Understanding the power of moments

Have you ever wondered about how special moments can shape the memory of our experiences? As I was reading The Power of Moments by Chip and Dan Heath, they discuss both how moments shape our experiences and how to create more of these special moments. The book defines what makes a moment special, the impact special moments can have on individuals and groups, and gives clear directions on how to create special moments of your own.

Photo by Muhammadh Saamy | Accessed on Unsplash.com

Main impacts

Some of the key things I learned from this book are:

  1. Experiences are defined by moments
  2. Four elements of a moment
  3. We can create moments

Note, there’s so much more information and examples in the book. If this sparks your interest, I would encourage you to check out the book.

Experiences are defined by moments

Often times we remember our experiences, not as a sum of what has happened but rather defined by the moments we had or based on key parts of the experience (like the ending).

For instance, a trip may be remembered not by the long waits or hot weather, but rather by the joy of connecting with family or friends and the special shared experiences. When considering a family trip to Disney, there may be uncomfortable or inconvenient parts, but they can be overshadowed by the joy felt and shared with family, or the excitement of your children going on rides and meeting their favourite characters.

Having an experience evaluated on key moments is described as the “duration neglect”, meaning that an experience is defined by either the best/worst moments that happen or the ending. One example of this is the pain experiment, where people are asked to do three trials:

  1. Put their hands in very cold water for 60 seconds.
  2. Put their hands in very cold water for 60 seconds, and then their hands in slightly less cold water for 30 seconds.
  3. Then they got to pick which of the previous two they wanted to repeat. What do you think they picked?

For each of these, they were not told how long they had to wait in each water (only the researchers tracked the time), and had to go simply based on their experience.

Interestingly, for the third trial, 69% chose to repeat the longer experiment (#2)! The choice for the longer option was usually due to the fact that the second one seemed a little more comfortable than the first based on the ending. Even though it was longer, the slightly warmer water made it seem less painful.

Four elements of a moment

The moments that make an impact on us tend to have similarities, with common traits that affect us. Understanding what makes a moment special, helps us identify them and even consider how we can create more moments.

These are the four key elements that make a moment special:

  1. Elevation: moments that transcend the normal
    • These are extra-ordinary, exciting, memorable, and standout from the mundane.
    • It could be anything that differs from your normal life/routine. Anything special that we experience and can even change how we perceive time, for example, driving or walking somewhere new can seem longer, as we’re experiencing it for the first time.
  2. Insight: may reframe our understanding of ourselves or the world
    • It could be a moment of insight, such as it’s time for me to start this (like a new career) or to stop doing that (like smoking).
    • Generally, something triggers a change, which leads to realizations & transformations either on a personal level or greater.
  3. Pride: captures us at our best
    • A moment that highlights some kind of achievement or milestone.
    • Usually, it’s focusing on what you’ve accomplished, maybe landing a big client, finishing a project, or graduating from school.
  4. Social: connecting with others
    • These are common moments society often finds important, such as weddings, graduations, vacations, team achievements, events, etc.
    • Whenever others are involved in a moment, it has a stronger impact because it’s a shared experience.

All key moments will have at least one of the elements above, and some of the most impactful will have all of them. But usually it’s a combination of more than one.

For example, at graduation it’s usually a mix of social, pride, and elevation. It’s not part of your normal routine (elevation), you usually invite people you care about to join and your friends from school are there (social), plus it’s spotlighting your academic achievement (pride). All these elements come together to make it a memorable moment.

We can create moments

The more that we understand about what makes a moment special, the more likely we’re able to create moments to make experiences more memorable. We can create moments for ourselves and for others.

These three situation types are great opportunities for creating moments:

  1. Transitions: natural moments of change throughout our life
    • For example, coming of age, weddings, first day of work, or any moment that denotes a life change or when starting something new.
    • A lot of these are commonly celebrated, but you can also highlight smaller changes, or put more emphasis on existing changes that people experience.
    • For example, when a new employee joins a company, this is a great opportunity to create a moment and build a connection with the employee.
  2. Milestones: moments of significance, usually based on amount of time or a type of achievement
    • For example, a 10th anniversary (work or relationship), graduation, beginning or end of a school year, or a promotion.
    • There are lots of typical milestones we celebrate, but you can also look for new opportunities, like the 100th day of class or work.
  3. Pits: negative moments, which should be filled
    • For instance, by making long waits more interesting using displays, TVs, or decorating the area where you’re waiting. Disney does a great job of this by having the line go through areas decorated based on the ride’s theme, with videos and other things to capture your attention during the long wait.
    • If done properly, pits can be flipped into peaks. The best feedback from service surveys were often the result of employees reacting to a pit (such as delayed flights, lost baggage, etc.), and making it better. By giving your employees the freedom to provide special accommodations when disaster strikes, you’re allowing them to turn pits into peaks and create some of the most memorable experiences.

Example of a pit turned into a peak

One of the best examples of flipping a pit into a peak was when children had to use an MRI machine. When designing the machine, they forgot to consider the experience of children, and it was too scary for them. They hated going for an MRI and it usually took a long time to convince them to get into the machine.

So with a diverse team of experts, they came up with a creative solution to make it more playful and an exciting experience for the children. They developed a whole story for them that went along with using an MRI machine. For instance, one experience is that the children are told they’re going to ride a rocket ship, and the whole experience from start to finish is based around that theme. They made it feel like an adventure, not just a hospital visit, and they created a different adventures that focused on areas of kids’ anxiety (loud noises, small spaces, etc.).

These adventures with the MRI machine drastically changed how the children felt about the experience. They were actually excited for their appointment, and would ask, when can we go again? Which made the appointments go smoothly, with a better experience for all involved, and they were even able to increase the number of individuals served by reducing the time needed.

Final thoughts

I found this book really interesting. Some of the information is not that surprising, as we all have special moments in our lives, but the power in this book is reframing our general knowledge to understand the impact these moments have and how to create our own moments.

One of the impactful parts of this book is all the examples of moments that people have either intentionally or unintentionally created, along with the impact on those experiencing it. I included very few examples in this post, but if this peaked your curiosity at all, it might be worthwhile to read the book or listen to the audiobook.

Another valuable part of this book was that the knowledge provided by the authors can be so widely applicable, either to your own lives, to a company trying to improve their customer or employee experiences, or for an organization trying to impact those they help. The lessons learned in this book can be useful to anybody.

Personally, I want to create more moments for myself and those I care about.


How to be more proactive in life and business

Have you ever wondered how important it is to be proactive? As I was reading Upstream by Dan Heath, he discusses the benefits of being proactive and how best to identify and address hidden problems in a complex system.

Photo by Marc Zimmer | Accessed on Unsplash.com

Main impacts

  1. Aim to prevent, not react
  2. Think in systems
  3. Make it personal

Aim to prevent, not react

Ideally, we need to do more than just react to problems. The goal should be to try and prevent problems from happening in the first place. Dan describes this as going “upstream,” from the quote by Bishop Desmond Tutu.

There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.

-Bishop Desmond Tutu

A good way to start with this is to notice what problems seem to be common, either with your customers, community, or just in your life. Once you’ve found the common problem, you need to figure out what’s going wrong to reduce occurrences.

For example, at Expedia, they wanted to reduce the number of customer service calls, so they took the time to look at what the common issues were. They noticed that a huge percentage of the calls were about the customer’s itinerary. So they put systems in place to help people access their itinerary, such as an automated option to resend their itinerary instead of talking to a service agent. Once they made it easier for people to access their itinerary, they noticed a huge drop in service calls.

Often times systems reinforce the issues as they are not a specific person or department’s problem. For instance, the customer service calls at Expedia were being dealt with properly – promptly and satisfactorily – so there seemed to be no need to change the current system. If anything they were showing that customer service was performing exceptionally, as they were addressing so many customer issues smoothly.

Sometimes it takes a shift in perspective to identify widespread problems, as they may seem normal.

Think in systems

In connection with the point above, often to be proactive you need to think in systems not just linear reactive pathways. System thinking is important for both identifying and addressing upstream issues. This section will talk more about how to address issues within a system.

Consider everyone

A key part of working within a system is identifying everyone involved or connected to the problem and engage them in finding a solution.

One way to do find all relevant people is to think of an individual experiencing the problem (ideally someone you actually know) and look at everyone they could interact with.

An example discussed in the book was dealing with domestic violence within a community. It discusses how someone handling a domestic violence case noticed that the woman had a cast on her arm, and the break didn’t match the story given in the medical record. That cast meant that the woman had actually sought medical help and no one noticed the warning signs.

When looking to make upstream changes to prevent domestic violence, they made sure to involve people from all aspects of society to increase the number of people who could notice the signs and be able to help.

For instance, they developed a risk assessment checklist for nurses and health care workers to see if a patient is at risk of violence from someone in their life. They also noticed that people who were being released on the condition of wearing an ankle monitor might not receive the monitor until a few days after release, giving them an opportunity to be in contact with and possibly attack someone. So they made sure that they received the ankle monitor directly upon their release. Also, if there is a household with a history of domestic violence calls, they had police drive by on a regular basis to make sure everything is okay.

The goal was to find as many ways to improve the system so that people didn’t fall through the cracks and to increase opportunities for people to notice the warning signs.


Systems are complex, which means it can be difficult to predict how systems will react to changes. It also means that you may not see direct results from your changes.

For instance, if you have a police officer stand at a corner, it may cause people to drive more cautiously and might prevent accidents. But it’s very difficult to track or identify what has been prevented.

Since it’s near impossible to track what has been prevented, its also far less common to encourage preventative behaviour. It’s much harder to show results from having a police officer act as a visual warning to increase safety than another police officer giving out traffic tickets. It’s easier to track, record, and reward individuals based on number of tickets (reactionary) given out than possible preventative behaviour.

As it’s difficult to predict how a system will react to changes, you need to have a way to track feedback. The feedback will help identify if changes are improving the system or if you need to adjust your approach. Looking for feedback requires you to actively be looking for changes and be committed to continually improving the system.

An example of this would be to track the domestic violence rates within a community, or maybe within a school looking at graduation rates. It may take years to see an impact within these clear quantitative (numerical) indicators, so it’s also useful to see if there are also qualitative (descriptive) indicators that you can track.

Make it personal

The more you can connect the problem to a specific person, the easier it will be to start identifying solutions. So if you start thinking about how we can help Ariana, then you’re able to focus on improving that individual’s situation.

By narrowing in on specific people, you’re able to get more context and delve into the nitty-gritty of how interconnected the system is. It also gives you a clear example of how an individual is affected and an easy way to see progress firsthand.

Overall, when you make it personal, it also makes it more concrete and actionable. Then you can take all that you learn from an individual’s situation to start helping other people with the same problem.

One of the examples in the book was when teachers in the Chicago Public School system wanted to improve graduation rates. They noticed a good indication of how many students will graduate was how well those students do in freshman year, so the school and teachers all started focusing on the students in grade 9 (freshman year). They changed the system by putting the best teachers in grade 9 classes, and making sure that teachers were meeting with others that shared the same students rather than the same subjects (i.e., all of Ariana’s teachers would meet, rather than all of the English teachers). This way the teachers could all work together to identify ways to help each individual, like Ariana. It ended up being hugely successful, and after a few years, they had saw the graduation rate increase and stay at that level.

Final thoughts

I like how this reframed the concept of being proactive in a way that was very tangible. There were so many clear examples of how this worked and the immense benefits that come from identifying how to go upstream and remove the issue before it happens.

I don’t think the concept of “be proactive” is novel to any of us. But this went so much deeper and discussed how it can be useful for both individuals and businesses.

It was interesting how much it highlighted the complexity, and the importance of getting everyone involved. I think that’s a point that’s often overlooked when discussing the importance of being proactive.

Have you read this book? I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below!