By Chip and Dan Heath


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:  But is that true? Must our defining moments just happen to us? Defining moments shape our lives, but we don’t have to wait for them to happen. We can be the authors of them.

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? Second, we want to show you how you can create defining moments by making use of those elements.

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. The point here is simple: Some moments are vastly more meaningful than others.

A defining moment is a short experience that is both memorable and meaningful… we have found that defining moments are created from one or more of the following four elements:

  • ELEVATION: Defining moments rise above the everyday.
  • INSIGHT: Defining moments rewire our understanding of ourselves or the world.
  • PRIDE: Defining moments capture us at our best—moments of achievement, moments of courage.
  • CONNECTION: Defining moments are social:

Defining moments often spark positive emotion—we’ll use “positive defining moments” and “peaks” interchangeably throughout the book—but there are categories of negative defining moments, too, such as moments of pique: experiences of embarrassment or embitterment that cause people to vow, “I’ll show them!” There’s another category that is all too common: moments of trauma, which leave us heartbroken and grieving.

This is a book about the power of moments and the wisdom of shaping them.

Thinking in Moments

What was your first day like at your current (or most recent) job? Is it fair to say that it was not a defining moment?  The lack of attention paid to an employee’s first day is mind-boggling. What a wasted opportunity to make a new team member feel included and appreciated.  To avoid this kind of oversight, we must understand when special moments are needed. We must learn to think in moments, to spot the occasions that are worthy of investment.

Transitions should be marked, milestones commemorated, and pits filled. That’s the essence of thinking in moments.

Moments of Elevation

To elevate a moment, do three things: First, boost sensory appeal. Second, raise the stakes. Third, break the script.  Moments of elevation need not have all three elements but most have at least two.

Boosting sensoryappeal is about “turning up the volume” on reality. Things look better or taste better or sound better or feel better than they usually do. Weddings have flowers and food and music and dancing.  It’s amazing how many times people actually wear different clothes to peak events: graduation robes and wedding dresses and home-team colors.

To raise the stakesis to add an element of productive pressure: a competition, a game, a performance, a deadline, a public commitment.  One simple diagnostic to gauge whether you’ve transcended the ordinary is if people feel the need to pull out their cameras. If they take pictures, it must be a special occasion.  What lessens a moment are the opposite instincts: diminishing the sensory appeal or lowering the stakes.

Beware the soul-sucking force of “reasonableness.” Otherwise you risk deflating your peaks.  One reason it’s hard is that it’s usually no one’s job to create a peak.  It’s no one’s job, and it’s a hassle, and there’s always something happening that seems more urgent.

Breaking the scriptisn’t just surprise, it’s strategic surprise. The most memorable periods of our lives are times when we break the script.  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.

Moments that break the script are critical for organizational change. They provide a demarcation point between the “old way” and the “new way.”

Moments of Insight

Tripping over the truth is an insight that packs an emotional wallop. When you have a sudden realization, one that you didn’t see coming, and one that you know viscerally is right, you’ve tripped over the truth. It’s a defining moment that in an instant can change the way you see the world.

This three-part recipe—a (1) clear insight (2) compressed in time and (3) discovered by the audience itself—provides a blueprint for us when we want people to confront uncomfortable truths.

Imagine that you have a good idea that you want other people to support. What would you do? You’d try to sell them on it. Your focus, in other words, would be on the virtues of the solution. You can’t appreciate the solution until you appreciate the problem. So when we talk about “tripping over the truth,” we mean the truth about a problem or harm. That’s what sparks sudden insight.

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.

Moments of Pride

Recognize Others.  Of all the ways we can create moments of pride for others, the simplest is to offer them recognition.  The importance of recognition to employees is inarguable. But here’s the problem: While recognition is a universal expectation, it’s not a universal practice.

Wiley sums up the research: “More than 80 per cent of supervisors claim they frequently express appreciation to their subordinates, while less than 20 per cent of the employees report that their supervisors express appreciation more than occasionally.” Call it the recognition gap.

Corporate leaders are aware of this inadequacy, and their response has generally been to create recognition programs, like Employee of the Month awards or annual banquets recognizing star performers.  First, the scale is all wrong. When we talk about the need to recognize employees, we’re not aiming for one employee per month! The proper pace of recognition is weekly or even daily, not monthly or yearly.  Second, the mulish formality of the program can breed cynicism.

Recognition experts have advice on how to escape this trap. For formal recognition programs, they recommend using objective measurements, such as sales volume, to protect against cynicism.

The larger point is that most recognition should be personal, not programmatic.  The recognition is spontaneous—not part of a scheduled feedback session—and it is targeted at particular behaviors.  Effective recognition makes the employee feel noticed for what they’ve done. Managers are saying, “I saw what you did and I appreciate it.”

Expressing gratitudepleases the recipient of the praise, of course, but it can also have a boomerang effect, elevating the spirits of the grateful person.  This disjunction—a small investment that yields a large reward—is the defining feature of recognition.

Multiply Milestones.  Executives tend to set goals that sound like this: Grow revenues to $20 billion by 2020! 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.

A wise leader can look for milestones en route to a larger goal.  To identify milestones like these, ask yourself: What’s inherently motivating? (What would be worth celebrating that might only take a few weeks or months of work? What’s a hidden accomplishment that is worth surfacing and celebrating? 

Hitting a milestone sparks pride. It should also spark a celebration—a moment of elevation. 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.

Practice Courage.  When people make advance mental commitments—if X happens, then I will do Y—they are substantially more likely to act in support of their goals than people who lack those mental plans.

In most organizations, employees won’t be called on to deal with situations this grave, but at some point everyone will face an anxiety-making conversation. How do you stand up to a dictatorial boss? How do you say “no” to an important customer? How do you fire an employee who might lash out? How do you lay off a loyal employee whose role is no longer needed?

Moments of Connection

Create Shared Meaning.  How do you design moments that knit groups together? Create a synchronized moment, invite shared struggle, and connect to meaning.

 “Reasonable” voices in your organization will argue against synchronizing moments. It’s too expensive to get everyone together. Too complicated. Couldn’t we just jump on a webinar? Couldn’t we just send the highlights via email? Remote contact is perfectly suitable for day-to-day communication and collaboration.But a big moment needs to be shared in person.The presence of others turns abstract ideas into social reality.

If you want to be part of a group that bonds like cement, take on a really demanding task that’s deeply meaningful. All of you will remember it for the rest of your lives.

To create moments of connection, we can bring people together for a synchronizing moment. We can invite them to share in a purposeful struggle. The final strategy centers on connecting them to a larger sense of meaning.

Sometimes it’s useful to keep asking, “Why?” Why do you do what you do? It might take several “Whys” to reach the meaning.

You know you’re finished when you reach the contribution. Who is the beneficiary of your work, and how are you contributing to them?

When you understand the ultimate contribution you’re making, it allows you to transcend the task list.

Deepen Ties.  What is it about certain moments that deepen our ties to others?  Our relationships are stronger when we perceive that our partners are responsive to us.

Responsiveness encompasses three things: 

  • Understanding: My partner knows how I see myself and what is important to me. 
  • Validation: My partner respects who I am and what I want. 
  • Caring: My partner takes active and supportive steps in helping me. 

If we want more moments of connection, we need to be more responsive to others.

Responsiveness doesn’t necessarily lead to intimacy.  When responsiveness is coupled with openness, though, intimacy can develop quickly. One person reveals something and waits to see if the other person will share something back. The reciprocity, if it comes, is a sign of understanding, validation, and caring. An unresponsive partner terminates the reciprocity, freezing the relationship.

Relationships don’t deepen naturally. In the absence of action, they will stall. 

Making Moments Matter

Once you realize how important moments can be, it’s easy to spot opportunities to shape them. That’s how we imagine you using the ideas in this book. Target a specific moment and then challenge yourself: How can I elevate it? In the short term, we prioritize fixing problems over making moments, and that choice usually feels like a smart trade-off. But over time, it backfires.  This is what we hope you take away from this book: Stay alert to the promise that moments hold.

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