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The Power Of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact

In this excerpt, the authors of “Made to Stick” explore the fascinating mysteries of experience.

The Power Of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact
[Photo: Flickr user emilykneeter]

In our lives, there are some moments we will remember for decades, and others that expire almost as quickly as they arrive. Moments are not created equal. That’s a simple, even obvious, insight, but in many aspects of life, we ignore it completely.

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Consider the Magic Castle Hotel, which as of press time was the top-rated hotel in Los Angeles on TripAdvisor, just ahead of the iconic Hotel Bel-Air and the Four Seasons Hotel at Beverly Hills. People have incredibly fond memories of the Magic Castle: Out of over 3,000 reviews on TripAdvisor, 94% of guests rate the hotel as either “excellent” or “very good.”

There’s a puzzle about the hotel’s ranking, though: If you scanned 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 yellow. It looks, in short, like a respectable budget motel. But it’s a far cry from the Four Seasons. How could it be one of the top-rated hotels in L.A.?

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?

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

And couldn’t the same thing be said about life as a whole? Reflect on your favorite memories. Dancing at your wedding, seeing your newborn child for the first time. Also less dramatic ones, like spending a semester abroad in Spain. Or working with a mentor who brought out the best in you. Or laughing with sunburned friends at a beach resort’s swim-up bar.

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The first thing to notice about these memories is that they’re not like cognitive movies that you load up and watch beginning to end. They’re snippets of scenes. Moments.

The second thing to notice is that those moments aren’t chosen “fairly.” You don’t recall the lumpy bed at the beach resort and the fitful sleep it caused—even though you spent more time in bed than at the bar. You don’t dwell on the first lonely, miserable month you spent in Spain. Your memory is highly selective.

Psychologists have discovered that, in assessing the experiences we’ve had, we don’t average our minute-by-minute sensations. Rather, we tend to ignore or forget most of what happened and focus instead on a few particular moments: the peaks, the pits, and the transitions.

Within any given span of experience, then, some moments will always be vastly more meaningful and memorable than others. As recipients of experiences, we understand this, but as creators of experiences, we ignore it. We’re not very good at investing in such moments. 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 moment that will last. A hotel manager obsesses about fixing every small customer complaint but never gets around to creating a “peak” moment. (How many hotels have the equivalent of a Popsicle Hotline?) A couple spends weekend after weekend with their kids, but in memory all those times blend together.

Moments matter. And our research suggests that people’s most positive moments share certain traits in common–traits such as elevation, or being lifted out of the ordinary. (You pick up a mysterious red phone and someone answers, “Popsicle Hotline, may I help you?”). Traits such as insight (shaping the way we see the world) and connection (deepening our ties with others). A wedding ceremony, for instance, features all three: The elevation of fine food and dancing and fancy clothes, and the insight afforded by toasts and stories, and the connection of sharing the moment with loved ones.

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The Power Of Moments by Chip Heath and Dan Heath
The Power Of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact by Chip Heath and Dan Heath

If we understand what powerful moments are made of, we can be intentional about creating them. And the right moment can have extraordinary power. Consider the case of Stanton Elementary School in Washington, DC. “It was the worst elementary school in one of the worst districts in the country, so it may have been the worst school in the country,” said Susan Stevenson, former Executive Director of the education-focused Flamboyan Foundation.

In 2010, the school had performed so poorly that the district decided to “reconstitute” it, dismissing its principal and administrative team in order to start fresh. In June, 28-year-old Carlie John Fisherow of Scholar Academies was tapped to lead the turnaround.

She was sobered by what she saw as she walked the halls. Concrete cinderblock walls, massive heavy doors, grates on the windows, depressing stairwells, inadequate lighting, and everywhere a horrible shade of yellow paint, like dirty-teeth yellow. One teacher hired by Fisherow said, “It didn’t remind me of a school at all. It reminded me of one of those sad orphanage stories.”

In the first week of school, Fisherow was introduced to a new term: “elopement,” which referred to students leaving their classrooms without permission. Elopement was epidemic at Stanton. The staff could not get control over the school. Over 300 suspensions were enforced during that first year, with many of those going to the same subset of misbehaving students. 28% of all the students were classified as “truant,” meaning they had missed 10 or more days of school without an excuse.

“The year was crazy. It was like being in the trenches. We felt like we were in battle,” said Fisherow. None of their plans were working. As one observer said of Stanton, during the 2010-11 school year, “the school went from ‘really bad’ to ‘worse.'” Then, midway through the year, Fisherow fell down the stairs at school and broke her leg.

“By the spring, we were ready to do anything,” said Fisherow. “We were desperate to do something different. When you’re down and out, you’re open to all sorts of ideas.”

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Looking for solutions, Fisherow met with a representative from the Flamboyan Foundation, a family foundation focused on improving schools. Flamboyan was known for its emphasis on “family engagement”–encouraging parents to play a more active and supportive role in their children’s education. Fisherow knew that this was a weak spot at Stanton. “You can paint and put in lighting and college pennants, and bring in a great team, but if there’s not trust with the people you’re serving, it doesn’t matter,” she said.

There was a history of mistrust between parents and teachers in the DC school system. Susan Stevenson, the foundation’s executive director, convened focus groups with 150 families from across the district. “What we learned was really disheartening,” she said. The parents thought teachers were ineffective and indifferent–just there to collect a paycheck. Many of the parents had attended DC public schools themselves, and they were often bitter about their own educational experience.

Teachers felt the parents didn’t seem to value education. They rarely showed up to events at school. It was tough to get them to show up even for a parent-teacher conference about their own child. (Meanwhile, the parents had concluded essentially the opposite–they perceived the teachers as uninterested in their kids. So it didn’t seem worth the time to attend events or meetings.)

Stevenson proposed a program designed to counteract this mistrust and to boost parental involvement in their kids’ education: a “home visit,” in which teachers would go to see parents, before the next school year started, to talk about their children.

The teachers were forbidden to bring any paper to the visits—no information to disseminate, no checklists to complete. Their role was simply to ask questions and listen to the answers. Those questions were prescribed for them:

  • “Tell me about your child’s experiences in school. Tell me about yours.”
  • “Tell me your hopes and dreams for your child’s future.”
  • “What do you want your child to be someday?”
  • “What do I need to do to help your child learn more effectively?”

Flamboyan’s research suggested that home visits could have profound effects on the parents’ engagement, which in turn could boost student outcomes. “It was a like a light went off in the room,” Fisherow said. “We thought, ‘This can have a huge impact AND we can do this.'”

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About 15 teachers agreed to conduct home visits that summer. The early progress was slow–parents were skeptical at first. But then a positive buzz about the visits began to spread around the community. “Parents were wanting visits,” said Melissa Bryant, a 4th grade math instructor. “You’d hear them saying, ‘Did you get a home visit? I got a home visit.'” One teacher was stopped on the street by a parent who was annoyed that she hadn’t had her home visit yet.

On the first day of school in the fall of 2011, the vibe at Stanton was palpably different. For one thing, many of the students already knew their teachers’ faces and names—they’d seen them in their own living rooms, talking to their mothers. And that basic familiarity and trust resulted in better behavior. One day, an issue in the cafeteria resulted in about 100 students having to line up on the stairs. The previous year, there would have been pandemonium. This year, there was silence and order.

“Our school felt like a school instantaneously,” Fisherow said. “I could not believe that it had worked so fast.”

The true jaw-dropping moment, though, happened a month into the school year at the annual “Back to School” night. The parents were invited to come to the school, meet their kids’ teachers, and see their classrooms. Only 25 parents had shown up the previous year. This year, optimistic that the family visits would make a difference, the staff set up 50 seats in the auditorium. Those seats filled up 15 minutes before the program began, so the staff kept adding seats. When Fisherow finally took the stage to welcome the crowd, it was standing room only. More than 200 parents had come to the school.

“We felt like we were in the Twilight Zone,” said Bryant.

The astonishing moments continued, one after another. Attendance at parent-teacher conferences spiked from 12% of parents the previous year to 73% in 2011-12. Truancy dropped from 28% to 11%. Academic performance improved. Suspensions went virtually extinct: From 321 to 24. Nor did the family engagement reflect a brief “honeymoon period.” It actually strengthened with time. Year over year, the successes built: More home visits. More parental participation. Better behavior. Higher test scores.

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How could such a small intervention have such a big effect? We are accustomed to thinking about relationships in terms of time: The longer the relationship endures, the closer it must grow. But relationships don’t proceed in steady, predictable increments. If we can create the right kind of moment, relationships can change in an instant. That’s what happened at Stanton–the teachers and parents shared a brief but intense moment of insight and connection. That moment wasn’t responsible for the turnaround at Stanton–that would shortchange the thousands of hours invested by students, teachers, and parents. But certainly it was the catalyst for the change. And each visit lasted about an hour.

Moments are not created equal. Our experiences are mostly forgettable and occasionally remarkable. But those remarkable moments don’t create themselves. What if we didn’t just remember the standout moments of our lives and work but made them? We can be the designers of moments that deliver elevation and insight and pride and connection. These exceptional minutes and hours and days—they are what make life meaningful. And they are ours to create.


Chip Heath is a professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business, teaching courses on strategy and organizations. He has helped more than 450 startups hone their business strategy and messages. He lives in Los Gatos, California.

Dan Heath is a senior fellow at Duke University’s CASE center, which supports entrepreneurs fighting for social good. He lives in Durham, North Carolina.