An Interview with Dan Heath

Whether we’re 11, 26, or 92, we all have special memories that we return to again and again, that remind us of happy events with family and friends, challenges we’ve overcome, and eureka moments that taught us something important about ourselves. What if we could create more opportunities for these defining moments in our lives and in the lives of our children? What if we could fill our memory coffers with more positive experiences from which to draw inspiration, courage, and determination? Through considerable research and reflection, this is the task Dan and Chip Heath undertook in their book The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact.

In addition to The Power of Moments, Dan Heath has co-authored the business psychology books Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, and Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work.

When he isn’t writing, Dan is a senior fellow at Duke University’s CASE center, which supports entrepreneurs fighting for social good.

Why did you feel it was important to write The Power of Moments, which you penned with your brother, Chip?

Chip and I got obsessed with understanding why certain moments in our lives stand so far above the rest, those experiences that we share and cherish for years afterwards. What are they made of? Our idea was if we could understand what sparked these moments, we could learn how to create more of them. Ultimately, we wanted to write a book that would help our readers improve the lives of the people they care about.

Give us your definition of a defining moment.

A defining moment is a brief experience that is unusually meaningful and memorable. It might range from your wedding day to a great vacation to a moment at school or camp when a mentor commented on a talent or skill that you didn’t even know you had. Our quest in the book is to reverse engineer these moments and determine what makes them so special.

You explain that defining moments tend to share a set of common elements. Can you summarize what those are for us?

We found that defining moments tend to share four elements in common:

  • Elevation, which means there’s something about these moments that lifts them above the ordinary. They inspire joy and engagement (think birthday parties, weddings);
  • Insight, which are moments that rewire our understanding of our world (think epiphanies);
  • Pride, which are moments that capture us at our best, moments of achievements or recognition (think award ceremonies or praise from a mentor);
  • Connection, which are moments that deepen our ties to other people, sometimes in personal relationships and sometimes in groups (these might range from deep, personal conversations to thoughtful gestures from our friends).

A defining moment need not have all four of these elements, but we should make liberal use of as many as we can when we’re trying to create memorable experiences.

You wrote that it’s important we learn to “think in moments.” Can you explain what you mean by that?

This requires a bit of context. When you look back on great experiences in your life — whether a great vacation, a stay at summer camp, or a satisfying time at work — you can’t really reload and relive that experience after the fact. With time, what we remember are particular moments, almost like a trailer for a movie rather than the movie itself. And there’s a logic to which moments we remember. Research suggests that we tend to remember the “peak” moment, which is the most positive moment in a positive experience. Great experiences hinge on peaks.

So we need to be alert to the opportunity to create peak moments. Sometimes it happens naturally. If you’re in the high school musical, the peak moment is the performance. But sometimes it’s cloudier than that. What were the peak moments in your academic classes? Education is an example of a really important period in life that is lacking peak moments.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. We tell the story of two teachers at Hillsdale High School in San Mateo, California, who created something called the Trial of Human Nature. It challenges students to conduct a trial of the author William Golding, who wrote Lord of the Flies. That book gives a rather bleak look at human nature. The students will put Golding on trial for libeling human nature. The students will be the attorneys, the witnesses, and the judge. They practice for two months and hold the trial in a real courtroom in front of a jury composed of Hillsdale teachers and alumni. Many of their peers and parents come to watch.

The two teachers who created the Trial — Susan Bedford and Greg Jouriles — wanted to create a peak moment. They gave themselves the challenge of creating an academic experience that would be as memorable as going to the prom! And they succeeded. The student speakers at graduation always talk about the trial in their graduation speeches; the prom is less frequently mentioned.

I love this phrase: You wrote, “Beware the soul-sucking force of ‘reasonableness’” in talking about creating peaks for memorable moments. Can you give us an example of that?

There’s a hotel in L.A. called the Magic Castle. It is completely ordinary to look at. If you saw this place you’d think that’s a clean, budget motel that’s been painted bright yellow. And yet this unassuming place is ranked the number-two hotel in L.A. on TripAdvisor. What the Magic Castle excels at is creating peak moments for its guests. There’s a cherry-red telephone mounted on the wall by the pool. A guest picks it up and someone answers, “Hello, Popsicle Hotline.” Minutes later, a staff person wearing white gloves arrives poolside with a free cherry, orange, or grape Popsicle on a silver tray. That’s a brilliant moment, and moments like that help explain why the Magic Castle can outrank much fancier hotels such as the Ritz Carlton or Four Seasons.

What we point out is that in many organizations, every fiber of instinct is to stamp out a moment like that. In organizations, our instinct is basically to do what we did last month — only faster and cheaper. That’s the way organizations think. So, in most organizations, if someone came up with the idea for a “Popsicle Hotline,” the reaction would be: “That doesn’t seem practical. How are we going to staff a hotline? What if instead we just put some Popsicles in a cooler by the ice machine?” Or, “Why should this be free? What if people abuse it and eat 20 Popsicles? Shouldn’t we charge $2 per Popsicle?”

Comments like these sound “reasonable,” but notice that their effect is to chip away at the peak. Peaks are not reasonable. It’s not reasonable to have a phone by the pool that’s called a “Popsicle Hotline.” That’s a crazy thing to do, and that’s exactly why people love it! It’s not reasonable on your wedding day to spend thousands of dollars on food, flowers, entertainment, and a dress you’ll never wear again, but around the world people will save for this day to make it special. And we think that’s the right spirit.

As you probably know, mentoring (generally counselor to camper) is a big theme in the camp industry. In your book, you talk about how “stretching” can create moments of insight, and how mentors can play a role in that. Can you explain?

What’s tricky about being a mentor is this tightrope act between overprotection and underprotection. How do we encourage kids to stretch, but not too far? Our instinct with the people we care about is to insulate them from risk. And yet what effective mentors do is actually encourage risk taking. Mentors are great at showing us that we’re capable of doing more than we thought. And we’re willing to try because we know that if we fail, they’ll be there to pick us up.

It’s in vogue these days to glorify failure. I understand the sentiment, but I feel like sometimes it’s a little glib. Failure hurts. It’s not fun. And failure is not always followed by success. Sometimes we just fail. But the good news is that, whether we fail or succeed, we gain self-insight. Psychologists know that self-insight is correlated with a variety of mental health outcomes, from a greater sense of purpose to healthier relationships. Gaining self-insight helps us answer some of the biggest questions in life: Who are we? What are we good at? What do we want? Who should we be with? Taking a risk will always teach us something about ourselves, and those insights might be more valuable over our lifetime than the temporary success would have been.

One chapter in your book is devoted to how simple and powerful it can be to create defining moments for others through recognition. It seems to me that camp is a great setting for this kind of interaction between camp counselor and camper or mentor and mentee. Any thoughts on that?

We came across this fascinating researcher, Gad Yair, who studies educational turning points. He interviewed hundreds of people about their school experience, and they tended to tell the same kinds of stories. Yair described them as “Cinderella” or “Ugly Duckling” stories. In a typical example, someone would recount a dark moment in their adolescence, a time when they felt invisible, or felt like a failure. Then a new adult would come into their lives and recognize something in them — praise them for an assignment or make a comment on something they’d done — and these moments had so much power for the kids. They felt noticed. It was like a light came on in their worlds. And what I suspect is that these teachers don’t realize that their comments changed a child’s life! They were just being thoughtful. But these kids, even years later, can pinpoint that moment as having made a big difference in their lives.

I want every teacher, coach, and camp counselor to know this. That’s a little bit of pressure — to know that your comment can change a life. But that’s such an opportunity. You could turn a self-described “ugly duckling” into a swan. And I can’t think of a better place for that to happen than camp.

We talk a lot in the camp industry about summer camp being a place where kids make lifelong friendships. There seems to be ample opportunity for defining moments of connection. Why do you think that is?

Our usual assumption is it’s time that makes relationships grow stronger. There’s some truth to that, but it’s easy to think of exceptions. We all have relatives we’ve been visiting for years at Thanksgiving who we don’t feel any closer to, and then we have people we’ve just met who we feel connected to right away. What is it that binds people together so quickly? What it comes down to is what psychologists call “turn taking,” which is exactly what it sounds like. One person takes a risk and shares something real, and the other person reciprocates. And that creates the seeds of trust. It encourages them to share more. Through turn taking, intimacy can develop very quickly.

I found this really interesting. You talk about laughter being more about relationships than humor and how we laugh to tie a group together. Can you explain what you mean by that?

There’s a researcher who studies laughter. For one of his studies he had his researchers loiter around groups in public and in cafés and eavesdrop on what they were saying. When people laughed they wrote down what was said just before the laugh. In the vast majority of cases, what was said wasn’t funny at all. I remember a couple of comments cited right before a laugh were “Look, it’s Andre,” and, “It was nice meeting you too.”

We think of laughter as being a response to humor, but it’s more about relationships than humor. We laugh to signal, “I’m with you.” I’m part of your group. I’m linked to you. Anybody who has ever seen a kid’s slumber party should have ample proof of this. There is no joke in the world that merits the waves of giggles that you hear. That laughter is social glue.

Any advice for camp directors on how they might shift their thinking to be more deliberate in assessing how camps can play a larger role in creating positive, defining moments for campers?

Having never attended a camp, I am no expert, but I would offer two things: Everybody who works at a camp should know about the Gad Yair research and how kids who are struggling are hungry for those moments where somebody notices and appreciates them. If camp counselors knew what a small investment of time and empathy it would take to make a huge difference, it would blow their minds. And camp should be architected around peak moments. My suspicion is that many camps already do this. There are certain traditions or games or culminating activities that people return to again and again. Can you answer this question for your camp: What’s the one thing about your camp that people will remember five years from now? If not, you desperately need to figure that out.