or a balcony, where one side is secured so well that the other part can hang off, seemingly unsupported. Many bridges and buildings are built with similar features.

Cantilevered designs allow unwieldy structures to be supported and elevated with elegance. Aha! thought the Wrangler team, we’d like to do that with buttocks! And thus was born Wrangler Booty Up jeans. Later, another VF brand called Lucy incorporated the same insight—a great example of the “mutual learning” that Dull and Yu had desired among the company’s brands.

In the six years after the launch in Los Angeles, VF has grown its revenue from $7 billion to $13 billion, with most of that increase fueled by organic growth rather than acquisition. VF now has a pipeline of innovative products, estimated in value at $1.6 billion by Dull, that are in the process of design and testing en route to retail shelves. These products were created and nurtured by a corporate culture that has learned the value of going outside for ideas and inspiration.

And the defining moment of that cultural evolution was the leadership meeting in Los Angeles. From the sofas to the buses to the creative expeditions, the meeting was designed to deliver strategic surprise.

3.

For business leaders, breaking the script is a strategy—a way of creating moments that support the company’s brand or, as with VF, reinforce a change in strategy. But beyond the world of organizations, breaking the script has a broader significance. The principle helps to explain why we remember what we do, and it sheds light on one of the most interesting mysteries of memory, which is called the “reminiscence bump.”

In a study by Dorthe Berntsen and David Rubin, respondents were prompted to think about the life of a baby who had just been born and to predict what would be “the most important events that are likely to take place in this infant’s life.” The ten most commonly cited events were as follows (shown in order). See if you notice any patterns:

1. Having children

2. Marriage

3. Begin school

4. College

5. Fall in love

6. Others’ death

7. Retirement

8. Leave home

9. Parents’ death

10. First job

It’s striking that 6 out of the 10 most important events all happen during a relatively narrow window of time: roughly age 15 to 30. (This 6 out of 10 calculation presumes that marriage and kids happen within that window, which of course isn’t true of everyone but is true for most people.)

Similarly, if you ask older people about their most vivid memories, research shows, they tend to be drawn disproportionately from this same period, roughly ages 15 to 30. Psychologists call this phenomenon the “reminiscence bump.” Why does a 15-year period in our lives—which is not even 20% of a typical life span—dominate our memories?

“The key to the reminiscence bump is novelty,” said Claudia Hammond in her book Time Warped. “The reason we remember our youth so well is that it is a . . . time for firsts—first sexual relationships, first jobs, first travel without parents, first experience of living away from home, the first time we get much real choice over the way we spend our days.”

Novelty even changes our perception of time. In an experiment conducted by Vani Pariyadath and David Eagleman of Baylor College of Medicine, participants were shown a series of images. Most of them were identical, but every now and then, a new image would appear: brown shoe, brown shoe, brown shoe, brown shoe, alarm clock, brown shoe, brown shoe, and so on. Even though all the images were displayed for the same amount of time, it didn’t feel that way to the participants. They were convinced that the alarm clock—the pattern-breaking image—was displayed longer. This misperception has become known as the “oddball effect.”

Eagleman, a neuroscientist, argued that what causes the oddball effect is, in effect, your brain’s boredom with the brown-shoe picture. The first time you see it, you examine the picture carefully. Your memory is “taking notes” rapidly. But with each repetition of the image, you devote less and less energy to inspecting it. By the seventh time, a quick glance tells you that, well, it’s just that same shoe again. Then, when you see the anomalous alarm clock, you start logging notes again. The resulting gap in the “density” of your memory—copious notes for the alarm clock, sparse notes for the repetitive shoe—leads to the misperception that the alarm clock picture was displayed longer.

In other words, surprise stretches time. In supporting this insight, Eagleman has embraced some rather extreme research methods. He is famous for an experiment in which he asks volunteers to leap off a 150-foot platform and free-fall into a net. Afterward, they are asked to estimate how long the fall took, and their estimates are, on average, too high by 36%. Their fear and focus make time seem to expand. (So here’s one tip to live a “longer” life: Scare the hell out of yourself, regularly.)

This is the intuitive explanation for the common perception that time seems to accelerate as we get older. Our lives become more routine and less novel. We’re seeing more and more brown shoes and fewer alarm clocks.

Now, that’s a somewhat depressing realization. Have we really left our most memorable days behind us?

Yes, probably. And that’s also probably a good thing. Because it would be very easy to create a second reminiscence bump late in life. Just divorce your spouse, quit your job, move to New Zealand, and become a shepherd. Plenty of novelty there, and you’re certain to write a rush of memories. But let’s not confuse memorability with wisdom.

For those anxious about facing a future that’s less memorable than the past, our advice is to honor the old saw, “Variety is the spice of life.” But notice that it does not say, “Variety is the entrée of life.” Nobody dines on pepper and oregano. A little novelty can go a long way. Learn to recognize your own scripts. Play with them, poke at them, disrupt them. Not all the time—just enough to keep those brown shoes looking fresh.

By breaking the script, we can lay down a richer set of memories. As the authors of the book Surprise put it, “We feel most comfortable when things are certain, but we feel most alive when they’re not.”



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ALSO BY CHIP AND DAN HEATH

Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die

Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard

Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work



Moments of ELEVATION

Moments of INSIGHT

Moments of PRIDE

Moments of CONNECTION




8

Multiply Milestones

1.

In 1996, when Josh Clark was 25, he had a bad breakup with his girlfriend, and it left him in a slump. So he started jogging. Clark hated jogging; he’d always hated jogging. But he thought this time might be different.

It wasn’t. It was just as boring and painful as it had always been. But this time he stuck with it, and eventually he had “come out the other side,” he said. The runs had started to feel different: meditative and relaxing. He could barely believe it. He never thought he was the kind of person who could enjoy running.

He felt “the zeal of the converted,” he said, and he resolved to help other people discover the pleasures of jogging. Was there a way for someone to “get to the other side” without requiring the period of suffering he had endured? He wondered, How do I give people easy victories?

Clark started scribbling out a plan to ease people into running. People needed a goal, he thought. Something to look forward to. His hunch was that running in a 5K race would make a good goal—the races are public, social, competitive, and fun. (They are peaks.) And, critically, the 5K represented an attainable challenge, since most people in decent health could already walk a 5K.

So he called his plan “Couch to 5K.” In 9 weeks, with 3 workouts per week, the plan would transform a couch-sitter into a 5K finisher. The first workout was simple: Alternating a 60-second jog with a 90-second walk for a total of 20 minutes. The workouts escalated steadily from there.

Clark needed a beta tester for his plan, so he called his mom. She was not receptive. “He was trying to convince me that I should get into this [running thing], too. Yeah, right,” she said. But her maternal instincts kicked in, and she gave it a shot. It worked. She found it “kind of surprising that I could do it without a tremendous amount of effort or commitment.”

Encouraged, Clark posted his plan to a website that he’d built for runners. It was 1997—the early days of the Web. “What surprised me was that people started picking it up and talking about it: ‘I’m on week 3 day 2 and here’s how it’s going,’ ” Clark said.

Over the years, as interest in Couch to 5K grew, parts of the plan took on almost mythic qualities. For instance, in week 5 comes a moment that has spawned its own acronym: W5D3 (for week 5, day 3). This day requires the new joggers to step up their efforts considerably. While the previous workout featured two 8-minute runs, separated by a walk, W5D3 requires a continuous 20-minute jog, by far the longest stretch the participants have run to that point. It is feared and loathed by new joggers. In a blog post called “The Dreaded W5D3,” one jogger wrote, “I can think of at least 10 times where the old me would have stopped to walk. Instead I shuffled along, sometimes very slowly, until I regained my breath and was able to pick the pace back up. I did it! . . . Woooooo!”

In 2000, Clark’s website had picked up some advertisers, and he decided to sell it to a company called Cool Runnings. He went on with his life as an expert in software interface design, and meanwhile, over the years, his brainchild has grown exponentially. Millions of people have heard of it (now known as C25K), and hundreds of thousands have participated.

Clark has received countless emotional thank-yous from people saying Couch to 5K changed their lives. He had meant to introduce people to the joys of running, but in the process, he had unwittingly delivered defining moments.

Billions of dollars have been spent trying to encourage people to exercise. Most of it has been wasted. Yet here is a program that has convinced thousands of people to train for a 3.1-mile jog. What gives?

The common goal to “get in shape” is ambiguous and unmotivating. Pursuing it puts you on a path with no clear destination and no intermediate moments to celebrate. Couch to 5K provides a structure that respects the power of moments. First, there’s the commitment to join the program. That’s one milestone—it’s a personal resolution made public. Surviving the formidable W5D3 moment provides a second milestone. (The quote above says it all, “I did it! . . . Woooooo!” That’s what pride sounds like.) And of course finishing the 5K is a peak, with elements of elevation and connection and pride. Three months ago, I couldn’t run 100 yards without heaving, and now I’m the kind of person who can finish a race!

The C25K program multiplies the milestones that participants meet, and in so doing, it multiplies the pride that they experience. We can apply this same strategy to many aspects of our lives and work. To experience more defining moments, we need to rethink the way we set goals.

2.

Steve Kamb was a lifelong video game aficionado. An addict, even. He worried about how much of his life he was losing to the escapist pleasures of gaming. Then it occurred to him that he might be able to hijack his own addiction. If he could understand why he found games so compelling, he could use those same principles to rebuild his life “around adventure rather than escape.”

In his book, Level Up Your Life: How to Unlock Adventure and Happiness by Becoming the Hero of Your Own Story, he described the structure of pleasurable games. They follow a system of levels: “When you are Level 1 and killing spiders, you know that when you kill enough spiders, you get to level up eventually and get to start attacking rats. Once you advance to a high enough level, you know you get to start slaying FREAKING DRAGONS (which can only be written in all caps).”

Conquering each level feels good. It feels so good, in fact, that you can love playing a game even if you never finish it. Think of it: Very few people finish Angry Birds or Candy Crush or (for that matter) Donkey Kong, but still they have a great time playing.

Kamb’s insight was that, in our lives, we tend to declare goals without intervening levels. We declare that we’re going to “learn to play the guitar.” We take a lesson or two, buy a cheap guitar, futz around with simple chords for a few weeks. Then life gets busy, and seven years later, we find the guitar in the attic and think, I should take up the guitar again. There are no levels.

Kamb had always loved Irish music and had fantasized about learning to play the fiddle. So he co-opted gaming strategy and figured out a way to “level up” toward his goal:

Level 1: Commit to one violin lesson per week, and practice 15 minutes per day for six months.

Level 2: Relearn how to read sheet music and complete Celtic Fiddle Tunes by Craig Duncan.

Level 3: Learn to play “Concerning Hobbits” from The Fellowship of the Ring on the violin.

Level 4: Sit and play the fiddle for 30 minutes with other musicians.

Level 5: Learn to play “Promontory” from The Last of the Mohicans on the violin.

BOSS BATTLE: Sit and play the fiddle for 30 minutes in a pub in Ireland.

Isn’t that ingenious? He’s taken an ambiguous goal—learning to play the fiddle—and defined an appealing destination: playing in an Irish pub. Better yet, he invented five milestones en route to the destination, each worthy of celebration. Note that, as with a game, if he stopped the quest after Level 3, he’d still have several moments of pride to remember. It would have been a fun ride, like quitting after 30 levels of Candy Crush.

Could you adapt this strategy for one of your goals? Many Americans aspire to learn another language, for example. But “learning Spanish” is one of those amorphous goals that should give us pause. There’s no destination and no intermediate levels. Using Kamb’s principles, we can make this a more exciting journey. We can level up:

Level 1: Order a meal in Spanish.

Level 2: Have a simple conversation in Spanish with a taxi driver.

Level 3: Glance at a Spanish newspaper and understand at least one headline.

Level 4: Follow the action in a Spanish cartoon.

Level 5: Read a kindergarten-level book in Spanish.

And so on, leading up to . . .

Destination: Be able to have full, normal conversations in Spanish with Fernando in accounting (not just “Cómo está usted?”)

Compare that plan with the typical way we think about pursuing goals:

Level 1: Try to squeeze in a Spanish study session.

Level 2: Try to squeeze in a Spanish study session.

Level 3: Try to squeeze in a Spanish study session.

Level 4: Try to squeeze in a Spanish study session.

Level 5: Try to squeeze in a Spanish study session.

Destination: Someday, eventually: “Know” Spanish.

Which of those plans sound like more fun? Which are you more likely to return to, if you’re forced to take a break? Which are you more likely to complete?

3.

By using Kamb’s level-up strategy, we multiply the number of motivating milestones we encounter en route to a goal. That’s a forward-looking strategy: We’re anticipating moments of pride ahead. But the opposite is also possible: to surface those milestones you’ve already met but might not have noticed. Earlier in the book, we mentioned the way Fitbit celebrates its customers for fitness milestones: The India badge, for instance, celebrates you for walking a total of 1,997 miles, which is the length of India. (Celebrating 2,000 miles walked would have been fitting, too, but somehow the India badge feels more interesting and memorable.) No Fitbit customers would have been aware of this feat had the company not told them.

But this instinct to notice and commemorate achievements is oddly lacking in many areas of life. Take youth sports leagues. There are natural moments of pride scattered throughout the season: points scored, victories won. But what about the kids’ greater skill at basketball?

Certainly the kids know, in a generic sense, that they’ve improved over the course of a season. But improvements are slow and incremental. Almost invisible. You can’t rewind your memory to six months prior and observe how clearly your dribbling has improved.

But you can rewind a video. What if every boy on a basketball team received a simple before-and-after video comparing his performance at the beginning and end of the season? The improvements would be so obvious, so visible: Check it out—I could barely dribble with my left hand! Haha—I couldn’t make a free throw to save my life. What a stunning moment of pride that would be. Look how far I’ve come! And yet we have not encountered a single coach who has had the instinct to mint this moment of pride for his players.

Or think about how couples celebrate their anniversaries: by taking trips, going out for a nice dinner, or exchanging gifts. Those are moments rich with elevation and connection. But what about pride? Shouldn’t couples acknowledge and celebrate what they’ve accomplished together?

One couple we know kept an anniversary journal for the first decade of their marriage. Every year they would record the things they accomplished: Redecorating the back bedroom, hosting extended family for Thanksgiving dinner, and so on. They’d also record the trips they took, and the friends they saw most frequently, and, amazingly, what they fought about!

The husband said, “Reliving the big arguments from the previous year is not for the faint of heart, because you tend to want to refight them.” But having the record was useful because it provided concrete evidence of the progress they had made in their relationship. In the first year of marriage, they fought about almost anything. (One actual example: Which spices can stay on the kitchen table?) Over the next three years, the arguments steadily dwindled, and by the fifth year, they could recall only minor bickering. Not even an honest-to-goodness fight. And they laughed at the memory of fighting over spices.

That’s a laugh that signals a moment of pride. Look at how far we’ve come. And that moment would not have happened, we suspect, were it not for the journal.

4.

What’s clear from the preceding is that we are consistently missing opportunities to create moments of pride for ourselves and others. The interesting question is, Why?

Our theory: We’ve been brainwashed by the goals we see in our work lives. Executives tend to set goals that sound like this: Grow revenues to $20 billion by 2020! (That’s a real example, by the way. Based on our experience with C-suite executives, we think it’s likely that millions of people around the world are working, at this very moment, toward goals that were chosen simply because the numbers had a catchy ring.)

Similar goals cascade downward. Within the organization with the “$20B by 2020” goal, a particular business unit might have a smaller supporting goal: Increase market share in South America to 23% by 2018. Then, after setting a goal like that, the group would make a bunch of plans to achieve it.

A numerical goal plus supporting plans. Notice what that combination leaves us with: A destination that is not inherently motivating and that lacks meaningful milestones along the way. As a result, achieving the “20 by 2020” goal will require a massive human effort with much of the pride stripped out.

To be fair, this combination of goal-setting and planning can move an organization in the right direction. But the value of these tools comes from holding people accountable for their work. They’re not designed to be intrinsically motivating or to improve the experience of the human beings who are being held accountable.

We should be careful that we don’t let this corporate style of goal-setting infiltrate our personal lives, where we’re in full control. “I’m going to lose 10 pounds in 2 months,” for instance, is a classic corporate goal: arbitrary, numerical, and lacking intermediate milestones. By now, you know what to do: Restore the milestones. Level up: Go one week straight without using the elevator. Pick out 2 microbrews to enjoy on Saturday after a full week without booze. If I jog continuously for three songs on my playlist, that entitles me to download three new ones. And so on.

Furthermore, the ultimate destination should not be “losing 10 pounds,” it should be something intrinsically motivating, such as “Fitting into my sexy black pants (without gastrointestinal distress).” Suddenly, your weight-loss mission starts looking more like a playful quest, with frequent victories along the way, and less like a daily weigh-in on the bathroom scale

Is there a way to channel this same spirit inside organizations—to counteract the “command and control” culture of goals and plans? A wise leader can look for milestones en route to a larger goal. Let’s say your group has been tasked with boosting customer satisfaction by 20% by the end of the third quarter. You might have no control over that goal and how it’s framed. But you can still multiply the milestones for your team (note that these need not be sequential):

Milestone 1: Receive a glowing thank-you from a well-satisfied customer.

Milestone 2: Make it a full week without any surveys scoring their satisfaction as a 1 out of 7.

Milestone 3: Solve the number one complaint from the last month of surveys.

Milestone 4: Get halfway there: Boost satisfaction by 10%.

And so on . . .

To identify milestones like these, ask yourself: What’s inherently motivating? (Getting a glowing thank-you.) What would be worth celebrating that might only take a few weeks or months of work? (Solving the number one complaint.) What’s a hidden accomplishment that is worth surfacing and celebrating? (Making it a full week without any 1s.)

The same logic applies to milestones involving less tangible goals, such as building leadership skills. In most organizations, the only clear “levels” en route to leadership positions are promotions. But what if it takes five years for an employee to earn a promotion, or what if she is not interested in or suited for a promotion? How do you create the intermediate milestones that could provide moments of pride?

Large organizations often speak in terms of “competencies.” That is, to do a particular job well, you need to develop a set of specific competencies in areas such as vision setting or business acumen or data analysis. (Yes, they tend to sound exactly that boring.)

But rather than giving vague instructions to employees on how to build their “business acumen,” they could be presented instead with a set of meaningful milestones to accomplish (again, not necessarily sequential):

• Turn around a product/service line that is struggling

• Have a direct report promoted to a managerial role

• Solve a business challenge by collaborating with another function or group

• Receive a compliment that you run meetings that are actually worthwhile

• Deliver a major project on time and on budget

• Contribute an idea that is adopted company-wide

These items would not be a checklist for advancement (Do these 6 things and you’ll be promoted), since it would be impossible to create a generic list that would apply to all people and situations. Rather, the milestones would simply map out the turf of achievement. Here are the ways it’s possible to build your skills and demonstrate your value to the organization And when you do so, we will salute you for that.

5.

Hitting a milestone sparks pride. It should also spark a celebration—a moment of elevation. (Don’t forget that milestones, along with pits and transitions, are three natural defining moments that deserve extra attention.) Milestones deserve peaks.

The Boy Scouts understand this idea well. The Scouts’ Merit Badge program, active for more than 100 years, is a great example of introducing multiple milestones and celebrating each one. The Merit Badges are presented to the Scout at a “Court of Honor,” where the Scouts are recognized in front of their peers. That’s a peak. Similarly, karate students who earn belts—from the novice’s white belt to the expert’s black belt—often receive them at public award ceremonies.

People who develop lifelong passions are often honoring these same concepts, whether consciously or not. In 2013, Scott Ettl, an executive at a research firm and the father of three young kids, read a book about Aaron Burr that a friend had recommended. Burr, the third vice president of the United States and the man who famously killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel, was portrayed as an American hero. Then, a few weeks later, Ettl devoured David McCullough’s bestselling biography of John Adams, which cast Burr in a negative light.

He read a biography of George Washington and, sure enough, it portrayed John Adams differently than had McCullough’s biography. But by the time he had read about the same people and events for the third time (since Washington, Adams, and Burr all overlapped), his perception of history, as he had learned it in school, began to change. The portraits of the historical figures stopped feeling flat and contradictory; rather, they began to acquire three dimensions.

He was hooked. He’d always been a history buff, but the biographies were bringing a kind of order to his passion. One day, he made a declaration to his family: He was going to read a biography of every American president, in order. “It became more than liking history,” he said. “It became a quest.” A quest with 45 ready-made milestones.

He blazed through the first 8 or 9 presidential biographies in the first year. The Millard Fillmore book slowed him down, and then his quest was almost derailed by the Rutherford B. Hayes biography—“about the worst book you could possibly imagine,” he said. It took him a year to finish it.

The quest has evolved over time. Now when Ettl completes a president, he buys the commemorative dollar coin for that president from the U.S. Mint. The coins provide a visual token of his progress, as do the presidential autographs his relatives started to buy for him.

Remember in the first chapter, we talked about the “treasure chest” of items that we all keep for ourselves, full of old awards and ticket stubs and journals? Ettl’s treasure chest is full of hardcover books, historic coins, and aged autographs—the relics of his march through U.S. history. There’s something appealing about a moment of pride that comes with its own souvenir.

Think about how good it feels to flip through the stamps on your passport. A mere smudge of ink can provoke a rush of memories. (In keeping with this spirit, shouldn’t boarding passes be designed to be “treasure chest” items? When you visit San Francisco, your stub should have the Golden Gate Bridge on it. Instead, we’re given boarding documents that look like the homework of a dot-matrix printer.)

Ettl estimates it will take him about 2–3 years to catch up to the current president. “Unless I die, I’ll finish this,” he vowed.

When he catches up to the present-day president, Ettl said, he plans to start taking his family on vacations to the presidential libraries. In other words, the end of one quest will be the start of another! (Though we wonder whether this idea has been run by the kids.)

6.

Look at the graph below, which comes from researcher George Wu at the University of Chicago. It summarizes the completion times of more than nine million runners in marathons from Chicago to Berlin. You can see that most runners finished a marathon in 3.5 to 5 hours.

But notice how the graph looks spiky. Pay attention to the vertical lines showing the “threshold” times: 4:00:00, 4:30:00, 5:00:00, and so forth. You’ll see that a lot more runners finished just before the lines than just after them. (It’s particularly dramatic at the 4-hour mark.)


[image: Image]


That’s the milestone effect. That’s an exhausted runner who turns on her afterburners with one mile to go because she cannot bear to let the numbers on the stopwatch cross 4 hours. The milestones are completely arbitrary, of course: There is no defensible performance difference between 3:59:59 and 4:00:00. But of course, you understand the difference, and so do we. (One of your authors will sometimes walk laps around his bedroom at night in order to clinch 10,000 steps for the day. Absurd but true.)

We all love milestones.

This brings us to one last point: The desire to hit milestones elicits a concerted final push of effort. To finish the marathon under 4 hours, you sprint the final quarter mile. To hit your 10,000 steps for the day, you obsessively pace the bedroom.

Cal Newport, an author and computer science professor, spent years studying the habits of successful people. “From my experience, the most common trait you will consistently observe in accomplished people is an obsession with completion. Once a project falls into their horizon, they crave almost compulsively, to finish it.”

Success comes from pushing to the finish line. What milestones do is compel us to make that push, because (a) they’re within our grasp, and (b) we’ve chosen them precisely because they’re worth reaching for. Milestones define moments that are conquerable and worth conquering.

A Boy Scout spends one more day practicing with his bow and arrow, so he can nail the test and earn his archery badge. Scott Ettl suffers through Millard Fillmore’s biography because he knows Lincoln’s is coming. They push to the finish line.

But here’s the best part: We’re not stuck with just one finish line. By multiplying milestones, we transform a long, amorphous race into one with many intermediate “finish lines.” As we push through each one, we experience a burst of pride as well as a jolt of energy to charge toward the next one.


Introduction to Moments of Insight



What if a defining moment in someone’s life is not a moment of elevation? What if, instead, it’s an awful moment?

Asked about a defining moment in his career, one man wrote: “In my first job I was rated at the bottom of my starting class and did not get the ‘parity’ raise that all my peers got—which meant I was making less than the incoming class of hires. It was the first time I really failed at something and it was a wake-up call that the skills I had mastered in school were not the skills that would help me in the work world.”

Now, that sounds nothing like a moment of elevation! He’s not feeling joyful or engaged or “above the ordinary.” He’s been blindsided by negative feedback. Yet it’s not just an emotional low point, either. It’s a low point that holds the promise of a better future path. Ouch—I need to change things to make sure that doesn’t happen again.

Moments of insight deliver realizations and transformations. Some insights are small but meaningful. At your favorite coffee shop, you sample coffees from South America and Africa and you notice how different the flavors are. That adds insight to a transactional experience. At a rehearsal dinner, you tell a funny story about the groom that also reveals something about his character. That adds insight to a social experience.

What we’ll explore ahead are the larger moments of insight, the ones that deliver a jolt. Sometimes the emotions are dark: I’m no good at this. Or, I don’t believe in what I’m doing anymore. Other moments of insight can also be wildly positive: This is the person I’m going to spend the rest of my life with! Or the “eureka!” moment of creative discovery.

Many moments of insight are serendipitous. Lightning strikes, and there’s no explaining why. You can’t schedule epiphanies.

But these experiences are not wholly out of our control. We’ll explore two strategies for creating moments of insight. We can cause others to “trip over the truth” (Chapter 5). And when we need to understand ourselves better, we can “stretch for insight” (Chapter 6).

In the pages ahead are stories of sharp emotion—disgust, enlightenment, heartbreak, and exhilaration. But we begin with the story of a shocking realization you won’t soon forget.


MOMENTS OF CONNECTION

THE WHIRLWIND REVIEW



1. Moments of connection bond us with others. We feel warmth, unity, empathy, validation.

2. To spark moments of connection for groups, we 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.

• Sharp’s recommitment to the customer experience had all three elements: (1) the All-Staff Assembly; (2) the voluntary “Action Teams”; and (3) a call for dramatic improvements in the way customers were cared for.

3. Groups bond when they struggle together. 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.

• Xygalatas’s study of religious devotees concludes that the shared experience of pain can be seen as “social technology to bind in-groups together.”

4. “Connecting to meaning” reconnects people with the purpose of their efforts. That’s motivating and encourages “above and beyond” work.

• Hansen’s research: When it comes to performance, strong purpose trumps strong passion.

5. In individual relationships, we believe that relationships grow closer with time. But that’s not the whole story. Sometimes long relationships reach plateaus. And with the right moment, relationships can deepen quickly.

• Fisherow and her team turned around the troubled Stanton Elementary School by relying, in part, on short parent-teacher home visits before the start of school.

6. According to the psychologist Harry Reis, what deepens individual relationships is “responsiveness”: mutual understanding, validation, and caring.

• Stanton’s teachers showed responsiveness by listening to parents’ hopes for their kids.

• In health care, caregivers are switching from the question “What’s the matter?” to “What matters to you?”

•  “Baggage-handling” customer service reps validate customers’ past experiences.

7. Responsiveness coupled with openness leads to intimacy. It happens via “turn-taking.”

• Art Aron’s 36 Questions experiment leads total strangers to become intimate—in 45 minutes!


6

Stretch for Insight

1.

Lea Chadwell had been baking for only a year when she began to daydream about starting her own company.

In her day job, she worked at an animal hospital—the same place she’d once brought her dogs for medical treatment. After visiting a few times as a customer, she realized: I want to work here. She begged for a job, and four months later, a role as a vet tech opened up.

Nine years later, though, she felt like she’d maxed out the pay raises and promotions available to her. She also worried it was a young person’s job. “Am I really going to be wrestling golden retrievers when I’m 65?” she wondered.

She spent every weekend in the kitchen, making Swedish cookies, pastries with exotic spices, flavored brioches. Friends and family started telling her, “You should have your own bakery!” (Which is the kind of advice you give when you expect free samples down the road.)

One day in 2006, her husband, Sam, heard a story on the radio about a business that allowed you to “test-drive” your dream job. For a fee, Vocation Vacations could arrange for you to spend a few days shadowing people who were living your dream. The jobs available for visit included cattle ranching, managing a bed-and-breakfast, owning a winery, and—there it was!—starting a bakery.I

Chadwell jumped at the opportunity, flying to Portland, Oregon, to work with the owners of a bakery and chocolate shop. It was like being able to rent a mentor. She loved it and returned home determined to start her own bakery.

She took classes at night to refine her skills, eventually earning a certificate from a local culinary program. In 2010, she was ready: She opened A Pound of Butter. She made custom cakes for birthdays and weddings and supplied pastries to local restaurants, working evenings and weekends while she kept her job at the animal hospital. Eventually, she planned to open a full retail shop. “I would daydream about how the bakery would be,” she said. “I thought that would be something I could do for the rest of my days.”

Carved cakes were her specialty—Chadwell had majored in sculpture in college. She conjured impeccable Thomas the Tank Engine cakes and Disney princess cakes for kids’ birthday parties.

Slowly, though, the charm started to fade. Baking cakes for her own family was fun. But baking cakes for demanding customers was stressful. She treated sick animals by day and handled nervous brides at night. She felt stuck in an endless cycle. “I needed more business so that I could afford the bakery, but I didn’t have time to bake, because I couldn’t afford to live on the bakery,” she said.

One weekend, racing against a deadline, she finished putting the last touches on a buttercream wedding cake and loaded it into her car. Just as she prepared to drive off, she realized she was about to leave the front door of her unoccupied bakery wide open.

It was her lightning-bolt moment: I’m making myself crazy being this stressed out. And she realized, “I wasn’t in love with baking anymore,” she said later. “It was like this albatross of butter around my neck.”

She was almost 42 and she wanted one career, not two. She saw it in a flash: “If I do this ‘right,’ and get loans, and have a storefront, I will never come back from this if it fails. I will never financially recover. . . . I’m not passionate about this enough anymore.”

She folded A Pound of Butter after about 18 months. Her bakery-owner fantasy was over.

She didn’t bake a cake for years afterward.

This is not the ending we crave. We want likable entrepreneurs to succeed. We want daydreams to come true.

Did Lea Chadwell fail? In some ways, yes. But it’s not quite that simple. Chadwell doesn’t regret starting her bakery, and she doesn’t regret closing it. What she gained was the insight that comes from experience. She came to accept, she said, some qualities that made her the wrong person to run her own business. “I’m unorganized. Impractical. Fickle. . . . While these traits make me a great candidate for a Wacky Friend, they are just awful to try to form a business around. I suspect if I hadn’t quit, I’d have failed, and it actually really sucks to admit it. But, there’s the painful lesson I’ve learned. I’m great when I’m working for others; they rely on me. Working for myself? I’m a terrible boss.”

Psychologists call this “self-insight”—a mature understanding of our capabilities and motivations—and it’s correlated with an array of positive outcomes, ranging from good relationships to a sense of purpose in life. Self-insight and psychological well-being go together.

Chadwell’s self-insight was sparked by a classic “crystallization of discontent” moment—the moment when she almost drove away from her bakery with the door wide open. In an instant, the fragments of frustration and anxiety she’d experienced were assembled into a clear conclusion: I’m not good at this. It’s not me.

Compare Chadwell’s moment with a second one experienced by a woman who, in college, decided to study abroad in Rome. “I was a small town girl, terrified of things like public transport as well as the daunting task of working in an environment where people did not speak my language,” she said. “I remember arriving and the whole place overwhelming me. . . .”

Four weeks later, she had convinced a shop worker that she was Italian. (She blew her cover, unfortunately, when she couldn’t come up with the Italian word for “hair tie.”) By the end of the experience, she had transformed. “I came back different,” she said. “I was far more confident and far more willing to take calculated risks. . . . I became unafraid of travelling or living anywhere else.” She lives in London now.

Her defining moment—convincing the shop worker that she was a “native”—is almost the mirror image of Chadwell’s. She realized: I can do this. I can be this person.

Both women experienced moments of self-insight sparked by “stretching.” To stretch is to place ourselves in situations that expose us to the risk of failure.

What may be counterintuitive is that self-insight rarely comes from staying in our heads. Research suggests that reflecting or ruminating on our thoughts and feelings is an ineffective way to achieve true understanding. Studying our own behavior is more fruitful.

“Wouldn’t I make a fabulous bakery owner?” “Could I hack it in Italy?” These are important questions but impossible to answer in one’s head. Better to take a risk, try something, and distill the answer from experience rather than from navel-gazing. Action leads to insight more often than insight leads to action.

Learning who we are, and what we want, and what we’re capable of—it’s a lifelong process. Let’s face it: Many of us became adults—with homes and jobs and spouses—long before we really understood ourselves. Why do we react the way we do? What are our blind spots? Why are we attracted to the kind of friends and lovers that we seek out?

Self-understanding comes slowly. One of the few ways to accelerate it—to experience more crystallizing moments—is to stretch for insight.

2.

In the spring of 1984, Michael Dinneen was serving the last night of his psychiatry rotation at Naval Medical Center San Diego. He had completed medical school in 1982 and was in the second year of his residency training, which would allow him to become a fully certified psychiatrist.

The patients on the psych ward had serious illnesses—schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression—and most of them were in locked rooms. Many had tried to hurt themselves or others in the past. As Dinneen made his rounds, he encountered a patient who had earned the freedom to walk around on his own. The man was scheduled for discharge the next day.

He stopped Dinneen and said, “I have some things I’d like to ask you.”

Dinneen replied, “I’ve got some things to take care of, can I come back in 15 minutes?” The patient nodded, and Dinneen continued with his rounds.

Ten minutes later, a “code blue” call came over the intercom, meaning a patient needed resuscitation. Typically the announcement directed staffers to a specific floor and room within the hospital. But this time it directed them to the exterior courtyard. Dinneen rushed outside.

Sprawled on the ground was the patient he’d just spoken to. The man had jumped from the third-floor balcony onto the concrete walkway. Dinneen and other staffers sped to his side and tried to resuscitate him. When he didn’t respond, they rushed him to the ER. He died shortly thereafter.

Dinneen walked slowly back toward his office in the psych ward. He was shocked and racked with guilt. I’m a complete failure, he thought. I should have known he needed me.

He called the residency training director, Richard Ridenour, to report on what had happened, and took some time to comfort the staff of the psych ward. Exhausted, he prepared to go home, feeling emotionally unable to finish out his shift.

In the meantime, Ridenour had arrived at the hospital. He asked Dinneen to go over the whole story again. “My full expectation after giving that report,” said Dinneen, “was that it would be used for disciplinary action.” Having a patient commit suicide was rare; having one commit suicide in the apparent safe haven of the hospital was even rarer. Dinneen was not sure he’d be allowed to practice anymore.

Instead, Ridenour said, “Okay, let’s get back to work.”

He led Dinneen to the operating room, where they picked out some clean scrubs and a white coat. Then they returned to the psych ward.

And Ridenour, his mentor, stayed with him the whole night.

In recalling the episode later, Ridenour said, “I didn’t want to send a message to Mike that he had done something wrong. I wanted to send a message to him that he was fine. Let’s move on. It’s kind of like death in combat. Patients die on the triage table, you go on. There are other patients who are waiting in the wings. Maybe you can save them.”

Dinneen said, “I don’t remember much from the rest of the night, but I do know that if I had gone home, I might have given up on becoming a psychiatrist.”

More than thirty years later, Michael Dinneen looks back on that night as one of the defining moments of his life. It was the first time he had lost a patient. But what sticks with him nearly as much is what the night taught him about himself: I can endure.

In Dinneen’s life, the episode was a negative peak (a pit). Barbara Fredrickson, one of the researchers who pioneered the “peak-end principle,” argued that the reason we over-weight peaks in memory is that they serve as a kind of psychic price tag. They tell us, in essence, this is what it could cost you to endure that experience again. Some people, like Lea Chadwell, discover that the cost is too high, and they choose to avoid facing those moments again. Others, like Dinneen, discover that they can survive the experiences, and that the potential negative peaks are outweighed by the positive.

Note the other big difference between the stories of Chadwell and Dinneen. Dinneen never would have learned about his ability to endure had he not been pushed and supported by Ridenour. “I was expected to get back in the game,” said Dinneen. “He knew I had it in me to make it through that night when I didn’t know that myself.” Ridenour’s wise actions in the middle of the night transformed a moment of trauma into a moment of growth.

Often it’s other people who prod us to stretch. You hire a personal trainer because you know she’s going to push you beyond your comfort zone. And this is the same quality we value about our mentors: They bring out the best in us. You’ll never hear someone say, “Yeah, the best coach I ever had was Coach Martin. He had no expectations whatsoever and let us do whatever we wanted. He was a great man.”

Mentors focus on improvement: Can you push a little bit further? Can you shoulder a little more responsibility? They introduce a productive level of stress.

To explore that idea, we gave some of our readers a challenge: Encourage someone whom you mentor to stretch. Jim Honig, a Lutheran pastor, reported giving his pastoral intern a challenge: “One of the highlights of the year is our Easter Vigil service on the night before Easter Sunday morning. I usually don’t schedule an intern to preach that service, usually choosing to do that myself. This year, I told the intern that he would be preaching at that service. I told him that it was an important service and that he needed to bring his best, but that I was sure he could do it.”

Pastor Honig admitted he was hesitant about delegating such an important service. But the intern responded: He delivered one of his best sermons, Honig said.

What are the “defining moments” in this situation? There are two. The first was the intern’s sermon at the Easter Vigil service. That’s a moment of elevation (raised stakes), pride, and insight (I can handle this). It was a moment created (or enabled) by Pastor Honig’s push. But Pastor Honig also stretched! He made himself vulnerable; he risked failure by trusting an intern with such an important moment. And as a result of taking that risk, he gained insight. “The rest of the staff knows how particular I am about the preaching task during Holy Week and Easter. So, they were surprised when I let others take some of the preaching load that week. They all rose to the occasion. It also gave me pause to reflect on how I might make that more of my practice. It’s something I’ve been working on and we are reaping the benefits.”

3.

Mentors push, mentees stretch. If you mentor someone—a student, an employee, a relative—you might wonder about the best way to give them a productive push. A good starting place is a two-part formula cited in a paper by the psychologist David Scott Yeager and eight colleagues: high standards + assurance.

Yeager described a study in a suburban junior high school in which 44 seventh-grade students were assigned to write an essay about a personal hero. Their teachers then marked up the essays, providing written feedback.

At that point, the researchers collected the papers from the teachers and split the essays randomly into two piles. They appended a generic note, in the teacher’s handwriting, to each essay in the first pile. It said, “I’m giving you these comments so that you’ll have feedback on your paper.” The essays in the second pile got a note reflecting what the researchers call “wise criticism.” It said, “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know you can reach them.” (High standards + assurance.)

After the papers were returned, the students had the option to revise and resubmit their paper in the hopes of earning a better grade. About 40% of the students who got the generic note chose to revise their papers. But almost 80% of the wise criticism students revised their papers, and in editing their papers, they made more than twice as many corrections as the other students.

What makes the second note so powerful is that it rewires the way students process criticism. When they get their paper back, full of corrections and suggestions, their natural reaction might be defensiveness or even mistrust. The teacher has never liked me. But the wise criticism note carries a different message. It says, I know you’re capable of great things if you’ll just put in the work. The marked-up essay is not a personal judgment. It’s a push to stretch.

4.

In organizations, mentorship can take a stronger form. High standards + assurance is a powerful formula, but ultimately it’s just a statement of expectations. What great mentors do is add two more elements: direction and support. I have high expectations for you and I know you can meet them. So try this new challenge and if you fail, I’ll help you recover. That’s mentorship in two sentences. It sounds simple, yet it’s powerful enough to transform careers.

In 2015, Dale Phelps was the director of Quality, Service, and Service Operations for Cummins Northeast, a distributor for Cummins products. Translation: Say you’ve got a contract to build a bunch of city buses for Boston, and you decide to use diesel engines made by Cummins. In that case, Cummins Northeast will process your order, deliver the engines, and provide service if they break down. Phelps’s job was to find ways to make the company’s service better and more efficient.

In doing his work, Phelps relied heavily on the discipline of Six Sigma. If you manufacture products—let’s say rubber balls—naturally you want them to be free of defects. A “six sigma” process is one that produces only 3.4 defects per million attempts. So if you make a million rubber balls, only 3 or 4 of them will be warped or lopsided. To achieve that level of excellence, you must obsessively monitor the manufacturing process, gathering data to pinpoint problems and to reduce variability. The people who perform these feats of process improvement are practitioners of Six Sigma, and their voodoo can also be practiced on nonmanufacturing situations as well, such as reducing surgical errors or, in the case of Phelps, speeding up engine repair. The most talented practitioners seek out certification as a Six Sigma Black Belt, an honorific that has nothing to do with karate but rather reflects a noble and ultimately hopeless attempt to give the work some sex appeal.

Back to the story: Phelps needed a Six Sigma Black Belt to assist him with his work in Albany, New York, and he hired Ranjani Sreenivasan for the role. Raised in India, Sreenivasan had been in the United States for only three years, having come to complete her master’s degree in mechanical engineering.

Sreenivasan’s role was to use Six Sigma to help colleagues improve their processes, for instance by reorganizing the service shops so that more frequently used tools were closer at hand. But she struggled in the role. “She was kind of shy, a little withdrawn,” said Phelps. He worried that she wasn’t assertive enough to be taken seriously by the experienced hands at the firm.

Sreenivasan had a different perspective. She wasn’t introverted—her friends had nicknamed her “Thunder,” because they always knew when she was in the room. Rather, she was overwhelmed. She knew a lot about Six Sigma but almost nothing about servicing diesel engines. In meetings she felt as if her colleagues were “speaking in Greek and Latin.” She’d take notes of all the terms they used and ask someone later what they meant.

At her first team meeting for a Six Sigma project, she sat silently, and afterward approached Phelps, distraught. “I was so upset,” she said. “I was seen as this new hire who knew nothing.”

There was grumbling about her performance. Phelps knew she was the right person for the job, but she was in jeopardy. So he gave her a push. Phelps challenged her to get out in the field and spend some time learning the business. Until she could speak the insiders’ language, it would be difficult for her to command respect.

“I was a little apprehensive,” Sreenivasan said. Visiting the field meant leaving the safety of her own expertise, which was data and spreadsheets. She worried about exposing her lack of knowledge to her colleagues. Plus, she was young (24), female, and Indian, all three of which were uncommon in the company.

Her first field visit was to the branch in Rocky Hill, Connecticut. The manager of the branch, one of the few women at that level of leadership, showed her around and tutored her on the business. Sreenivasan stayed for a week and came back to Albany energized.

“That visit was a game changer,” she said. “All the operational terms started to become clear. Charlene [the Rocky Hill leader] told me how proud she was that I was doing so much at such a young age.”

Phelps lined up additional field visits, and Sreenivasan became more and more comfortable sharing her Six Sigma insights. Phelps started to hear back from his colleagues how impressed they were. Some of the people who had grumbled about her performance were now citing her as one of their top performers.

“I learned that I’m capable of more than I thought,” she said. “I didn’t know I could be an operations kind of person. I thought I was a data person. . . . I didn’t have the confidence in myself that Dale had in me.”

Phelps blames himself for her early difficulties. “I tried to insulate her from a lot of stuff, which in hindsight wasn’t effective and really wasn’t fair to her. If you’re always in a life vest, you don’t know if you can swim. Sometimes you have to take the life vest off—with someone still standing by to offer support and rescue—and say, ‘Let’s see what happens.’ ”

This story captures the “formula” for mentorship that we’ve been exploring:

High standards + assurance

(“I specifically told her that I had high expectations for what I thought she could accomplish,” Phelps said.)

+ Direction + support

(Phelps suggested the field visits to correct the perceived “hole” in her experience and ensured that her first visit was with a female leader.)

= Enhanced self-insight.

(Sreenivasan: “I learned that I’m capable of more than I thought. . . . I didn’t know I could be an operations kind of person.”)

5.

A mentor’s push leads to a stretch, which creates a moment of self-insight. What can be counterintuitive about this vision of mentorship is the part about pushing. It requires the mentor to expose the mentee to risk. That can be unnatural; our instinct with the people we care about is to protect them from risk. To insulate them.

This is also a classic tension of parenting, of course: Should you give your kids the freedom to make mistakes, or should you shield them? Most parents tiptoe nervously along the line between under- and overprotectiveness.

How do you encourage your kids to stretch—but not too far? Consider the story of Sara Blakely, a woman who was raised to stretch. Blakely is the founder of Spanx, whose first product—basically a comfortable girdle—was an instant hit.II The founding story has become a legend: In 1998, Blakely was getting dressed for a party and she decided to wear her new pair of fitted white pants. But she faced a dilemma. She wanted to wear pantyhose underneath for their slimming effect, but she also wanted bare feet so she could wear sandals. Should she wear hose or not?

Inspiration struck: She cut the feet off her hose and wore them to the party. Her innovation had its problems—the severed ends of the hose kept rolling up her legs—but she thought to herself, This is my chance. I’ll create a better version of this product, and women will love it.

Two years later, in 2000, she signed up her first client for Spanx, Neiman Marcus, and Oprah chose Spanx as one of her “Favorite Things.” Twelve years later, Forbes named Blakely the youngest self-made female billionaire in history.

In Getting There: A Book of Mentors, Blakely wrote, “I can’t tell you how many women come up to me and say something like ‘I’ve been cutting the feet out of my pantyhose for years. Why didn’t I end up being the Spanx girl?’ The reason is that a good idea is just a starting point.”

What separated Blakely from other women with the same idea was her persistence. In the early days of Spanx she heard constantly that her idea was stupid or silly. In one meeting with a law firm, she noticed that one of the lawyers kept looking around the room, suspiciously. Later, the lawyer confessed to her, “Sara, I thought when I first met you that your idea was so bad that I thought you had been sent by Candid Camera.”

Men were largely incapable of understanding the genius of her idea, and unfortunately men held most of the positions she needed to influence to get the product made. (She tried, in vain, to find one female patent lawyer in the state of Georgia.) The owners of textile mills—men, all—rejected her idea again and again. She was only able to create a prototype of the product when one mill owner shared the idea with his daughters—who insisted that he call her back.

What equipped her to survive this gauntlet of failure? Blakely’s previous job had been selling fax machines. When she started that job, she didn’t receive a lead sheet of people interested in owning a fax machine. Instead her supervisor gave her a territory of four zip codes and handed her a phone book for “leads.”

“I would wake up in the morning and drive around cold-calling from eight until five,” she wrote. “Most doors were slammed in my face. I saw my business card ripped up at least once a week, and I even had a few police escorts out of buildings. It wasn’t long before I grew immune to the word ‘no’ and even found my situation amusing.”

That’s a powerful moment of insight. She realizes: I don’t fear failure anymore. It’s no longer an obstacle to me.

Blakely had been selling fax machines for seven years when she attended the party in her white pants and had her Spanx epiphany. Her relentlessness in building Spanx came from enduring seven years’ worth of—mostly—failure. (To be clear, she was very successful as fax salespeople go.)

What’s the source of Blakely’s extraordinary grit? It was incubated, no doubt, by her time in sales. But there was something else in her background as well. When Blakely and her brother were growing up, her father would ask them a question every week at the dinner table: “What did you guys fail at this week?”

“If we had nothing to tell him, he’d be disappointed,” Blakely said. “The logic seems counterintuitive, but it worked beautifully. He knew that many people become paralyzed by the fear of failure. They’re constantly afraid of what others will think if they don’t do a great job and, as a result, take no risks. My father wanted us to try everything and feel free to push the envelope. His attitude taught me to define failure as not trying something I want to do instead of not achieving the right outcome.”

His question, “What did you guys fail at this week?” was a push to stretch. It was an attempt to normalize failure, to make it part of a casual dinner conversation. Because when you seek out situations where you might fail, failure loses some of its menace. You’ve been inoculated against it.

Mr. Blakely’s daughter Sara internalized the meaning of that dinner-table question more than he ever could have imagined.

That’s the story ending that we crave: A likable entrepreneur, inspired by her father, lives her dream and is richly rewarded by the world. Some entrepreneurs win, some entrepreneurs lose. What they share is a willingness to put themselves in a situation where they can fail. It’s always safer to stay put—you can’t stumble when you stand still.

This is familiar advice for anyone who has ever browsed a self-help aisle of books. Get out there! Try something different! Turn over a new leaf! Take a risk! In general, this seems like sound advice, especially for people who feel stuck. But one note of caution: The advice often seems to carry a whispered promise of success. Take a risk and you’ll succeed! Take a risk and you’ll like the New You better!

That’s not quite right. A risk is a risk. Lea Chadwell took a risk on a bakery; it made her miserable. If risks always paid off, they wouldn’t be risks.

The promise of stretching is not success, it’s learning. It’s self-insight. It’s the promise of gleaning the answers to some of the most important and vexing questions of our lives: What do we want? What can we do? Who can we be? What can we endure?

A psychiatric intern learns that he has the strength to endure trauma. A “small-town girl” learns she can thrive in a foreign country. And even those who fail benefit from learning: Chadwell learned more about what she truly values in life.

By stretching, we create moments of self-insight, that wellspring of mental health and well-being.

We will never know our reach unless we stretch.



I. Vocation Vacations has since become Pivot Planet, with a focus on calls rather than in-person visits.

II. Just wanted you to know that we resisted the urge to include a cheap joke about Spanx in the “Stretch” chapter.


1

Defining Moments

1.

Chris Barbic and Donald Kamentz were sitting at a pub in Houston, recuperating from another 14-hour day running their start-up charter school. They were drinking beer. Watching ESPN. And sharing a Tombstone pizza, the bar’s only food offering. They had no idea, on that night in October 2000, that they were moments away from an epiphany that would affect thousands of lives.

ESPN was previewing the upcoming National Signing Day, the first day when graduating high school football players can sign a binding “letter of intent” to attend a particular college. For college football fans, it’s a big day.

Watching the exuberant coverage, something struck Kamentz. “It blows my mind that we celebrate athletics this way, but we don’t have anything that celebrates academics in the same way,” he said. And the students at their school—primarily kids from low-income Hispanic families—deserved celebrating. Many of them would be the first in their families to graduate from high school.

Barbic had founded a school to serve those students. He’d grown disillusioned teaching sixth grade at a local elementary school. “I saw way too many of my students head off to the local junior high excited about school and eager to pursue their dreams, only to return a few months later with that light in their eyes totally gone.” They would come back to visit him, telling stories of gangs, drugs, pregnancies. It crushed him. He knew he had two choices: Quit teaching to spare himself. Or build the school that those students deserved. So in 1998, Barbic founded YES Prep. And Donald Kamentz was one of the first people he hired.

In the pub that night, as they watched the Signing Day preview, they had a sudden inspiration: What if we created our own “Signing Day,” when our students would announce where they will attend college? The event would allow them to honor all graduating seniors, since it was a condition of graduation at YES Prep that every student apply and be accepted to college, even if they ultimately chose not to attend.

Their excitement grew as they shaped the idea: They would call it Senior Signing Day, and for that one day, graduating seniors would be treated with the same hype and adulation as college athletes.

About six months later, on April 30, 2001, they held the first Senior Signing Day. Roughly 450 people crammed into a community center next door to their campus: 17 graduating seniors and their families, along with every other student in the YES Prep system—from juniors to sixth graders.

Each of the seniors took the stage, announcing where he or she would be attending college in the fall: “My name is Eddie Zapata, and in the fall, I will be attending Vanderbilt University!” They would unveil a T-shirt or pennant with their chosen school’s insignia. Many of the students kept their final school decision a secret from friends, so there was suspense in the air. After each announcement, the room erupted with cheers.

Later, the students would sit at a table, with their families crowded around them, and sign letters of matriculation, confirming their enrollment in the fall. Barbic was struck by the emotion of the “signing” moment: “It hits home—the sacrifices that everybody had to make for their kids to get there. No one did it alone. There were lots of people involved.” By the end of the ceremony, there were few dry eyes in the room.

Senior Signing Day became the most important annual event for the YES Prep school network. For seniors, the event was a celebration, the capstone of their achievement. But it held a different kind of meaning for younger students. At the third Senior Signing Day, which had expanded into an auditorium at the University of Houston, there was a sixth grader in the audience named Mayra Valle. It was her first Signing Day experience, and it made a lasting impression. She remembers thinking, That could be me. No one in my family has ever gone to college. I want to be on that stage.

By 2010, six years later, the senior class had grown to 126 graduates, and Signing Day had expanded so much that it had moved to the basketball arena at Rice University, in front of 5,000 people. 90% of the graduates that year were the first members of their families to go to college.

The keynote speaker, U.S. secretary of education Arne Duncan, was moved by what he saw. He scrapped his prepared remarks and spoke freely: “No basketball game, no football game begins to compare to the magnitude and importance of what happened here today. . . . Thank you for inspiring not just your brothers and sisters, not just the underclassmen here, but the entire country.”

One of the graduating seniors was Mayra Valle. Six years after she imagined being on that stage, today was her day. “Good afternoon, everybody, my name is Mayra Valle,” she said, breaking into an enormous smile. “And this fall I will be attending CONNECTICUT COLLEGE!” The school was ranked one of the top 50 liberal arts colleges in the country.

The crowd roared.

2.

We all have defining moments in our lives—meaningful experiences that stand out in our memory. Many of them owe a great deal to chance: A lucky encounter with someone who becomes the love of your life. A new teacher who spots a talent you didn’t know you had. A sudden loss that upends the certainties of your life. A realization that you don’t want to spend one more day in your job. These moments seem to be the product of fate or luck or maybe a higher power’s interventions. We can’t control them.

But is that true? Must our defining moments just happen to us?

Senior Signing Day didn’t just happen. Chris Barbic and Donald Kamentz set out to create a defining moment for their students. When Mayra Valle and hundreds of other YES Prep graduates walked onto that stage, they stepped into a carefully crafted defining moment that was no less special for having been planned. It’s a moment they’ll never forget.

Defining moments shape our lives, 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?

In this book, we have two goals: First, we want to examine defining moments and identify the traits they have in common. What, specifically, makes a particular experience memorable and meaningful? Our research shows that defining moments share a set of common elements.

Second, we want to show you how you can create defining moments by making use of those elements. Why would you want to create them? To enrich your life. To connect with others. To make memories. To improve the experience of customers or patients or employees.

Our lives are measured in moments, and defining moments are the ones that endure in our memories. In the pages ahead, we’ll show you how to make more of them.

3.

Why do we remember certain experiences and forget others? In the case of Signing Day, the answer is pretty clear: It’s a celebration that is grand in scale and rich in emotion. No surprise that it’s more memorable than a lesson on multiplying fractions. But for other experiences in life—from vacations to work projects—it’s not as clear why we remember what we do.

Psychologists have discovered some counterintuitive answers to this puzzle of memory. Let’s say you take your family to Disney World. During your visit, we text you every hour, asking you to rate your experience at that moment on a scale from 1 to 10, where 1 is lousy and 10 is terrific. Let’s assume we check in with you 6 times. Here’s how your day shapes up:

9 a.m.: Cattle-herding your kids out of the hotel room. There’s excitement in the air. Rating: 6

10 a.m.: Riding “It’s a Small World” together, with parents and children each under the impression that the other must be enjoying this. Rating: 5

11 a.m.: Feeling a dopamine rush after riding the Space Mountain roller coaster. Your kids are begging to ride it again. Rating: 10

Noon: Enjoying expensive park food with your kids, who might enjoy it less if they knew you bought it with their college fund. Rating: 7

1 p.m.: Waiting in line, for 45 minutes now, in the 96-degree central Florida heat. Trying to keep your son from gnawing on the handrails. Rating: 3

2 p.m.: Buying mouse-ear hats on the way out of the park. Your kids look so cute. Rating: 8

To arrive at an overall summary of your day, we could simply average those ratings: 6.5. A pretty good day.

Now, let’s say we text you again, a few weeks later, and ask you to rate your overall Disney experience. A reasonable prediction of your answer would be 6.5, since it encompasses all the highs and lows of your day.

But psychologists would say that’s way off. They’d predict that, looking back on the day at Disney, your overall rating would be a 9! That’s because research has found that in recalling an experience, we ignore most of what happened and focus instead on a few particular moments. Specifically, two moments will stand out: riding Space Mountain and buying mouse-ear hats. To understand why those two moments matter more than the others, let’s explore some of the underlying psychology.

Consider an experiment in which participants were asked to undergo three painful trials. In the first, they submerged their hands for 60 seconds in buckets filled with frigid, 57-degree water. (Keep in mind that 57-degree water feels much colder than 57-degree air.)

The second trial was similar, except that they kept their hands submerged for 90 seconds instead of 60, and during the final 30 seconds, the water warmed up to 59 degrees. That final half minute was still unpleasant, but noticeably less so for most participants. (Note that the researchers were monitoring the time carefully, but the participants were not told how much time had elapsed.)

For their third painful experience, the participants were given a choice: Would you rather repeat the first trial or the second?

This is an easy question: Both trials featured 60 seconds of identical pain, and the second trial added another 30 seconds of slightly reduced pain. So this is kind of like asking, Would you rather be slapped in the face for 60 seconds or 90?

Nevertheless, 69% chose the longer trial.

Psychologists have untangled the reasons for this puzzling result. When people assess an experience, they tend to forget or ignore its length—a phenomenon called “duration neglect.” Instead, they seem to rate the experience based on two key moments: (1) the best or worst moment, known as the “peak”; and (2) the ending. Psychologists call it the “peak-end rule.”

So in the participants’ memories, the difference between 60 and 90 seconds washed out. That’s duration neglect. And what stood out for them was that the longer trial ended more comfortably than the shorter one. (Both trials, by the way, had a similar peak moment of pain: close to the 60-second mark.)

This research explains why, in reflecting on your Disney experience, you’ll remember Space Mountain (the peak) and the mouse ears (the end). Everything else will tend to fade. As a result, your memory of the day is far more favorable than the hour-by-hour ratings you provided.

The peak-end rule holds true across many kinds of experiences. Most of the relevant studies tend to focus on short, laboratory-friendly experiences: watching film clips, enduring annoying sounds, etc. On longer time frames, peaks continue to matter but the relative importance of “endings” fades somewhat. Beginnings matter, too: When college alumni were asked about their memories from college, fully 40% of those memories came from the month of September! And beginnings and endings can blur—if you change cities for a new job, is that an ending or a beginning or both? That’s why it’s preferable to talk about transitions, which encompass both endings and beginnings.

What’s indisputable is that when we assess our experiences, we don’t average our minute-by-minute sensations. Rather, we tend to remember flagship moments: the peaks, the pits, and the transitions.

This is a critical lesson for anyone in service businesses—from restaurants to medical clinics to call centers to spas—where success hinges on the customer experience. Consider the Magic Castle Hotel, which as of press time was one of the three top-rated hotels in Los Angeles, out of hundreds. It triumphed over competition like the Four Seasons Hotel at Beverly Hills and the Ritz-Carlton Los Angeles. Magic Castle’s reviews are stunning: Out of more than 2,900 reviews on Trip-Advisor, over 93% of guests rate the hotel as either “excellent” or “very good.”

There’s something odd about the hotel’s ranking, though: If you flipped through the photos of the resort online, you would never conclude, “That’s one of the best hotels in L.A.” An interior courtyard features a pool that might qualify as Olympic size, if the Olympics were being held in your backyard. The rooms are dated, the furnishings are spare, and most walls are bare. In fact, even the word hotel seems like a stretch—the Magic Castle is actually a converted two-story apartment complex from the 1950s, painted canary yellow.

The point is not that it’s a bad-looking place; it’s fine. It looks like a respectable budget motel. But the Four Seasons it ain’t. Nor is it particularly cheap—the pricing is comparable to Hilton or Marriott hotels. How could it be one of the top-rated hotels in Los Angeles?

Let’s start with the cherry-red phone mounted to a wall near the pool. You pick it up and someone answers, “Hello, Popsicle Hotline.” You place an order, and minutes later, a staffer wearing white gloves delivers your cherry, orange, or grape Popsicles to you at poolside. On a silver tray. For free.

Then there’s the Snack Menu, a list of goodies—ranging from Kit-Kats to root beer to Cheetos—that can be ordered up at no cost. There’s also a Board Game Menu and a DVD Menu, with all items loaned for free. Three times a week, magicians perform tricks at breakfast. Did we mention you can drop off unlimited loads of laundry for free washing? Your clothes are returned later in the day, wrapped in butcher paper and tied up with twine and a sprig of lavender. Which is much more pomp and ceremony than the doctor used when handing off your first child.

The guest reviews for the Magic Castle Hotel are rapturous. What the Magic Castle has figured out is that, to please customers, you need not obsess over every detail. Customers will forgive small swimming pools and underwhelming room décor, as long as some moments are magical. The surprise about great service experiences is that they are mostly forgettable and occasionally remarkable.

Now, when you phone the “Popsicle Hotline,” is that a defining moment? In the context of a lifetime, certainly not. (Hard to imagine a deathbed regret: “If only I’d chosen the grape . . .”)

But in the context of a vacation? Of course it’s a defining moment. When tourists tell their friends about their vacation to Southern California, they’ll say, “We went to Disneyland, and we saw the Walk of Fame, and we stayed at this hotel, the Magic Castle, and you won’t believe this, but there’s a phone by the pool . . .” The Popsicle Hotline is one of the moments that defines the trip. And it was an engineered moment—the kind of moment that other hotels fail to conjure. (Courtyards by Marriott are fine places, but can you imagine raving about them to a friend?)

The point here is simple: Some moments are vastly more meaningful than others. For tourists, the Popsicle Hotline is a 15-minute experience that pops out of the surrounding 2-week vacation. For students at YES Prep, Senior Signing Day is a single morning that rises above a 7-year journey.

But we tend to ignore this truth. We’re not very good at investing in such moments. For example, a teacher plans his history curriculum for a semester, but every class period gets roughly the same amount of attention. There’s no attempt to shape a few “peak” moments. Or an executive leads her company through a fast-growth period, but there’s little to distinguish one week from the next. Or we spend weekend after weekend together with our kids, but in memory all those times blend together.

How can we fight this flatness and make moments that matter? Let’s start with the basics: How are we defining a “defining moment”? In common usage, the term is applied in a variety of ways. Some use it to capture dramatic times when people have their character tested, as with a soldier showing courage in battle. Others use the term more liberally, as almost a synonym for “greatest hits.” (For example, an online search of the term yields results such as “Defining Moments in 70s Television,” which must have been a short list indeed.)

For the sake of this book, a defining moment is a short experience that is both memorable and meaningful. (“Short” is relative here—a month might be a short experience in the span of your life, and a minute might be short in the context of a customer support call.) There may be a dozen moments in your life that capture who you are—those are big defining moments. But there are smaller experiences, such as the Popsicle Hotline, that are defining moments in the context of a vacation or a semester abroad or a product development cycle.

What are these moments made of, and how do we create more of them? In our research, we have found that defining moments are created from one or more of the following four elements:

ELEVATION: Defining moments rise above the everyday. They provoke not just transient happiness, like laughing at a friend’s joke, but memorable delight. (You pick up the red phone and someone says, “Popsicle Hotline, we’ll be right out.”) To construct elevated moments, we must boost sensory pleasures—the Popsicles must be delivered poolside on a silver tray, of course—and, if appropriate, add an element of surprise. We’ll see why surprise can warp our perceptions of time, and why most people’s most memorable experiences are clustered in their teens and twenties. Moments of elevation transcend the normal course of events; they are literally extraordinary.

INSIGHT: Defining moments rewire our understanding of ourselves or the world. In a few seco